The Heights

Small but mighty: Resident-led development improves Mitchell Heights

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Dana Merriweather is a devout Christian and believes God gave her a simple vision  an umbrella to symbolize an important mission.

The varied residents, subdivisions, and organizations of The Heights  a collection of communities north of Binghampton and west of Berclair — must work together under a single unified effort toward revitalization, and her corner of the neighborhood, Mitchell Heights, was to be a key piece of its success.

“I feel like I have a vision, and I’m working for God,” said Merriweather. “And I saw no one else was stepping up.”

And while the Mitchell Heights Neighborhood Association is small there are currently only three core members including Merriweather it’s built community gardens and a pocket park, thrown huge celebrations, decreased crime and blighted properties, and birthed what is likely Memphis’ only minority-owned plant nursery.

Most recently, on October 4 they earned a $2,500 grant from Community LIFT to be used for sidewalk improvements.

Merriweather said initially she felt compelled to take action because of regular gunfire and pockets of drug and gang activity, including a gang that shares the Mitchell Heights name, but her biggest motivator was the area’s blighted properties. According to Heights CDC, there are 1,100 vacant properties in The Heights, which can sit empty or in disrepair for months or even years without action by landlords or the city.
Dana Merriweather, the founder and vice president of Mitchell Heights Neighborhood Association, volunteers at the Holmes Street Night Out. (Madeline Faber)
“I started attending all the meetings, every meeting I could find around this area to see what was going on with everybody, and to express our plight with properties in our boundaries,” said Merriweather. 

In 2015, she formalized her efforts and launched the Mitchell Heights Neighborhood Association along with current secretary Judy Conway. Its target area represents roughly 40 blocks between Tillman and Holmes streets and Summer and Jackson avenues. In the last three years, Merriweather said she’s seen tangible growth and improved relationships despite the multitude of stakeholders. 

A real estate boom in the 1940s resulted in multiple housing developments overlapping like a sort of neighborhood nesting doll, and this legacy of piecemeal building can still be see today. Merriweather said residents in Mitchell Heights might also claim Jackson Terrace or Hillcrest or Highland Heights, and Mitchell Heights is but one neighborhood within The Heights, which also includes Graham Heights, Nutbush, and parts of Berclair and extends from Jackson to Summer avenues and from Tillman Street to Graham Road. 

Related: "In photos: The gardens of Mitchell Heights"

“We try to help one another out," said Merriweather, who serves as MHNA's vice president. "I had the vision of all the different neighborhood groups coming together and us talking about what we’re going to do in the neighborhood, and if there’s grants out there, let’s share them. And that’s what we try to do."

The Heights' community development corporation regularly helps the MHNA. These multi-agency efforts show a cohesive movement toward revitalization in The Heights.

“We realized that the amount of funding for these types of projects is limited, so we all became kind of competitors,” Crutchfield said. “We saw each other with that competitive mindset. And then we kind of all woke up at the same time and realized while we’re competing, nothing’s actually happening.”

Young residents play at Holmes Street Night Out, held October 2. (Madeline Faber)

In 2015, MHNA started cataloging vacant and blighted properties and hot spots of criminal activity in their boundaries. Merriweather began reporting the properties to Heights CDC and 3-1-1 for code enforcement, a practice she still continues. She attended other Heights neighborhood association meetings and events, the Police Joint Agency Meetings, Citizens Police Academy and a police-community liaison training.

MHNA also began adding block captains to report houses in disrepair, trash, high grass, criminal activity, and other concerns.

In 2016, MHNA organized a community cleanup event that included Gracewood Street — where they connected with a neighborhood leader who would bring commercial viability to the small but mighty neighborhood association.

“They were walking down the street with bags and clipboards I asked, ‘What are y’all doing?’ They explained and I said, ‘I’m in,’” said Sidney Johnson, who is now the organization’s president. 

MHNA also took a community-based approach to the area’s gang members. They make it clear they won’t be scared away from improving their community, but talk to the gang members regularly and make sure they feel as included as any other resident.

“You need to hear what they’re feeling, why are they into this,” said Merriweather. “They’re hurting inside, and they don’t know how to express it.”

The results, said Johnson, have been positive.

“They cheer me on,” he said of the area’s gang members. “They want to see good things happen [too].”

Last year, MHNA earned a grant to expand an existing community garden at 761 Gracewood Street,  located beside Johnson’s property, and fund horticulture classes for neighborhood youth.

“When I first pulled some carrots from the ground, they jumped back like I had pulled something from outer space,” said Johnson of neighborhood children in the classes. Now they regularly ask for carrots.

“They didn’t know vegetables could taste so good,” added Merriweather.

Johnson hopes the community garden will soon add a second hoop house with help from MHNA and begin providing much-needed job opportunities. He currently works at least eight hours a day in the garden and demand is growing along with his need for extra help.  

An order of plants sits lined up outside Sidney Johnson's home. They'll soon be planted at City Hall. Johnson manages the Mitchell Heights community garden. (Cole Bradley)

MHNA has helped establish a few pocket gardens in the area over the last three years, but the Gracewood garden is special. As it grew, people began asking to purchase whole plants to grow on their own. Johnson learned that to sell whole plants, he had to have a nursery license. Though he’s technically retired, he secured the license and officially launched the Mitchell Heights Landscape Garden and Nursery.

Soon after, he met the city’s head horticulturist. She said that after a six-year search for a minority-owned nursery, his was the only one she’d found. He’s currently fulfilling his first order with the city plants and flowers that will go in around City Hall.

“Next year I really see this business going somewhere,” he said.

The nursery and garden sit on a plot of land that’s the same size as those of the modest homes and lawns surrounding it, but it’s actually an old Civil War-era road that was long ago made obsolete by redevelopment. The land, which is owned by the city, was overgrown with thick weeds until Johnson cleared it and started the garden with help from family and neighbors. It’s home to several beds now and its hoop house was recently planted with fall crops of greens and lettuces.

In 2017, NHNA also put in a walking trail and pocket park at Faxon Street and Pope Avenue with help from partners like Heights CDC, Walnut Grove Baptist Church and Community LIFT. The site was a former eyesore of a property they’d worked to get removed. Now, every morning residents walk the trail and the greenspace is a center for community events like Easter egg hunts, Fourth of July celebrations and block parties.

This year, the MHNA’s focus has been on safety.

A Police Crime Prevention grant and matching funds from businesses on Summer Avenue raised almost $6,000 for two Memphis Police Department post-mounted cameras and one free-standing unit monitored by police and strategically placed in problem spots. The cameras were installed in mid-September and MHNA said the results have been a dramatic decline in gunfire and criminal activity. One house in particular has been a long-term nuisance but is now in code compliance and showing no signs of illicit acts for the first time in years.

“I want people to feel safe. That’s why I try so hard to go to these crime prevention meetings so I know how we need to protect our neighborhood,” said Merriweather.

MHNA hopes next to add more cameras and gunfire trackers, which alert police to the area when there is gun activity and help law enforcement get a more nuanced picture of hot spots for targeted patrols.

MHNA is also continuing work on smaller-scale blight mitigation efforts that contribute to both safety, aesthetics and neighborhood pride. They host community cleanups and are considering launching a new Yard of the Month program with gift cards for winners.

When you plant flowers or mow a vacant lot next to you, others are encouraged to do the same said MHNA leaders.

“This is the catch twenty-two,” said Johnson. “People want to see you doing something before they join, but you need them to join so you can do something.”

Though MHNA recently added three new block captains and have plenty of helpers for one-off needs and events, they need more general awareness and volunteers from the neighborhood. They’re working on recruitment efforts and considering new tactics like going door-to-door with fruit and vegetable baskets full of Heights-grown goodies.

On October 4, NHNA learned they’d earned a $2,500 Community LIFT grant that they’re planning to put toward sidewalk improvements like removing overgrowth and trash. The primary focus is creating a safer environment for students who walk to classes at Treadwell Elementary and Middle schools.

Merriweather said her biggest dream now is for a community center, ideally at the old Plough parking lot at the corner of Pope Street and Jackson Avenue. It would be a space for the community members to learn, play, and grow but also a space for stakeholders to continue growing their networks under the umbrella of The Heights — with Mitchell Heights as a key contributor.

“I care about my neighborhood,” said Merriweather. “It’s just my way of showing my love.”

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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.