South City

Reflections from four months on the ground in South City

Since April 2017, High Ground News has been writing about South City, a city-backed rebranding of 880 acres of Downtown and South Memphis. Through our On The Ground program, we’ve embedded journalists in this community to document the area’s struggles and strengths and stakeholders’ hopes for the massive revitalization.

Foote Homes is the last standing of Memphis’ traditional housing complexes, and its renovation will likely be the last large scale project of the Memphis Housing Authority.

Public housing as an institution is in transition as cities turn more towards voucher-based systems that subsidize private developments.

The partially-demolished Foote Homes has been located just southeast of Downtown since the 1940s. The property has seen changing tides in housing policies, and its biggest change is underway.

At the heart of South City in Memphis are Foote Homes and Cleaborn Pointe at Heritage Landing, two public housing developments whose origins date back to segregation-era policies. For decades, those racist policies kept black wealth from accumulating in this area of South Memphis.

Related: "Unbanked: The high cost of doing business in ZIP 38126"

Tyrone Currie (R) leads Shante Avant of the Women's Foundation, Linda Williams of the RISE Foundation and Eva Mosby with Urban Strategies (L to R) on a tour of Club Paradise.

And a $210 million urban revitalization project aims to rewrite that narrative by investing in new housing, neighborhood assets and case management services to put residents on a better path.

Since April 2017, High Ground News has been writing about South City, a city-backed rebranding of 880 acres of Downtown and South Memphis. Through our On The Ground program, we’ve embedded journalists in this community to document the area’s struggles and strengths and stakeholders’ hopes for the massive revitalization.

“They saved the best for last,” said James Moore, speaking of Memphis’ six other mid-century public housing projects that have been renovated under the federal Hope VI program.

“It’s just the changing of the guard, but it will always be home to us,” added Moore, who moved out of Foote Homes in the 1980s but still lives nearby.

The renovation of Foote Homes takes a drastically different path than any of its predecessors. The project is backed by a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods grant, a new program under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that expands redevelopment beyond the physical housing site to incorporate public-backed assets, such as a grocery store, daycare center and park improvements.

Supporting the South City development are nearly ten key organizations with charges in neighborhood development, housing development or resident support.

Nearly 50 private and public stakeholders joined High Ground News on a tour of South City.

On August 10, High Ground News brought nearly 50 of those public and private stakeholders together for a tour of South City. With the intent to commemorate the rich African-American history that built this part of South Memphis, the tour visited sites such as Booker T. Washington School, the Universal Life Insurance Building and First Baptist Lauderdale Church.

Also included in the tour were sites, many of which are in disrepair, that are set for rebirth as part of the South City redevelopment. Georgia Avenue Elementary, for example, will be brought back on the grid as the site of Girls Inc.’s largest Mid-South facility.

Ruby Bright, executive director with the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis, highlighted the dual nature of South City on a stretch of Vance Avenue.

Concentrated poverty has resulted in blight and disinvestment in property as well as great resiliency among residents, Bright said. She gestured to the boarded-up Vance Avenue Middle School, which faces the Vance Avenue Youth Development Center, a double-wide trailer that provides free childcare to the community.  

“Behind these walls, you see a lot of blight. But, they are people. And they love this community,” she said. “What makes South City so rich and endearing to this community is the legacy that it has ... It’s the legacy of African-American history.”

Related: "The Women's Foundation has a bold vision to stamp out poverty in ZIP 38126"

The families of Foote Homes’ 420 units have been relocated across Memphis. With children pulled out of school and community connections disrupted, it appears that the South Memphis ZIP code of 38126 will be unrecognizable when the project is completed in 2021.

The Young Actors Guild performs "Rolling on the River" at Club Paradise as a part of a High Ground News tour of South City.

Supporters of the project hope that former residents will move into the new South City housing complex and will benefit from the community resources that were absent for decades.

The tour concluded at Paradise Entertainment Center, known to the community as Club Paradise. The massive nightclub represents the old and the new sides of South City.

At the August 10 event, participants of the Young Actors Guild brought the stage back to life with renditions of “Rolling on the River” and “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”.

The club saw its heyday in the 1970s as a spot to see entertainment such as Ike & Tina Turner, Bobby Blue Bland and B.B. King. The club shuttered in the 1990s and opened recently under new investment.

The community response has been overwhelming with nearly 3,000 people packing the club on the weekend.

“One of the great parts about this is it's part of the neighborhood revitalization that’s going on here. It’s like one of the hearts of this community,” said Anthony Brown, who manages the audio/visual production for Club Paradise.

“It brings people back to this neighborhood who left this neighborhood, so it’s a good reason to come back to your roots.”

While we shift our focus to Orange Mound, our next On The Ground neighborhood, we will keep following the residents of this neighborhood as a cornerstone of the community is transformed into 712 units of mixed-income housing. We hope our body of work, which can be found here, serves as documentation of the neighborhood that existed before the South City rebrand. 

Read more articles by Madeline Faber.

Madeline Faber is an editor and award-winning reporter. Prior to joining High Ground News as managing editor, she worked as a staff reporter for The Daily News. She has also written for Memphis Business Journal, The Memphis Flyer and Inside Memphis Business. Her experience as a development reporter complements High Ground's mission to write about what's next for Memphis.
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