REI Presents: Safe Haven

Memphis residents are embracing an outdoors lifestyle by climbing, cycling and paddling in an effort to inspire their communities, reduce poverty and lead healthier lives.

Stepping into Memphis Rox, you’ll notice its high walls with climbing routes extending to the ceiling, the bouldering area’s assortment of colorful holds peppered along the way. It’s the city’s first dedicated climbing gym and, on the surface, it’s typical—dusty from chalk and alive with energy. What stands out is its mission: using climbing’s long-known tenets—hard work, perseverance and trust—to inspire a community to get involved in the sport.

“The relationship starts as soon as they walk into the door,” says Chris Dean, the 26-year-old director of outreach for Memphis Rox. “You get to know people. You get to know what they don’t want anyone to know. And then you can be their support.”

Memphis Rox, which opened its doors in April 2018, operates under a pay-what-you-can model designed to be inclusive so that everyone is welcome regardless of their ability to pay. The climbing gym represents a larger movement in Memphis to promote an active lifestyle and improve access to the outdoors. Just outside the walls of the gym, bike lanes crisscross the neighborhood, connecting to Cooper-Young or downtown, snaking through Overton Park and beyond. Residents increasingly see cycling as a viable mode of transportation, thanks to a significant increase in bike infrastructure over the last decade.

Although the gym is only eight months old, Dean says its model is already fueling an interest in the sport among Memphians, especially in his neighborhood, who haven’t had access to it before.

“I really feel at one with climbing,” says Brittany Luckett, a junior at LeMoyne-Owen College in South Memphis, who grew up in the nearby Whitehaven neighborhood. “But at first, I didn’t know it was a sport that people did.”

Luckett discovered limbing through Tom Shadyac, a director and philanthropist who teaches at her college and is the creative mind behind Memphis Rox. On her first visit to the gym, Luckett spent hours on the walls, initially drawn in by the challenge of a new feat, but her newfound abilities have kept her involved with climbing. “I really didn’t know I was good at climbing until they put me up on the wall and I climbed a 5.9,” she says. “I was climbing like a pro.”

Now, Luckett teaches youth the basics of climbing as an instructor at Memphis Rox. She says her work goes beyond form or technique; it’s also “helping keep kids off the streets.” 2017 Census data showed that nearly 44 percent of children in Memphis lived in poverty, while nationwide the child poverty rate continued to drop to 12.3 percent. As she gets to know the kids in the community, she hopes to brighten their lives by helping them to cultivate the same positive values she gained from the sport. “We motivate them and push them,” she says. “As soon as they realize they can do it, they face their fears and accomplish something.”

Mural in Soulsville

The gym is located in Soulsville, a neighborhood in South Memphis rich with history. The area is the birthplace of Aretha Franklin and home to Stax Records. Although the South was still divided due to Jim Crow laws when Stax opened in 1957, it “was an oasis of racial harmony,” says Tim Sampson, communications director for the Soulsville Foundation. “Stax had an open-door policy and they didn’t care if musicians were Black or white. They were working in here like a family. But yet they couldn’t go to the same restaurant together or the same hotels.”

Sampson says the heyday ended in 1975 when Stax faced bankruptcy and lost the building. Around the same time, he says a new interstate was completed nearby, hastening the pace of urban flight. “You had a lack of employment in this neighborhood,” he says. “All of a sudden, there was no place for anyone to work.”

The original Stax studio was razed in 1989, while the area around it continued to become blighted, accompanied by an uptick in crime. Throughout the ’90s, the neighborhood entered a downward spiral, and the area near Stax deteriorated into a garbage-covered, empty lot. “It was one of the worst sights of urban blight you could possibly imagine,” Sampson says.

Five years of reinvestment resulted in the 2003 opening of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which debuted at the site of the old studio building. Sampson says the museum ignited a renewed interest in Soulsville, as tourists from around the world flocked to the area. But there was still progress to be made. A nearby neighborhood was named the most dangerous in the nation in 2017, a year in which 181 homicides were reported in the city—16.3 deaths per 100,000 people while the national rate in 2017 was 6.2.

Luckett says those statistics don’t define her community. She points to the nurturing environment at Memphis Rox as an example that the city is changing for the better. Located across the street from Stax, the gym is part of a new, 5-acre complex encompassing Memphis Mountaintop Media that will eventually house an art school and film studio, founded by Shadyac. The space will operate under the same principles as Memphis Rox—be affordable, inclusive and serve as a place of growth for the community’s youth.

Across the city, murders are down 17.6 percent in the first nine months of 2018, according to preliminary figures from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Based on 2017 data, the Memphis metro area is also no longer the worst in the country for childhood poverty for areas with populations above one million, The Commercial Appeal reported. As more people visit the gym, Luckett says it’s morphing into a symbol that transcends climbing, representing an opportunity to continue to heal her community while bringing a city together. “More people are coming here,” she says. “And this is a great place to come to. Everyone gets along with each other, and it’s a place for people to meet others from all different backgrounds.”

At the same time, Luckett and staff are able to educate Memphians by introducing a more health-conscious lifestyle to a region with rates of obesity and diabetes higher than the national average. The gym offers yoga, along with other fitness and tai chi classes, and eventually plans to add nutritional classes using the gym’s juice bar. “People taste the healthy food here and love it,” she says. “They come in here thinking climbing isn’t exercise, but it is. It is helping them.”

The city’s growing appetite for outdoors activities extends to bicycling. In 2010, Memphis had a mile-and-a-half of on-street bike facilities, according to Nicholas Oyler, the city’s bikeway and pedestrian program manager. That same year, Bicycling magazine ranked the city as one of the worst for cycling in the nation. But this year, the magazine ranks Memphis at 31 out of the 50 best bike cities in America. Oyler says the city is on track to end the year with nearly 300 miles of cycling infrastructure of all types.

“It’s a testament to the efforts of the city government and that advocates have taken in the last several years,” he says. “Any city that wants to be successful and prosper needs to have a balanced and safe multi-nodal network. We can no longer rely on cars as a primary way to get around our community, whether for the environment or safety reasons or physical health.”

In 2010, city officials began building bike lanes wherever they could, which meant they didn’t always link up. But Oyler called those the “low-hanging fruit” that were easy to lay down. Now his office is working to connect those lanes and improve the current infrastructure. The city’s latest big project, the Hampline, is a 2-mile, two-way cycle track with a raised concrete median to separate it from car traffic, one of the first of its kind in Memphis. Oyler says it should be completed by summer 2019.

Part of the city’s investment in cycling aims to improve access and create transportation options for everyone, especially low-income residents, according to Oyler. “So, if we have streets that only work for cars and not for people walking or riding [bikes], then that’s a problem. And that’s what we’re trying to fix.”

Working to provide more cycling access for the city has been Sylvia Crum’s mission since she moved to the area six years ago. She’s partnered with Oyler as the executive director for Revolutions Bicycle Co-op, an organization providing a work space for cyclists, also acting as a voice for cycling in the city. Revolutions hosts events aimed at introducing people to cycling, including trips to breweries and summer camps for youth.

“Our mission is building a more inclusive community by getting people on bicycles,” Crum says. “We really feel like we can help create transportation options and make transportation more equitable by working with folks that use bicycles as a tool for transportation.”

In 2017, People for Bikes selected Memphis as one of 10 cities to participate in its Big Jump Project, an initiative to help create better biking infrastructure across the country. The nonprofit selected South Memphis as the focus area and, with a three-year grant, the city is now able to funnel new investment to not only fix the streets but institute programming and education.

Part of that programming includes the South Memphis Glide Ride, a night out on bikes where community members ride the streets with Crum and other cyclists to learn about the benefits of using a bike—and it’s also an opportunity for people to see that cycling can be a safe, viable mode of transportation. “We can show the residents of South Memphis that this is a fun way to get out and be with their community, see the amenities that are in their community,” Crum says.

The first series kicked off last fall, with the latest string lasting until mid-November. Of course, Crum says an upside to having more people on bikes is the inherent health benefits. Although she’s focused on cycling for transportation, she says there are many options for recreational riders. The Shelby Farms Greenline, for instance, is a rails-to-trails project that wends 10.6 miles from midtown to the eastern reaches of the city. Shelby Farms Park estimates 100,000 people used the trail last year.

Rebecca Dailey, communications coordinator with Shelby Farms Park, says the 4,500-acre urban space serves as a resource for Memphians to connect with one another and nature. “It’s a space where people come to have a retreat from their everyday life, but also a place to come together as a community.”

It’s now feasible for someone to hop on a bike at several points in the city, riding on a network of bike paths to Shelby Farms Park with access to more than 40 miles of paved and unpaved trails, such as the Tour de Wolf Trail, one of the most popular hiking trails in the area. More than 20 lakes provide access to anglers, and at any time of day, you’ll find joggers, mountain bikers or folks just enjoying this slice of nature only minutes from downtown.

“I think we are at a point in time where, as a community, we have a real sense of pride of place that hadn’t existed before.”

For those who don’t have transportation to Shelby Farms Park, staff members host educational and fitness programs that cater to the surrounding neighborhoods. “We have a mobile classroom that we take into schools,” Dailey says. “So, we’re really trying to create a bridge between the Park and the community in every way that we can.”

These programs, called Get Outside Fitness, received funding in 2016 through a three-year, $450,000 grant from the state of Tennessee to help combat juvenile diabetes. Dozens of free fitness programs are offered each week like meditation, yoga or karate, ranging from beginner to intermediate. Last year alone, Dailey says, more than 6,000 people attended one of the programs.

“I think we are at a point in time where, as a community, we have a real sense of pride of place that hadn’t existed before,” says Dailey, a lifelong Memphis resident. “It’s so exciting to see the community asking for what they want and championing it, and it actually coming to fruition.”

The Wolf River snakes by Shelby Farms Park on its way to the Mississippi River, where a 2.6-mile greenway will eventually total 36 miles, linking to neighborhoods across north Memphis to downtown. The Wolf River Conservancy bills the greenway as a connector of communities, helping to reduce crime and generally improve the quality of life for residents. Jim Gafford, director of outreach, also says the organization gets locals involved with paddling trips on the Wolf River and camping, providing a spark to get them involved in preserving the riparian zone.

“In the South, we don’t have a shortage of water,” he says. “We may take water for granted here, so we’re trying to change that mindset by getting people to realize how beautiful the river is. Then they appreciate it more and work with us to enhance it.”

For Chris Dean of Memphis Rox, the city’s embrace of an outdoors lifestyle is perhaps most apparent in Soulsville. He’s watching a new generation grow up in his neighborhood, but with different opportunities than he had. “When you’re in poverty every day, you’re trying to think about where your next meal is going to come from,” he says. “But then you get to come to a place where they’ll let you eat for free and give you something to do.”

He mentions climbing, which will be included in the 2020 summer games, with dreams of one day seeing an African-American win a gold medal in the event. He says he believes the youth of South Memphis, those first-time climbers who are getting a chance they never had before, have what it takes to make that happen.

“I was talking to a kid the other day,” Dean says. “When I was his age, I wanted to be a [professional basketball] player. That was the only thing I knew existed. I asked the kid, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’” Dean pauses to smile, his expression brightening. “He said a rock climber.”