What Memphis can learn about smart development as a black, urban, southern city

Like many children of large families, Kristen Jeffers had the chicken pox when she was young. However, unlike most children, she did not complain of missing school or playing with her friends; she missed being able to see the skyline of her hometown in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Now, more than two decades later, she has come to Memphis during the Memphis 3.0 planning to share her lifelong love of urban landscapes and what she has learned about the decisions that build and maintain them. 

On March 27, Jeffers, who is the creator of the blog and podcast, The Black Urbanist, spoke to a room of about 100 architects, city planners, nonprofit leaders, and other community members at Playhouse on the Square about her personal journey as a black Southerner living in the North Carolina cities of Greensboro, Raleigh and Durham as well as Baltimore, Maryland and Washington D.C.

In addition to cultivating her blog, her work includes traveling around the world to help residents preserve and renovate their cities, which she calls a memorial to her father who is no longer living but encouraged her love of cities at a young age.

Her talk was part of a series of “Planning Matters” events sponsored by the Memphis chapter of the Urban Land Institute.

Jeffers contrasted her family’s relative agency and choice to pass down a family farm and raze an unstable “eyesore” in its backyard with the lack of choice most black southerners have over their environment.

She noted the importance respecting the wishes of predominately black neighborhoods and when planning a street to ask, “who’s allowed on this street?” and consider the surveillance of black bodies.

“People experiencing these state killings, people being displaced—these are people without a lot of opportunities,” she said.

“I want to hear people who don’t have a chance to have these conversations. The global movement to say, ‘black lives matter’ is absolutely necessary.”

While the audience for her talk was urban planners, in a prior interview with High Ground News, she emphasized the importance of citizens to get involved in creating their own city.

She encourages residents to pay attention to the differences between neighborhoods and observe which amenities are available, which are missing, and ask why does neighborhood looks the way it does.

When new construction is announced, get to know the contractor and research how they work. Many want to provide outreach to the surrounding community, she said. She also recommended that people visit libraries, which are usually community hangouts, as a source for on the ground insight.

She offered three suggestions for how developers and citizens can foster Memphis as an equitable city. 

  • Shift financial resources to what residents need versus completely changing a city or building new structures.
Jeffers emphasized the importance of honoring the history of black neighborhoods and listening to oral histories of how the neighborhoods have flowed over time to find out how buildings were used in the past, so they might be returned to that historical purpose. She says that resources are better spent maintaining and remodeling rather than constructing new buildings. Despite the temptation to chase million dollar deals and chain stores, she says resources should focus on cooperative economics and paying a living wage to workers.
  • Focus on local tourism instead of external tourism.
If neighborhoods are more compact and contain all of the local services that they need like a grocery store, a pharmacy, a school, a church, and a bus route, residents can host their friends and families without commuting to find services or entertainment.
  • Keep financial resources in the community.
“If [a city] has that money for outside developers, we can turn that inward,” Jeffers said. She says training and paying local contractors can build a “tool bank” for the neighborhood and give residents the choice to stay.

Although Jeffers said life in the South poses challenges to black residents and has left few black neighborhoods intact, she does note that it is easier and more affordable to obtain land in the South, which is why many black migrants have returned.

“We can assimilate but also be proud. If we had the same resources, our neighborhoods would look different,” she said.

She went on to say that although it comes down to entrenched hierarchies not liking to see black people in power and black Southerners having to live in a society “not built for us,” there is power in finding the history in neighborhoods and rewriting the story of what it means to be a historically black neighborhood.

“I encourage [Memphians] to seek out CDCs and community groups in black communities who are already doing the work. If you have a skill set, start a co-op or a small business,” she said.

She also says she is looking forward to reading Chocolate Cities: The Black Map of American Life, co-authored by local sociologist and writer Zandria Robinson and says she recommends it in advance.

Read more articles by J. Dylan Sandifer.

J. Dylan Sandifer is a freelance writer living in Memphis since 2008. They have also contributed writing and research for MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, VICE News, and Choose901. 
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