University District

Coffee and community journalism: On the Ground in the University District

In December 2018, the On the Ground team began a month of research and community engagement to prepare for three months of embedded coverage in the University District.

The University District is High Ground New's tenth OTG focus neighborhood. It's our most eastern neighborhood to-date. It's the overall wealthiest, and unlike other OTG neighborhoods, it didn't see devastating disinvestment and deterioration in the latter half of the 20th century.

Yet like all of our past neighborhoods, the area has unique challenges and dedicated community leaders working for equitable and sustainable development. Also like several of our past neighborhoods, the University District is a collection of distinct neighborhoods. 

For our coverage, we're focusing primarily between Poplar Avenue to the north, Rhodes and Park avenues to the south, Semmes Street to the west and Getwell Road and Goodlett Street to the east. The district includes the University of Memphis' main and south campuses, as well as several distinct communities including East Buntyn, Joffree, Normal Station, Messick Buntyn, Red Acres and Sherwood Forest.

What to Expect from on the ground  

The OTG model is a concentrated, neighborhood-level, resident-centered approach to reporting.

The OTG team has begun meeting with area residents, business and community leaders to start identifying challenges and assets, important people and places, hidden histories and other stories critical to the narrative of the neighborhood and will continue to do so.

From January through March, we'll produce a body of work that will include 25-plus articles, live interviews and photo and video essays, in addition to daily social media content. We will spend time each week working from the neighborhood, attend and host community events. We typically met or interview more than 100 stakeholders in four months. 

Every Thursday from 1 to 4 p.m., we'll be working on location in our Community Newsroom at The Belltower Artisans pottery studio and coffee shop at 549 South Highland Street.

"We've always believed that the communal aspect that coffee provides, it brings people in and engages them in our story and what we do and it helps sustain us as makers," said Christopher Galbreath of the unique mashup. Galbreath is co-founder and owner alongside Micah Dempsey.

We invite University District residents or any of our readers to stop by and submit a story idea, tell us how we're doing or just enjoy a friendly chat over a great cup of coffee. We're also planning live interviews and community engagement on location throughout the district to give a more nuanced picture of this diverse area. 

Related: "An outpouring of coffee shop openings point to a shift in Memphis"

The District

A circa 1915 rendering of the area now known as the University District shows the location of the West Tennessee Normal School, Messick High School, Memphis Country Club and Normal Station train stop. (Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries) Buntyn takes its name from landowner Geraldus Buntyn who helped establish the Buntyn Station train stop and bequeathed his land for the Memphis Country Club and the development of several subdivisions. Maps from 1871's show families like the Dunns, Greers, Eckles and Goodwins whose legacies live on in the area's street names.

The West Tennessee Normal School, a two-year teaching college and predecessor of University of Memphis, opened in 1912. The Southern Avenue railroad line added new tracks and the Normal Station just in front of the school to connect the rural community to Memphis and beyond. A housing boom followed and grew post-WWII. Between 1940 and 1950, the population grew from 2,313 to 4,983 residents. Many of the houses in Messick Buntyn, East Buntyn and Normal Station date to the 1920s and '30s while most in Sherwood Forest date to the 1940s or later, following the eastern expansion of the city. Memphis Press-Scimitar articles from the early 1960s refer to the Sherwood Civic Club as the largest in the city, with over 1,000 members, and the Buntyn-Normal Civic Club as one of the largest.

Circa 1915, a student of the West Tennessee Normal School sits in a field located roughly at present-day Walker Avenue between Brister and Patterson streets. The distant building with columns is the university's present-day administration building. (Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries)
Though the district has seen some fluctuation in demographics — more people of color, more economic diversity, younger residents and renters — it's remained economically stable compared to many of Memphis' center-city neighborhoods that were ravished by redlining and white flight in the latter half of the 20th century. 

According to the University District Comprehensive Plan, in 2006, 70 percent of residents worked white collar jobs and 44.1 percent held a bachelors or graduate degree compared to 31 percent countywide. Annual household income ranges from roughly $21,500 to $121,000, but the poverty rate was only 17 percent. By comparison, Memphis' poverty rate for 2016 was 26.9 percent and past OTG neighborhood census tracts regularly have rates as high as 50 percent.

A vacancy is advertised on the Highland Strip. In the window, the Stratum apartment complex is reflected. The Stratum was the first of the new large-scale housing developments and was built in 2008. (Ziggy Mack)
Stakeholders say that in the last 10 to 15 years there's been a concerted effort by the city, university, residents and other stakeholders to attract investment to the area. Today it's densely populated, walkable and growing with streetscaping underway, modern new apartment complexes popping up in quick succession and businesses moving in.

Related: "University of Memphis Area explodes with new restaurant growth"

Highland Strip got a major facelift and the district has a comprehensive plan and overlay to help shape its future development. In March 2017 the area was granted a Tax Increment Financing district designation. Cody Fletcher, the University Neighborhoods Development Corporation's executive director, said it should bring around $20 million from specially allocated property taxes over the next 20 years to be used towards infrastructure improvements. 

Related: "On the Ground Podcast: Kicking off our University District coverage with Cody Fletcher"

The university is planning for a multi-million dollar expansion that includes a new pedestrian bridge over the Southern railroad tracks, a music school, additional parking and housing for students and faculty. They're also expanding Campus School to include a middle school.

The Belltower Artisans

A cup of Belltower Artisans coffee expertly crafted and served in a mug made on location and a available for purchase. (High Ground News)The Belltower Artisans is part coffee shop-part pottery studio and classroom-part retail space for local artisan products including ceramics made in house and tea from Orange Mound's My Cup of Tea. There are also breads, pastries and a sinfully good coffee cake made by Stacey Hinkle and Chocolate Drop Shop, her new Binghampton-based business.

"We started this coffee shop here on Highland as we were transferring to the University of Memphis and plugging into their entrepreneurship center as a way to sustain ourselves as makers and get people interested in what we do through the communal aspect that coffee provides," said Galbreath. 

Related: "College students open coffee shop and pottery studio near University of Memphis"

Galbreath and Dempsey, both students at the University of Memphis, launched Belltower in November 2017 after a successful pop-up venture in Nashville and with the help of the Crews Center for Entrepreneurship

"We had signed our lease here on the Highland Strip and were planning to move in and open. Micah and I did not have plans to continue attending school at that time," said Galbreath. "The Crews Center helped make it possible by making it financially an option through scholarship options...and helping us get into the right degree program that is online and very flexible."  

Related: "Startup ecosystem grows on city's college campuses"

Barista Annie Harmon serves a customer on the coffee side of Belltown Artisans while makers work in the ceramics area behind her. (Cole Bradley)
The OTG team is excited to spend time at a business that's local in ownership, clientele, coffee and crafts. We're looking forward to the rich smells of a strong brew and watching makers sculpting alongside business meetings and study sessions. The space has an eclectic synergy that we hope will inspire our creativity while providing space for us to met the community.

"We try to be a good, inviting, communal space," said Galbreath. "There is not one single demographic that I would say we cater predominantly to. We see a lot of students but we also see lots of professionals. Really, age and race and socioeconomic background -- we see all across the spectrum."
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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.