In High Ground’s “On the Ground” signature series, a team of reporters and photojournalists focus their attention on a specific neighborhood for months of intensive coverage.
We do still continue writing about our OTG communities after our intensive focus ends, but it's less frequent. This year, we're taking some time to check back in with some of our OTG neighborhoods.
The High Ground team was embedded in The Heights from August through December 2018.
We've spent July 2021 focusing on the Heights with stories about:
Now, we're catch up with three of the nonprofit organizations we got to know during our time in The Heights—Su Casa Family Ministries, Heights CDC, and the Mitchell Heights Neighborhood Association.
What (and Where) is The Heights?
The Heights is a sort of umbrella term for a collection of neighborhoods located roughly between Tillman and Graham streets to the east and west and Jackson and Summer avenues to the north and south.
It includes Highland Heights, Mitchell Heights, Graham Heights or Grahamwood, and parts of Nutbush.
The Heights and neighboring Berclair make up one of the most diverse areas in the city, with notable numbers of white, Black, Middle Eastern, and Latinx residents. The small business owners hail from more than 30 different countries, and it's home to the Memphis metro area’s largest Spanish-speaking community.
The area is predominantly working class with plenty of modest, single-family homes, most of which were built in the post-WWII housing boom of the 1940s and 50s. Many Heights stakeholders have noted that vacant homes and lots are one of the area's biggest challenges and simultaneously one of its biggest opportunities for growth.
Checking in With Su Casa Family Ministries
Focus: Adult English classes for Spanish-speakers; bilingual preschool; family support
(901) 320-9833 | website
Su Casa Family Ministries runs one of the few dual language preschools in the Memphis area. (Su Casa Family Ministries)
Since we last spoke with them, Su Casa Family Ministries has maintained its flagship adult English language classes and dual-language preschool programs. They have also stepped up their work in referring members of the Latinx community to community resources.
“It could be families that are trying to get help with their legal situation or they don't have medical care access or any number of other things. We work to sort of get them connected to other resources that are available throughout the community to be able to meet those needs,” said Executive Director Michael Phillips.
When asked about changes since 2019, Phillips said that COVID-19 is a deep dividing line.
“Honestly, it's a blur. It's hard for me to really even think about what we did in the year before the pandemic,” he said.
Su Casa developed at-home learning kits during pandemic shutdowns and helped families navigate virtual schooling. Language and technology were huge barriers blocking information and resources for many of their families.
"The truth is with virtual learning, there was a true crisis in our community," said Phillips at an October 2020 panel discussion hosted by New Memphis
. "People didn't have devices, didn't know how to turn on devices, didn't have internet, were working hard to get internet, couldn't figure out how to make the internet work, still hadn't turned on a device, didn't have their kids enrolled in the school they really liked once they turned on the device."
Phillips said Su Casa has amplified its work by starting and joining initiatives and coalitions that are working more broadly in Memphis. Their goal is to ensure the “needs and perspectives and stories of the folks in The Heights are a part of their thinking.”
Phillips said Socios Comunitarios as an example of a coalition of organizations serving the Latinx community. They meet at least once weekly, and the meetings include community members. He said it was formed after the first couple of months of the pandemic when the organizations “realized that we were kind of a segmented sub-sector of the nonprofit world.”
“We needed to make sure the Latinx immigrant families that we work with, were getting the same information that the rest of the community got,” said Phillips.
Checking in With Heights Community Development Corporation
Focus: housing & community development; greenspaces & environment; safety; small business
(901) 730-6902 | website
A temporary redesign of the National Street median back in 2017 showed the possibilities for a permanent Heights Line linear park and pedestrian trail, which is now nearing fruition. (Submitted)
Heights CDC has stayed busy since 2018. High Ground has reported on their leadership on a contest to reimagine the Highland Heights United Methodist Church
as an attempt to save the historic property from demolition, as well as their involvement with the Treadwell schools' unique new nature playground.
“We actually were able to celebrate the opening of the playground just this year, after a couple of years of planning and fundraising and building,” said Heights CDC Special Projects Director Dane Forelines. “It's been met with a lot of positive feedback from the community, and has gotten much heavier use than I think any of us anticipated, which is a good thing. People are enjoying it."
The Heights Line
, a proposed 1.75-mile multi-use path and linear park located in the median of National Street between Summer and Bayliss avenues, is the CDC’s highest-profile effort and is now very close to fruition.
“We have finalized the design for the Heights Line on National Street,” said Forlines. “It is currently under city review for permit approval, and we hope to break ground next year.”
Currently on display along the National Street median is the "Naming" art installation honoring the 64 pedestrians killed by vehicle strikes in Shelby County last year
. Heights CDC commissioned the project from local artist and Heights resident Collin Kidder.
Heights CDC is also working to address storm water and flooding issues in the neighborhood. Forlines said they have completed designs for Shelby County's first bioswale in the public right away. Bioswales
are channels designed to concentrate and convey stormwater runoff while removing debris and pollution. They can be very beneficial in recharging groundwater.
“It will be at an intersection along the Heights Line corridor. It will not only serve as a green infrastructure project, but also as a traffic calming project,” Phillips said.
Heights CDC is moving into commercial real estate development, which will also be connected to the Heights Line project.
“We're responding to residents' interest in a neighborhood center and mixed-use property that provides an opportunity for people to access goods and services, but also serves as a cultural and social center,” said Forlines. “We believe that this project is going to enhance the quality of life of people that are living here, but it is also going to attract new people to move into the neighborhood.”
Checking in With Mitchell Heights Neighborhood Association
Focus: community beautification & safety; gardening & food security
Mitchell Heights Neighborhood Association Secretary Judy Hudson-Conway (center) and President Sidney Johnson (right) discuss their plan for their hoop house. (Natalie Eddings, 2018)
Since December 2018, the Mitchell Heights Neighborhood Association has expanded their efforts to build a cleaner, greener, well-fed neighborhood.
“We have had several neighborhood cleanups,” said MHNA Secretary Judy Hudson- Conway of their time since High Ground was embedded in The Heights. “We have been working to clean up the walking trail, as well as the Gracewood area,” she added.
In August 2019, MHNA won the annual Tennessee Governor's Award for Environmental Stewardship in the land use category
for their existing work around food security and their plan to turn a vacant swath of land into a fruit orchard. They've since begun planting on that orchard.
“He planted a lot of stuff out there, but most of all, he cleaned it up and he put some fruit trees back here,” said Hudson-Conway of Johnson.
“We have one 150 x 50 lot, and now we are getting ready for the fall,” she said of the vegetable garden area. “We plan to plant cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, and greens. Of course, you know, in the early winter, you know, we will plant onions, cabbage, and broccoli.”
There have been some challenges getting participation from their neighbors, which Hudson-Conway attributes primarily to fear around the COVID-19 Delta variant, but she said other organizations like Heights CDC have been pitching in.
“The Heights CDC brought one group in from Mississippi. They came in and helped me get my beds ready for fencing, put the compost in the beds, and molds and everything,” she said.
“I just hope and pray that the children that we have trained down through the years will stop and continue this work when we have gone on,” said Hudson Conway.