Klondike Smokey City

Boarded up houses are not a death knell for Klondike Smokey City, neighbors say

A concerted effort is underway in Klondike Smokey City to fight blight and turn vacant lots and boarded-up houses into centers of hope for the neighborhood’s future.

The work of weeding out blighted property in Memphis starts at the sidewalk-level. In a declining neighborhood like Klondike Smokey City, residents and community leaders are taking charge of reclaiming their streets from negligent property owners and overgrown vacant lots.

“Klondike Smokey City seems to me to be a good example of a neighborhood where the community members who live there, work there and are from there are identifying challenges and asking for help where they need help and doing things themselves,” said Steve Barlow, director of Neighborhood Preservation Inc. and a key leader in Memphis’ renewed fight against blight.

Blight doesn’t happen overnight, and it certainly didn’t happen that way in Klondike Smokey City. The neighborhood’s population stood at 16,147 in 1960, according to U.S. Census numbers. By 1970 the decline was obvious, if not drastic; there were 14,798 residents, an 8.4 percent decline.

White flight was underway, and over the next few decades as North Memphis factories closed and jobs were lost, the community continued to lose residents. The 2000 population was 7,486. It fell to 4,765 in 2010.

And a loss of more than 11,000 residents in a 50-year period meant a rise in empty houses. Some of the lots where houses once stood today are vacant. Others contain boarded-up homes. What becomes of all those empty properties is part of the challenge that faces the neighborhood.

Dr. Eziza and her grandson Jeremiah hang out while maintaining one of the community gardens on Alma Street in Klondike. Three years ago, community members and the Klondike Smokey City CDC installed raised beds to grow vegetables and herbs on the long-vacant lot.

Antonio Raciti has been part of an effort to better understand the neighborhood so that residents and community developer leaders know what steps to take forward. Raciti is an assistant professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of Memphis, which has spent the past year working with the Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp.

One of the main projects that could move the neighborhood forward includes developing a land trust that will serve as a way to take rundown properties and redevelop them to sell or rent. Another way forward is a program to rehab existing structures in the neighborhood.

“This is a way for the community to maintain the neighborhood in the same hands instead of having an outside developer come in and develop the community in its own way,” Raciti said.

The vacant lots could be converted into much-needed park space throughout the neighborhood, whether it’s for recreation or community gardens. In fact, a number of neighborhood gardens already exist on vacant lots.

“There are no public parks so there was an idea to get some dignity to places for community space,” Raciti said. “We could have kids playing in pocket parks. There are community gardens that need to be recognized and strengthened. This is another thing that can be done through a land trust. It’s like a road map.”

A boarded up home on Bellevue Boulevard in Klondike carries a message to deter break-ins.

Sometimes houses can be saved. Rehabbing existing housing stock also creates jobs. And that, in turn, is one more way Klondike Smokey City advances.

“I think the perception of North Memphis is that it’s crime ridden,” said Quincey Morris of the Klondike Smokey City CDC. “I know there is blight but where would there not be blight if you have a lot of abandoned houses and buildings?”

A big unknown in Klondike is the closing of two anchor institutions. Northside High School closed after last school year and Klondike Elementary School will close its doors at the end of the current academic year. What will become of those adjacent empty facilities?

Keeping boards off the windows and chains off the doors because an appropriate user is in the buildings would help. Otherwise, Klondike will have even more empty buildings on its hands to add to the boarded-up houses that already dot the community.

The number of vacant houses in Klondike Smokey City went from 3 percent of the total stock in 1970 to 10 percent in 1980, according to University of Memphis data. By 2000, 1,358 housing units were gone from the 1970 peak of 4,328, meaning those vacant buildings were torn down. By 2014, another 500-plus housing units were removed from the neighborhood.

University of Memphis data estimates that 25 percent of the 2,418 housing units in Klondike Smokey City sat vacant in 2014. So there is real work to do.

The remains of a home that was torn down on Olympic Street in Klondike have remained on the lot for years. Neighbors and the Klondike Smokey City Development Corporation have requested the city to help remove the debris.

As those houses sit vacant, they become a nuisance. Part of the problem across Memphis is when an investor who owns a house and rents it out for a few years loses interest and doesn’t do anything with it. The house sits vacant, taxes are delinquent and the abandoned house is stripped of what remains.

“You have a shell of a house with no one to take responsibility for the property,” Barlow said. “The city has to decide do we tear it down or get it back in service. … Utter abandonment of property is the biggest challenge.”

Longterm, the Klondike Smokey City CDC wants new homes built on some of the vacant lots in the neighborhood. A possible partnership with the Shelby County Trustee’s office could see several lots donated to a new blight commission that holds them tax-free, in hopes they ultimately would see new home development.

While the future is possibly brighter than the present state of blight, Morris is pleased with what’s occurred in the neighborhood.

“Five years ago you had a lot of abandoned houses that were not boarded up, a lot of grass and vacant lots that needed to be cut,” she said.

“We’re in more control of our blight than ever before because of our partnership. The partnership has only been in existence a couple of years. Prior to that the community looked bad.”

Clean Memphis is part of that neighborhood partnership along with 10 other stakeholders around Memphis. One way Clean Memphis helps improve the appearance of the neighborhood is coordination of clean-up efforts. A group of college students will be in town late March from Wisconsin. They are slated to spend Friday helping clear vacant lots for several elderly Klondike property owners.

Clean Memphis also works with Klondike Smokey City to create a working blight list of eyesores in the community.

“The idea is to help people get organized and connect with additional volunteers,” said Janet Boscarino, executive director of Clean Memphis. “Our effort isn’t to tell them what to do but help organize.”

Whether it’s the MLK Day of Service, the 30 Days Straight clean-up that occurs on Earth Day or random clean-up efforts by out-of-town students or local corporations, Clean Memphis’ efforts might seem like a drop in the bucket. But part of its work is to educate, and the hope is that eventually good maintenance habits will create a neighborhood with less blight.

“We still have a long way to go. They have vacant and abandoned properties and dumping issues but we’re making progress,” Boscarino said. “We’re trying to reach a critical mass in the neighborhoods so we reach a tipping point. There is a lot of research about getting to that critical mass and then a tipping point occurring where you see critical change.”

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

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.