Soulsville, USA fights blight with neighborhood cleanup

The MLK Day of Service effort began in Soulsville, USA in 2010. Since that time, it has grown to include several hundred volunteers, and is just the spur of things to come for a neighborhood cleanup and blight removal effort.
For one day a year, volunteers across the Memphis area come together to clean up communities.
The MLK Day of Service saw its start in the Soulsville, USA neighborhood in 2010 when Clean Memphis aligned with an effort at LeMoyne-Owen College. The effort’s impact is felt across Shelby County, from Downtown’s South Main Historic Arts District to Binghampton and numerous other neighborhoods.
The Soulsville, USA effort saw hundreds of volunteers from the neighborhood and Lehman-Roberts Co. hit the streets to remove trash.
“It’s a massive project in Soulsville, not only cleaning up the neighborhood but clearing pathways to schools, cutting back overgrowth on vacant properties,” said Janet Boscarino, Executive Director of Clean Memphis. “This is a one-day project but a kickoff of an ongoing movement to get real change over the next four years.”
Clean Memphis, along with the Greater Memphis Chamber’s Chairman’s Circle, has an ambitious goal of a clean city by 2019. But it requires much more than just one day a year that sees volunteers canvass neighborhoods to pick up trash, old tires and overgrown lots.
Boscarino said the effort to have a clean city by 2019 is achievable if it’s broken down into individual communities. She said it’s important to align with the efforts underway in neighborhoods, understand who works in the space and help them better organize and pool resources.
“It has to start at a grassroots effort,” she said. “The goal is to align and facilitate. With that ongoing strategy with a top 10 or 15 list in each area and mitigate the most egregious issues and then organize an ongoing clean-up effort.”
The Soulsville, USA effort saw hundreds of Lehman-Roberts employees pitching in with students, the South Memphis Shalom Zone churches, the Soulsville Neighborhood Association and greater Memphis community volunteers.
“It’s not just a cleanup. It’s about neighborhood building,” Boscarino said. “I’m proud of them because of the diversity of those involved.”
The Soulsville, USA Planning Team is made up of neighborhood residents and stakeholders and it was involved in the effort. One of its focus areas is blight reduction.
Longtime community resident Everlena Yarbrough is leader of the group’s blight team.

"Blight is a sore spot for me seeing dilapidated houses sitting in the community and going unattended," she said. "It's been a problem for some time. Property owners have taken a don't care position on their properties they have in the community. I felt like if I got involved in it we could bring change in the community."

The six-person group is canvasing the neighborhood taking photos of and documenting all blighted properties. They are compiling a catalog of all the properties with a spring deadline. The group plans to have discussions with state Rep. Antonio Parkinson of Memphis to better understand what can be done at a state level.

The blight team also recently conducted a survey of the neighborhood’s Chandler Park, where the playground was in disarray and trash cans were lacking. That information will be shared with the city in hopes that work can be done to improve the park.
Jasmine Champion is the South Memphis Shalom Zone Neighborhood Connector. She is on the ground working with residents and stakeholders and was the lead person who coordinated the MLK Day of Service effort with Clean Memphis.
She said her hope is that the movement will become more connected and have even more supporters on the ground.
“My role is connecting people to resources,” she said. “I sit in with the Soulsville Planning Team and learn how we can build and work together to build a greater South Memphis and Memphis overall as a city.”

The Shalom Zone comes from the belief that real change starts from within, and in the neighborhood that often means starting in the churches. So far, five community churches are part of the Shalom Zone.
The group created the five-year South Memphis Shalom Zone Plan, which looks at what they want to accomplish. A community clothes closet was one focus. Blight was another.
“Before I came on board blight was not addressed in the way they wanted,” Champion said. “They were part of the city efforts but members wanted more. A cleanup once a year is great but we need more. That’s where I stepped in and we were connected to Clean Memphis.”
The Clean Memphis effort was already underway in the neighborhood, but connecting the Shalom Zone churches to the effort brought on even more community volunteers. And while volunteers from outside the neighborhood are appreciated, having people who call Soulsville, USA home taking part creates an ownership.
Champion walked around the greater neighborhood asking people she encountered what concerns they had. And if she couldn’t encourage them to assist in the cleanup effort, she could at least get their input, one more way to provide ownership.
“Everyone still has the opportunity to contribute,” she said. “This is not just people coming in to the community to clean. You have people doing work in the community, but it’s different when you have people really on the ground.”
The Shalom Zone effort at first focused on churches and schools, but then the realization quickly came that there was much more beyond those property boundaries.
Champion’s efforts leading up to the MLK Day of Service included driving around the community documenting blight issues such as graffiti, tires and tall grass. She created an Excel chart of areas identified and projects that could be completed and worked with Clean Memphis to coordinate efforts.
And for those concerns that weren’t addressed Champion said she is working on strategies for upkeep that will continue the effort, including the eventual creation of a blight team.
“I feel a lot of things got checked off,” she said. “It’s a big visible difference. People I talked to who could only come for an hour they were amazed as they left the visible difference they could see. It was almost a different community in so little time. … One community member she was concerned about an alleyway near the church. She was very pleased with the work accomplished that day. She’d like to see that continue. She imagined that alley to be a place to run. We’re always thinking of pocket parks and things to engage the community. We could only see that once it was clean.”

Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler.