Bing-Boom II: A tale of two Binghamptons

Four years ago, Memphis native John Haley, who had recently returned home after several years abroad, settled in the Memphis neighborhood of Binghampton. Haley, who had lived in Ireland and Africa doing development work before returning to Memphis with his Ugandan wife, Grace Byeitima, was attracted to the economic and ethnic diversity of the area, which reminded him of some of the places he had lived overseas.

The couple bought a duplex on Merton Street. Haley bought two more houses in the area and rehabbed and sold them. Grace opened a shop, Mbabazi House of Style, in the Broad Avenue Arts District. They built a new, thriving life together.

Now Haley fears they may become victims of their own success. A small independent house flipper, Haley can’t compete with the bigger players who have flooded the area in just the past few years. And with a new apartment community planned adjacent to Sam Cooper Boulevard and a $50 million mixed-use, multifamily development slated to go in on Broad, he can easily imagine landlords hiking rents and forcing out Byeitima’s clothing boutique.

“I really hope I haven’t contributed to that,” frets Haley, aware that the efforts of neighborhood flippers like himself, combined with overall housing trends, may have exacerbated a trend toward gentrification. “We have to find some kind of balance where the neighborhood doesn’t lose its identity, which is the diversity and the mixed, mostly-lower-income people that have existed here for so long.”

Related: "Bing-Boom I: The drawbacks of progress in Binghampton"

Once considered a blighted, desolate no man's land between funky, old guard Midtown and the toney expanse of East Memphis, Binghampton has come roaring back in recent years with many pegging it as the next big neighborhood, another Cooper-Young or Vollintine-Evergreen.

Binghampton today encompasses a huge swath in the very center of the city, stretching from East Parkway on the west to Holmes on the west, Sam Cooper Parkway to the north and Poplar Avenue to the South.

Carved in the late 19th century out of the farmland surrounding the home of former hotelier John Binghman, Binghampton was once its own thriving town with its own newspaper, utilities and police force. However, from the beginning, there have been two Binghamptons, according to Onie Johns, longtime Binghampton resident and founder of the faith-based nonprofit Caritas Village, the neighborhood’s unofficial community center. Caritas, a pay-what-you-can restaurant and gathering place, is located in west Binghampton.

The west side of Binghampton, which for a brief time was formally incorporated with the name Binghamton (minus the “p,” for reasons lost to time), was always intended for white people while the east side was reserved for Black people.

“There were some white people who lived on the east side, but when they moved to the west it was definitely a sign of upward mobility, one that wasn’t afforded to the Black residents,” she said.

In the early 1900s, east Binghampton literally became the other side of the tracks when new rail lines bifurcated the neighborhood, which was annexed into Memphis into 1919. Today the CSX and CRN railroads, along with the office parks and warehouses that surround them, still separate the two Binghamptons, making comparisons between the two even more difficult.

The west side of Binghampton runs from East Parkway to Collins Street, while the east side runs from Scott to Holmes streets. Between Collins and Scott sits a business and light industrial park.

With a ready stock of sturdy, affordable housing — including, according to a 2012 Community LIFT report, as many as 1,000 vacant properties — it is easy to see why many people in the suddenly hot Midtown housing market are turning to Binghampton.

Not including the Lea’s Woods neighborhood off of East Parkway where some new constructions recently sold for $385,000 — the median price for a home in Binghampton over the past 12 months according to real estate data company Chandler Reports was $63,141, still well below the city median of $82,400 but reflecting a steady climb upward.

Newly built houses in the Lea's Woods neighborhood of west Binghampton are selling for over $300,000. (Ziggy Mack)

The numbers don’t tell the whole story, however, for that median reflects an incredibly wide range of prices, from a 12-month low of $9,000 to a high of $152,000. The differences become even more stark when you separate east and west Binghampton. The average home price in west Binghampton was $82,942 or $59.42 per square foot, with several homes selling for more than $100,000. In east Binghampton, where activity was about a third of the west’s with just nine transactions, the average price was $42,013 or $39.39 per square foot.

“You just don’t see the same level of activity,” said Johns. “Part of that is just the nature of east side. It’s physically separated from the rest of Binghampton. The houses are smaller, there are more empty lots and more large apartment developments.”

One thing east and west do have in common is the uncommon way they have been revitalized. Usually, a community turnaround is sparked by an investment from the city or big developer. But in its earliest stages, efforts in east and west Binghampton were led by nonprofit agencies and particularly faith-based groups.

Following the lead established by Johns when she first arrived in the community in 2000, over the years a number of religious groups have come into Binghampton — especially west Binghampton — to practice what one called “construction as ministry.” Groups like the Christian development organization Service Over Self and affiliated individuals bought and fixed up homes and sold them to other people interested in coming to the neighborhood to do ministry and other community-minded work. Often private, such home transactions rarely made it into official sales tallies but had a huge impact on west Binghampton.

“The idea was not to push people out of the neighborhood but to be present with people who were here to improve lives,” said Shun Abram, a 10-year Binghampton resident and pastor of Binghampton Community Church on Johnson Avenue, on the east side. “It came to be seen as gentrification and came to be taken the wrong way, but it was doing something.”

More recently, traditional nonprofits have taken the lead, particularly in east Binghampton, using new strategies to spur revitalization. Stakeholders have attributed such public-private ventures as MEMFix, which spotlighted the Broad Avenue Arts District with their first event in 2010, and the Hampline and the Shelby Farms Greenline with increasing the overall visibility of Binghampton.

On the east side, the Binghampton Development Corporation, established in 2004, has been particularly active recently along Tillman Street where they also have their offices. In 2013, the BDC opened Tillman Crossing, a 20-unit apartment complex it renovated with assistance from several local government and church organizations. The apartments utilize an innovative Asset-Building Program, which allows renters to build wealth in a way similar to how homeowners build equity.

On the other end of Tillman, the BDC also spearheaded the recently-opened Binghampton Gateway Center, a 48,000 square foot shopping center that landed the neighborhood a much-needed grocery store and other retail. The project was the first in the city to utilize a Community Builder PILOT, payment-in-lieu of taxes incentive provided by the Memphis-Shelby County Economic Development Growth Engine. 

Last year the BDC and a coalition of neighborhood groups acquired a tax increment financing, or TIF, a designation from the city and county that will refunnel future increases in property tax revenue back into the community for improvements. Over the next 30 years, the TIF is expected to generate $26 million for infrastructure, public amenities, blight removal and affordable housing in Binghampton.

Next in the pipeline is a project that could radically remake all of Binghampton but especially the east end. Early this fall, the city, at the urging of the Binghampton Development Corporation bought the boarded-up Tillman Cove development. Located on Tillman next door to the BDC’s offices, the development covers eight acres and was comprised of 116 nondescript, one-story, red brick duplexes. The city plans to tear down the existing structures.

In mid-November, Mayor Jim Strickland announced that Tillman Cove would be included in a raft of requests for proposal the city will issue in early 2019 looking for developers of city-owned property. Other properties covered by the Opportunity Zone RFPs include the proposed Raleigh Town Center, the Mid-South Fairgrounds, and the old Melrose High School. 

A view of the unoccupied Tillman Cove Apartments in east Binghampton. (Ziggy Mack)

“This has the potential to really be a game-changer for that part of Binghampton,” said Johns. “In retrospect, I’m not sure if we really went about things the right way. Obviously, the ways we tried to revitalize the area displaced a lot of people and caused a lot of gentrification.”

With the Tillman Cove development, for the first time there will be some safeguards in place to ensure that some affordable housing will remain a part of the mix.

“Due to the stipulations of the federal grant we used to buy the property, whatever is done there will have to have an affordable housing component to it,” says project leader Mairi Albertson, deputy director for Memphis’ Division of Housing & Community Development. “It’s not often we get control of eight acres in the middle of the city, so this is really an exciting opportunity.”

Abram, for one, is cautiously optimistic for the future of the two Binghamptons. He says the spiritual homesteaders who first came to the community may have unintentionally sparked its gentrification, but their continued presence means that future growth will be checked by strong principles.

“We’ve had a learning curve on how to do this and how to incorporate the existing people into everything that is happening,” he says. “But as long continue to make it possible for people who are here to stay here, as long as we continue to act out of love, everything will work out.”

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