The Heights

What smart neighborhoods can learn from The Heights

High Ground News’ On the Ground embedded coverage is leaving the The Heights and heading to the University District.

Since August, we’ve engaged with neighbors through our weekly community newsrooms at the Heights Line Design Center and half a dozen events like a mixer to meet neighborhood organizations and the Holmes Street National Night Out block party. We also partnered with Heights CDC to host a reception and photography show on November 29 highlighting the people and events our photographers captured during our time in the community.

The show reactivated a vacant barber shop and was a chance to say thank you to the 50-plus stakeholders who attended. Their voices and guidance informed more than two dozen articles, videos and photo essays, along with live interviews and daily social media content.

While we’re no longer intensely focused on The Heights, we’re still committed to spotlighting the neighborhood’s dynamic people and important happenings in the future and are excited to see the changes born from the area’s current resident-led revitalization efforts.

To close out our four months of dedicated reporting, the On the Ground team spotlights the five stand-out themes we uncovered in The Heights.

Collective Effort

Christina Crutchfield, community engagement coordinator with Heights CDC, said that while ‘We Rise by Lifting Others’ is her organization’s slogan, it’s really the neighborhood’s unofficial motto. Several stakeholders told High Ground News that in the last three to five years, individual residents and neighborhood organizations have emerged to pool efforts to revitalize the area’s sense of pride, safety and identity.

“It’s been like, ‘Alright, let’s partner up. Let’s be a team about this. We’re trying to fix the same issues, and we are [all] very driven to do it,” said Crutchfield.

Neighborhood leaders have worked with law enforcement and funded Skycop cameras for improved safety, worked with Memphis Code Enforcement and problem landlords to reduce blighted properties, build pocket parks, plant gardens, coordinate dozens of cleanups and host neighborhood events like National Night Out block parties.

Husband and wife Nancy and Patricio Gonzalez carry equipment to the Gaisman Community Center at the end of game day. They are the directors and coaches of Illegal Arts Memphis soccer league. (Natalie Eddings)

“It’s important that people learn to take care of and put some investment, some sweat equity into the community,” said Judy Conway, a Heights resident since the 1970s and secretary of the Mitchell Heights Neighborhood Association. “If you don’t put some sweat equity into where you live and care about where you live, then this place is going to be a desolate place.”

“[It’s] like that proverb you here over quoted, it takes a village to raise a child,” said Ian Randolph, president of the Holmes Street Neighborhood Association. “It takes a village it keep your village together.”

Related: “In photos: The gardens of Mitchell Heights
Related: “Facts and Feelings: The push to improve safety in The Heights
Related: “Neighborhood by design: Community design studio is space to imagine a new Heights


Rich History

The Heights had a rich history to unearth. In the 1800s, it was home to the city’s ‘pesthouse’ for the criminal, mentally ill and indigent, and in the 1920s its major thoroughfare, Summer Avenue, became part of the first transcontinental interstate system. The Heights also has a legacy of independent grocery stores dating to the 1800s. NBA star Penny Hardaway graduated from Treadwell High and learned to play basketball in the 1980s at the neighborhood's Ira Samelson Jr. Boys and Girls Club.

The On the Ground team was surprised to discover National Street once had a trolley line that stopped running sometime in the late 1940s or early 1950s. Resident Ric Morgan remembers riding as a kid and described it as a rough, “clickety-clackety” adventure.

One of the most impressive points of Heights history is that the neighborhood has an incredible musical legacy. It was home to Ardent Recordings, a precursor to Ardent Studios, and produced Big Star's first album, #1 Record.

Related: “Family-owned groceries are hallmark of The Heights
Related: “Asylums, trolleys & forgotten soldiers: Five facts about The Heights you didn't know
Related: “Musical Heights: A neighborhood's forgotten role in the history of one of pop's most famous studios

Passing on the Passion

Stakeholders made it clear that The Heights’ youth are its most important investment and the best way to keep them active in the community is through mentoring, education and exposure to new opportunities and possibilities.

“I know they don’t know how, but are they willing to learn? I can teach them,” said Conway.

Two kindergarten students prepare to speak at Treadwell Elementary School's Hispanic History Month celebration. (Renier Otto)

Among the standout efforts to engage young people:

Craftspeople like welder Dewayne ‘DJ’ Johnson and ceramist Arlee Applewhite are seeking apprentices and hosting classes to train the next generator of local artisans.

United Way of the Mid-South and the Black Cloud Association both throw annual Trunk-or-Treat celebrations for a fun and safe alternative to trick-or-treating on dark streets.

The Mitchell Heights Neighborhood Association holds classes on urban gardening and hopes to soon start employing young adults through the Mitchell Heights Landscape Garden and Nursery.

The Ira Samelson Jr. Boys and Girls Club boasts a professional music studio.

Kingsbury High School launched a student-led online publication and media program this year to train young journalists and give kids a role in shaping the narrative of their school.

The Heights Line Design Center employs a handful of high school students who help care for the center and surrounding neighborhood and collect feedback from residents.

“We’re here,” said Black Cloud’s founder King Lurry, “to show these kids that there’s somebody here that cares, and we gotta stay consistent on our kids.”

Related: “Video: Camaros and candy at Treadwell Middle School's Trunk-A-Treat
Related: “Desayuno Con Libros connects Latino families over books and breakfast
Related: “Heights Boys and Girls Club earns national acclaim, trains Memphis musicians

The Return of Summer Avenue

Summer Avenue got its start in the late 1800s as a dirt road leading west into the city. For generations, Summer has served as a place to get anything a Memphian might need. Today you can still find many of same locally-owned business that first moved to the area grocers, bakers, metal workers, machinists, sundry stores, pharmacists, restaurants and more.

Summer has a long-standing craftsman tradition, and master crafters like Applewhite and Johnson carry on that tradition today. It’s well-known as a destination for thrifting and antiquing and is best in Memphis for cheap, family-friendly, mom-and-pop restaurants serving cuisine from around the world.

Founded in 2015, the Summer Avenue Merchants Association has made a concerted effort to attract new business and address crime and problem properties. SAMA recently announced a campaign to designate part of the area between Highland Street and White Station Road as the city’s first official branded international district. According to SAMA's data, its business owners represent more than 30 countries of origin.

“Summer Avenue used to be the place where everyone wanted to go to, where everyone hung out,” said Meghan Medford, founder of SAMA. “We’re trying to bring that energy back to Summer.”


Related: “In photos: Memphis gets thrifty on Summer Avenue
Related: “Doggy daycare on Summer Avenue is (adorable) sign of new investment
Related: “HopeWorks charts growth with $25K grant from First Tennessee

Growing Diversity

The diversity of Summer Avenue can be found broadly throughout The Heights. Considering various data sources like census and school demographics, it’s roughly equal parts Black and white with a large Spanish-speaking population representing between 30 and 50 percent of the neighborhood. According to Su Casa, a Heights-based organization serving the Latino community, the Heights’ 38122 ZIP code has the highest concentration of Spanish-speakers in Shelby County.

(L to R) Ladarius Shields, Cedric Hicks, and Hayden Williams attend a football game at Treadwell Middle. Treadwell is the area's oldest public school, opened in 1915. (Ziggy Mack)

“It’s a quiet area,” said resident Grady Bennett. “The neighborhood is a mixture between Hispanics, African-Americans, and white people, and different ages as well.”

Countless residents listed the multicultural makeup of the neighborhood as one of its strongest assets and expressed a desire to celebrate differences while finding common ground. Many residents also expressed concerned at changing immigration policies and the ramifications for their neighbors and community.

Gaisman Community Center and Gaisman Park, the area’s largest city park, are great examples of the neighborhood embracing its transition from an almost exclusively-white enclave as late as the 1970s to the diverse community it is today.

“When I say the whole world comes to Gaisman, I mean [it],” said Chris Collier, founder of Friends of Gaisman, a citizen group that cleans up and advocates for the park.

To revitalize its nearly 20 acres of unused and aging baseball fields, the center built relationships with area schools and recreation leagues to provide practice and game space. They now have a robust soccer program that better appeals to the changing demographics, and Friends of Gaisman is working to repair and reconfigure the fields to better serve the neighborhood's needs. There are also indoor basketball courts, a playground, walking trail, public pool and areas for tennis and football practice.

“When you get all these soccer kids together, the whole community comes together, you can really see how beautifully diverse we are,” said Collier.

The area’s oldest school, Treadwell Elementary, is home to the state’s only dual-language immersion program where both English and Spanish-speaking students can learn bilingual and biliterate proficiencies by the end of fifth grade.

“I think it’s one of the best things offered in the city,” said parent Nikki Waldon whose daughter Nola is a kindergartener in the program.

“When you are able to have students communicating with each other ... now you have a chance for them to break down the barriers between themselves so you don’t have a Black and brown and white division. You actually have a way for a community to come together and have [the] resurgence that’s going on here,” said Principal Jason Carr.

“When you see kids that are from different cultures and backgrounds come together in this way, it really lights you up to believe that adults can do the same.”

Related: “Summer Avenue to rebrand as an international district
Related: “Grassroots leaders foster greenspaces in Berclair and The Heights
Related: “The state’s only dual-language program grows with Memphis’ Latino population

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.