There's something about walking through a neighborhood. You see it in more detail. You find its rhythm in its goings-on and your own footsteps. You ultimately learn it deeper.
To kick off our three months of embedded On the Ground reporting in the University District, High Ground News photographer Ziggy Mack took to the streets to explore the area and capture the aesthetic and character of this collection of growing center-city communities.
The University District is a collection of neighborhoods between the rough borders of Poplar Avenue to the north, Rhodes and Park avenues to the south, Semmes Street to the west and Getwell Road and Goodlett Street to the east. It's home to the University of Memphis' main and south campuses, as well as several distinct communities including East Buntyn, Joffree, Normal Station, Messick Buntyn, Red Acres and Sherwood Forest.
"For me, it actually felt like a neighborhood," said Mack, noting the compact size and density of the district. "If you give this place five years and they start adding [pedestrian amenities and infrastructure], it would feel like a European city. This would be the most walkable place that Memphis had outside of Downtown."
The University and the District
The University of Memphis got its start as the West Tennessee Normal School in 1912. At the time, the most prominent feature on the western side of the area was a small but established rural community known as Buntyn. In the 1910's and 20's, the town of Normal was born south of the school as faculty and students sought housing nearby. Since then, development in the area has remained constant with the university, neighborhoods and commercial districts expanding and coalescing to form a greater whole.
"Over by the Madison-Eckles Cemetery [in Normal Station], they have houses from the 70's, the 60's, the 30's. I had no idea what was going on!," joked Mack, a self-proclaimed architecture buff.
A construction worker treks across the tracks that separate the University of Memphis's main campus from one of its primary parking lots and the site of upcoming campus expansion. In the background, a land bridge is under construction to improve this connection. (Ziggy Mack)
2016 Summer Pole Vaulting Olympiad Pauls Pujats practices at University of Memphis' South Campus near Audubon Park and the Sherwood Forest neighborhood. (Ziggy Mack)
Allison Hancock and her husband, John, bought their home in Sherwood Forest in 2011. Most of the neighborhood — with its street names taken from the tales of Robin Hood — was built in the 1940's, but there are signs of later building and modifications to the post-WWII modular homes.
"Our neighborhood is not cookie cutter. We looked in several different areas [when buying], all of them still urban but some of them further east, and I just hated the newer housing," said Hancock. "What I really liked looking at the neighborhood from the outside just driving around was that the houses didn't look alike," said Hancock.
An intersection in Sherwood Forest showcases its whimsical naming convention. (Ziggy Mack)
The Messick School
opened in 1909 and was the first school in West Tennessee to feature a cafeteria. For most of its time in operation, it served children from elementary through high school. In the 1980's, the main building was demolished and the remaining building was repurposed as an adult education center. That program was abruptly closed
by the state in 2016 and the building has since remain vacant.
Former Buntyn residents Leah Flagg-Wiggins and her aunt Dorene Holman stand in front of the old Messick auditorium. Flagg-Wiggins was president of the '12 Year Club,' a group of students that attended Messick from elementary through high school. (Ziggy Mack)
The Highland Strip
The recent development along South Highland Street between Midland and Southern avenues has been profound. Often referred to as 'The Strip,' the area was known for its nightlife before it hit a decline in the late 1990's. Now, once again The Strip is hopping, with new commercial properties being built, businesses filling old vacancies and large-scale housing developments springing up on and adjacent to this major commercial corridor.
A vacancy is advertised at 529 South Highland. The Stratum, the first of the area's new large-scale housing developments, is reflected in the window. It was built in 2008. (Ziggy Mack)
Destiny Taylor is a new student at the University of Memphis, works at Lenny's Sub Shop on the Highland Strip and recently moved into a home near campus. She said The Strip offers the food and entertainment students want and many of the businesses offer student discounts. Highland, to Taylor, feels like a natural extension of campus life.
"It looks urban, for sure. It's very youthful. It's artistic," said Taylor.
Malik Johnson (L) and Lamont Wilson pose by their car in a parking lot on Highland Street near Walker Avenue. A mural in the background welcomes visitors to the Highland Strip. (Ziggy Mac)
The 'Highland Strip' signage was added in 2016 to solidify The Strip's unique brand and signal its return. Traffic barrels marking ongoing street improvements dot the road. (Ziggy Mack)
North of The Strip, the Poplar-Highland commercial area is home to many University District institutions like Buster's Liquors and Wines located at 191 South Highland. (Ziggy Mack)
Life (and afterlife) in the university district
Beyond the Highland Strip and university's sprawling campus, the neighborhoods and their residents are just a vibrant. There are active neighborhood associations, schools, religious institutions and shopping and fitness centers. Small, local businesses like Avenue Coffee and larger chain retailers can be found along Park and Poplar avenues and Getwell Road and sprinkled throughout the neighborhoods alongside homes.
Avenue Coffee, located at 786 Echles Street, is a neighborhood coffee shop frequented by regulars that include both residents of the surrounded neighborhoods and students commuting to the university. (Ziggy Mack)
The Madison-Eckles Family Cemetery was established in the mid-1800's. It was nearly lost to time and overgrowth until residents took ownership of the land
and began restoration in 2013.
After photographing the cemetery, Mack headed to the old Messick school building where he met Flagg-Wiggins and 95-year-old Holman. The three discussed what it means to live in a neighborhood and city that is both seeped in history and actively working to grow and evolve.
"I was talking with the two women and I said it's crazy how Memphis does not like to preserve anything," said Mack. "We don't always see the significance of the time that was spent there. By the time we do, everyone who has knowledge of the area or that time period has either died off or moved away."
The Madison-Eckles Family Cemetery is more than 100 years old and is managed by the Normal Station Neighborhood Association. They plan to repair the cemetery and repurpose part of the land for community use. (Ziggy Mack)