From Bands to Vendors, What to Expect

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A Memphis tradition for more than three decades, the Cooper Young Festival in its early years was “more or less like a garage sale,” said Tamara Cook, executive director of the Cooper-Young Business Associationwho manages the event.

A yard sale. In 2022, someone might need a lawn as big as the White House to host the event.

Billed as the 34th annual Cooper-Young Festival, this year’s celebration of one of Memphis’ hippest neighborhoods is expected to draw nearly 130,000 people to its two live music stages and more than 400 vendor booths, said Cook.

If this prediction turns out to be correct, the festival will have regained more or less the full strength it had reached before 2020, when the event – like so many others that year – was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19.

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Cook said the Memphis Police Department estimated about 75,000 people attended the festival last year. That would be a huge number in almost any other setting, but for organizers Cooper-Young, it suggested that many Memphians remained wary of crowds.

Although Shelby County continues to average about 250 new COVID-19 cases per day, according to the Department of Health, the severity of infections has generally been reduced, thanks to vaccinations and booster shots. “The community level of COVID-19 in Shelby County is low, based on cases and hospitalizations,” The New York Times reported last week, on its online site. “COVID case tracker.”

Festival-goers enter the north gate of the 2018 Cooper-Young Festival on Cooper Avenue

Of course, estimating crowd size at ticketless outdoor events is a pretty imprecise science. But what is certain is that thousands of Memphians each year look forward to walking Cooper and Young, the avenues that intersect and give the festival its distinctive cruciform shape.

“For a lot of Memphians, it’s like a pilgrimage,” Cook said. “Everyone knows everyone is going to be here. It’s a great place to see your friends.”

However, the festival has voluntarily downsized in a way since COVID-19. For many years, the event had three music stages, but the festival will probably only host two for the foreseeable future, in order to reduce expenses.

Marion, Arkansas-born, Memphis-based singer-songwriter Bailey Bigger, who has recorded for Oxford's Big Legal Mess and Memphis' Madjack Records labels, will headline the main stage Saturday at the Cooper-Young Festival.

Officially incorporated in 1988 (the first festival featured 25 vendor booths and pop-soul diva Joyce Cobb headlining the music), the Cooper-Young Festival is a fundraiser for the trade association, which represents 187 companies.

If that number seems surprisingly high, remember that the Cooper-Young neighborhood extends far beyond the dimensions of its namesake festival.

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Boasting some 3,500 residents (most of whom live in bungalow or cottage style homes built between 1900 and 1915), the neighborhood is bounded by East Parkway South to the east; McLean to the west; central to north; and from south to south. Within these boundaries are approximately 30 restaurants and 60 retail stores, as well as offices representing roofers, electricians, plumbers, real estate agents and more.

The Beale Street Pinballs perform tricks on a crowd of festival goers at the 2018 Cooper-Young Festival

Cook said the festival costs around $90,000 to produce. Coming primarily from sponsorships and vendor fees, the proceeds go toward improving the neighborhood’s business district. For example, Cook said the solar-powered pedestrian walkways that cross Cooper to the First Congregational Church and the Celtic Crossing Irish Pub cost about $115,000 to install. The addition of gingko trees and other improvements to the gazebo near the Cooper-Young intersection also came at a high price.

In 1988, Cooper-Young was characterized by “a lot of vacant properties,” Cook said. The festival was originally organized “to publicize the neighborhood”. Today, the neighborhood is booming and awareness is high, but the festival still functions as a promotion not just for what Cook calls “Memphis’ greatest historic district” but as “a celebration of all that concerns Memphis”.

“It’s a very diverse neighborhood,” she said. “It’s very ‘Memphis’.”

Ohio-born Rachel Maxann performs at 1:30 p.m. on the Memphis Grizzlies stage at this year's Cooper-Young Festival.

Cooper Young Festival

9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, September 17.

Over 400 vendors along Cooper and Young, offering art, jewelry, food, fashion, toys, trinkets, music and more.

Outdoor “Kids’ Zone” at 902 S. Cooper, featuring games, craft and art supplies, free vision screenings and more.

Two stages of music. The Grizzlies stage lineup at Meda and Young includes Danny and Joyce Green (12:30 p.m.); Rachel Maxann (1:30 p.m.); The Delta Project (2:30 p.m.); Jay Jones (3:30 p.m.); Generational gap (4:30 p.m.). The Main Stage lineup, located across from Young Avenue Deli, includes SoundBox (11:15 a.m.); Rodrick Duran (12:15 p.m.); Altitude (1:15 p.m.); The Fathers of the City (2:15 p.m.); Chinese Connection Dub Embassy (3:15 p.m.); Carlos Ecos (4:15 p.m.); and Bailey Bigger (5:15 p.m.).

The 9-hour parade from the Cooper-Young Trestle at the intersection of Cooper and Young features Bellevue Middle School’s 32-piece drum line.

For more information, visit cooperyoungfestival.com.

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