Collaboration changes the future of Frayser

In Frayser--one of the city's most economically disadvantaged areas--community organizations are working together to transform their neighborhood, using a collective voice to address issues of blight, crime, poverty and education.

The community of Frayser, just north of Memphis proper and across a wide alluvial plain from the Mississippi River, began as a suburban town built around a railroad depot. It was annexed by Memphis in 1958, and industry, in the form of International Harvester and Firestone, moved in to churn out giant red cotton pickers and automobile tires.

Those companies would eventually move out, taking jobs--more than 2,000 in the case of Harvester--and people with them, and leaving gaping holes in the landscape. Over the years, those who stayed or have moved in since have weathered loss of jobs along with a recession and real estate woes. It is one of the most economically disadvantaged areas of Memphis, with some of the highest crime rates. The butt of jokes for years, it's a community made up of still-proud people, many looking to rewrite its narrative from the ground up, from among its boarded-up homes, crumbling infrastructure and struggling educational institutions.

According to the 2010 census report, the 20 square miles that make up Frayser are home to just over 40,000, with a makeup of 84 percent African American. Nearly 20 percent of residents--the largest group--made $15,000 to $25,000 per year, and almost half of the population rent their homes. Forty percent live below the poverty level.

In answer to such problems, the Frayser Community Development Corporation (CDC) was founded in 2000 to act as a nonprofit revitalization engine for the area. In 2013, through a community-wide election, the Frayser Neighborhood Council was created.

The Frayser CDC has been buying up houses for renovation and resale or lease, and currently owns close to 75.

"We sell everything we can, but we rent and lease what we can't sell," says Steve Lockwood, Executive Director. "We work with families to try to get them in a place where they can get a mortgage to where we can sell them the house they're already living in."

The CDC recently received $495,000 from the Tennessee Housing Development Agency, which will help buy and renovate 11 houses designated to be rented or sold to very low income families.

"We've tried to learn to be as strategic as we can about how to invest in housing," Lockwood says. "My board, after years of discussion, we've been investing in the middle-ground neighborhoods, the tipping point neighborhoods in Frayser."

In such areas, the CDC will typically buy the worst house on the block, putting resources and about $45,000 into renovations.

"It becomes the best house on the street, and then we put a strong working family in there, and we think it changes the whole street," Lockwood says. "We can prove that it changes the tax base for the whole area because an abandoned, blighted house hurts the value."

Even in this deflated market, Lockwood says they're able to sell houses for $60,000 in a neighborhood where the average sale price is around $27,000.

Charlie Caswell didn’t grow up in Frayser but across town in the Dixie Homes housing project near the Medical District. His family moved to Frayser when Caswell was 15. Dixie Homes was eventually torn down to make way for Legends Park, rising, in part, due to a federal Hope VI grant. Caswell found a new home in Frayser and today looks to turn around the cycle of poverty, crime and lack of education that, he says, begins in the home.

Where Lockwood has focused on the tangible and the physical, one house and one block at a time, the 39-year-old Caswell, Director of the Range Line CDC within Frayser, focuses on the social causes of poverty and crime. His organization works with teen parents through a fatherhood program and partnering with Teen+, itself a partnership between the Shelby County Office of Early Childhood and Youth, Le Bonheur Children's Hospital: Community Health and Well Being and The University of Memphis Center for Community Building and Neighborhood Action, among others.

"We do a nurturing parenting class with them, and then I do the fatherhood piece as well--job readiness, life skills, training, etiquette," Caswell says. "We try to give them skills that really they don't get in the school system."

The pride felt by the community is nothing new, but the coming together of these organizations is. The CDCs and Neighborhood Advisory Council have pooled their numbers and raised their collective voice, leveraging those numbers at city council meetings and for grant searches.

"You can see some changes happening with the neighborhood council and the work we have done collectively coming together and forming all of these committees--the education committee, the housing committee and jobs committee," Caswell says. "It doesn't seem like we're working in silos any more, and it seems like we're more apt to reach out to each other to see how we can collectively make something better for the community."

The Neighborhood Council, after engaging thousands of community stakeholders, implemented its Frayser 2020 Community Revitalization Planning Process, completed at the end of March. The overwhelming issue most important to the stakeholders was that of public safety, particularly crimes perpetrated by youth, and the initiative addresses this concern on several fronts. The solutions to the problems are being addressed with unity in the community/Frayser Ambassador initiative, a street light repair/maintenance program, burglar alarm program, blight removal initiative, establishment of mini-community centers, housing rehabilitation and new construction program, Frayser Town Center and Transit Hub, and Family Empowerment initiative.

"It's a plan of how we really want to see Frayser in the year 2020," says Marron Thomas, President of the Frayser Neighborhood Council. "We have a council meeting the second Saturday of every month and we have people come out; we're seeing organizations that have been in the community for a while begin to work together."

Arrested and incarcerated for selling drugs at the corner of Range Line and Stage Road only five days before graduating from college, Thomas knows intimately the dangers and pitfalls of an unsafe community. He found religion in jail, finished college, and says, "I really wanted to serve people and I wanted to serve kids who came from a similar situation that I came from, from a single-parent household who really didn't see anything else outside of my community."

Thomas is now executive director of the Leadership Empowerment Center, formerly known as Youth Visions, working with the youth of Frayser and partnering with area schools such as Georgian Hills Elementary and Middle, Hawkins Mill Elementary, Frayser High and Trezevant High.

"We want Frayser to feel, to be perceived as, and to be a safe community. That's the theme of it (the 2020 plan)," says Thomas, who has lived in the area for 17 years. "And with that we have to have safe schools, we have to have a school system that's educating the community."

Frayser was named after J.W. Frayser, a wealthy Memphis physician, and is loosely bordered by the Loosahatchie River to the north, the Mississippi River to the west, the Wolf River to the south and the Illinois Central railroad on the east. Founded as a railroad stopover from Covington, Tenn., to Memphis, it was a longtime community of transients.

The problem as leaders like Caswell, Lockwood and Thomas see it is that it still is largely a stopover for residents who eventually move on for better opportunities in housing, work and education. These stakeholders, leaders and activists are looking for Frayser to finally become a more stable, more permanent home.

"We want this to be a community that people are moving into, saying that we want our kids to live in Frayser, we want our kids to go to the schools in Frayser, and we want it to be a model community," Thomas says.

"We know that we didn't get into this problem overnight and we're not going to come out of this overnight," Caswell says, "but I believe that the process and the road that we're on, we're headed in the right direction."

Read more articles by Richard J. Alley.

A freelance writer since 2008, Richard’s work has appeared in The Memphis Daily News, Memphis Magazine, Oxford American, The Memphis Flyer, River Times Magazine, Rhodes Magazine, The Commercial Appeal, and MBQ magazine among others, and in syndication through the Associated Press and Scripps Howard News Service. He is the editor of Development News for High Ground. Contact Richard.
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