On July 17, Orange Mound residents gathered at The CMPLX gallery, but they weren't there for an art show or film screening. They were there to learn the ins and outs of urban planning.
In small groups, participants built a hypothetical town. Using colored blocks, they laid out their ideal land-use scenarios, kept a budget and tracked costs. Facilitators walked the mock-developers through the complexities of urban planning from infrastructure to ordinances.
"We are a pretty disinvested community so we lack a lot of the technical skills and understanding of how these processes around us work. It’s what we’re missing," said Britney Thornton, founder of JUICE Orange Mound.
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The workshop was co-hosted by JUICE, a resident-led nonprofit working to grow Orange Mound's self-reliance and economic opportunities, and ULI Memphis, the local chapter of a global nonprofit focused on responsible land use.
It was open to the public, but most attendees were past or current residents or had direct ties to Orange Mound.
“Orange Mound being a great historic area with a lot of history [and] a lot of culture, [it] has a lot of potential to benefit from urban planning seminars where people can actually find out about the development process,” said Quincy Jones, a workshop facilitator for ULI Memphis.
Thornton said the training was a critical piece of a larger plan to put community members at the helm of Orange Mound's revitalization and equip them with skills and knowledge to launch their own projects, as well as influence outside investors and policymakers.
"Our land is our history," said Thornton. "Its ownership is both our past and our future."
Participants in the July 17 urban planning workshop in Orange Mound pose for a group photo. (JUICE Orange Mound)
Return and reinvestment
JUICE's strategy for grassroots revival is to engage the most capable people in the neighborhood while simultaneously building capacity for all residents through partnerships, education and skill-building opportunities like the July 17 workshop.
The organization holds regular community meetings to discuss challenges and potential solutions and works to ensure community members can participate in events like panel discussions and film screenings on relevant topics like housing.
Related: "Film series documenting Memphis' housing challenges premiers to packed house"
JUICE also hopes to attract talent and resources back to the neighborhood with a focus on former residents and those whose families had ties to the community.
“The time is right for us," said Thornton. "We have the skilled workforce that we can tap into and recruit back to bring their talent and treasure to contribute in a way that’s thoughtful and not exploitative. [We] definitely have the space, like a blank canvas, so why not create."
A Beautiful Tension
ULI Memphis has held several workshops similar the one in Orange Mound, but they typically include participants acquainted with real estate or urban planning.
According to Thornton, the July 17 workshop was ULI Memphis' first where the majority of participants had little to no experience with workshops or urban planning.
She noted that at times there was a "beautiful tension" between those participants who spoke the language of development and those who didn't. The process made some attendees uncomfortable, but she said it's a necessary discomfort.
"This is the work of equity,” said Thornton. “This is what it looks like, organizing with folks who haven’t been allowed a seat at the table.”
She said oftentimes in community development, the same handful of stakeholders are called to represent all residents because they have the necessary skills to participate with ease.
“The goal becomes to close the gap. You have to make up for the lack," she said. "We want to cherry pick the people who are conditioned to participate and know how it works, but that’s not always true community engagement.”
A group works together to develop a hypothetical town called Yorktown at the July 17 urban planning workshop hosted by ULI Memphis and JUICE Orange Mound. (Baris Gursakal)
Owning The Land
Orange Mound was the first planned community in the South built for and by African Americans post-Civil War, but since the late 20th century, the neighborhood has experienced major decline as people, businesses and investment moved out from Memphis' center-city neighborhoods.
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Thornton believes Orange Mound is well-suited for community-led redevelopment because of its historic connections to the land, strong sense of identity and unique patterns of land ownership.
Many families have maintained ownership of their land for generations, and Orange Mound's small parcels make it less attractive to large-scale developers.
"We are a community that’s made up of shotgun style homes that have relatively small lots, so you don’t get a whole lot of real estate where you can come and put up your lofts," Thornton said. "You can’t really just roll over our community."
Unfortunately, small parcels, decades of exodus and multi-generational property transfers also can make it difficult to locate a responsible party to address blighted structures or repurpose vacant lots for affordable housing, local businesses and amenities like gardens and pocket parks. Out-of-town investors also own a large percentage of the housing stock, and many of those properties are blighted with convoluted ownership.
JUICE's larger vision for redevelopment includes a community-wide blight assessment and revitalization strategy, as well as additional training for residents.
ULI Memphis and JUICE hope Orange Mound will be well-represented at an upcoming ULI Memphis boot camp for small-scale developers. The camp isn't specific to Orange Mound, but the partners are committed to ensuring neighbors are aware and able to attend.
“Ultimately, we hope that this will serve as a catalyst ... they might be inspired to develop a block in their neighborhood or maybe pursue a career in real estate," said Jones.
JUICE has also partnered with Neighborhood Preservation Inc. on a parcel-by-parcel property assessment to identify Orange Mound's assets and problem properties. The work is near completion and will give community members hard evidence to advocate for change in environmental court, city council meetings, boardrooms, banks and more.
On Aug 12th JUICE members will host a conversation with Orange Mound business, spiritual and community leaders to begin framing a comprehensive neighborhood growth strategy. Thornton said residents want growth but need a clear path that reflects a coalition of voices.
Taking it to the Bank
Comprehensive planning takes resources. On August 29, Orange Mound residents will have their first opportunity to pitch to a potential funder.
First Tennessee is the only banking institution with a branch in Orange Mound and has made a nearly $4 billion commitment
to low-income communities across eights southern states, including Tennessee.
"JUICE is now at the table saying, 'Let's pilot a concentrated effort. Let's see what it looks like to target a community ... [Let's] do a needs assessment and work with community stakeholders to be able to meet those needs,'” said Thornton.
The August 29 meeting is open to all Orange Mound residents. First Tennessee will present their programs and offerings, JUICE will share its work and neighbors will speak to their vision for Orange Mound's future and what they need to get there.
“JUICE’s goal as advocates is to make sure First Tennessee recognizes barriers, not just says, 'Well we're here so we’re serving the community,'" said Thornton. "JUICE intends to walk alongside First Tennessee to ensure those barriers are removed."