Original Memphis: Cooper-Young Festival

story by Jesse Davis | photos courtesy of Cooper Young Business Association

Tucked away between Central Gardens on the north and Glenview to the south is Memphis’ Cooper-Young neighborhood, the city’s largest historic district, and a thriving hub of arts and entertainment. It’s a neighborhood with a distinctly recognizable character — a stroll through the district reveals businesses with hand- painted signs, bookstores, locally owned restaurants, and dog-walkers and joggers a-plenty. Artist Jill Turman’s light-up depiction of the neighborhood, fixed to the trestle that runs above Cooper, acts as the opening flourish or the closing finale to a stroll through the area, depending, of course, on where one enters and exits. The miniature shop fronts in Turman’s facsimile serve another purpose — they’re the unofficial entry point to the district’s annual Cooper-Young Festival in September. The festival is the crown jewel in Cooper-Young’s usually star-studded lineup of yearly events, and it’s the ideal introduction to one of Memphis’ most charming neighborhoods.

This year’s Cooper-Young Festival, held Saturday, September 14th, will be the 32nd iteration of the neighborhood shindig. Hosted by the Cooper-Young Business Association and sponsored by Evolve Bank & Trust, the festival will draw 435 artisans and somewhere in the neighborhood of 130,000 expected attendees. It’s come a long way from 1978, when the first CY Fest was held in the parking lot of First Congregational Church.

These days, the festival has grown to take up the entire intersection of Cooper and Young, and to extend for more than block down each street. Each year, the neighborhood turns out as Memphians and Mid- Southerners descend on the historic district to strut in the sun, examine the crafts for sale, and celebrate the last festival of summer.

Evolve Bank & Trust announced in February of this year that it has renewed the title sponsorship of the Cooper-Young Festival through 2021. The bank has been a sponsor of the festival since 2013. The festival is a fund-raiser for the neighborhood, the CYBA says, and proceeds are reinvested back into the infrastructure of the neighborhood.

More than 425 artists from all over the United States will sell their handcrafted wares at this year’s Cooper-Young Festival. Just a few of those artists include Jason Humbe, who makes birdhouses; the painter Millie Wait; potter Leah Schaffer; Marjorie Mebane, a North Carolina- based artist who makes handmade apparel; photographer Aaron Goodwin; and Tatia Johnson, who specializes in glass and textile art.

This year’s musical guests include Obruni Dance Band, Mama Honey, Stephen Chopek, and Alice Hasen and the Blaze, who will release their debut album, Violintro, this September. In celebration of Memphis’ bicentennial, the festival is partnering with We Are Memphis — A New Century of Soul. We Are Memphis is curating the lineup for the stage in the First Congregational Church parking lot, featuring Marcella & Her Lovers, James & the Ultrasounds, and Lucky 7 Brass Band. The festival has a tradition of booking talented local performers of original music, making Cooper- Young Fest a sonic buffet. Each festival acts as a sampling of some of Memphis’ best songsmiths, in a wide variety of styles and genres.

Perhaps thanks, at least in part, to the presence of OUT Memphis and First Congregational Church, Cooper-Young is a bastion of diversity in the Bluff City. OUT Memphis flies a rainbow-hued flag from 892 Cooper, welcoming the LGBTQ community of Memphis since long before that acronym was common usage. When the organization was formed in February of 1989, it was known as the Memphis Gay & Lesbian Community Center, but throughout their tenure, their mission has remained the same: to be an “oasis in the desert of our struggle.”

First Congregational was founded over 150 years ago by people who believed that slavery was wrong and that women could preach, setting a standard for radical empathy that remains a part of the organization’s character today. In 1991, First Congregational became an “open and affirming” congregation by openly welcoming gay and lesbian worshipers into the church.

That and the bevy of artists, musicians, and generally quirky personalities who make their homes and ply their trades in the district give Cooper-Young a bohemian flair, one that’s borne out by their annual festival.

Most of the homes in the neighborhood had been built by 1915, and those historic homes are emblematic of the neighborhood’s ethos. Though the styles on display vary, front yards and porches are standard and act as an invitation for neighbors to get acquainted with one another. The inviting character that is central to Cooper-Young’s charm is embedded even in the neighborhood’s architecture.

Cooper-Young’s historically hip character makes the annual festival an authentic and quirky Memphis mainstay. From the artists who travel to the festival to the local businesses who support the neighborhood year-round, Cooper- Young Festival has hidden gems waiting to be discovered.

Cooper-Young Festival 2019
Saturday, September 14, 2019
9 a.m.-7 p.m. Free admission.
Dogs not allowed.
Rain Date: Sunday, September 15