Facing disinvestment, Klondike Smokey City charts its own path to development

Facing chronic public and private disinvestment, Klondike Smokey City is taking development into its own hands in creating a neighborhood plan with University of Memphis students.
Planning for the future begins with understanding the past. At the neighborhood level, that history provides the foundation to understands what the current and future needs are of the people who call the community home.
In the North Memphis neighborhoods of Klondike and Smokey City, graduate students in the University of Memphis Department of City and Regional Planning have worked for the past year to better understand the community in order to create a roadmap for the future.
The department has an early draft of a plan that the Klondike Smokey City neighborhoods can use to lead future development. Key concerns in the community are jobs, access to businesses, education opportunities and parks.

A view of Decatur Street in Smokey City. (Andrea Morales)
“People want to see the neighborhood like it used to be which means more housing,” said Antonio Raciti, an assistant professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning who has led students in the fact-gathering mission to create the plan.
“People want to improve the quality of their life through public amenities. There is a problem with access in the neighborhood,” he said, adding that there is a “desperate” need for jobs in the community.
“There are no close-by grocery stores. They don’t want to see a lot of liquor stores around.”
One of the main projects the plan identifies is the development of a land trust, which is a way to combine properties, especially blighted ones, and find ways to redevelop, sell or rent. Another strategy includes creating a program to rehab structures particularly the vast number of historic homes.
A third proposal is to create more community spaces possibly in the form of pocket parks. The neighborhood does have several community gardens that could be strengthened potentially with assistance from the proposed land trust.
Ideally, Raciti said, is that once the plan is finished it will identify opportunities for public financial investments into the community. The neighborhood has long suffered from both private and public disinvestment.
In her role at the Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp., Quincey Morris is working with the U of M students on the plan. She said her hope is to take their finished project and approach the Memphis City Council soon with ideas and possibly to seek project funding.
Been here before
The University of Memphis Department of City and Regional Planning is one of four departments within the School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy. Students in the program prepare for careers that focus on community development and how it interacts with the economic, environmental and social aspects of those communities.
Through the years the program and its students have assisted various organizations and communities in Memphis. That work has included the development of the Memphis Music Magnet in the Soulsville USA neighborhood and the Green Machine Mobile Food Market with St. Patrick Community Outreach Center and the Vance Avenue Collaborative.

Data collected by the University of Memphis Department of Regional Planning shows that parts of Klondike Smokey City date back to 1858.
Laura Saija is an assistant professor in the City and Regional Planning department and has been part of the Klondike Smokey City project from its start. She said the department’s efforts work best when approached as a long-term partnership that can seek potential funding as a team. In that partnership, though, researchers keep their independence to maintain perspective while also respecting the community’s needs and desires.
The relationship between the the U of M and the Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp. came about when in the fall of 2015 Morris reached out to the planning department.
She expressed concerns that Klondike is surrounded by larger redevelopment projects where investments have been made, but not much was flowing into her community.
“The dream is always to do something important and revitalize a neighborhood,” Saija said.
“In the Klondike community’s case the starting point was all the other inner-city neighborhoods are getting attention. Attention means investments, especially by the city with grants and projects. The Klondike community felt they weren’t receiving as much attention so they wanted us to help them figure out a way to increase attention.”
Student-conducted, community-driven
The effort got underway last spring when the graduate students began interviewing various residents. The process, Raciti said, is much like dating. The department needs to get to know the neighborhood by talking to individuals in the community.
“There’s money spent everywhere but not in this community,” Raciti said.  “When she (Morris) got in touch with us we thought this was an incredible planning opportunity. What she was asking, in reality, was trying to find strategies to improve the quality of life in that community and start a process that would identify the main problematic issues that this community wants to talk about and find out future strategies to improve the quality of life of these people.”
The program committed two classes to what it calls an engaged learning approach. Students work in real-world settings to learn the planning discipline while also learning how to solve pressing issues. A historic preservation class learned the background to what makes this community unique.

The students analyzed everything from actual soil of the neighborhood to how people related to the environment. A look at the absence of parks in the community, for example, will feed into a better understanding of what those needs are for the future.
The U of M department’s efforts is an approach to research that looks at issues and problems in a community. It involves community members instead of topic experts. Those individuals are engaged in the research process and help find practical solutions.
The draft plan is in the final stages of completion, Saija said. What happens next is up to the community.
“One thing that was clear to me and the students is that the first thing you need if you want to pursue bigger dreams is you have to strengthen the capacity of local organizations to act,” Saija said.
“In whatever process of change we hope will happen in the Klondike community there needs to be an effort to strengthen the local organization, whether that’s the Klondike Smokey City CDC or a new organization that’s created in partnership with the CDC. It’s not on us. It’s something they have to decide.”
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.