Welcome to Uptown, the biggest small town in Memphis

Located just north of the Downtown core, Uptown feels more like a close-knit small town than an urban neighborhood. Today it’s a small town on the verge of something big, and High Ground News is going On the Ground to tell its stories.

It’s lunchtime at the coolest office in town. Throughout the space are the typical accoutrements –computers, desks, tables, a collection of printers and scanners tucked in the back – but this is no ordinary office. The smell of coffee and toasting bread fill the air. Loud, happy hellos and lively conversations punctuate the constant low hum of the crowded restaurant and its busy staff.

Part coffee house and cafe, part community center, part on-demand office space, The Office @ Uptown serves a cross-section of Memphis from its modest building at 594 North Second Street. They come for a good meal or a meeting space, to use the computers, or just relax.

There’s a diversity of business people and tourists from central and southern Downtown, and several of the construction workers engaged in the expansion of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital are regulars, but mostly it’s a neighborhood place.

People hug when they see each other, they ask about family members, what projects are in the works, and how they can help. This is a community of deep relationships.

An outside view of The Office @ Uptown. (Brandon Dahlberg)

The first time I met Valerie Peavy, owner of The Office @ Uptown, I told her what I was doing. I was preparing to spend three months embedded in Uptown and The Pinch, meeting members of the community and telling the stories they deemed most important. Our goal with the On the Ground work is to create more equitable reporting, to focus on neighborhoods that are otherwise overlooked by traditional media outlets and center the voices of community members.

Immediately, her already warm farm lit up as she exclaimed, “I have some people you should meet!”

Just like that, within three minutes of entering The Office, I was building my own relationships.

Some neighborhoods aren’t so easy to connect with, but Uptown and The Pinch have some big advantages. They’re geographically small, less than 150 blocks combined. They boast a good number of long-time residents and dedicated newcomers as well as several unique organizations and businesses who are vested in its development. The northern part of Downtown has nearly 9,000 residents.

Uptown and The Pinch both have rich histories filled with diverse characters and the kinds of successes and strifes that make for compelling stories. There’s a nice balance between the commercial focus of The Pinch and the residential, small-town feel of Uptown.

The area is also in the middle of a major redevelopment of the physical infrastructure and Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district to encourage new growth in the area. In a blighted area, TIFs allow for a portion of an area’s property taxes to be allocation for development that will, in turn, attract private investment.

From my perspective as a journalist, all of this development means lots of people to talk to and lots of exciting things to talk about.

I’m looking forward to this problem of riches. As a lifelong Memphian and urban anthropologist, I’ve had the opportunity to work in Uptown a few times but never with such depth. I’ve always loved the vibe of the place and the warmth of its people. I’m excited to get Uptown under my skin again.

But for all its charm and advantages, Uptown and The Pinch also have an identity problem that I hope High Ground can help to clarify in the months to come. It’s something I’ve heard before from residents and something we heard again in our first Uptown On the Ground editorial advisory, a brainstorming session with community members to generate story ideas.

People perceive Uptown to be crime-ridden, but residents say the crime is coming from north and south of the neighborhood and their area is as safe and welcoming as any in the city. People perceive The Pinch to be abandoned and Uptown to also be devoid of businesses and activities. This is in part because its best jewels aren’t located on busy streets. Roxie’s, Girl’s Inc., Greenlaw Park and dozens more locations are all staples of the community, tucked between houses and quiet alleyways.

Though to be fair, residents and community leaders alike would love to see more development of small businesses and larger companies for greater employment opportunities in the area.

St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, as seen from A.W. Willis Avenue. (Brandon Dahlberg)

There’s also the question of what exactly is Uptown. Many Memphis are completely unaware of its distinct identity, lumping it with the rest of North Memphis, which is actually a patchwork of communities each unique in its own right.

Complicating matters, the various nonprofits and community agencies all used slightly different borders, as do government agencies. For example, the original TIF’s borders are changing with the new TIF expansion. Neighborhoods that many people consider distinct, like Harbor Town, are part of the TIF and considered part of the greater Uptown area.

Additionally, many residents don’t refer to their community as Uptown. Uptown was the name chosen during an early-2000s rebranding effort to attract federal grant money to redevelop public housing. Prior to that, the heart of the neighborhood was known as Greenlaw, and many of the older residents still refer to it as such, both out of habit and on principle.  

For our On the Ground coverage, we’re setting loose boundaries that consider and offer leeway for these various narratives. The bulk of our coverage will fall between Marble Avenue on the north, Manassas Street on the East, A.W. Willis on the south and the Mississippi River on the west.

Each week we’ll be working from the neighborhood, collecting stories, conducting interviews, and building relationships. We welcome you to stop by The Office @ Uptown any Wednesday from 1 to 3 p.m. during our Community Newsrooms to meet us, pitch a story, or just chat about the neighborhood. We’ll also be at a variety of neighborhood events and other centers of community from now through June. Follow our social media for information and updates.

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.