Memphis After a 30-year HUD led program to obliterate public housing in the USA, there probably isn’t any more quixotic campaign than to try and save the “last public housing project in Memphis,” as Robert Lipscomb, head of the Memphis Public Housing Authority calls the 497 unit Foote Homes, but there I was huddled in a conference room of the University of Memphis with more than 20 community activists and organizers, church people, property owners around Vance Avenue, and students and professors at Rhodes and the University of Memphis, and it was a fascinating and exciting session.
If we had good sense, we would all just walk away since the odds of winning are so long, but there were two reasons it was impossible to do so:
- Residents of Foote Homes actually wanted to stay there and have the homes rebuilt rather than being spread out in the diaspora of Memphis in Section 8 housing. One survey after another from outside groups had found significant majorities who wanted to stay at Foote and improve the housing rather than being force marched elsewhere in town. Not surprisingly, the structural surveys of the homes had found they were sound and well-built, and in fact would invariably be better and more affordable housing than what would replace Foote Homes. Whenever people are this clear, especially about public housing, attention must be paid!
- Another clue turned out to have been that Foote Homes is in fact not only unique, but historical. Each set of buildings is centered by expansive parks and grounds with recreation and relaxation facilities located there. Having looked at hundreds of housing projects over 40 years, I was immediately struck as I drove by on the way to the meeting at how physically attractive the landscape and building sitings were. Not surprisingly it turned out that the design had been done in the heyday of the so-called “City Beautiful” movement. As historic, was the fact that the actually design was done by two African-American architects who worker for the Olmstead firm famous for Central and Prospect Parks in NYC and many others around the country.
The more we talked, the more I started to believe there were real prospects for a campaign to protect the housing project, or at least a large part of it, and to deliver solid community benefits agreement for Foote Homes as well. The public “narrative” changes when the public realizes that residents want to stay in their homes because these are better homes and that it has incalculable meaning for history and culture of the community not far from the highly touted Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and Martin Luther King’s assassination.
Talking, it turned out that there were people and organizations that were excited about helping the residents file an application for historic and landmark designation. What an accomplishment that would be! And, so richly deserved.
Oh, and HUD cannot finance the demolition of any project with historic designation. This campaign might just be a winner!