The Heights

Rising to new Heights: The history and current climb of Memphis' streetcar suburb

The Heights is a collection of neighborhoods — Highland Heights, Graham Heights, Mitchell Heights, Nutbush, and others — that developed around National Street along a now-dismantled trolley line.

Over the decades, this Streetcar Suburb transformed from a rural respite for the wealthy to a salt-of-the-earth community that, in contrast with many other inner-city neighborhoods, is now growing in terms of people and wealth.

A low point in the late twentieth century brought hard times to The Heights, but an influx of diverse, working-class families saved the area from total disinvestment.

Now there’s renewed interest for investment along the old electric rail line and its surrounding areas. Stakeholders are targeting schools, vacant and blighted properties, crime, and public assets like a greenline that would trace the path of the historic tracks and continue their legacy of connectivity.

Jared Myers, executive director of Heights CDC, said the improvements coupled with the neighborhood’s long-standing benefits (like a center city location, retail, and affordable homes) are attracting new residents and they’re hopeful the next U.S. Census in 2020 will show population growth for the first time since the 1960s.

From Plantation to Pesthouse

The western portion of The Heights began as a cotton plantation owned by John Pope. The larger area was home to a few smaller farms and dirt roads that included Summer and Jackson avenues.

From the 1870s through 1920s, the 80 acres between Pope and Holmes streets and Jackson and Guernsey avenues were the site of several government institutions for the mentally ill, indigent, elderly, and criminal. Newspaper records from the era refer to it as a workhouse, poorhouse, asylum, and most commonly, the pesthouse.

A map of Heights CDC service area shows the rough boundaries of The Heights. Our On the Ground coverage will extend west to Tillman. (Heights CDC)

Until the late 1890s, The Heights remained almost entirely rural. In fact, the area was so far east of the city that its closest western neighbor, the town of Binghampton, wasn’t formed until 1893.

Also in 1893, a millionaire tobacco tycoon built a trolley line down National Street that quite literally set the path for the new town of Highland Heights.

A Streetcar Suburb

B.L. Duke launched the electric Raleigh Springs Railroad for wealthy Memphians to access his luxury spa in the town of Raleigh. It ran from Overton Park Avenue east down Broad Avenue through Binghampton before turning left onto National Street and heading north towards Raleigh. Its stop at Summer and National meant the farmland was now attractive to affluent city dwellers who wanted the business and retail of the city but were tired of the overcrowding, noise and pollution.

For the next forty years, the town grew around the railroad line.

The first primary school, Highland Heights School, opened in 1895, followed by housing developments at the turn of the century. To ensure the neighborhood remained affluent, most building prior to 1930 had a minimum $5,000 price tag. Home buyers were attracted by the newest amenities, namely electricity that stayed on until 10 p.m.

Related: "Asylums, trolleys & forgotten soldiers: Five facts about The Heights you didn't know"

In 1915 the Treadwell School opened at 920 North Highland Street and replaced the Highland Heights School. It was a major draw for new families and served grades 1 to 8.

Historian Judith Johnson said wealthy white Memphians saw Highland Heights as “...beyond the smoke and noise of industry, away from the big, outdated homes with their stables and servants’ quarters and beyond the black neighborhoods of Memphis.”

Insurance maps and city directories from the early 1900s show grocers, druggists, sundry shops, feed stores, and other much-needed merchants popping up along National and Summer east of Highland Street.

They’re the same types of mom-and-pop places found today.

“I can’t think of anywhere else that has this many small businesses and been around for so long,” said Meghan Medford, president of the Summer Avenue Merchants Association.

The Big Booms

By the mid-1920s, Highland Heights was an independent township with Memphis quickly approaching its eastern edge.

In 1927, Summer Avenue became Highway 70 and joined the Bristol Highway, the first roadway to stretch across the state, and the Broadway of America, one of the first roadways to stretch from coast to coast.

Residential and commercial development moved east of Highland into Graham Heights and Berclair and north to Macon Road. The rapid growth brought new concerns for public safety, but annexation offered major perks like a fire house, indoor plumbing, and road maintenance.

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“[Highland Heights] was absorbed into Memphis with 4.14 square miles holding about 12,000 persons on January 2, 1929,” writes Paul R. Coppock in ‘Living on the Line,’ first published in the Commercial Appeal in 1980.

Heights resident Deborah Nahinu stands in front of Jun Lee Trading Co., a staple at Summer and National for more than 30 years. (Ziggy Mack)

Annexation also meant the end of National’s trolley. With retail and jobs nearby and improved roads for automobiles, the trolley wasn’t necessary. It was decommissioned in the 1930s.

“Thus the streetcar town of Highland Heights, TN, vanished into Memphis, TN,” wrote Johnson in a history of the area prepared for a 1993 City of Memphis Cultural Resource Survey.

Post-World War II, The Heights hit another major growth spurt.

According to a 1970 housing census, 60 percent of the area’s homes were built in the 1940s. They were more modest than in previous decades, a clear indication of a shift from wealthy enclave to budding middle class suburb.

By 1960, The Heights boasted three premier public schools — Grahamwood Elementary, Kingsbury K-12, and Treadwell K-12.

Summer Avenue also saw a host of firsts in the 1950s — like the world’s first Holiday Inn, the city’s first McDonald’s restaurant — and new retail hubs like the Summer Center at Waring Road, which sold this year for $13 million. Jackson Avenue to the north grew with the addition of small business, warehouses and manufacturing.

The Lean-ish Years

In the 1960s and '70s, the growth of The Heights waned. Across the country, this was a period of racial unrest and white emigration to the suburbs.

“We had a lot of population density during that time, and then we had massive white flight ...1,100 vacant units is the number that keeps me up at night,” said the CDC’s Myers.

Eleven hundred vacancies, he says, are the remaining legacy of the suburban exodus.

A mural decorates a retaining wall behind Treadwell Middle School. The modest home in the background is an example of the post-World War II houses found throughout the area. (Ziggy Mack)

The 1970 U.S. Census showed that 95 percent of the population was white and U.S.-born. By 2016, those numbers had shifted to roughly 41 percent white, 41 percent black, 24 percent Latino, and 16 percent other, making it one of the most diverse areas of the city.

It’s important to note that the percentage of Latino and foreign-born residents is likely higher, as many fear repercussions from reporting personal information to the government, a fear that is rising in The Heights and nationally.

Myers and Heights CDC — founded in 2012 to address key neighborhood concerns like education, safety, and blighted properties — have observed an increase in residents in the last few year, but census data between 1970 and 1990 show a loss of nearly 1,200 people.

Luckily, 1990 to 2010 shows only a 324-person decline, fanning hopes that the 2020 U.S. Census may actually show growth, as long as Latino families feel safe to participate.

While 32 percent of residents lived below the poverty line in 2010, that figure isn’t unusual or exorbitant for a majority-minority neighborhood in Memphis. Overall, The Heights has actual seen a slight increase in household income since 2000.

The positive momentum today is due in part to the working class people of color who began moving in decades ago. They replaced a portion of the departing white middle class and helped the neighborhood remain relatively stable.

That diversity further extended to the business community. By the merchant association’s count, Summer between Highland and White Station Road alone has business owners from 30-plus countries. It’s a diversity Medford hopes will designate the area as the city’s first branded international district.

That’s not to say the population loss of the late twentieth century didn’t have an impact. With the increase in empty and blighted properties came an increase in crime.

“People go into [vacant] houses and use them for criminal activity,” said Myers.

The decrease in population coupled with the new Douglass High two miles away also led to Shelby County Schools closing Treadwell High School in 2009.

Currently, Treadwell Middle is on the state’s low performance list, below capacity, and in danger of closing. Meanwhile, Kingsbury Elementary was found in 2014 to have significant gaps in achievement for minority groups and the high school was recently embroiled in a grading scandal.

According to the merchants association, Summer Avenue began to decline in the 1970s, and less desirable businesses like title loan services and the infamous Admiral Bebow Inn set up shop.

“For so long, people opened up whatever,” said Medford.

Conversely, many of the storefronts on National Street, Jackson Avenue, and Macon Road shuttered permanently.

Still, in what should have been The Heights’ leanest years, a 1995 article in the Commercial Appeal by Perre Magness described it as a “livable and popular neighborhood,” and a developer in a 1981 article said it was stable, convenient, and a good place to build.

Reimagining The Heights

Today, residents are actively reinvesting in the community, as is the merchants association, nonprofits like Heights CDC, neighborhood associations, local schools, and churches.

The merchants association recently earned a $50,000 grant from the county for improvements along Summer and was instrumental in recruiting a 20,000 square-foot Planet Fitness, the area’s only commercial gym, and a new Aldi’s grocery store.

Related: ‘Summer Avenue Merchants Association works for new neighborhood’

The new Binghampton TIF district will likely spur growth on Summer Avenue between East Parkway and Holmes Road and hopefully push development eastward, as it’s done since the electric rails connected the two fledgling towns.

Heights CDC is working with the city to target problem properties They’ve also rehabbed ten properties for affordable rentals and host an annual Spring Break Board Up where neighborhood youth help secure vacant homes and decorate with colorful artwork.

Heights CDC created a mock greenway along the National Street median to show what a bicycle and pedestrian path might look like. (High Ground News)

But the CDC’s biggest focus is securing a new bike and pedestrian greenway down National Street along the path of the old trolley tracks.

“We have an asset in National Street where there’s this median that’s not being used for anything …. On the western side of the neighborhood, there is no [substantial] public green space,” said Myers.

The proposed Heights Line could serve as a needed connector between the Shelby Farms Greenline and the Wolf River Greenway.

“These are big investments from philanthropy here locally, spending $50 to $60 million on the Wolf River Greenway and $13 to 14 million on the Shelby Farms Greenline, which is going to expand into Midtown; however, there’s no urban connection for these two,” Myers noted.

Once again, National Street would serve as a unique way for The Heights to reach beyond its borders, but this time it will be free and equitable.

Related: "Video: The Heights rides to improve public space"

Myers said the improvements and area’s innate appeal as an affordable, center city neighborhood surrounded by convenient amenities is bringing people back, and with new growth comes renewed hope for other assets like schools.

“There have been decades of disinvestment in urban schools, so it’s going to take decades to see the changes ... We’re going to celebrate every progress we get,” said Myers.

In 2015 Treadwell Elementary was moved to the state’s list of improving schools while Kingsbury Elementary was recognized as one of its most improved.

Once again, there’s a rumbling on National Street, but it’s not a trolley car. It’s a movement — for healthier schools, green spaces, thriving businesses, and connectivity — and stakeholders hope this time they strike the right balance between past economic success and the rich cultural mosaic of today.

“[You can] still see the infrastructure there of commercial and residential, which is what a lot of people are looking for now,” said Myers.

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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.