Memphis' revitalization is touching neighborhoods from Downtown to Collierville. The North Downtown neighborhoods of Uptown and the Pinch are no exceptions.
But often the effort to reactivate a neighborhood erases the history of the place. Not the big stories we all know like where Dr. King last stood, where Lawler and Kaufman wrestled, or Elvis’ last address. It’s the small stories — the neighborhood heroes, local haunts, and comparatively mundane memories — that get lost.
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One of the best ways to reconnect with those stories is to sit down with a longtime resident to listen and capture their rich and unique knowledge for prosperity. This article is the product of several such conversations with longtime residents of Uptown to uncover the hidden gems buried in the Uptown’s past before they’re gone for good.
Robert and Ernestine
Neighbors Robert Wiseman and Ernestine Johnson have lived in Uptown for more than 45 years.
Wiseman, a retired computer technician, was born in Memphis but raised in South Side Chicago. He returned to Memphis in the early 1960s at the age of 19 when his uncle told his mother that Wiseman was heading down a wrong path.
“Rather than keeping my mother in worry, I decided, well, I’ll come back,” said Wiseman.
He told his mother he’d be leaving again when he turned 21, but in 1963 she bought a home on Sixth Street. Today the neighborhood is Uptown, but it was known as Greenlaw until the late 1990s.
“At the time it was almost impossible for women to even buy a house, let alone she was [single] with children and black too. But she was a determined person,” he said.
Wiseman fell in love with the neighborhood and decided to stay a while.
He was drafted in 1966 and served in Vietnam until 1968 when he returned to Memphis. While he didn’t live in the neighborhood, he was a frequent visitor to the area and his mother’s home. He moved in permanently in 1991 and inherited his mother’s home after her passing in 1995.
Robert Wiseman relaxes on a bench at the launch party for the Treedom Memphis art installation in Uptown-Pinch. Wiseman has been a part of the neighborhood since 1963. (Cole Bradley)
Johnson moved to Greenlaw in 1971 with her young family. She was an employee with Memphis City Schools and her husband was a member of the Army Corp of Engineers.
Johnson and her husband had three young children when they moved in across the street from Wiseman’s mother. Her oldest child, Angela, is now in her late 50s and was one of the first students to be bused under the mandatory busing policy to desegregate school systems after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education.
Johnson retired from the school system in the late 1990s and bought a nightclub on Jackson Avenue at North Watkins Street. She operated the club until 2008 before she fully retired.
Now in their mid- to late-70s, both Wiseman and Johnson say they’ve seen the best and worst days of Uptown.
A Thriving Greenlaw
The pair agrees that the 1960s and '70s were the neighborhood’s glory days.
Many of the large, decaying homes from Memphis’ first planned subdivision were being demolished, and newer, more modest homes and apartments were going up to attract the working class. Young families were moving in, attracted to the employment opportunities provided by the area’s small businesses and factories.
Wiseman and Johnson both remember the bustle of Chelsea Avenue. They recall a pizza parlor between Danny Thomas and 7th and a soda fountain inside what is now an H&R Block. There was a record store, restaurants, a pharmacy and multiple grocery stores. Greenlaw even had a public pool.
The neighborhood was racially diverse, though white people tended to live towards the east near the all-white public housing projects, Hurt Village and Lauderdale Courts. The complexes were built in the 1950s to help anchor white families to Downtown.
It was a close-knit community where people were financially stable, looked forward to the future, and were friends with their neighbors.
“People knew more about each other. They would confide in you, just open up to you and start talking,” said Wiseman. It wasn’t gossip, it was the culture of the day.
“Back then you could sit on the porch until 11 or 12 o’clock at night,” said Johnson of the time spent when family and neighbors.
“When the sun went down, everybody went to the front porch and that would be the entertainment,” added Wiseman.
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Tales from the Good Days
Several specific memories exemplify the rich, detailed, and often colorful heritage that’s at risk of disappearing as the neighborhood revitalizes. They’re also great examples of Greenlaw’s porch culture and close-knit, family feel of the 1960s and '70s.
Richard and Annie Jones inside the Bickford Community Center. (Brandon Dahlberg)
Johnson and Wiseman start with a story about a neighborhood institution, Wilson’s Grill. Located at 584 North Third Street, the owners’ name was Wilson, but everyone called him Big Daddy. Big Daddy was retired, well-off, and wanted to start a business more to occupy his time than make money.
Wilson’s was a popular place, especially on Friday and Saturday nights. Big Daddy ran it well into his late-80s, but the last few years saw a decline in his mental capacities.
“He was a good person, he would give anybody anything he had. He probably gave away as much as he sold,” said Wiseman.
One night Wiseman was sitting at the bar and noticed patrons stealing drinks.
“They were using this man. They were getting beer and he couldn’t remember he sold the beer, so I got up and started waiting tables for him … I started helping him out in the evenings after work,” he said.
Food also factored into many key experiences. Johnson recalls days spent on the porch shelling peas with her neighbor, Mae.
“My husband worked out of town and would buy bushels of peas. We’d sit on the porch and shell them. Mae, that woman could shell some peas! She could shell five to my one. I said, ‘Dawg, Mae! You must have grown up in the country!’”
They’d wait to start shelling until their children’s bus got close so they had to help with the shelling, but occasionally the kids got their payback.
Johnson and her neighbor, Bea, planted a pear tree in her front yard in 1973. The next year, Johnson watched as six pears grew and ripened until one day the pears disappeared.
“I said, ‘Bea, the pears are all gone!.’ We looked over there on her porch and [her son] had all six of them [and was] eating them!”
The tree was hearty at one point but was struck by lightning and never grew quite right again. Johnson said it’s analogous to the neighborhood.
“It’s still trying to go,” she quips.
Perhaps the best memory from Greenlaw’s heyday was the Fourth of July celebration.
“Fourth of July, my cousins would come from different cities, have their motorcycles down, and we’d just have a big block party. Next door, all of her family would come from out of town. Everybody would be out in their yards, it’d be a whole scene. It was really fun,” said Johnson.
It wasn’t planned or organized, it was just what you did. It was essentially a neighborhood-wide picnic with grills and smokers at nearly every house and visits from friends and family well into the night.
Bingo balls sit inside a hopper while seniors gather to play the game at the Bickford Community Center. (Brandon Dahlberg)
“This was every Fourth and Labor Day too, but it wasn’t as grand,” said Johnson.
Johnson’s husband made grills and sold them in anticipation of each holiday. It was such an important event that he regularly sold out. Wiseman and Johnson cackled as Johnson recalled the year a desperate man offered them $200 for their tiny, beat up, personal grill when he realized it was the night of July 3rd and he didn’t have a grill.
The Johnsons’ turned him down.
“It was Fourth of July. Maybe we would have sold it for $500,” she said.
“But you don’t have that anymore,” said Wiseman of the long gone holiday tradition.
The End of the Golden Era
Wiseman and Johnson said the neighborhood kept its active, tight-knit feel into the late-1970s when a number of factors ushered its decline.
First, white flight caused an outflux of residents, particularly from the predominantly white, eastern side of the neighborhood in and around the Hurt Village housing complex.
“You [then] have an influx of people, both black and white, who ... were not homeowners, they did not care about the neighborhood,” said Wiseman.
The loss of the area’s factories beginning in the late 1970s compounded the issue. Small businesses relocated or shuttered and more homeowners left the area.
“You just didn’t have the businesses that you did [before]. Eventually, it was a food desert,” said Wiseman.
“I don’t care for a car,” he continued, noting his preference for walking or riding the bus, “but you’ve got a lot of people who are not that independent and don’t have means of transportation.”
Johnson said the decline meant even fewer families and young people felt inclined to stay.
“A lot of people moved out the neighborhood, and they didn’t come back. They didn’t have any reason to come back,” she said.
Revitalization and Work Still to Do
Since the early 2000s, Uptown has been the focus of heavy investment and revitalization efforts, including the demolition of Hurt Village and Lauderdale Courts to make way for mixed-income housing. Wiseman and Johnson feel that despite its problems, Hurt Village was also a piece of the neighborhood that's now gone. They doubt that Uptown will ever regain the bustling atmosphere or deep the sense of connection among residents.
Seniors do a variety of excercises to music Monday morning inside the Bickford Community Center. (Brandon Dahlberg)
Older homeowners are dying off and few young homeowners are replacing them. New homes have been built and people and businesses are returning to Uptown, but it’s a slow shift.
“It’s missing the variety of businesses and little shops like in the old neighborhood. You don’t have people walking like you did, communicating like you used to. It’s like really living in the desert somewhere. There’s no activity, it’s dead ... There are some new places, but it’s not like it was. Overall, you don’t have that [activity] like you did,” said Wiseman.
For her part, Johnson misses her neighbors and their friendships forged chatted over the back fence.
“I miss Bea,” she said. “I really do.”
Not to be critical of Uptown specifically, they note that the loss of neighborhood identity isn’t unique.
“I don’t know if there’s anywhere you can go now where they really have that anymore. I think that’s gone. I think that’s gone all over the country, really,” said Wiseman, noting he observed the same thing in the Chicago where he’d grown up.
For seniors especially, this loss of amenities and relationships can lead to loneliness and inactivity that can be deadly. In Uptown there are several spaces and organizations working to rebuild lost connections specifically for vulnerable seniors.
The neighborhood has two dedicated senior living facilities. Located at 669 North Third Street, Magnolia Terrace offers 69 one-bedroom apartments for residents 62 and older. They also offer activities and an on-site sundry store and beauty shop.
Uptown Manor in the 1000 block of North Seventh Street is operated by the Cocaine Alcohol Awareness Program and offers 50 low-cost, rent-subsidized units for people 58 and older.
There’s also the very successful senior center managed by Oasis of Hope and located in the Bickford community center at 233 Henry Avenue.
The program has served 40 to 50 seniors every Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. until 1 p.m. for the past 17 years. Seniors spend the morning doing scheduled activities, enjoy a hot lunch provided by MIFA, then relax and socialize with some free time until the afternoon.
The majority are from Uptown’s 38107 zip code, but the center’s two-person staff and team of volunteers see participants from as far away as Cordova and Whitehaven.
“We do a lot for our seniors to help them stay younger and be stronger,” said Shirley Glenn, director of the senior center.
Activities including quilting, ceramics, bead making, computer classes, massage, line dancing, guest speakers, and exercise provided by the Arthritis Foundation three days a week. They’ve also taken field trips to Discovery Park in Union City, Tenn.; an Amish Farm in Ethridge, Tenn.; the B.B. King museum near Cleveland, Miss.; the Stax Museum; and the casinos in Tunica, Miss.
Seniors play Bingo at the Bickford Community Center in Uptown. (Brandon Dahlberg)
According to Glenn, the center boasts one of only two indoor heated pools operated by the city of Memphis and their water aerobics class is one of the biggest draws for seniors from across the city. The center also offers help addressing life concerns like utility assistance and legal advice.
But despite its impressive catalog, its most important offerings might be it people and the space itself.
“Our program [gives] seniors a place to go during the day ... Seniors are left behind when family goes to work ... Having a senior program gives them the ability to get out, exercise their brains and bodies, and just socialize with people their age that really understand what’s going on,” said Glenn.
Annie Jones has been coming to the center for over a decade and has seen it act as a lifeline for many people, including herself.
“I fell last year and had to have a pacemaker. My children don’t want me to sit home by myself,” she said.
Her doctor also encouraged her to leave her house, she herself was more than happy to stay active.
“I’ve got me a life to live,” she said.
Richard Roberts, a resident of Magnolia Terrance and participant at the center, agrees.
“It gives you something to do, take your mind off your troubles, you come down and enjoy yourself. Nowadays you can’t go anywhere and just sit down and enjoy yourself,” he said, adding that most commercial spaces expect visitors to purchase something.
Glenn points out that the program is free and that’s especially important for low-income areas like Uptown and seniors on fixed incomes. No fees mean more people can participate.
Programs like the senior center help to regain some of the community connection that’s been lost to years of abandonment, but there’s more work to be done.
The senior center always needs more volunteers. Specifically, they could use a person who can teach computer skills to seniors.
Wiseman and Johnson said they’d also love to see more retail return, a new grocery store, and young people and families moving back in. Wiseman is particularly interested in seeing more Asian and Latino representation to help diversify the neighborhood.
And there’s always room for more activities and ways to engage neighbors, especially vulnerable groups like seniors.
While Johnson and Wiseman think it’s unlikely the neighborhood will ever be as vibrant as it once was, they still hope.
As Johnson said, a deep and happy nostalgia in her voice, “It would be so nice if we could have a Fourth of July like one of the ones we used to have. Just one.”