Klondike Smokey City

Reflections on Klondike Smokey City

Over the past three months a team of High Ground News journalists has gotten to know those in the Klondike and Smokey City communities in an effort to tell some of their stories.

Community is an interesting word. So is neighborhood.

The two sometimes are interchangeable to represent a group of people living in a general area. Klondike and Smokey City are North Memphis neighborhoods, but they’re also one community where residents have much in common.

That common thread, actually, is one that most families in any Memphis neighborhood seek: a place to call home where children have access to quality education, safe communities free of blight where residents have access to necessary services and jobs.

Over the past three months a team of High Ground News journalists has gotten to know those in the Klondike and Smokey City communities in an effort to tell some of their stories.

If you still don’t know Klondike Smokey City, let’s take a moment to review. The adjacent neighborhoods sit between Jackson Avenue on the south and Chelsea Avenue on the north. The western border is Manassas Street and the eastern edge is Watkins Street. Breedlove Street and Interstate 40 split the neighborhoods, Smokey City on the west and Klondike on the east.

Jason Ayers high fives one of the kids that came out to help clean up empty lots along Randle Street in Klondike.



















These are neighborhoods where investment is evident in adjoining communities; some of the beautiful houses that have gone up in Uptown over the past decade sit across Manassas from Smokey City. Stand on many street corners of the eastern edge of Klondike and look south to the tower of the former Sears Crosstown building. Occupants already have started the move-in process to what is now Crosstown Concourse, a 1.5 million-square-foot vertical urban village project that is sure to spur redevelopment of that community.

To be sure, Klondike Smokey City neighborhood leaders aren’t thirsting for any kind of development just for the sake of progress. They want investment, yes, but they want it in a way that makes sense for the current residents of the community.

“We’re prime territory, in the middle of everything,” Quincey Morris, executive director of the Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp., said back in January as the On the Ground project got underway in the community.

“It wouldn’t take much for Crosstown to come this way and Uptown to come this way, but as long as these (CDC) doors are open nobody is moving (out). We all stay independent. Our little African-American community stays alive.”

As High Ground News’ focus on the Klondike Smokey City neighborhood winds down, the city’s focus actually picks up on the greater North Memphis community. It was announced in February that North Memphis has received a $1 million award through the Strong, Prosperous, And Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC) that went to the Memphis Partners for Resilient Communities.

That award in some ways is just a drop in the bucket of needs for the greater North Memphis area that includes the Klondike and Smokey City neighborhoods as well as New Chicago, Speedway Terrace, Hollywood and Springdale among others.

Jason Ayers helps Yalon Wallce, 10, mow through the high grass and weeds in an empty lot on Randle Street in Klondike. Folks from the community organization Crowning Our Youth, Inc. an anti-violence and youth oriented group, worked to clean up vacant lots.





















But the Memphis Partners for Resilient Communities, a coalition of groups that represent North Memphis as well as local government and philanthropy organizations, will work to ensure that as new investments are made that equity, health and environmental outcomes for all North Memphis residents are improved.

The future is bright for Klondike Smokey City, but it’s not just because SPARCC could lead to new ideas for and investments in the community. It goes back to the neighborhood and what those people envision for their community. The future of SPARCC, and North Memphis' response to it, is something are dedicated to covering.

The On the Ground project closed its time in Klondike Smokey City with a community expo at the Dave Wells Community Center on March 31. Twenty-five organizations and businesses that either call the community home or service it set up at booths in the community center’s gym.

The room was full as an estimated 150-plus attendees learned more about those organizations and watched performers from community schools and groups. It was a celebration for the community.

Over the past three months we’ve gotten to know some of the Klondike Smokey City stories.

Folks from the community organization Crowning Our Youth, Inc. an anti-violence and youth oriented group, worked to clean up vacant lots along Randle Street in Klondike.




















Larry Walker is a product of Klondike and calls the neighborhood home today. The portrait painter works out of the Katie Sexton Community Center in Klondike. You can find his work in the Hall of Mayors at Memphis City Hall where his portraits of former mayors Willie Herenton and A C Wharton Jr. hang today.

Klondike once was home to Tom Lee, the African-American man who couldn’t swim but still managed to save 32 people from a sinking steamboat on the Mississippi River in 1925. The Klondike house he lived in until his death in 1952 was purchased as a reward for his bravery.

Klondike Smokey City has seen plenty of decline over the past few decades, in part because of the shuttered manufacturing plants in North Memphis and Frayser, including the nearby Firestone plant that employed thousands. Neighborhood residents moved out, sometimes leaving empty homes that have played a role in its growing blight problem.

Folks from the community organization Crowning Our Youth, Inc. an anti-violence and youth oriented group, worked to clean up vacant lots along Randle Street in Klondike.
The U.S. Census in 1960 showed Klondike Smokey City had 16,147 residents. It stood at 4,765 in 2010. Data from the University of Memphis show that in 2014 some 25 percent of the 2,418 housing units in the neighborhood sat vacant. It’s a slow process to find new uses for or bring down those vacant homes.

But when it does happen, beautiful things appear in their place. Take the effort of the Klondike Smokey City CDC that has community gardens on Alma Street. The gardens deal with blight in the neighborhood by taking the empty land and creating gardens that provide fresh produce for the community while improving the overall appearance.

The spirit of Klondike Smokey City might best be summed up in the story of Mary Hill. She grew up in Klondike in the 1940s and 1950s. She graduated from Manassas High and has called Smokey City home for the past 48 years.

She lived during the heyday of when the nearby Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. saw three shifts of employees create a rubber aroma in the air over her neighborhood. She saw all of that disappear, yet she remained.

“A lot of people lost their beautiful homes,” she said of the Firestone closing aftermath.

“Klondike was a beautiful part of the city. I’ll never forget those days. … I just hope something can transpire so people in our community can get the benefits. If I’m not around let my children and grandchildren and others get the benefits. We’re overdue. I just hope someone will have a dream and hurry up and get on with it.”

Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler. 
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