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

 

 

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Foote Homes: Better to Rehab than to Destroy – The Paradox of HUD Programs

Foote Homes

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.

meeting about Foote Homes

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!

playground at Foote Homes

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail