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Treedom transforms vacant lot and grows community in Uptown-Pinch

By Cole Bradley, High Ground News

On June 2nd, Memphis’ famous tree canopy got a new addition, but this isn’t your typical flora.

Treedom is the 26-foot brainchild of Parisian architectural firm Atelier YokYok and was originally constructed in 2015 for a one-week engagement at Budapest’s SZIGET festival, one of the largest music and cultural festivals in Europe.

Lead architects Samson Lacoste and Luc Pinsard describe the piece as “livable sculpture.” The towering, crisscrossed upper beams represent a thick forest canopy, while the benches built between the “trunks” encourage people to not just pass through but sit and enjoy its shade (and it does provide a surprising amount of shade for its lack of leaves).

Now at its new home at the corner of A.W. Willis Avenue and N. Second Street, Treedom Memphis is open to the public daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. now through December.

The June 2nd kickoff event was a celebration its organizers hope will continue throughout the installation’s time in Memphis. The festivities began with a New Orleans-style second line parade through the streets of Uptown, led by the Mighty Souls Brass Band. The parade ended at Treedom Memphis, followed by the community picnic. Attendees mingled in the symbolic forest and enjoyed complimentary sack lunches, MEMPopS, games, and music.

Resident Felicia A. Miller and Uptown coordinator Tanja Mitchell chat in front of Treedom Memphis at the June 2nd kickoff event. (Cole Bradley)

Treedom’s primary purpose is providing a stunning space for people to gather and grow connections. It’s this combination of beauty, function, and community-building that first caught the attention of the coalition working to program the then-vacant lot.

The coalition included St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and their fundraising arm, ALSAC, as well as the Memphis Medical District Collaborative, Memphis Area Transit Authority, the Memphis Police Department’s North Precinct, artist Cat Pena, and area residents and business owners.

“St. Jude approached us and said, ‘We have this vacant space, and we’d like to bridge St. Jude and the Uptown neighborhood. Can you activated it?,’” said Susannah Barton, program manager with MMDC.

St. Jude-ALSAC envisioned the land as a public gathering space and a first step to their upcoming expansion into the Pinch District.

At the kickoff event, ALSAC’s president and CEO, Richard Shadyac Jr., mentioned St. Jude’s plan to build 130 new apartment units for St. Jude families along North Third Street and the possibility of additional housing for the public in partnership with the Henry Turley Company.

Activating the space would also help draw attention to the Uptown neighborhood, which has few heavily-traveled roads. A.W. Willis Avenue marks the southern border of Uptown and is one of its most traveled routes.

“We are delighted to partner with the MMDC and our neighbors to raise more awareness for the revitalization of the Medical District and surrounding neighborhoods,” said Shadyac of Treedom Memphis in a recent press release.

MMDC took a collaborative and community-based approach to development of the lot, facilitating visioning sessions with St. Jude employees, residents and business owners. Together they identified the top priorities for the lot which included beautification, functional art, and a flexible space to host a diversity of community events.

The coalition was then formed to decide the right programming to bring the community’s vision to life. Treedom received the most overwhelming support. They liked it for its size, aesthetic, and functionality and thought it was especially significant for Memphis given its lush tree canopy.

Related: Urban forest I: Push to plant 4M trees in Memphis promises natural health benefits

MMDC took on the role of coordinator, contacting Lacoste and Pinsard to see if they would be willing to recreate the sculpture and working closely with them to adapt it for Memphis.

The original Treedom sculpture was constructed in Budapest, Hungary for the SZIGET festival and was illuminated at night. Treedom Memphis will add lights in the fall. (Atelier YokYok)

Many artists would be hesitant to relinquish control of their art, but in this case, the piece’s spirit of community and collaboration was inherent from the onset.

The designers first sent simple plans.

“This is how we do when we work among ourselves, we take a pen and draw. So we sent something that looked a bit like a comic strip….with little drawings of the meshings, how to lift a pole, how to attach a branch, etc.,” said Pinsard.

Once the big picture was clear, the group worked together to overcome the more technical challenges like converting measurements from the metric system, choosing the right type of wood, deciding how far to sink the poles, and other necessary considerations for safety and durability. Lacoste and Pinsard then flew to Memphis to supervise the installation.

The designers were particularly impressed with head contractor Fifer & Associates, who not only led the measurement conversions but managed to erect the piece in just three days. It took Lacoste and Pinsard 10 days in Budapest.

According to Pinsard, the finished product may look very similar to its predecessor, but there’s enough variation that it is also uniquely Memphis.

The designers hope that Memphians will continue to make the piece their own by utilizing the space in ways the collaborators never considered.

“We try to make art but always think like architects, imagining spaces to be experimental,” said Pinsard.

Members of the MMDC team hand out sack lunches for the June 2nd Treedom Memphis community picnic. (Cole Bradley)

At the kickoff event, Uptown coordinator and Treedom Memphis coalition member Tanja Mitchell called on community members to keep the momentum of the day.

“I need you to get married. Have a wedding, a graduation, a class reunion, baby shower, whatever you do. I need you to help activate Treedom,” she said.

Resident Felicia A. Miller intends to do just that. She and her family moved to Uptown in August and are looking forward to family outings at Treedom Memphis.

“I think this is going to be a great space, we were just talking about coming out for picnic type stuff. It’s four blocks [from our house]. We can walk up here, have some snacks, walk back,” she said.

Not just for residents, ALSAC is considering work meetings and lunch and learn events under Treedom Memphis’ canopy, and Rick Farwell, proprietor of neighboring Pyramid Wine and Spirits, is also making plans to use the space. The project’s coalition added other artistic elements and landscaping to the lot and is making plans for regular events. They also plan to add lights to the structure in the fall as daylight hours grow shorter.

Partners in the lot’s overhaul and ongoing programming included BRIDGES, the Urban Art Commission, the Downtown Memphis Commission, Jones Urban Development, Allworld Project Management, Fifer & Associates, and Neighborhood Preservation Inc.

Whether it’s musical performances, fitness classes, or just a quick sit to enjoy the view, the project’s designers and collaborators are excited for the opportunity to see the space grow and hope it will help stimulate activity and draw attention to these unique Downtown neighborhoods.

“Our role is to activate public spaces, to connect our anchor partners and the neighborhoods between their campuses. This is one of our ways to do that. It’s really exciting for this year, and I just can’t wait to see how everyone uses it,” said Barton.

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