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VOL. 124 | NO. 130 | Monday, July 06, 2009

There Goes the Neighborhood: New hope emerges in one of Memphis’ roughest areas

By Bill Dries

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Hope and despair have co-existed for a long time along the stretch of Poplar Avenue between Danny Thomas Boulevard and Decatur Street. And for the past two years, the area has seen more change than just about any other inner-city avenue in Memphis.

The old Dixie Homes public housing project, built in 1935 on Poplar between Ayers Street and Decatur, was demolished in 2006 and is being remade as a mixed-income, mixed-use housing development called Legends Park.

Le Bonheur Children’s Medical Center is building a new hospital next to its current facility.

The new Poplar Avenue that is taking shape there is an affirmation of the city’s traditional medical center with a new neighborhood around it. The closer the plans get to completion, however, the starker the area’s other reality becomes.

The new mixed-income Legends Park development is taking shape on land that used to be Dixie Homes, one of the city’s two first public housing projects. The new apartment buildings and homes contrast sharply with the neighborhood on the other side of Decatur Street. City officials hope the new construction will be a catalyst for neighborhood renovation in the surrounding area. -- PHOTOS BY LANCE MURPHEY

The Union Mission, founded in 1945 by evangelist Jimmy Stroud, is seeing more homeless men at the emergency shelter on Poplar near Danny Thomas Boulevard than in recent years, said Scott Bjork, the organization’s president and executive director. That stretch of Poplar was the Memphis version of Skid Row long before Stroud arrived in Memphis.

Poplar was also ground zero for the series of Yellow Fever epidemics that killed thousands of Memphians and decimated the city in the 19th century. The epidemics reached their height in 1878 and St. Mary’s Episcopal Church was a vital sanctuary for people sick with the fever.

On the neighborhood streets north of the church 130 years ago, rich and poor Memphians died of the fever and their bodies rotted in their homes.

Today, along those same tiny streets, modern Memphians live with the incestuous afflictions of violent crime and poverty. Vacant homes sit near boarding houses and fire-scarred structures that should but can’t be called abandoned. At times, house-high weeds and brush from vacant lots threaten to obscure houses on nearby lots. The functioning ruins come with a view of the Memphis skyline.

Not too far away, medical center employees mix with construction workers during the lunch hour in the shadow of a 12-story building whose skeletal frame is rapidly being filled in.

“We’re kind of messing up the traffic right now,” said Meri Armour, president and chief executive officer of Le Bonheur Children’s Medical Center. “But when we’re done, it’s going to be great.”

The $327 million construction project is scheduled to open in June 2010.

“This is a total replacement of the children’s hospital,” Armour told The Memphis News. “All pediatric clinical services will be moved into this new 12-story tower. We will maintain the 1990 building that faces Dunlap. But that’s going to be used just for administrative and research space. All of the patient care will move into the new tower.”

Le Bonheur is also the primary teaching affiliate of pediatrics for the city’s various nursing schools as well as colleges of medicine and pharmacy. Directly across Poplar from the new tower plans and private funding are already in place for the FedEx Family House, 25 residential suites for families of Le Bonheur patients to stay in on a long-term basis.

The tower is being built on the site of what was the Memphis Mental Health Institute, a state facility for the mentally ill. Gov. Phil Bredesen was instrumental in relocating MMHI in 2005 to make the new Le Bonheur construction possible.

Slow but steady process

Another part of setting the stage for the new hospital building was one block to the east and on the other side of Poplar, where even more construction work is under way.

Richard Barrett, center, and other construction workers from the new Le Bonheur Children’s Medical Center take their lunch break in the only shade nearby. The, $327 million, 12-story tower is expected to open in a year.

It’s hard to find any trace of what used to be Dixie Homes, one of the city’s two original public housing developments from the New Deal era of President Franklin Roosevelt. On the 46-acre flat swath of land where the collection of squat two-story brick buildings stood for nearly 70 years, there are now hills and valleys, the framework of apartments buildings and rows of houses.

The new development is called Legends Park.

“If you didn’t have Dixie Homes, you wouldn’t have Le Bonheur,” said Robert Lipscomb, director of the city’s Division of Housing and Community Development. “The medical center was concerned about safety issues so we had to do Dixie Homes to reassure the medical center that it’s okay to put this huge amount of investment here. We’ve still got some work to do. But I think what you’ve done is created the atmosphere that’s conducive to more investment.”

The Herenton administration, now in its final days, has pursued the strategy in using millions of dollars in federal funding to transform the city’s public housing projects into mixed-income developments, roughly a third of each development public housing. The goal is not only to change the nature of public housing, but to encourage commercial and residential development in the area.

In the case of Dixie Homes-Legends Park, $20 million in federal HOPE VI grant funding has been used to leverage $40.3 million in private investment. The development will have 404 apartment units. But there also will be 8.6 acres of homes to be sold and 12,000 square feet of commercial space.

“We think it’s an ideal location for many of our residents and fellows and lab personnel and students who are here for a period of time,” Armour said. “We think we’re going to be a huge ally with the Legends Park housing group.”

However, there are some cautionary housing tales from the area.

Nearly 10 years ago, Memphis Heritage Inc. bought a row of shotgun houses on Delmar Avenue with an eye toward rehabilitating them and renting them to senior citizens at about $350-$400 a month. Federal tax credits for historic structures were used. But the tax credits barred modern improvements such as storm windows. The venture was abandoned after utility bills wound up being more than the monthly rent.

Workers from the present and future Poplar streetscapes mixed with panhandlers at the gas stations along the route as they fueled up for the drive home.

Meanwhile, the basketball court in Morris Park is usually busy at the first signs of spring. But the concrete slab is abandoned during the hottest days of summer except for an hour or two before dusk.

The Sister’s Chapel at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church is the oldest part of the Poplar Avenue landmark. The chapel was built in 1888, 10 years after the church was ground zero for recovery efforts during the 1878 Yellow Fever epidemic that decimated Memphis. Vestments and other relics from the church’s priests and nuns who served and died in the epidemic are preserved in other parts of the church.

The foot traffic can be even heavier after midnight, but much more unsavory. On a recent night as a police car patrolled in Morris Park, more than a dozen people emerged quickly from its darkest side, crossing Poplar near St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral. Some moved west on the Poplar strip, into another cluster of streetlights, before slipping into another chasm of darkness by an old cinder block convenience store with a large overhang.

Foot traffic is high along Poplar Avenue and growing with construction of the new Le Bonheur Children’s Medical Center nearby. Farther west on Poplar, leaders of the Memphis Union Mission say they are seeing a steady increase in the homeless who seek food and comfort at the Memphis institution founded in 1945. St. Mary’s Episcopal Church also has several outreach programs working in the neighborhood north of the church.

Kirk Northcutt, the CEO of Auto-Chlor, which sits at the intersection where Alabama branches off Poplar, said an apartment complex behind the church remains a favorite gathering place, even after it burned last fall.

Auto-Chlor has been at the oddly shaped corner since the early 1950s. The company, founded in Memphis by Jim Robinson in 1938, invented the technology and commercial kitchen hardware used in restaurants around the world to sanitize and wash their dishes.

“We’re excited,” Northcutt said of the recent additions to the neighborhood. “It’s encouraging to see the neighborhood become somewhat revitalized. I think there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done. But clearly there’s been significant improvement in the last five years.”

One of the two small apartment complexes that sit side by side on Alabama is owned by the city of Memphis. It was recently sold to the nearby Tennessee Technology Center and is about to be demolished, Lipscomb said.

The neighborhood north of Poplar, off Alabama Street, is starkly different than the new construction along Poplar and a reminder of the poverty that has prompted problems as well as outreach programs in the area for decades. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

Auto-Chlor partnered with St. Mary’s to create a neighborhood development program several years ago that operated out of a house Auto-Chlor owned on Jones Street. The company gave it to St. Mary’s at no charge and helped with the upkeep.

“That shut down a couple of years ago and that was a bit disappointing to us,” Northcutt said. Nevertheless, the house stands out from others in the area because it remains boarded up with its grass trimmed.

Keeping up such programs can be difficult even in the best of times. But these aren’t the best of times.

“We’ve seen steady increases in numbers that are coming here,” Bjork said. “The economy definitely is a factor. But I think, too, there have been other ministries, other organizations that have served the homeless that have shut down or cut back.”

Changing hands

In April, the Downtown Street Ministry’s drop-in center at 600 Poplar was sold by the ministry for $10 to the Union Mission.

“We’re in the process of renovating that to reopen it,” said Bjork, who has been CEO since 2002. “We’re going to be hopefully reopening it sometime late summer.”

Downtown Ministries had opened the center in what used to be an old furniture store. The organization also sold two residential facilities for the mentally ill along Poplar, also for $10 each to other providers.

The most visible one is a nondescript but new house at 610 Poplar with a group of men usually pulling porch duty late into the night to keep the curious foot traffic moving.

Union Mission took on the drop-in center after it ran short of the money it had hoped to raise for a new center at Lamar Avenue and Knight Arnold Road. The attempt to move reflects the need for more space to centralize services.

“We desperately need to expand,” Bjork told The Memphis News. “I think in the short term (600) Poplar’s going to give us some much needed capacity. We’re taking a look at what different options there may be available for us out there.”

Ivory Taylor, co-owner of Taylor Brown Apothecary Community Drug Store, talks with Nakeshi Dyer. Taylor and his wife bought the land and built their business on Poplar Avenue near High Street five years ago. Taylor said he’s excited to be part of a renaissance in the area. But he’s quick to add that much work needs to be done in the surrounding neighborhood.

The Lamar-Knight Arnold project also drew opposition from the surrounding neighborhood concerned about the crowds that gather now around the mission’s emergency shelter off Poplar.

“The safer we’ve made it, the more controls we’ve put in, we have more (clients) who want to come because they understand that,” Bjork said. “We’re attempting to take those individuals who are serious, who truly want help, and funnel them into longer-term programs.”

Of those who come to the shelter, 120 a day are enrolled in recovery programs at other locations across the city. The shelter itself takes only about 30 a day.

Those waiting to get in or trying to decide gather at what’s left of a concrete foundation at Poplar and High Street just out of reach of the lights from the mission. Like Morris Park, it too can clear pretty quickly if one of the police patrol cars going to or from the nearby Criminal Justice Center stops.

Some come for shelter. Others come for weekly visits by a mobile van sponsored by Baptist Memorial Healthcare and Christ Community Health Centers. Bellevue Baptist Church sponsors regular stops by a mobile dental van and University of Tennessee nursing students also come regularly for blood pressure checks and eye exams.

The mission’s ultimate goal remains a large center for all of those services on a permanent basis, with the agencies involved having permanent space for their particular programs.

“Obviously it would make sense for us at some point to have a clinic right inside our facility that would be staffed … by the medical professionals that are already out there,” Bjork said. “We were hoping to create that whole base of operations at Lamar. But the cost of converting that facility for our needs far exceeded what we had calculated we had in cash on hand and/or the ability to raise it.”

It was about twice as much as expected.

“We all here were very disappointed. We’re trying to pay attention to what God is trying to tell us.”

Word of God

In May, a revival tent once again went up on the parcel of grass next to the building when the mission held its annual Mission in May events. They serve as a link to the shelter’s roots in evangelical Christianity and its efforts to help solve the problems of homelessness and substance abuse.

The tradition now includes a mission blog titled “A Book Of Days” kept by Steve Jessen, one of the pastors at the mission. A recent entry was a eulogy for Willie Roby, a homeless man found dead.

Other entries have been about political corruption and its effect on the city. Each entry begins with Scripture in keeping with another mission tradition that began with phone calls answered with Bible quotations.

“God expected his people to be involved in the care, as the Lord said, of the least of these,” Bjork said. “Who better to help somebody in this day and age who’s addicted to crack and on the streets than the church? We need every program we can get in our city.”

On the other side of Poplar is Taylor Brown Apothecary, a five-year-old pharmacy and drugstore Ivory Taylor and his wife built after moving to Memphis when he retired from the military.

It’s been tough and promising.

Bjork says Taylor and his wife have been great neighbors. And Taylor speaks highly of the mission. While the idea of a drugstore facing the mission may seem to be tempting fate, Taylor told The Memphis News the problem is the rear of his business on the warren of side streets where the gap between Poplar and Alabama widens.

“It looks like a slum in the middle of Downtown,” is how Taylor described the patch of land.

“Our front is on Poplar, but we had to put a huge parking lot in the rear, which is the Alabama piece,” Taylor said. “There can’t be parking on the front anymore because they’re trying to develop this urban look. I’m all right with that. But because our rear looks slummy … that has hurt us.”

Taylor was drawn by the rising fortunes of Downtown Memphis when he found several acres available at the edge of the Uptown area without knowing of plans for the expansion of St. Jude or the Le Bonheur project.

“I knew that Memphis was putting things in place,” he told The Memphis News. “I was very fortunate to buy two or three acres. … It’s a huge investment.”

Taylor didn’t know where the boundaries were for tax incentives to encourage such development. His business is thirty feet outside the borders of the Center City district governed by the Center City Commission. The boundary falls on the center line of Danny Thomas Boulevard and Poplar. Last year, his property became part of the medical center district.

“Our taxes went sky-high,” he said. “But we still have a slummy area. … I don’t mind paying the taxes, but at least (the city) can do what government does. You keep the streets clean, the gutters clean, I’m all right.”

Taylor has worked hard to build trade with Uptown residents.

“What happens is the percentage is so low because the people that are moving there are not seeing us,” he said.

Lipscomb insists Taylor and others between Uptown and Legends Park will begin to see benefits.

“All of that is coming,” he told The Memphis News. “We have multiple nodes that we’ve got to connect.”

And one of the connections is Alabama Avenue. There have been very tentative plans and studies for several years to make the modest street a predominantly residential corridor that connects Uptown and Legends Park as well as St. Jude and Le Bonheur.

You can see the golden dome of the St. Jude visitors’ center among the treetops from the intersection of Poplar and Alabama.

“My hope is that Poplar, particularly between where we’re at and further down, will really become the mecca for all of the supportive organizations – all the agencies that support children and families,” Armour said. “I’d like to see all of those groups move and have their headquarters here on Poplar so that it becomes the stretch of our city that is completely committed to the care of people in our region.”

On the walls of St. Mary’s are relics of another cycle in the avenue’s life. The stole of an Episcopal priest who died caring for Yellow Fever victims is encased on a cathedral wall. Each September, the Episcopal Church nationally honors the “Martyrs of Memphis” with a feast day.

Life cycle

Hope and despair on Poplar is a continuing cycle that is sometimes part of a plan, but more often a product of chance.

Persistence seems more common and more deliberate.

Just beyond the reach of the shade trees to the back of Morris Park stands Collins Chapel CME Church, a 168-year-old building that hosted the city’s first organized African-American congregation. The church was founded when slavery was legal and slave markets were just a few blocks away. That first congregation met under trees before the original church was built on the site.

The original church burned to the ground in the 1866 race riot that convulsed the city. Church members built again on the same spot, knowing their neighbors who had targeted the church for destruction also remained.

Around the still-active church today are institutions that see Memphians at all stages of their lives. The church stands in the shadow of Juvenile Court and near the stately homes of Victorian Village, as well as the ubiquitous pawn shops and bail bond companies on Poplar.

Recently a lot at Poplar and Orleans Street, near the back end of the church, was cleared by bulldozers for another institution – a new regional forensic center, or morgue. That would seem to complete the cycle.

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