Most climbing gyms are ripe venues for bingo. Tribal tattoos, alternative piercings, man buns—check ’em off. But at one of America’s only nonprofit climbing gyms, you’ll find a much wider array of people walking through the door: a basketball team, a Boys and Girls Club, 30 family members celebrating a grandmother’s 95th birthday. Some visitors are avid outdoor climbers, thrilled that Memphis finally has a full climbing gym. Others are neighborhood residents, curious about a sport they’ve never seen or experienced.
“It’s the most diverse group I’ve ever seen,” says Jon Hawk, head of operations at Memphis Rox. “I’ve been managing climbing gyms since 2004, so I’ve seen a lot, and this has been pretty freakin’ inspiring.”
Memphis Rox opened its doors in late March, emphasizing inclusivity from the start. Anyone who can’t afford the $50 monthly membership can volunteer for five hours instead, either at the gym or other nonprofits in the city. The facility also features a pay-what-you-can juice bar, a fitness center, and spaces for yoga and meditation to meet more of the community’s needs. The gym’s approach is inseparable from its surroundings: the neighborhood of Soulsville, a stretch of low houses and humble storefronts south of the city center.
From 1960 to 1975, Soulsville was home to Stax Records, the legendary label behind acts like Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, and Booker T. Jones. Even before Stax came to town, Soulsville had been a cultural hub—it was the site of the first city park in Memphis, the first female educational institution, and the first African-American school and college. But it wasn’t immune to the pressures hitting urban neighborhoods all over the country: After streetcar lines closed in the 1940s, white workers migrated to the suburbs and local businesses started shutting down. Stax’s bankruptcy, in 1975, hastened the neighborhood’s decline. By the early 1990s, Soulsville was struggling with some of the highest rates of poverty and unemployment in Memphis.
Later that decade, community members started working to bring life back to the neighborhood. They rebuilt Stax Studios as a museum honoring the label’s legacy, with new projects including a music-focused charter school and mentoring program. In 2009, a complex of commercial buildings was constructed across the street, intended to house a grocery store and offices to jump-start the area’s economic revival. (Soulsville is considered a food desert—its grocery stores have all closed, so residents have no local access to fresh food.) But the shiny new complex just sat there, empty. Weeds colonized the unfinished floors.
While all this was happening in Memphis, a different sort of rebirth was taking place in Los Angeles. Tom Shadyac, the director of blockbuster comedies like The Nutty Professor, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, and Bruce Almighty, started to feel uneasy about his lavish lifestyle. He sold his 17,000-square-foot mansion in 2007 and moved into a mobile-home community in Malibu, making plans for a simpler life. Then, on a trip to Virginia that fall, Shadyac crashed his mountain bike and sustained a concussion. The symptoms incapacitated him for days, then weeks, then months.
Shadyac emerged from the experience with an even deeper desire to make the most of his remaining time and resources. He poured money into projects, like a homeless shelter in Virginia and international charities like Invisible Children. In 2013, Shadyac started teaching a storytelling class at the University of Memphis and grew more involved in the life of the city. He found out about the unused complex in Soulsville—and then he bought it.
“When I met Tom two years ago, he had two empty buildings he didn’t know what to do with,” says Chris Dean, director of outreach at Memphis Rox. The now 59-year-old Shadyac talked to Soulsville residents like Dean and identified recreation as one of the neighborhood’s greatest needs. He organized a youth climbing trip to Boulder, Colorado, where, Dean says, “we slowly started to piece together what we thought this place could become.”
The end result isn’t just “a little, tiny gym,” as Hawk put it. During construction, the roof was raised to accommodate 55-foot routes. The building has about 100 top-rope lines and will average between 150 and 200 boulder problems. It’s a serious climbing facility, but the Memphis Rox team values accessibility and service to the community above all else.
The team actively looks for ways to make an impact beyond their walls, including training new route setters. “I don’t want people to think that you just come in and climb and then leave. There are many, many jobs in the climbing industry that people don’t realize,” says Josh Jimenez, the gym’s head setter. Hawk agrees: “Route setters can go anywhere in the country, anywhere in the world, and find a pretty damn good wage these days.” He points out that he and Jimenez are the only employees who aren’t native Memphians. “The other 28 employees are all locals, learning a trade they would never have been exposed to otherwise.”
Hawk expects that Memphis Rox will rely on local donors and grants from foundations for its first few years, but he also hopes to get the national climbing community invested in the project’s success. (Rock Candy, Kilter, and Walltopia all funded guest setters to help with the opening.) “I think climbing can build a stronger community than any other sport or activity. We all have different backgrounds, but we come together to work on the same problem.” And if the program is successful, Dean says, “we want a Detroit Rox, we want a Chicago Rox, all in underprivileged areas. I don’t see why not.”