The Heights Line pop-up project reinvigorates National Street

A neighborhood project in The Heights neighborhood of North Memphis is bringing the community together in ways not seen in more than 40 years. The low-cost enhancement project, dubbed The Heights Line, involves converting a stretch of National Street into a multiuse promenade. It has been successful during October and will be in place until early November.

“We started to look at the need for community space,” said Jared Myers, The Heights CDC executive director. “We don’t have a lot of green space in our neighborhood. The closest park is about two miles away.”

Residents expressed a desire to be more connected. The neighborhood sits between the Summer Avenue and Jackson Avenue corridors.

“We also have a lot of blighted and vacant properties as well as vacant businesses,” said Myers, who estimates there are roughly 1,100 vacant properties in the neighborhood.

National Street was identified as an asset that could be reimagined to connect The Heights to other neighborhoods like the Broad Avenue Arts District and the Wolf River Greenway. Creating a new green space was a way to be able to invite people into the neighborhood.

The four-lane National Street was narrowed to just two lanes, widening the median by blocking off the two inside traffic lanes. Cars and trucks normally drive through at higher speeds, making it unsafe for pedestrians and bicyclists, but narrowing it to two lanes has caused traffic to slow down tremendously.

Volunteers helped to install custom-made planters that form a dividing wall to passing traffic.

Volunteers helped with the project building planter boxes and benches that were used as partitions to create dividing walls for the traffic.

“This project to me is an answered prayer. When they first erected it, people really didn’t know what to think because we’re so used to not using space like this,” said resident Linda Burgess, who has lived in The Heights for the past 43 years.

“I’m really excited and encouraged to see kids and young people using it. It’s going to take time for people to realize that streets are public spaces too.”

Activities earlier this month like a free ice cream gathering and a 5K race helped to activate and draw attention to the project.

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“People from the community came, and then some folks from outside the neighborhood heard about it,” said Myers. “They thought it would be fun to run through this neighborhood they’ve never been to before.”

“I sensed a wonderful spirit happening on the day of the race. Something positive is opening up here with the community,” said Burgess. “I feel safer having this here and walking through the area.”

Upcoming events include a community cookout on October 26 and a Halloween carnival on October 31.

“But mainly it’s set up not so much to host events but for people to creatively use the space themselves,” said Myers. “We’ve had artists come out and put art up, there are large board games for people to play on, and a hammock grove where kids love to sit and read books. It’s supposed to be a blank canvas where residents can add what they want to the project.”

Planning for the project began in April. Funding came from an ioby campaign that raised $11,000 and from a $2,500 Community L.I.F.T empowerment grant.

“The planning process is what’s been really important, building relationships with the neighbors to look at what a long-term installment of National Street would be,” said Myers, who said she has heard positive feedback from nearby businesses this month.

A trolley once ran down National Street until the late 1940s. The street takes its name from the National Cemetery, which dates back to the Civil War, located near its northern end. Neighborhoods located along historic trolley lines still contain many of the characteristics that an increasing number of people are looking for in a place to live – historic homes, walkability, nearby shops and restaurants, and close proximity to downtown.

“We have to be innovative in how we approach blight and try to get people to move in to be a homeowner in our community because they see revitalization happening through a streetscape project like this one,” said Myers.

The next phase will be to regroup as a community, look at what worked and what didn’t work, and then envision a potential plan for the whole street. Myers believes design costs could approach $80,000.

“Reclaiming this space back for public use and being able to walk all the way down from Summer Avenue to Macon in a median like this would be really good for our neighborhood,” he said.

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Read more articles by Michael Waddell.

Michael Waddell is a native Memphian who returned to Memphis several years ago after working for nearly a decade in San Diego and St. Petersburg, Fla., as a writer, editor and graphic designer. His work over the past few years has been featured in The Memphis Daily News, Memphis Bioworks Magazine, Memphis Crossroads, the New York Daily News and the New York Post. Contact Michael.