Is $1 million enough to turn around the decades of disinvestment and decline that have plagued North Memphis?
What can one community do with $1 million? On one hand, possibly not much. But with just the right bit of direction and planning, it could be enough to turn around North Memphis’ decline.
The North Memphis community has received a $1 million award through the foundation-backed Strong, Prosperous, And Resilient Communities Challenge.
Managing the grant is the Memphis Partners for Resilient Communities, a conglomerate of local private and public partners. Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and other partners made the announcement Feb. 16 at the Hollywood branch library.
Read more about the SPARCC announcement and its terms in "SPARCC grant targets North Memphis for equitable development"
The announcement marks one of the most significant investment the North Memphis area has received recent in decades. How those funds will translate into progress for an underserved neighborhood is yet to be seen.
“A lot of the activities will depend on the direction the community wants to go,” said Emily Trenholm, executive director of Community Development Council of Greater Memphis, an organization that supports the revitalization of the city’s neighborhoods through capacity building and community engagement.
A view of Crosstown Concourse from the Klondike neighborhood in North Memphis.
SPARCC is a three-year, $90 million initiative granted to six initial sites: Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Memphis and the San Francisco Bay area. The effort is meant to ensure that as new investments are made in those communities that equity, health and environmental outcomes for all residents also are improved.
The Bluff City was the only representative that hasn’t struggled with gentrification, Trenholm said.
“To me it’s a great opportunity to get out in front of that,” she said. “It’s changing. You’re seeing it in Uptown and Binghampton. But the horse isn’t out of the barn yet. It’s a great opportunity to make the systemic policy changes to stabilize and protect neighborhoods so people in the neighborhoods can benefit from huge investments and not have to move out.”
Benefitting from the SPARCC grant is the North Memphis area, which is bounded by the Wolf River on the west and north, North Parkway and Summer Avenue on the south and Graham Road on the east. Some of the neighborhoods include Klondike Smokey City, New Chicago, Speedway Terrace, Hyde Park and Hollywood.
The North Memphis communities, which have been stymied from a lack of private and public funding, are surrounded by multimillion-dollar revitalization efforts including the opening of Crosstown Concourse and expansion of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Those efforts are coupled with improvements to the Wolf River Greenway and the Chelsea Greenline.
"It's not enough money to address the problem," said Quincey Morris, president and director of the Klondike/Smokey City Community Development Corp.
Memphis City Council Chairman Berlin Boyd’s district 7 includes North Memphis. At the press conference announcing the initiative, he welcomed what it signifies for the community.
“There are inequalities in the North Memphis area. You’re now not on the menu but at the table. We want individuals to be at the table,” said Boyd.
Bringing everyone to the table is important especially for neighborhoods that are so starved for resources that they don’t always take the time to work together.
“We get too consumed about what’s going on our plate and we don’t partner with our friends nearby,” said Terry Hoff, director of Oasis of Hope, which works in the Bearwater Park subdivision just west of Smokey City and New Chicago. “Sometimes it takes a tragedy to come together, but SPARCC provides the encouragement to come together.”
“There are a number of things happening in and around the neighborhood that were huge. Those things wouldn’t directly deliver benefits to the neighborhood but could change it to the detriment instead of the benefit to those in North Memphis.”
LaKeisha Harrison is the interim president of the Memphis Urban League Young Professionals and has been involved in the SPARCC process since late summer. She said it was clear from the start that this effort would be different than anything attempted in Memphis in part because the grant process about capacity building.
“I like that idea because a lot of times we get money and it goes toward certain projects but it doesn’t have a sustainability factor to them,” Harrison said. “SPARCC, to me, is about how do you strengthen communities to build more. Don’t just give them large sums of money to do certain projects, but how do you fund building up community capacity to be able to decide their own path, in a way.”
Will all the challenges that plague North Memphis be significantly reduced over the life of this three-year effort? That amount of time likely isn’t enough to lower obesity rates or significantly reduce the number of homes that flood when heavy rains hit.
But long-range goals can be established that can push the community toward those goals, and policy changes can ensure when development happens in and around North Memphis that there are mechanisms in place for the community to benefit.
“There are a number of things happening in and around the neighborhood that were huge,” Trenholm said. “Those things wouldn’t directly deliver benefits to the neighborhood but could change it to the detriment instead of the benefit to those in North Memphis.”
The Firestone plant in New Chicago started with a few hundred employees and grew into the largest industrial employer with over 3,000 workers. The Firestone tire plant closed its doors in 1983 to the detriment of the surrounding communities.
Some of the far southwest reaches of North Memphis have received some love recently. Near heavily-invested Uptown, the Bearwater Park neighborhood received a visit last year from the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Habitat for Humanity build. The once-blighted lot is now thriving with 21 newly-built homes.
Those types of investments haven’t made their way to other North Memphis neighborhoods such as Smokey City, Klondike or New Chicago. Smokey City is adjacent to Uptown, and Manassas Street in some places serves as a dividing line between the haves and have-nots of investment.
Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp. President Quincey Morris is quick to avoid the word gentrification, instead describing the adverse effects of development as displacement. She has no interest in seeing that occur anywhere in North Memphis.
She does want to see investment, and the next step on that front is the gathering of the collaborative table to better understand what the community wants from this SPARCC process.
“And forget about the million dollars. You have $1 million and talking about a territory that goes from Downtown to the Heights. That’s no money. It’s not enough money to address the problem,” said Quincey Morris.
So what ultimately could come from the SPARCC effort? For one, there are plenty of houses in need of repairs of some sort. As much as $1 million is, it won’t be enough to repair housing. The estimated pool of $70 million in financing capital that all the SPARCC sites will have access to probably won’t either. But if home repair is one of the ultimate outcomes, it would be a start.
Whatever does come for North Memphis down the road, green is at the core. The Greenprint plan has strategies in eight areas, three of which overlap with SPARCC: health, climate and equity.
A view of Cypress Creek near where it crosses with North Watkins Street.
“A lot of times green infrastructure can accomplish a number of things,” Trenholm said. “One is climate resilience. It also can contribute to mobility. People’s ability to get from Point A to B, to work, to school or community amenities. That’s a big challenge in North Memphis. And then the recreation piece that connects to health. It gives attractive places to walk and that can contribute to a reduction in obesity rates.”
Trenholm said she believes Memphis made the list of SPARCC finalists in part because of the completion of the Mid-South Greenprint plan. The other reason was the $60 million national resilience grant Shelby County received to take care of flooding issues.
“Those two things together put us on their radar screen as a community that was really serious about resilience work,” Trenholm said. “They don’t really want you to apply for money to do a plan. We already had the plan.”
“This is uncharted territory,” Harrison said.
“The thing I can say is the whole goal of SPARCC is you get a shared vision and that shared vision includes everyone, not just a community leader. It goes down to the resident. I think that’s the beautiful thing about SPARCC, but that’s what makes it hard. We’re in those stages where we’re learning each other and people are coming to the table and it’s getting everyone on the same page.”