The future of Uptown after a presidential visit

Former President Jimmy Carter and first lady Rosalynn Carter brought their annual Habitat for Humanity build to Memphis where they and 500 volunteers helped transform an Uptown neighborhood.

Dwayne Spencer didn’t think anything was unique about his request a couple of years ago to Habitat for Humanity International. But it turns out asking if former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn Carter could bring their annual Carter Habitat build to Memphis was, possibly, a new move.

Spencer is the President and CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Memphis. In 2014 the Dallas Habitat affiliate hosted the Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project, and it intrigued Spencer. So he acted on his interest, reaching out to a senior executive at Habitat International to ask how cities are selected.

Spencer found out that cities don’t typically seek out the Carter project. So he was asked to send a letter to the president. Fast forward nearly two years, and the just completed 33rd Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project possibly could prove to be a game-changer for the Memphis Habitat organization, and, more importantly, the greater Uptown area as it ups the organization’s profile while bringing new housing stock to the neighborhood.

“Uptown worked for two reasons,” Spencer said. “They had a need for us to be there, and they were in an area that had resources and a lot of potential.”

The Carter Work Project brought the former president and first lady to the Bluff City in August to work alongside Memphis families and hundreds of volunteers to build and improve homes. The construction projects included 19 new homes in the Bearwater Park area just north of Uptown Memphis, 10 neighborhood beautification projects and six aging in place projects around Shelby County to enhance accessibility and mobility for seniors.

Habitat for Humanity plays an important part in Carter’s life. In fact, while taking a break from work on a house during the build to speak to High Ground News, he said his political career – four years each serving in the Georgia Senate, as that state’s governor and then U.S. president – was an interlude for him.

“The other 80 years I’ve been working in different things,” he said in what could be considered a bit of an understatement for the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Yes, Carter was a peanut farmer before he was president. But he also served for 11 years in the U.S. Navy in its nuclear program. Today, the former president and first lady devote much of their time to The Carter Center, a large benevolent organization the couple founded in 1982 with programs in over 80 countries around the world.

This year, for instance, the center will treat over 81 million people for tropical diseases. The center also conducts elections in troubled countries. Oh, and Carter has negotiated his share of peace agreements, whether it’s to prevent a civil war or end a war between two countries.

“So that’s the rest of the year for us,” he said. “We still feel blessed to have a chance to do manual labor, put up walls and siding.”

Carter said he thinks he and his wife have worked with some 92,000 volunteers on various projects with Habitat in 13 countries and 20 locations across the U.S.

Habitat for Humanity International started as a grassroots effort in southern Georgia in 1976, coincidentally the same year Carter was elected president. The organization’s offices were only nine miles from Carter’s home, and it was in those early years after his presidency when he made a connection with Habitat.

“I was active in my church and a lot of the volunteers would come in to our church and talk about what they were doing at Habitat and we got interested in it,” he said. “One day we decided to volunteer. So the founders of Habitat came to our house and gave us a long list of possible things we might do over the years, and we’ve turned out doing all of them.”

Habitat since has grown to a global nonprofit organization in nearly 1,400 communities in the U.S. and more than 70 countries. And the Carters have been along for much of the ride.

By 1984, the former president was giving a week of his time every year to the organization. The first Carter build was in New York City, and it has become an annual event, typically alternating between international communities and American cities.

When Habitat for Humanity of Greater Memphis found out it was awarded the Carter build there was much work to be done, from fundraising to figuring out the logistics of the build. A schedule change later became necessary; the build originally was set for October but had to be moved to August, when the local Habitat isn’t even building yet because of the heat.

So the number of hospitality volunteers was increased to make sure everyone had plenty of fluids and rest. And over the course of a week, some 1,500 volunteers – including a former president and first lady – were on site building 19 homes near Uptown. But they were also joined by the future homeowners, who are required to put in their own sweat equity.

Habitat for Humanity works with homeowners who help build their own homes alongside volunteers. They pay a mortgage, so it’s not a hand out, something Carter said is important to remember.

“They’re helping themselves,” he said. “They’re out here, too.”

Habitat for Humanity of Greater Memphis began in 1983 and since has helped some 450 homeowners secure homes. The organization already had built 32 houses in Uptown, so the area was familiar territory.

Spencer said he believes a real difference will be made at Bearwater Park, where all the new homes were built together in the same neighborhood instead of as separate infill projects.

“When you bring young, excited first-time homeowners to an area they want to build a positive life for themselves so they bring this vibrancy that’s necessary for a community to bring itself back and thrive,” Spencer said. “They can lead homeowners’ associations. They can do those things in conjunction with anchors who have lived in the neighborhood for years. … When you take 20-plus new houses to one area, you’re certainly going to see a positive impact on home values and you see crime rates start to diminish and start to see other people in the neighborhood do refurbishments on their own homes.”

Carter was asked about the importance of leaders being examples for others. He quickly shifted the attention to country music singers Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, who have participated on the Carter build for nine years and were in Memphis working alongside the Carters.

Eventually, he hinted that maybe he does realize the example he’s setting for others. But nearing 92, and a recent survivor of brain cancer, Carter was quick to share a story of one of the Memphis homeowners he met earlier in the week, deflecting any attention from his work.

“He told me seven years ago he was living under a bridge,” Carter recalled. “He was a drug addict. And now he’s turned his life around. He will be owner of a new home here. He has a good job at Chick-fil-A. He’s in charge of a kitchen. He has two teenage boys and instead of setting their goals to emulate his life when he was living under a bridge and taking drugs now they set their goals to live a life like he’s living now. So it can change a whole generation.”
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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.