Madison Heights

Sidewalks, lemonade and lot parties: What we learned in Madison Heights

High Ground is wrapping up its On the Ground coverage of Madison Heights. Our OTG embedded journalism team is heading to Hickory Hill, where we'll be reporting from September through early December. Our primary focus is shifting, but we are committed to maintaining relationships and coverage in all of our past neighborhoods.

As we say, "See you later," to Madison Heights, we reflect on what we learned and how we'll use it to shape future work in all our OTG neighborhoods.

a trusted system

High Ground's OTG coverage strives to center the voices of residents, neighborhood-based organizations, faith leaders, small business owners and other key community members. 

The OTG team has a toolbox of strategies to help find and elevate those voices and stories. 

When beginning a new neighborhood, we look to community connectors to start building relationships, meeting new people and identifying stories. We directly partner with a neighborhood organization, usually the area's community development corporation, and maintain active communication throughout our coverage.

We tour the area and introduce ourselves, and the team attends, sponsors and hosts neighborhood events.

We organize several stakeholder listening sessions at community centers, libraries, restaurants and other well-trafficked locations and choose a spot for weekly community newsroom hours where neighbors can meet with us to pitch story ideas and give us feedback.

On August 28, High Ground News, the Memphis Medical District Collaborative and Wonder / Cowork / Create hosted a parking lot party in celebration of Madison Heights, the end of High Ground's embedded coverage and the debut of the Rain or Shine umbrella-share project. (Ziggy Mack)

New Challenges

Madison Heights presented several unique challenges that prompted us to shift our strategies.

Madison Heights is part of the Medical District and bound by Union and Poplar avenues, Interstate 240 and McNeil Street. It's small compared to most OTG neighborhoods and lacks a strong neighborhood identity. Many of its own residents and business owners refer to it as Midtown or the Medical District.

Much of the area is commercial. There are few residents and even fewer long-term residents. Madison Heights has no community center, no neighborhood associations or resident-led organizations, no business association and only a few faith leaders.

There are restaurants and small-businesses, but we struggled to find a dedicated space that fit our weekly engagement needs.

The Memphis Medical District Collaborative is active in Madison Heights, but much of their focus has been on small-business development and activating the neighborhood's core around the Madison Avenue-Cleveland Street intersection.

Fortunately, we also found Madison Height's streets and sidewalks are a daily bustle of activity with a unique and diverse community.

Most of the neighborhood's college students, professionals and business owners commute by car but often leave them parked for lunch or shopping while they're there. The area is a hot spot for mass transit commuters with a trolley bus, numerous standard bus lines and commuters moving along sidewalks between high-traffic transfer points. People experiencing homelessness traverse the area seeking assistance from a cluster of service organizations. 

Many of Madison Heights residents are low-income and lack personal transportation. They're also among the pedestrians and transit riders in the neighborhood.

Creative Solutions

The mobile nature of the Madison Height community is something the OTG team hadn't face in previous neighborhoods.

Rather than rely on group listening sessions, we launched a free lemonade stand and talked to dozens of passing residents and visitors one-on-one. We set up a table in the popular BAM Thrift Store and Sacred Heart parish festival and met business owners and faith-leaders where they serve.  

As we shift our embedded coverage to Hickory Hill, we'll take with us the value of incorporate more impromptu sidewalk engagements alongside more structured sessions.

High Ground's On the Ground team and the Creatives in Research team host a lemonade stand as part of their joint community engagement strategy in Madison Heights. They offered free lemonade to anyone who stopped to chat about the neighborhood. (Cole Bradley)

MMDC was our primary partner in Madison Heights and helped identify business owners, histories and events for engagement and editorial coverage. They also connected us to the Creatives in Research project, facilitated by Wonder / Cowork / Create.

Like our OTG team, the CiR team was embarking on several months of embedded community engagement. They were tasked with community listening to inform MMDC's future public art strategy and producing a prototype art installation based in a community need. 

The two teams worked together on several engagement activities, and each team's findings helped to challenge or validate the other's. 

With a more tailored engagement strategy, the OTG team found Madison Heights to be a friendly and welcoming community that is encouraged by signs of growth in the area. The majority of stakeholders also want that growth to be inclusive and respectful of all current community members, including people experiencing homelessness. 

Madison Heights gave High Ground's staff an opportunity to reflect on how we incorporate the voices of vulnerable individuals and communities. We have a few more stories related to homelessness and inclusive community development in Madison Heights that we're taking extra time to develop to ensure the coverage is representative and respectful.

A second line jazz parade through the streets of Madison Heights celebrates the neighborhood, the end of High Ground's embedded coverage and the launch of the Rain or Shine umbrella-share project. (Ziggy Mack)

Party in a Parking Lot

In each OTG neighborhood, we host a closing event to wrap our embedded coverage. Each event is specific to its neighborhood and planned with the help of stakeholders. In the past we've held photography shows, storytelling events, panel discussions and neighborhood tours.

In Madison Heights we helped throw a parking lot party.

Co-hosted by MMDC, Wonder / Cowork / Create and the CiR team, the Celebration of Madison Heights was held August 28 and featured food from four area restaurants, music and a second line parade through the heart of the community led by the Mighty Souls Brass Band. 

Neighborhood organizations, businesses and residents were all represented among the invited guests. Additional residents, commuters and people experiencing homelessness joined the party and hopped into the second line parade as it wound through the streets.

The event was also the debut of the Rain or Shine umbrella-share system developed by the CiR team. Rain or Shine is a functional art installation that provides temporary shelter from sun or showers to any of the area's pedestrians. The umbrellas are free to borrow and move throughout the system of decorative stands in the neighborhood. 

For the OTG team, leaving a physical representation of our engagement is a unique opportunity and we're grateful to have contributed.
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Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017.