With lush vegetation and a smattering of homes on large lots, Northaven is reminiscent of neighboring Shelby Forest.
But the community that sits north of Memphis and south of Millington also contains plenty of homes on smaller lots with the traditional layout of a 1970s-era suburban neighborhood. Northaven isn’t Shelby Forest. It isn’t Memphis, either. The unincorporated Shelby County neighborhood is where rural and suburban meet – and the combination hasn’t aged well.
Despite its leafy, suburban appearance, the area has some of the worst problems synonymous with inner-city Memphis – gangs, crack cocaine, meth and violence mixed with a unique isolation.
“It’s a social phenomenon we see all across America,” said Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, “where people move out of less desirable areas for more desirable areas therefore leaving those less desirable areas to become even less desirable. It’s been a wake up call, I think, for us.”
When Louis Padgett arrived seven years ago as the principal of Northaven Elementary School, the community had problems some saw as insurmountable. He saw it first-hand within the school he was hired to lead.
Padgett brings Earl Jones, top left, a resident of Northaven, to a job site to meet contractor R.C. Hill, who is rehabilitating a house in the area. (Photos: Lance Murphey)
Padgett has established a free four-week summer school program for children in the Northaven area. (Photos: Lance Murphey)
Regina Love is head of the Northaven Community Association, which fosters civic pride in the area. (Photos: Lance Murphey)
Louis Padgett, principal of Northaven Elementary School, speaks with two former students, Cameron Tubbs, 13, and Dylan Pendergrast, 13, with Cody Lewis, 15, during a drive through the Northaven area. Padgett has been principal of Northaven for seven years and is an energetic champion of reform and rebirth in the Northaven area. (Photos: Lance Murphey)
“There was a fence up, broken glass, a man was urinating on the wall, gang graffiti was all over that toilet. I can’t tell you how much gang graffiti,” Padgett said. “Nobody knew how to play four square. Four square is a little kid’s game that once they learn it they love it. The kids never played outside. They basically sort of talked about each other and argued and fussed.”
Padgett had done some reconnaissance before his first day as principal, driving around and pretending he was lost. Before long he and then-county sheriff Luttrell were driving the area and walking it on foot.
What has evolved since then is a focused and regimented effort in which a list of goals is subtracted from as they are accomplished while new goals are added.
One example is a new fire station, which serves an area that includes 1,604 homes, 37 commercial properties, eight churches and Northaven Elementary School. Northaven is the dominant part of that coverage area with most of the homes.
A working group that includes Padgett, community leaders and county government department leaders adheres strictly to a format of a one-hour monthly meeting during the workday. Luttrell hopes this approach can be used in other areas of the county trying to make the same kind of comeback.
“That approach is about the best angle we’ve ever had,” said Steve Shular, Luttrell’s public affairs officer, who’s served the same role with Luttrell during Luttrell’s eight-year tenure as sheriff. “What happens is most neighborhood groups meet at night and everybody comes and yells for about two hours and everybody goes away and nothing gets done.”
Luttrell first saw the approach used in the Vollintine-Evergreen community.
“I think if we can see the evolution of Northaven as many of us envision it, it will be a case study in collaboration,” Luttrell said.
“We’ve got momentum,” he said. “What we are not asking for is more money. But I am asking somebody to help me identify the Walmart group that is responsible for store locations, or Family Dollar or Fred’s.”
Retail is one of several priorities for Padgett, as is “a dignified place to buy gas.”
Luttrell sees Northaven as a bona-fide “food desert” that could use some kind of chain grocery store.
“We’ve just got to convince one of those retail organizations that it’s to their benefit to do it,” Luttrell said. “Their profit margin is so low, it’s around 1 or 2 percent. We’ve got to come up with some type of incentives to make moving into a place like Northaven a profitable venture for some grocery chain.”
Neighbors work in the June heat on their individual yards next to vacant homes with no doors and few intact windows where the fast-growing grass has turned into thicker flora and fauna. A family is cooking out and talk over a table with a tablecloth across it in the front yard. The cookout is within site of the burned-out shell of a brick house that probably once didn’t look that different from most of the occupied houses on the block.
Padgett said the contrast is encouraging.
“The homeowners that were there were silent,” he said. “They felt like their voices were being muted because so many new people moved in. They are now beginning to call the community association.”
The association is a new development in the recovery. It is about to move its regular meetings to the community center operated by Impact Baptist Church and Ministries in the old fire station. It began its long life as a 7-11 convenience store before being turned over to Impact by Shelby County government after the new fire station opened around the corner in May. Impact, which has its sanctuary in Frayser, is widening its focus to Northaven with the community center and the formation of a community development corporation in Northaven.
An open lot near Northaven Elementary has a plywood sign that reads in purple lettering “Impact Coming Soon.”
That is the lot Padgett pointed out to Impact pastor Michael Ellis as Ellis was looking for a larger role for the church based in the section of Frayser linked to Northaven by North Watkins Street. The land was owned by the Baptist Association and Ellis soon had the deed to it with plans to build a church eventually with a multi-purpose building coming first.
Impact plans a door-to-door survey of the area to see what needs need to be met.
“None of the questions have to do with them coming to our church. That’s not important. For us, what’s important is to dive into that community, identify needs and meet needs,” Ellis said. “It’s not overwhelming. It’s just enough where we can get our hands around and do some good.”
While the Frayser sanctuary will eventually move, Ellis said Impact will continue its ministry in Frayser. The church’s work in Frayser grapples with some of the same problems in Northaven – both communities share the same ZIP code. In Northaven, Horton Road is a tree-lined two-lane road between a two-tire gravel road behind a farm fence on one end and a dead end with railing and warning signs backed by solid trees, bushes and kudzu. There are so many trees that in late spring gumballs from the trees completely cover one of the two lanes of the road. It is the only way in or out of the old Horton Gardens public housing development.
In the hollowed-out, copper stripped shells of the development of brick buildings are signs of the still active gang life and other nightlife that have plagued Northaven for decades. The development amid the trees is slowly being reclaimed by the natural growth. But it’s not hard to imagine that there is still the potential for lots of trouble at the end of the single road into the area.
Padgett isn’t unaware of that at all. But he also sees possibilities and it is contagious. Ellis envisions a gated community at Horton Gardens for senior citizens and formerly homeless veterans.
“I can get people on my side,” Padgett said. “When I looked at that community the first day … I saw the opportunity to build a school that didn’t cost more but that reconnected people to government. Basically the school is the vehicle that connects people to the government.”
That includes gang members who regularly plundered and victimized his school.
“What they saw was that I wasn’t going to crush their brothers and sisters. I told them that if you give me a chance, I’ll do for your little brothers and sisters what should have been done for you but nobody ever gave you a chance,” Padgett said. “They backed up off me because they were breaking in that school so regular before I came.”
The school is still occasionally hit with gang graffiti. Until just last month when the community association removed some gang graffiti, Padgett used his own equipment to do it regularly. It’s part of an arsenal he has that includes weed whackers and bush hogs and lawnmowers. Padgett describes himself as “more handyman and farmer than I ever was a principal.” He grew up near Selma, Ala., on a farm in which his grandparents kept trips into the racially segregated town for supplies to a bare minimum.
“We didn’t go to town for anything because it was such a dangerous proposition just going to town to buy stuff. The stuff we got from town – you had to be in dire need,” he recalled. “When you watch the Mississippi (Ku Klux) Klan come down U.S. Highway 80 into Selma, Ala., as a little kid laying on your stomach in a okra patch, it leaves an impression on you.”
As an adult, Padgett draws no distinction between the journey to school and the world inside the school. It is all his turf.
“I came here to stay five years to put in a structure that could last that doesn’t cost more,” he said. “A safer community means a safer school.”
So, on a warm spring morning last month, Padgett assembled 30 of his preschoolers, each dressed in fire engine red T-shirts and wearing red plastic fire helmets, walked them across the drive with the four square markings, along a wooded path and down a closed road to the opening of the new fire station.
“We came here seven years ago y’all,” Padgett said as he spoke to the group of adults as the 4-year-olds calmly took in a world they call home that began changing not so long ago before they were born.