What Went Wrong with Memphis and the Mid-America Mall Desert?

013 MEMPHIS 1978Memphis   The ACORN Canada organizing staff held its Year End/Year Begin staff meeting in Memphis with a side trip to Little Rock this year.   Among the highlights of the meetings in Memphis were visits at the University of Memphis with ex-Texas and South Dakota ACORN organizer, Steve Soifer, now head of the Social Work Department there along with his associate, Professor Elena de la Vega, an expert in public policy impacting poverty, and the planner par excellence, Ken Reardon, who heads the regional and local planning department at the University, and led the planning effort for ACORN in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina while he was at Cornell.

            Both gave fascinating and brilliant expositions of the current situation in Memphis, but the questions that kept coming back from the organizers repeatedly revolved around “what” and “why” and “how” did Memphis find itself in such a mess of a situation.  The Canadians had gotten a deal from the Sheraton so were housed right across from the Convention Center at the tip of what used to be called when it opened the Mid-America Mall but was now a virtually deserted, specter-of-Detroit type of wasteland running the bit over a mile from the Sheraton to Beale Street and its two or three blocks of faux blues-for-tourist spots.  There was nothing around.  When the organizers walked from the hotel to Beale Street they ran into four cops and two community watch people during the entire more than a mile trek and that meant a one-to-one ratio with the other passersby on the strip.

            It was all painful to see.  I remember 35 years ago almost exactly in 1978 when ACORN held its first national convention in Memphis at the end of the first week of December that year it was also icy and freezing cold, but we had a 1000 people there and were demanding full political representation from the Democratic Party at their mid-term convention which they were holding almost exactly where we were staying.   We marched from around Beale Street and the famous landmarks of civil rights history the entire length of the Mid-America Mall and it was packed with people even in the chill with the police then scurrying to deal with pedestrians, traffic, and of course the Democrats themselves.   Now what was a lively testament to the future of the city was a deserted space ribboned with tracks and hardly filled trolley cars. 

Steve Soifer
Steve Soifer

 

            Soifer commented that there are no city operated homeless shelters and the nonprofit shelters charge $7 per night for those unfortunate enough to be on the streets.  Reardon said surveys had found 2500 homeless in the downtown area and this had been part of the inspiration in his working with the activist St. Patrick’s Catholic Church downtown to create the Vance Avenue Collaborative, which has been waging a very effective, if longshot, campaign to save the last public housing project, the 500-unit Foote Homes, and try to get a commitment for equitable development in the near downtown, African-American communities.

            The “why” and “how” for the disaster of Memphis has to lie squarely with the business community and their political vassals.   The mortgaging of their future with one ill begotten tax incremental finance district after another and one bond issue fueled development adding nothing to the job market or tax base while encumbering 20 or more years of all sales tax revenues putting all of the eggs in an empty basket.  Add to that the sprawling county, the we’re-here-from-Mars-hospital-district, and the constant tensions of an almost 70% black city with its huge white flight suburbs and it’s now a mess in Memphis where a great city is facing a Detroit future thanks to an abysmal failure of civic leadership and resistance to popular will and democracy.

Ken Reardon
Ken Reardon

 

 

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Great Progress in Saving Historic Foote Homes, the Last Memphis Housing Project

Memphis   Looking back over the last year, the report and discussion of the progress made by community and university partners around the Vance Avenue Collaborative and the campaign to save Foote Homes, the historic 500-unit complex that stands in the words of Memphis housing czar Robert Lipscomb as the “last public housing project in the city,” is simply astounding.  When we all first met, the argument would not have been whether the chances of success were slim, but whether we were all fools for even trying.  Now reviewing the developments of the past year and the current status of the campaign on all fronts, at the least I can say that momentum has moved decidedly our way, and more realistically I would argue that victory is virtually in our grasp.

Hearing Professor Ken Reardon of the University of Memphis, long time colleague and comrade-in-arms, Jacob Flowers of the Memphis Center for Peace and Justice, lawyers, graduate assistants, planning and economics professors and students, and community residents, tell the stories, some of the tales bordered on the surreal between pathos, humor, hubris, and tragedy.  A small case in point would have to include the torturous path to winning historic designation for Foote Homes.  Reviewing the campaign’s application the historic district commission turned out to be required to ask the housing agency, which as you remember was trying to demolish Foote Homes, to review its historic value.  They bumped the matter to a consultant, who predictably ruled quickly that there was no historic value citing several local experts and the work of a number of scholarly works on the issue.  Signed, sealed, and delivered, but a funny thing happened on the way to the funeral.  The campaign actually contacted the experts who had been consulted.  Not only had they not been consulted whatsoever, but they actually thought that contrary to the report, we were right and that Foote Homes did warrant historic designation.  Contacting the authors of the scholarly supporting volumes, it developed that the books said no such thing.  One of the authors volunteered to write a letter indicating that her work did not support the finding and did so with vigor.  Other arts and historic councils have since voted almost unanimously to support our petition.  The Landmarks Commission said they would put a sign up in front of Benjamin Hooks’ (former head of NAACP nationally) boyhood home, if we would go away, but there were no takers.  Unbelievable!  You will remember that HUD does not allow demolition expenditures of its funds or projects that demolish historically designated properties.

In the Olympics of overreaching though the snafu around the historic designation is minor compared to the desperation involved in the housing agency and Lipscomb’s efforts to win $102 million in TIF (tax incremental financing) funding for his whole package of trails, demolitions, and supposed redevelopment.  TIFs have always been controversial because in many ways they cripple municipal finances by robbing Peter to pay Paul for developers’ gain.  For 20 years in this case a certain percentage (over 97%) of increased property tax revenues in a designated geographical district of the city would to pay back the bonds for a development.  So, to raise $102 million, Lipscomb would beggar the city for 20 years for this unwanted and destructive mess, in a district that it turned out would not only include the whole Vance Avenue corridor and abutting neighborhoods, but the entire downtown business district.  We found unexpected and important allies everywhere we turned including importantly from many parts of Shelby County and surprisingly even from Tea Party groups!  To make a long and wonderful story shorter, suffice it to say, Lipscomb seems to have totally withdrawn that proposal.  Doing so leaves any financing for his plan not simply in limbo, but in huge jeopardy.  It becomes almost impossible for him to get there for here.

But to say “his plan” may be in limbo makes it seem like anyone involved in our campaign might know what “his plan” really is, and that would be decidedly wrong, since arrogance not only comes before a fall, but seems to be its constant handmaiden, and in truth Lipscomb has not been willing to reveal any details for his plan publically.  Groups have tried to even get us to debate our citizens’ plan, supported by scores of groups and the result of the participation of thousands, but in essence we end up speaking to an empty chair.  The County Development Commission has become so interested that they are setting a hearing in the near future to force both plans to be heard, which may finally force one to be produced, but this becomes a larger and larger mystery about whether or not there is “there there,” or if this is just a larger instance of shadow boxing much like the historic designation debacle.

How about the application for demolition?  There is none.

What about the application for Choice Communities designation by HUD?  It is well known and reported that they want no problems in the early rollout of this new program in cities around the country, so it is unclear whether they would be willing to entertain any application from Memphis at this point that is so clearly becoming little more than an emperor with no clothes, which is hardly a way to begin dinner.  Rumors swirl that they may ask for forced mediation between the two parties to see if anything can be saved, but if that were to evolve it is unclear whether Lipscomb would finally agree to such a process, and it is equally unclear on the campaign’s part if there is any real room for compromise until the demolition of Foote Homes is off the table.

It may have started as the Memphis blues, but it’s all Memphis rock ‘n roll now!

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