The Sears Crosstown building has cast its long, art deco shadow over Midtown since 1927. Will developers find the money to transform the massive, vacant structure into a new "vertical urban village"?
Part I: “Something out of ‘Mad Men’”
To get to the top of the fourteen-story tower at Sears Crosstown, you have to pass through the old executive lounge. After twenty years of neglect, the floors are strewn with debris, and the cedar paneling on the walls is cracked and brittle.
But it’s not hard to imagine the kinds of gatherings that would have gone on here in the 1950s and ‘60s: Sears executives in Harris Tweed suits, reclined on midcentury modern furniture, enjoying a cognac or a Cuban cigar.
It’s like something out of ‘Mad Men.’
“This wood is very expensive in this day and time,” says Frank Johnson, the property manager at the Crosstown building. “I’m sure some very interesting parties took place up here. Probably had dancing girls and who knows what.”
Johnson now patrols the spooky hallways of the old Sears all by himself. Or, mostly by himself.
“I’ve used my pistol—oh, I don’t know—four or five times in the building,” Johnson says. “And not necessarily to hurt anybody. Primarily just to scare some guys. On a couple of occasions I’ve had guys in the building, and they didn’t want to leave. And they actually wanted to kind of fight, if you will.”
Frank is good at what he does, but he may soon be out of a job. That’s because a group of investors has come forward with a new plan for the building. They want to transform the old Sears into what they’re calling a vertical urban village, a mixed-used collective of local businesses and nonprofits. They say it might just save this struggling neighborhood.
When Memphis mayor Rowlett Paine cut the red ribbon on the Sears Crosstown building, it was a big deal. The year was 1927, and according to local newspapers, more than 30,000 people showed up on that first day, to shop. The building itself was a concrete behemoth. After the last additions were completed in 1965, Crosstown totaled fourteen stories tall and more than 1.5 million square feet of space.
Lynwood Jones, 74, used to shop at the old Sears.
“It was nice—real nice—inside,” Jones says. “They had TVs, refrigerators, a little bit of everything. I bought my first sewing machine from Sears; I bought my first refrigerator from Sears; and I bought most all my clothes from Sears.”
Business was booming, but it wouldn’t stay that way. Beginning in the 1980s, Sears experienced a sharp decline in catalog orders. They were losing business to cost-cutters like Walmart and Target, who offered ready access to many of the same kinds of goods, often at a lower price. Sears closed Crosstown store in 1983, and boarded up the warehouse ten years later.
Doris Sossaman worked in payroll at the old Sears between 1958 and 1967.
“I wasn’t much of a whip cracker, because the girls were good,” Sossaman said. “We were all there; we were hungry; it was the best place in town for a woman to work. Sears, no matter what department you worked in, paid women fairly. And back then that was important, because women didn’t have much to say in business.”
Sossaman says that the best thing about the old Sears was working in a Space-Age office.
“We had the most modern, up-to-date office of anyone,” she says. “We had electric comptometers. It did not make a lot of noise—but it did roar a little bit. It just woooooo…all the time. And there were five of us in the payroll department, with a lot of woooos going on.”
These days, Crosstown is like the set of a horror movie. Wind whistles through its dark, claustrophobic hallways, and there is everywhere the drip, drip of a leaky roof. On our tour, Frank Johnson shows me the giant system of chutes and conveyor belts that formed the beating heart of the Sears Catalog operation. Eleven stories tall, it’s like a giant mechanical spider, crouched at the heart of the building.
In its prime, this hulking apparatus could process 45,000 catalog orders in a single day. Amazon, eat your heart out.
Part II: “It Would Help Everybody…”
Cleveland Street Flea Market is a colorful, noisy place. The kind of place where you can buy a used VCR or get a haircut for five dollars.
Malcom Nolen, known to his customers as Cold Water, can do just about any hairstyle: “Well I cut flat tops, high tops, afros, layers, taper fades. I cut any style that grows. If you get a horse tail in here and put it where I can reach it with my clippers, I’ll cut it.”
For the last fifteen years, he’s been serving up the latest fashions from his cozy barbershop at the back of the flea market. When asked if he has any hot gossip, Nolen points to the colossal concrete warehouse just across the street.
“Right now that’s what we’re working on,” Nolen says. “Here about a month ago they took five windows out of there. It looked like I was dreaming, but anyway I had to hit myself in the forehead about three or four times to realize that I was not dreaming. That is construction going on!”
At fourteen stories tall and more than 1.5 million square feet of space, Sears Crosstown one of Memphis’s biggest buildings. It’s been empty for twenty years.
Todd Richardson, co-director of development at Crosstown Memphis LLC, has helped line up a group investors who wants to transform the old building into what is being called a “vertical urban village.”
“A vertical urban village is essentially a neighborhood in ten floors of the Sears building,” Richardson says. “Basically what we’re doing is transforming a hub for the distribution of goods into a local heart for the cultivation of well-being.”
The 2010 census identifies Crosstown as one of Memphis’ most racially diverse neighborhoods, but also one of the poorest. The renovated building, a mixed-use collective of local businesses and nonprofits, would house vital resources for residents.
Dr. Scott Morris is the director of the Church Health Center, a nonprofit that offers free or low-cost healthcare to uninsured families. It is one of eight nonprofits that would be in residence in the new Crosstown.
“Poverty will beat you down so fast; spiritually, it will make your head turn,” Morris says. “This has become really where the Church Health Center begins. We are all broken, but it doesn’t mean we can’t help people become strong in the broken places.”
So far, the project has secured $160 million in funding, a combination of private investment, bank loans, tax credits and grants. The developers want to break ground by March 2014, but in order to do so, they need $15 million in infrastructure improvements from the city, things like street lamps and sidewalks.
The Memphis City Council has not yet approved that money, and some question whether or not taxpayers should foot the bill. Joe Saino is the president of Memphis Shelby Inform, a watchdog group that monitors government expenditures.
“They ought to take that $15 million, if they can find it, and put it into their unfunded liability of their OPEP plan,” says Saino. “Because they have made a promise to these retirees which is a lie!”
Richardson counters that the new Crosstown would create more money than it costs. According to an Economic Impact Analysis commissioned by the City of Memphis, the project would inject more than $50 million of construction wages into the local economy. When completed, the building would house more than 800 new jobs and stimulate an additional $7.6 million in consumer spending annually.
Back at the flea market, Mattie Rhoades tends to her booth, which she calls Mattie’s Tin Can Alley. She sells a little of this and a little of that, but her specialty is vintage cookie tins.
“I sell more tins than anything else. But I’ve got Coca-Cola, odds and ends of collector things, and I’ve got a lot of Minnie and Mickey,” Rhoades says.
When it comes to the new Crosstown, Rhoades is a little skeptical. Over the years, she’s seen a number of bright-eyed developers go toe-to-toe with the old Sears, and in the end, the building always wins. But she thinks this time might be different.
“I really hope it does, you know, come to life and all. I think it would help everybody around in here.”
John Klyce Minervini is a freelance writer who divides his time between Portland and Memphis.