On November 29, High Ground News partnered with Heights CDC to host the Great Heights: National Street and Beyond in Photos, a reception and photography exhibit highlighting the people, events and locales captured by the High Ground News team during our four months of embedded coverage. The location was a former barbershop at 769 National Street built in the 1930s at the corner of Bowen Avenue.
Photos of thriving community gardens, sports teams, school children and businesses lined the room, and the energy of positive momentum was palpable. High Ground News photojournalists Natalie Eddings, Ziggy Mack and Renier Otto contributed their work. The roughly 50 guests included residents, community leaders, business owners, investors, children attending their first photography exhibit and people visiting The Heights for the first time. Old friends caught up and new connections were made as people took in the art and food from four different Heights-area restaurants.
“It really makes you feel like you’re doing something when you see it up on the walls like this,” said Sidney Johnson, president of the Mitchell Heights Neighborhood Association and Mitchell Heights Landscape Garden and Nursery. “Really makes you want to do more.”
Guests spill outside from the packed Heights Line Design Center at the Great Heights photography exhibit and reception. (Markus Mueller)
The barbershop at 769 National Street sat unused for six years before being updated and reopened for the Great Heights: National Street and Beyond in Photos photo exhibit. (Markus Mueller)
A few weeks before the show, the barbershop was far from inspiring. For years it was used for storage by the owner of the neighboring cabinet shop, Mid-South Millworks. In 2012, the owner died and the property was boarded up.
In September 2018, Heights CDC purchased the properties, along with a third building adjacent to the cabinet shop, to begin reactivating the southern portion of National Street after decades of disinvestment. Part of the cabinet shop was repurposed for the Heights Line Design Studio, a center for community meetings and face-to-face community engagement.
Related: “Neighborhood by design: Community design studio is space to imagine a new Heights”
High Ground News photographer Ziggy Mack views his favorite photo from his time in The Heights. (Cole Bradley)
Kids sit at the Heights Line Design Center during the Great Heights reception. (Markus Mueller)
“As the windows and doors became unboarded, that opened up the building to people passing by and also helped us as we began welcoming people into that space,” said Dane Forlines, a Heights resident and the CDC’s special projects coordinator. Forlines was instrumental in purchasing and repairing the properties.
Despite the new activity nearby, the old barbershop remained unused, packed with cabinets, tools and appliances.
To activate the space for the photography exhibit, CDC staff and volunteers including a group from nearby Collegiate School of Memphis and the CDC’s high school interns cleared and
cleaned the space, patched holes, painted, repaired electrical issues and installed lighting. Forlines also repurposed old Christmas lights and the boards that previously covered the windows to create a bold new sign on the roof that reads ‘HEIGHTS.’ He said these low-fi, low-cost updates aren’t permanent, but they’re important to progress in the area.
“In three to five years we hope to redevelopment the whole property with new construction, but by making these initial interventions, we can immediately make an impact and we can also test out how the community would like to use the space,” said Forlines.
Sidney Johnson (R) discusses images of the community gardens he helps tend in Mitchell Heights. (Cole Bradley)
Chris Collier (L), founder of Friends of Gaisman Park, talks with Justin Justice, a high school intern with Heights CDC, at the Great Heights photography exhibit. (Markus Mueller)
With the photo exhibit now wrapped, there are plenty of possibilities for the space, but Forlines said a plan for is still evolving and input in the community will determine next steps.
“The hope is that it is beneficial to the community,” he said. “As we’ve opened the space up and as we have made these improvements and signaled change, we’ve had several people that have stopped by curious about what’s going on and then shared their own ideas for the space. I love the idea of it being sort of an idea incubation place where somebody can have a business concept or a program concept and we can provide a space short-term for them to test that out.”
Heights CDC high school interns put the finishing touches on the gallery space for the event, including patching holes, painting and helping to install lights. (Heights CDC)
Guests got the chance to make new connections at the Great Heights photography exhibit held in a repurposed barbershop. (Cole Bradley)
High school students discuss an image at the Great Heights: National Street and Beyond photography exhibited held in a former barbershop on November 29. (Cole Bradley)
Guests mingle inside the Heights Line Design Center at the Great Heights photography exhibit on November 29. (Cole Bradley)
Residents enjoy a fire on a cool night at the Great Heights: National Street and Beyond photography exhibit and reception. (Markus Mueller)