When fall kicks in, Orange Mound gathers around Melrose High School. Homecoming, which takes place October 19, draws a sea of maroon and gold to Melrose Stadium on Park Avenue. To maintain that momentum, community partners are organizing Orange Mound in October, four weeks of community events that celebrate one of the country's oldest African-American neighborhoods.
The capstone event is the reopening of historic Melrose High School. Completed in 1938 and shuttered in 1979, the building at 843 Dallas Street has been a double-edged source of blight and community pride. With support from the City of Memphis Department of Housing and Community Development, Orange Mound supporters are aligning the neighborhood's history with its potential.
The effort to stabilize 5,000 square feet of the high school's ground floor — which included asbestos removal, ADA retrofitting and floor repair — began last year. When HCD began exploring options for redeveloping the Fairgrounds with the aid of a Tourism Development Zone designation, Orange Mound residents spoke up about what type of project they wanted in their community.
Community engagement installations outside of the Melrose Stadium as part of Orange Mound in October. (Submitted)
Orange Mound shares a boundary with the Fairgrounds on Southern Avenue. HCD has submitted its request for a three-square-mile TDZ designation, the borders of which include Orange Mound as well as the Fairgrounds and anticipates a ruling by November.
Related: "Orange Mound stakeholders voice concerns about inclusion in fairgrounds planning process"
"We want to figure out, how can you take this youth sports facility, which is really an economic development, and make it a community development win," said Paul Young, director of HCD, at a Nov. 11 panel discussion hosted by The Daily Memphian.
If Orange Mound can demonstrate a viable tourism use within the neighborhood, it could benefit from ongoing TDZ investment.
That shouldn't be a problem as Jevonte Porter, a neighborhood redevelopment coordinator with HCD, expects thousands of people to attend the re-opening of Melrose High School on October 26 and 27.
While the weekend is a celebration of Orange Mound and an opportunity for residents to enter a building that has for decades lived only in legend and memory, it's also laying a foundation for potential future use.
The interior of the old Melrose High School, as seen in 2017. (Erica Horton)
"It'll be similar to what happened with the Crosstown building and the Tennessee Brewery," said Young of other local adaptive reuse projects that started with a short-term reactivation event.
"It all started with an idea, so the idea is to get the public in there and get the neighborhood as well as the city of Memphis and turn eyes to that asset because we want to see those types of development ... we want to see it happen in Orange Mound and see what it means for the city," he said.
In photos: "Melrose High School Homecoming celebrates 79 years of pride"
Proposed uses include an Orange Mound Heritage and Community Museum with an accompanying genealogy research center, performing arts space and offices for the Orange Mound Historical Society and Melrose Alumni Association.
Tiana Pyles, executive director of the Orange Mound Development Corporation, said that the community needs a middle school, and she hopes that redevelopment efforts would restore the old Melrose High School to an educational use.
Community engagement installations outside of the Melrose Stadium as part of Orange Mound in October. (Submitted)At the opening weekend, community members can tour the space and weigh in on renderings of proposed uses.
As the site has been abandoned for forty years, many in the community advocated for its demolition. Porter, who also grew up in Orange Mound, said that as a young person he saw the building as a blighted site that drew crime.
But, with a nod from the City of Memphis, he’s seeing new hope for his neighborhood’s slumbering asset.
“I see a new beginning for my peers and those coming behind me. I see this as a peak time for Orange Mound,” said the 2014 valedictorian of Melrose High School.
Mary Mitchell, a Shelby County community historian, said that the old Melrose High School has national significance as it was the only school in Memphis built during the Great Depression.
“It was started under the WPA [Works Progress Administration] initiative of President Roosevelt, and many of the families, people like me who attended the school, their folks had work on the site,” she said.
In 1972, Melrose High School moved to its present location on Deadrick Avenue. In 2001, the Park Avenue property received a designation from the National Register of Historic Places.
Mitchell anticipates that the total renovation cost will be around $10 million, and she hopes that it could be completed by 2020 with investment from public and private sources.
“It is a transformative project because every demographic, the elders and young folk, can see what can happen when a community works together to preserve their jewels. The Melrose High School is a crown jewel of our community,” she added.
Further details about Orange Mound in October can be found here.
Remaining events include:
October 18: Community brunch at the Orange Mound Heritage Room, 2870 Deadrick Avenue, 12 p.m.
October 19: Melrose Homecoming Game, Melrose Stadium, 7 p.m.
October 20: Neighborhood cleanup with Memphis City Beautiful, 843 Dallas Street, 9 a.m.
October 20: Melrose High School alumni breakfast, 2870 Deadrick Avenue, 9 a.m.
October 21: S.U.A.I.C. Melrose Day, 2980 Hoskins Road, 11 a.m.
October 26: Artist showcase, 843 Dallas Street, 5 p.m.
October 26: “Black Panther” movie screening and kids’ activities, 645 Semmes Avenue, 7:30 p.m.
October 27: JUICE Orange Mound Round the Mound 5K, 843 Dallas Street, 8 a.m.
October 27: Reimagining Historic Melrose celebration, 843 Dallas Street, 10 a.m.
October 28: Unity in the Community faith service, 2582 Park Avenue, 3 p.m.