Seventy-five-year-old Dorothy Burnette-Wright has lived in Orange Mound for 73 years.
Born and raised in her current home on Laurel Street, she now owns four homes in Orange Mound, which were all passed down to her by her father.
When he was alive, she lived in her current home, he lived in a home on Select Avenue and the other two homes have always been rental properties. No matter what, Wright takes care of the properties she owns, which she said are a, “great source of pride.”
Founded as a neighborhood that provided opportunities for African-Americans to purchase land and build homes 25 years after the abolition of slavery in the United States, the identity of Orange Mound revolves around pride in home ownership and its predominately black heritage, as black people make up 97 percent of the community.
Dorothy Burnette-Wright has lived in Orange Mound for nearly her entire life, mostly in her home on Laurel Street where she was born. She also owns three other properties in the neighborhood which, she maintains and rents to others.
But, blighted and empty properties persist and the tide has turned to favor renters. Longtime residents, who have witnessed the potential of the neighborhood as a mecca of black business and homeownership, hold on to a time where amenities and services were in walking distance and locally owned.
Residents of Orange Mound speak regularly of the success of alumni from old Melrose High School, black-owned businesses, and the abundance of professionals that once lived in the community.
“It may not be the best kept neighborhood, but I’ve been here all of my life. I used to know everyone, but now that’s changing because the people that I knew are now deceased,” Wright said.
“That’s one reason why the neighborhood no longer has the same amount of homeownership. The people that lived here grew old and they died. Their children graduated from high school and moved on to college. Once they left the city, most of them did not come back.”
According to data gathered from the Census for the Orange Mound Community Development Center, as of 2015, there are approximately 5,500 people living in Orange Mound according to the US Census, a 27 percent decrease from 2000, when there were a little more than 7,500 residents. Comparatively, the same census report showed the overall population in Shelby County has increased by five percent and 14 percent in Tennessee over the same time period.
There are 3,081 housing units available in Orange Mound, and 32 percent of those units are vacant. Of the housing stock, 79 percent are of single-family units, 13 percent are two-unit homes and duplexes, seven percent are apartments and approximately one percent are mobile homes.
Orange Mound’s vacancy rate is quadruple the Memphis-wide rate.
According to a report titled “Housing Indicators in Tennessee,” by the Tennessee Housing Development Agency, as of 2015 there are approximately 296,000 housing units available in Memphis. As of 2016, nearly seven percent or 21,700 are vacant. Memphis is a city of 49 percent homeowners and 51 percent renters.
In Orange Mound, community members over 65 years old make up 14 percent of the population, and residents aged 18 to 64, which is considered working age, represent 60 percent. The remaining 26 percent represent residents under 18 years old.
Population in Orange Mound is decreasing and as the community ages, homes are left abandoned or in dire need of repair.
“When the parents died, even though their parents may have left the property to the children—the children either sold it or let the property go for tax reasons or whatever they needed to do to not be bothered with the homes,” Wright said. “That’s why you have a lot of empty houses and a lot of places that have gone down”
Wright has invested both years and money into her home on Laurel Street. Over time, she’s had it bricked, the ceilings raised, changed the interior, added to the porch, added onto the den and added a garage.
After the two elderly women that rented the duplex next to her home passed away, Wright would see people stealing copper wiring and sneaking into the home at night. At one point, someone knocked a hole into the wall that kept the units separate and the grass was not kept cut by the owner.
Approximately 32 percents of homes in Orange Mound are vacant according to data from the US Census. The historic streets of the neighborhood once housed businesses and amenities within walking distance to residents of the neighborhood.
After numerous complaints to him about the grass grown up to her knees, the owner told Wright he planned to allow the city of Memphis to tear the property down.
“The structure would have been okay if someone has been in there,” she said. “After I called so many times to complain about it, instead of them showing up on one side of the duplex, they would go on the other side where I couldn’t see.”
Eventually, Wright bought the now vacant plot of land and fenced it in. She said a lot of people are not in a place long enough to keep up a property, and when people move constantly, they don’t take pride in where they live.
Youth, Time and Money
Amy Schaftlein, Industry and Government Affairs Liaison of West Tennessee Outreach at the Tennessee Housing Development Agency, said 80 percent of the units in Orange Mound were built before the 1970s.
“I feel like some [homeownership] was lost during the tumultuous times of the civil right era, the 1970s and 1980s and then wage is not moving. I just don’t think you have folks that are generation X and Y with the budget and the credit that is necessary to become a homeowner,” she said.
Per the Census data gathered for the Orange Mound CDC, 65 percent of households in Orange Mound make less than $25,000 per year and 12 percent of residents make $25,000 to $35,000 per year. Of the 1,083 families that live in the community, 31 percent are single female-led households with children meaning many residents in Orange Mound may be living below the living wage in Memphis. For families with one adult and one child, that annual income would be $42,000.
“Sometimes it cost more to own when you have to do all of the maintenance and it’s a house that’s falling apart. Something like heating could cost $10,000 if you have to re-do and upgrade everything,” Shaftlein said.
“The homes are two bedroom, sometimes one bath and that’s not something that young families are looking for. I think maybe the housing type may not be as desirable for a younger generation, plus you just had an out migration.”
Shaftlein said housing trends show people are interested in homes in places like Cordova, Raleigh or Bartlett where the properties are bigger at three to four bedrooms and people feel that they’re getting more for their money.
“They want that space and a lot of families do. Those are the “hot neighborhoods” of $80,000 to $90,000 homes,” she said.
Courtney Shaw, 26, has been married and living in her childhood home on Buntyn Street in Orange Mound for four years and said she has no desire to go to any of the aforementioned neighborhoods because, “the homes lack character.”
Dorothy Burnette-Wright, 75, has taken advantage of opportunities to buy and maintain multiple properties in Orange Mound. Wright said people take more pride in properties that they own as opposed to property they rent because of the long-term commitment involved with owning.
Shaw said her grandparents bought the house on Buntyn Street in 1972 and added a den, garage, and bathroom and did some electrical work. Now, it’s a two-bedroom, two-bathroom home.
Shaw said there are several benefits for her to stay in Orange Mound including familiarity with the neighborhood, feeling safe, and the proximity to the University of Memphis for classes. Still, she and her husband are moving to Whitehaven this month to a larger home. The two-story, five-bedroom house is also family owned.
“If I didn’t have that option, I would consider staying here a little longer. People are building up the homes here the way they want, but everyone doesn’t have the money to do that,” she said.
Shaw said there is, “definitely work to be done,” in the neighborhood, but it all it takes is a few people to affect change.
“When my mom shows me pictures of the neighborhood in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, things looked a lot different. There weren’t cars parked in the yard, grass stayed cut and people took care of their homes,” she said. “People look at things like cleanliness, grocery stores, and proximity to other things like restaurants and entertainment.”
Though she is leaving her family home in Orange Mound, Shaw said her relatives plan to keep the space active by having holiday and family gathering there. She said she’s also in discussion with her mother and others for the long-term future of the home, which could be using it as a resource center for kids in Orange Mound.
Shaw, her husband, and some of their mutual friends mentor kids in South Memphis weekly through a group called 901 Evolution and a consistent space for the group would be beneficial.
“The long-term goal is to make the house an educational facility for kids specifically in Orange Mound, like an aftercare school program for the community. Food will be served and we will help with homework,” she said. “I also want to bring in people that can teach kids a trade for those who may not be interested in a traditional academic route.”
Plans for the center are not confirmed and still in discussion but Shaw said one thing is certain — “The pride in Orange Mound is unmatched.”