Madison Heights

What's in a name? People of Madison Heights talk labels and identity

Madison Heights isn't a new name but it is obscure.

The neighborhood began as an independent town surrounding present-day Madison Avenue and Cleveland Street. By 1900 it was annexed by the City of Memphis. The name stuck at least until the late 1990s, though it's difficult to determine the extent of its use.

High Ground News' research unearthed a t-shirt from the 1st Annual Madison Heights International Street Festival circa 1999 but could not determine if the festivals continued.

Some community leaders and businesses are working to reclaim the name and foster a distinct community identity separate from Midtown, The Edge, and fast-growing Crosstown. The Memphis Medical District Collaborative is leading the effort after community feedback across several research and engagement initiatives showed a strong desire for that distinct identity.

High Ground's community engagement work has shown that Madison Heights' business community is especially interested in building a stronger sense of place. They hope it's a first step in reinvestment in a new Madison Heights akin to Overton Square with bustling streets, employment, housing and entertainment. They want to ensure growth is accessible to the many diverse people and cultures of the current Madison Heights.

"I want people to say, 'Hey, I'm going to Madison Heights this weekend. I'm going to eat, shop, socialize, have a good time, then go to work because I work in the neighborhood too," said Tiffany Wiley, co-owner of Riko's Kickin Chicken in the heart of Madison Heights.

Related: "Riko's Kickin Chicken brings the heat to Madison Heights"

Since the early 2000's it seems the area's name and independent identity have been largely lost. 

MMDC's efforts to repopularize the name are still in early stages. Many Memphians may still be asking, "Who and what is Madison Heights?"

High Ground hit the streets to ask the people of Madison Heights what they call their neighborhood and what makes it unique.

Most spoke to the area's biggest challenges—poverty, property crime, blighted properties, and the stigma associated with a high number of people experiencing homelessness and drug addiction seeking services in the area. They spoke equally of its biggest assets, specifically its location, convenience, beautiful architecture, as well as its kind, salt-of-the-earth people.

Thomas Allen

Thomas Allen is a contract security guard and has been working in Madison Heights for roughly three months. He's pictured here on the steps of Friends for Life, a community education and support organization for people living with HIV and AIDS. It is located at 43 North Cleveland Street. (Cole Bradley)

What do you call this neighborhood?

Midtown area. I know it’s "the neighborhood that doesn’t sleep." They call it that, they nicknamed it that. Right now it’s real calm and desolate, but after dark, it’s like Downtown or something.

What's life like in the neighborhood?

There’s a lot of historical landmarks. All through here, it’s a number of historical houses and residences and things. This is the middle of the city from the south side to the north side, west side and east side. This particular area, these two or three street radius.

You’ve got fine guys [who stay] clean cut and will give you a hand.

Trihn Nguyen

Trihn Nguyen (R) and her husband, Thong (L), co-own Thong's Auto Repair located at 54 North Cleveland Street. The couple moved to the area and opened the business in 1997 after immigrating from Vietnam. (Cole Bradley)

What do you call this neighborhood?

Midtown. Most of the time I hear Midtown.

What's life like in the neighborhood?

Our life is very simple. Every day we come down here, open the shop and work for people. Close and go home. I like it because the people around here. We almost know everybody around here. Even if I have a sick day or whatever, I still want to come down here so I can talk to the people.

This area is not really high income people. So we open the place here and our price is kind of acceptable, you know, for the people on low-income. Sometimes we try to help them out a little bit with that.

For me, this country is my second country. My dad’s American too, but he was in the Army. I don’t even know who he is, but [I feel] I’m back at home here. I feel appreciative for that, so whenever I can help people out I will. As long as I can open the doors every day. Not just for me, for my workers. They have families too. As long as they can take care of their families, as long as my kids stay in school and do what they need to do and I can afford that, that’s all I want.

Shanreka Lovelady

Shanreka Lovelady is pictured here at the Snappy Mart located at 1351 Madison Avenue. Lovelady is currently experiencing homelessness and frequents the area for its clustering of services, as well as her familiarity with the neighborhood. She previously lived on Court Street in Madison Heights. (Cole Bradley)

What do you call this neighborhood?

Most people call it Punk City because we have a lot of drag queens who live over here. I mean, they stay in their lane and they’re friendly persons, but you can’t disrespect them or nothing like that. It’ll be trouble.

[Madison Heights] sounds like paradise. People trying to make an honest living, working for their dreams. Striving to get what you’re trying to get, what you want in life, honestly.

What's life like in the neighborhood?

Everybody tries to reach out and help each other over here in this neighborhood. We’ve got a few of them that like to rob and take things from people that don’t belong to them. It’s somewhat the ghetto, but it’s people trying to make an honest living. Trying to be honest, reaching out for help. You don’t have to take nothing, you can ask for help.

Chuck Guthrie

Chuck Guthrie co-owns the Market on Madison antique shop. He's pictured here in front of a custom mural of the Hernando De Soto Bridge. The store is located at 1339 Madison Avenue. (Cole Bradley)

What do you call this neighborhood?

It hasn’t really been given a name to other people. They don’t refer to it as Downtown. Most people say, "right outside of Midtown" or "towards Midtown," but they don’t know what Madison Heights means.

I’m in favor of branding it Madison Heights because I think it’s up and coming and moving towards good things ... [We need] some type of signage that said Madison Heights. For instance, there’s a sign for an attorney that’s plastered on the wall that doesn’t look very inviting. If that sign, for instance, could be 'Welcome to Madison Heights' instead of ‘Call a bankruptcy or jail lawyer,’ things like that could really make a difference.

What's life like in the neighborhood?

I think though there are a lot of street people, there’s not a lot of crime. It’s people that are everyday people. They may be asking for money, that is a deterrent, but it’s still a safe place to be and hopefully as we grow that can lessen.
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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.