Power in partnership: Neighborhood building in the U District

The landscape of the University District has gotten an upgrade since 2013 thanks in part to the work of University District, Inc. The development corporation has organized neighborhood stakeholders to help reduce crime, increase walkability and fight residential blight.
University District, Inc. (UDI) is a quality-of-life community development corporation and 'trade association' for leadership from each of the eight University District neighborhoods surrounding the University of Memphis. Its purpose is to sponsor community-building events and maintain communication between the neighborhoods. And as a 501c3 organization, the UDI also serves as the fiduciary agent for all of the UDI neighborhoods, which allows their community-based organizations to apply for grants.
“Eight neighborhoods surrounding The University of Memphis, collectively known as the UDistrict, represent a distinct community of residents and businesses,” explained Tk Buchanan, University District President and Community Safety Liaison at the University of Memphis. “Those neighborhoods are East Buntyn Historic District, Joffre, Messick-Buntyn, Normal Station, Red Acres, Sherwood Forest, The Beltline and University Gateway.”
Projects and events range from a recent holiday tree trimming party to the MEMFix event in the Highland-Walker area to coordinating a yard sale that spanned the whole district. Additionally, the UDI hosts a bi-annual University District Summit to brings together the leaders from the organization’s neighborhoods to brainstorm about problems like blight abatement and homeownership issues.
The results are impressive. The organization claims a 49 percent decrease in residential blight since 2013. Measured house-by-house, quarterly, each neighborhood association president joins Buchanan for a visual survey of their area. Properties in needs of structural and/or environmental repair are noted and their neighborhood association prioritizes their chronic problems, giving the list of properties to the University District Police Joint Agency so that the issues can be addressed.
Something else that this community organization does differently from most is that every neighborhood operates a closed Facebook page where residents can report and solve  problems in real time. The pages are monitored by Buchanan and when things are actionable, like overflowing storm drains, steps are taken right away to remedy the situation.
“We also spend time driving around our district, removing unlawful, sight-obstructing signs from light poles and public right-of-ways,” said Verlinda Henning, Vice President of the UDI board. “Residents are encourage to do the same, taking back their areas block-by-block from predatory businesses.”
In terms of stepping up communication between the district’s neighborhoods, the group works with other agencies, such as the City of Memphis Public Works Division, to assist with city-wide projects.
“We let our residents know that surveyors would be in the area when the citywide survey ‘Bluff City Snapshots’ was taking place,” explained Buchanan. “In fact, the surveyors were dispatched from the UDI office in the University of Memphis police satellite office, formerly the site of the Highland Branch Library, at the corner of Highland Street and Midland Avenue. They were with us through the completion of data collection, snapping pictures of every house in the district.”
The group has also partnered with Livable Memphis to encourage input from area residents in a “walking survey” that requested comments about the need for infrastructure upgrades. Additionally, UDI coordinates annual community events in their area, like National Night Out. And new for 2016, UDI is planning to sponsor one quarterly community event, with a pub crawl on tap for the Spring that will pay homage to the Highland Strip. Other events will be put on the calendar that focus on marketing campaigns that support homeownership, as well as retail in the district.
“Faith in Action is one activity that draws volunteers from outside of the University District. People from area churches form teams to clean up assigned areas throughout the district,” said Buchanan. “There’s also a Fall Crafts Fair at St Luke’s United Methodist Church that pulls people into our area. That event provides a social component while benefiting Food Ministries.”
“UDistrict Inc. was founded in 1994,” said Henning. “Thanks to the work of the UDI, all of our neighborhoods have been strengthened and supported, improving quality of life for residents by reducing crime and blight. The overall impact is stronger communities in many of our older neighborhoods.”

If you are interested in learning more about the UDistrict or volunteering, visit Volunteer Memphis to see a list of all available opportunities. 

Read more articles by Emily Adams Keplinger.

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