Orange Mound

Environmental Justice: Tackling blight in Orange Mound

High Ground News is working with Urban Art Commission on a series of stories about environmental justice at the neighborhood level.

Environmental justice is a response to environmental racism and focuses on how harm to the environment uniquely affects marginalized communities. Examples of environmental racism include placing dumps and factories in communities of color, or unequal access to healthy food and clean water. These systemic inequalities can create health disparities that affect families over many generations.

If you talk to someone in the Orange Mound community about Environmental Justice, blight would definitely come up as a topic of disapproval. Urban blight can appear in a number of ways. Deteriorating and abandoned homes and buildings is a mark of urban blight. Vacant lots with trash, high weeds, and grass, or abandoned and vandalized cars, is another.

At High Ground, we are looking at Environmental Justice, what it is, and in what way it affects Orange Mound.

Air, land, and water pollution, impoverished and vacant homes, and inadequate access to healthy food or transportation are all examples of environmental injustices. These cases are mostly found in vulnerable neighborhoods of color from years of systematic environmental racism.

In a survey High Ground gave to members of the Orange Mound community, respondents scored blight, trash, and litter as the biggest environmental justice problems within the Mound. The data backs up their concerns. Taking a look at the most recent U.S. census, with data as recent as of April 1, 2020, the number of vacant homes in Orange Mound’s 38114 zip code was estimated at 2,821. These vacancies have a great impact on the neighborhood.

Home is where the problem is

Connie Duckett was born and raised in Orange Mound. An alumnus of Melrose High School’s class of ’71 and a veteran of the United States Army, Duckett described growing up and living in the Mound as “the bomb.” That’s no longer the case, she says.

“Although times have changed, people have changed, I loved (growing up in Orange Mound). We had everything we needed.”

Growing up on Boston Street, it was a normal routine for Duckett to walk to school. But even Duckett’s own great granddaughter, a fourth generation Hanley Elementary School student, is not allowed to walk to school alone. It’s blight that plays a big factor in that decision.

Duckett wants to see blighted properties in Orange Mound torn down, rebuilt, and made available for people in her community. And rightfully so. Abandoned, run-down homes pose safety issues. They harbor bugs, rodents, and other instances of pest infestation. Equally important, they could hide lurking individuals up to no good, threatening the safety of children walking to school or out playing in the neighborhood.

Unhappy with the persistent deterioration of her neighborhood, and even describing it as a complete mess, Duckett believes Memphis city leadership should be doing more to turn things around.

“Certain areas in the city got a large sum of money to improve their area,” she says. “It appears that we didn’t get the same help.”

Making strides

Neighborhoods of color often lack the political power to effect change.

Mike Minnis, however, is creating change in his own way. Minnis is Projects Coordinator of Landmark Training Development Company, an urban farm and garden non-profit that offers a farmer’s market and youth education services, using locally-grown produce as an agent of change. Landmark Training is located at 2489 Carnes Ave. in Orange Mound.

Mike Minnis, Projects Coordinator of Landmark Training Development Company.

Minnis acquired Landmark Training in 2008 and moved to the Mound in 2009. He sees blight as a two-sided coin.

“On the one side of the coin, there’s opportunity. On the other side, you have what I like to call misrepresentation,” Minnis says.

Starting with less than $100 for materials, a wheelbarrow, some empty boxes, seeds, and a couple of five-gallon buckets, Minnis had a vision to turn vacant lots into income-producing property that also serves the community. He sees Orange Mound as a great location when it comes to using real estate to help the youth of the city.

Landmark Training has helped more than 300 young people over the past ten years, welcoming them from juvenile court and into the fold. They learn teamwork, discipline, and self-reliance. Still, there’s only so much one nonprofit organization can do to help, he says.

“I really am ashamed of our political leaders for not doing more to help our young people from getting involved in the underground economy,” Minnis says.

Minnis described a known cycle. Neighborhood trends for communities like Orange Mound are growth, stability, and decline. Drugs coincide with a lack of opportunity for minorities. Inequalities cause property values to decline. Then equity declines.

But there are solutions. Minnis has advice for those who have land or for those who are looking to get some: Make use of what you have, and hold on to it.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen next,” Minnis says. “But I recommend people to hold on to their property and find ways to elevate and increase the amount of money they can get from their land, to increase the value of their property so no eminent domain will happen.”

Changes we want

Blight determines the quality of life in any neighborhood. It affects property values and it invariably changes the culture of the neighborhood. Blighted properties can pose safety issues, attract squatters and crime, and carry health hazards.

Orange Mound residents are no different from anyone else. They want to see improvements made to the vacant houses and yards not being maintained throughout the neighborhood. In the aforementioned survey, residents specifically identified the old Orange Mound Funeral Home at 2647 Carnes Ave. and the old Tom’s Shoe Shop on Carnes Avenue at Boston Street as places that especially need some much deserved attention.

In general, people want to live in desirable areas. Who considers an overly run-down area to be desirable?

Orange Mound may be a historic neighborhood. However, the times when the area was significantly thriving are ancient. It’s time to tackle blight.

“We just want to feel safe in our own neighborhood,” Connie Duckett says.
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Read more articles by Alexandria Moore.

Alexandria Moore is a healthcare professional and freelance writer. Moore is a resident of Orange Mound and graduate of the first High Ground News Community Correspondents program.