As Crosstown Concourse towers, North Memphis walks between gentrification and disinvestment

As tenants prepare to move into Crosstown Concourse and the city unveils plans for the Bicentennial Gateway project, residents of the North Memphis neighborhoods of Klondike and Smokey City wonder what the impact will be on their longstanding communities.
The massive Sears, Roebuck & Co. building in Crosstown towered over life in North Memphis in the 1940s and 1950s for Mary Hill. Growing up in the Klondike neighborhood, she could see the tower just a few blocks to the south along Watkins Street.
 
Even though the retail and distribution hub wasn’t in Klondike, it was close enough to play a part of daily life. The Sears Roebuck store was the main shopping destination for the communities around that corner of Watkins and North Parkway.
 
For Hill, there was more than just memories of shopping. As a young girl in the late 1940s she delivered lunch to her father when he was employed in construction there. And for a couple of years after graduating from Manassas High School in the early 1950s, she was a waitress at a restaurant at the Sears Roebuck.
 
“I used to walk from where I grew up to the old Sears Roebuck and spent many a days and many a dollar there,” she said with a smile. “Sears Roebuck was always booming. They had everything you thought you wanted in that one store – appliances, furniture, clothing; you name it they had it in there.”
 
The catalog division closed in 1993 years after the retail store moved east. The building sat vacant for more than 20 years. But this spring will see the massive building’s reopening as Crosstown Concourse, and in the coming months more than 30 organizations, nonprofits and businesses will move in.
 
The $200 million project will create a vertical urban village for the neighborhood and maybe a hint of the dynamic activity Hill recalls fondly. Medical services, restaurants and even a gourmet grocery will open in Crosstown Concourse, which sits half a mile from the southeastern edge of the Klondike neighborhood.

View of Crosstown Concourse from the Klondike neighborhood. (Andrea Morales)



















Could it impact Klondike, Smokey City and other North Memphis neighborhoods? Ann Langston hopes so. She’s the senior director of strategic partnerships and opportunities for Church Health, an organization that is relocating all of its services, excluding the Perea Preschool that’s located in Klondike, to Crosstown Concourse
 
“When we started on this and working with the Crosstown development all of our conversations centered on if we are just successful in revitalizing the building we will have failed,” Langston said.
 
“This needs to include services and new life to the Crosstown neighborhood and those to the north, which we define as Klondike, Smokey City, New Chicago and Speedway Terrace. That’s so important if we’re going to bring health and wellness to the city.”
 
Gateway to redevelopment
 
The Klondike and Smokey City communities aren’t strangers to seeing neighborhood investment nearby. Manassas Street serves as the boundary between Smokey City and Uptown, a neighborhood redevelopment that has reshaped north Downtown. Just beyond Uptown’s southern border is the Pinch District, and what could be home to the recently announced Bicentennial Gateway that could transform all of northern Downtown.
 
“It wouldn’t take much for Crosstown to come this way and Uptown to come this way, but as long as these doors are open nobody is moving. We all stay independent. Our little African-American community stays alive.”
 
The gateway project is a strategic redevelopment of the north end of Downtown that would encompass the Pinch District, Uptown and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and neighborhoods to the east. St. Jude’s $1 billion-plus capital expansion will anchor the project creating some 1,800 new jobs over a six-year period.
 
 Much of the public funding for the projects are in place, although an expansion of the Uptown tax-increment financing district is still needed. That district covers an area that includes St. Jude and Harbortown.
 
Its expansion would include the areas to the east of the hospital to the Interstate 40/240 junction to Poplar Avenue to the south and Jackson Avenue to the north. That TIF district will fund $13 million in improvements in the Uptown and Carnes neighborhoods.

Related: Facing disinvestment, Klondike Smokey City charts its own path to development
 
The Smokey City neighborhood sits just across Jackson Avenue from that TIF district, and the house Hill has called home for the past 48 years is just a couple blocks farther north.
 
She wonders when her neighborhood will get its turn at some of these investments, even simple measures to help other seniors make basic improvements to the homes they own in Smokey City.

Mary Hill, 82, stands for a portrait at her home in Smokey City. She grew up in Klondike and has lived in Smokey City as an adult. (Andrea Morales)




















The Bearwater Park neighborhood just west of Smokey City received national attention last year when Habitat for Humanity’s 2016 Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project built houses there.
 
Quincey Morris, director of the Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp., hopes to see new homes constructed in her neighborhood in the near future. There are vacant lots that could be transformed with new housing stock.
 
Hill would love to see that happen sooner rather than later. She said she’s bothered by the tall grass on vacant lots and boarded-up houses.
 
“In the summer months I have to stay on my phone because they don’t keep the grass cut,” she said. “I’ve bought more rat poison in the past six years. I can’t afford that. Rats walking up and down the street. To me that doesn’t make sense.”

As she observes the improvements made in Uptown, it’s easy for Hill to keep her excitement about talk of plans to come to her neighborhood a bit muted.
 
“Going west from here is where the attention has been given. Nothing has been done from Ayers all the way back east to Watkins,” she said. “Now that that’s redeveloped, why not start some other sections?”
 
There are ways redevelopment of the Pinch District could benefit North Memphis neighborhoods like Klondike, Smokey City and New Chicago even as they serve Downtown.
 
“Everywhere you look is a Family Dollar store. We need more than a Family Dollar store.”

The long-desired goal of Downtown residents is a full-service grocery. And while Klondike Smokey City residents don’t necessarily expect a grocery to come into their neighborhood, providing something closer than the Kroger at the corner of Cleveland Street and Poplar Avenue would help.
 
Residents of Klondike Smokey City without an automobile have difficulties reaching that Kroger because of changes in recent years that have seen Memphis Area Transit Authority eliminate service such as the 31 Crosstown line.
 
But what if a grocery moved into the neighborhoods near St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Uptown? It wasn’t that long ago that the idea for an outlet mall in the Pinch District was tossed around. For North Memphis residents who look to East Memphis or Cordova for shopping, that would have been a nice amenity.
 
Hill misses the days of visiting Sears Crosstown or the various department stores along Main Street Downtown. She doesn’t expect the return of department stores to be part of the Bicentennial Gateway project. But she wouldn’t be opposed to growth along Jackson Avenue near Crosstown to bring more business opportunities closer to her neighborhood.
 
“There is undeveloped land in Uptown where they put those new homes and it looks like somebody would have come up with a nice supermarket to accommodate residents,” she said.
 
“Everywhere you look is a Family Dollar store. We need more than a Family Dollar store.”
 
Tap the brakes?
 
There are negatives that come with neighborhood revitalization in some observers’ eyes, namely the fear of gentrification that moves the community’s residents out as prices rise. The neighborhood loses some of its soul, character and history as a new community rises.

A welcome sign to the Smokey City neighborhood stands on Jackson Avenue. (Andrea Morales)
 
Morris wants to avoid that. She said she feels it’s the role of the Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp. to encourage investment that adds to the community.
 
‘We’re prime territory, in the middle of everything,” she said.
 
“It wouldn’t take much for Crosstown to come this way and Uptown to come this way, but as long as these doors are open (at the CDC) nobody is moving. We all stay independent. Our little African-American community stays alive.”
 
Preserving an African-American community is key to Morris. She doesn’t want to see the city’s historic black communities disappear in the name of progress. While Uptown redevelopment has brought a new element of home design to Memphis, Morris also is afraid those projects can remove a community’s character.
 
There is a fine line between total gentrification and neighborhood redevelopment that works for a community’s current residents.
 
“We need some of that pie,” Hill said when asked if she fears gentrification.

“What about us? We’re being left off. This community should not have fallen completely down like it has. Twenty years ago if somebody said this area would be what it is now I would’ve said no. There would’ve been an argument.”

Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler. 
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