Community developers show that Orange Mound is worth investment

When the neighborhood of Orange Mound was founded in 1890, Memphis wasn’t a city.

The mass deaths and exodus of Memphians during the yellow fever epidemic of the 1870s diminished the city’s population to the point where it lost its charter and was acknowledged as a taxing district of the state of Tennessee.

Meanwhile Orange Mound, which at the time was located on the outskirts of Memphis, was being developed specifically as an African American community. While the black community in Memphis and surrounding areas contracted Yellow Fever, there weren’t as many deaths among blacks as their white peers.

So, as Memphis crumbled, residents of Orange Mound and eager new landowners began to set the foundations for a thriving hub of black business and homeownership.  

Since its inception the community has waned and waxed economically over the past 127 years. Recent investments by the City of Memphis, community stakeholders, and long-term residents, show that investments and interest in the community is on an upswing.

Related: "Orange Mound stakeholders voice concerns about inclusion in planning process"

Tiana Pyles has been on the board of the Orange Mound Development Corporation for four years and became the executive director in July.

Pyles said the Community Development Corporation, located at 2395 Park Avenue, is redefining itself and its purpose in the community. One way they are doing that is by partnering with organizations and investors that already have projects vested in the community.  

“People don’t realize [the CDC] is open and they ask, what do we do? We facilitate. We want people to tell us what they need and want in the community. We don’t have a lot of money, but we have services and programs that we provide,” Pyles said. 

The CDC has initiatives and programs ranging from housing assistance to breastfeeding education and works with nonprofits and churches to make the biggest economic and social impact possible.

“There are other people interested in investing in Orange Mound, but they just don’t know where to start. They own property or wish to own property. There is a need for some unique opportunities,” she said.  “There’s a need for growth for people that want to be here.”

Housing is one of the CDC’s ongoing initiatives. The organization is currently partnering with NHO Management, Inc. and RedZone Ministries, Inc. for the Ethel Street initiative. For the past four years, the partners have cleaned up blight and brought new housing stock to Orange Mound.

The CDC and partners built two duplexes in 2014 as a part of the Ethel Street initiative. Another is currently under construction with a March 2018 deadline. Each unit has four bedrooms and two bathrooms and will be rented for no more than $750 to $800 per month. The partners are also discussing building one and two-bedroom apartments on Ethel Street.

In the early days of Orange Mound, black people could purchase 25 by 100-foot plots of land for $40, the equivalent of roughly $1,037 dollars in 2017. From these plots of land sprung shotgun homes, businesses, churches, movie theatres and schools.

As part of the Ethel Street Initiative the Orange Mound Development Corporation is partnering with NHO Management, Inc., and RedZone Ministries, Inc. to build new duplexes to rent for up to $800 in Orange Mound. (Howard Eddings)

According to U.S. Census data gathered by Orange Mound Community Development Center, as of 2015, there are approximately 5,500 people living in Orange Mound. There are 3,081 housing units available in the community and 32 percent of those units are vacant.

Pyles said one of the CDCs core goals is to ensure there are quality, affordable housing options in Orange Mound, and the Ethel Street initiative contributes to that goal. 

Pyles said the CDC is also working to reinvigorate Orange Mound pride by organizing two large-scale events.

Orange Mound in October will host community vendors, music, food and games to promote community pride and serve as a fundraiser for some of the CDC projects.

The CDC is also discussing plans for an open-air festival at the former site of the W.C. Handy Theatre near Park Avenue and Airways Boulevard. Demolished in 2012, the theatre was built for the black community in the 1940s and once drew artists like jazz icon Duke Ellington. The festival will potentials serve as a fundraiser to raise awareness about the history of W.C. Handy Theatre and begin discussions for rebuilding the site.

“We have a lot of industry and innovativeness and resilience of Orange Mound,” Pyles said. “We are trying to revitalize. We have never been totally counted out.”

While Pyles is optimistic about Orange Mound’s native ability for growth, she acknowledges that the community has lost many of its assets and vitality. Other grassroots nonprofits, like JUICE Orange Mound, are working to improve living conditions for Orange Mound’s 5,500 residents.

JUICE Orange Mound engages the community through fundraising and hosted in October 2017 what they believe is Orange Mound’s first 5K race. Founded in 2016, the organization has also hosted back to school drives, raised $5,000 in grant money to begin a neighborhood watch program and meets monthly at Melrose High School to engage residents on community issues.

Residents like Dwayne Jones advocate for better transportation through his slow rides program and as an ambassador for Explore Bike Share, which will come to the community in the spring to help connect Orange Mound with other parts of the city. Explore Bike Share is a nonprofit organization that operates rentable bikes in different communities. Residents will be able to rent bikes equipped with baskets and GPS.

Formerly an abandoned liquor store, the Orange Mound Gallery is an example of creative investment in the community. Local artists contribute to shows and apply for fellowships to bring ideas for create place making to the historic Orange Mound. (Erica Horton)

Linda Steele, founder and CEO of ArtUp, chooses to invest in the community through art and creative placemaking. She said since beginning work in Orange Mound in 2014 through ArtsMemphis and ArtUp, she’s invested approximately $300,000 into the community through capacity building grants.

“When I first started it was kind of rare, people were like why Orange Mound and where is Orange Mound?  Now, I can see more growth happening and people are more interested in the neighborhood,” she said.

Steel said when she moved to Memphis in 2014 from New York City to work with ArtsMemphis, she started specifically with upper South Memphis and Orange Mound.

“In terms of art and culture and grant making, you don’t see a lot of grants either written or made to organizations or communities like Orange Mound and Soulsville,” she said.  

Through fellowship programs, she focused on arts-based community engagement, creative placemaking and improving equity in the arts.

Through those ideas and programs she garnered talent like Paul Thomas, the artist in residence for ArtUp who transformed an old liquor store into what is now Orange Mound Gallery on 2230 Lamar Avenue.

She said when it gets warmer, artists Siphne Aaye and Jamond Bullock will be working on more murals in the community. Aaye recently painted a mural on The Choo, an Orange Mound soul food restaurant at 3045 Southern Avenue. There will be a mural dedication, free and open to the public, on Friday, December 1 from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m.

Through ArtUp Steele continues the fellowship program. In 2016, fellows from Orange Mound received stipends to go to Boston and Chicago where they were assigned mentors and coaches that helped them understand how they work they were viewing in other cities could be translated as ideas for their own community.

“I wanted people to understand how arts and culture can be integrated in community development and community revitalization,” she said.

 Though they all have their different methods, organizations like the Orange Mound CDC, JUICE, Explore Bike Share, ArtUP and more all have the common goal of investing in the community from within as much as possible by equipping residents with the tools they need for self-revitalization.

 “I can see growth in the community through programs like New Ballet Ensemble, who has been in Orange Mound for at least a decade is a growing and expanding to Melrose. I can see it in the Orange Mound Community Development Corporation,” Steele said. “The community is becoming stronger and growing.”

Read more articles by Erica Horton.

Born and raised in Memphis, Erica Horton is a freelance journalist that loves to learn and write about almost anything. Email her story ideas here
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