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VOL. 123 | NO. 243 | Friday, December 12, 2008

New Development Illustrates Shift In Public Housing Philosophy

By Bill Dries

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HOME AGAIN: Rosetta Franklin was 7 when her family moved to Dixie Homes in 1935. She returned to the site in October for groundbreaking of the new mixed-income development Legends Park. Her son is shown behind her. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES
“One of the first bold decisions I made in 1992 was to fire the entire Memphis Housing Authority board. I fired every member of that board. … I was not pleased with the condition of public housing.”
– Mayor Willie Herenton

The green grass that came with spring and summer is gone now that winter is about to arrive, but this change has nothing to do with the seasons.

The first homes are going up on the field at Poplar Avenue and Ayers Street. Other parts of the construction site have been built up or leveled to accommodate the foundations of other buildings.

In October, just before the changes in place and season, Rosetta Franklin came to the site on a rainy day to think about all things new – new places to live, new kitchens and appliances in the apartments, new bathrooms, new streets and a new life.

Franklin’s story fits somewhere between that and Legends Park, the mixed-income housing development that is to open next year on the site of the now-vanished Dixie Homes public housing development.

“This is a beautiful day,” she said in a tent toward the back of the field, as a steady rain came down. Franklin came to talk about the opening day of Dixie Homes in 1935. She and her family were among the first residents of the racially segregated city’s first housing project for black citizens.

Then and now

Franklin, who is 80, was 7 years old when her parents, James and Viola Franklin, were accepted in the first group of 663 residents. The Franklins lived at 234 East Ayers “right over there,” Franklin said as she pointed to the leveled land to the west. It was the depths of the Great Depression.“But we didn’t know it then,” Franklin was quick to add.

Memphis was one of the first cities in the country to have public housing. Lauderdale Courts, to the west on Poplar, opened before Dixie Homes. The Courts were for white residents. Both housing projects were built on land that had been slums.

“These were some of the best homes in Memphis. Everything was sparkling new,” Franklin said of what replaced the slums. “We were really upper-class tenants. Prominent people were in Dixie Homes.”

Franklin remembered new laundry rooms with rooms holding racks for drying clothes inside when it rained or was too cold. There was a meeting room where children and adults had social clubs like “The Knights,” who held gatherings, pageants and contests. There was crocheting, baseball and tennis. Also, the Park Commission opened a public swimming pool on Ayers later named in honor of Mississippi River hero Tom Lee. It was a child’s view of what was a difficult life for those living in Dixie Homes and living elsewhere.

One of the hardships of that life – especially for black adults – was a function of a world that was separate and unequal. Tom Lee’s name on the swimming pool was more than an honor. It was a sign, along with the literal ones at the pool, that the pool named for a black man was for black citizens only.

“Kids knew how to stay out of grown folks’ business,” Franklin said pointedly as the crowd of about 70 in the tent laughed. “We had what you call social rules. ... We kids knew how to stay out of it. We played together and we got punished together.”

A sense of community

Much of the life of children and teenagers centered around the flagpole in Dixie Homes.

“The flagpole was the place to be for skating, summer gatherings,” she said. “Even on Christmas morning, everybody went down to the flagpole to skate or to ride their new bicycles and tricycles.”

Franklin recalled the 16 years she lived in Dixie Homes as “some of the very best years of my life. ... It was just a family affair with good times, good fun.”

The Franklins moved out of Dixie Homes in 1951. Three years later, new urban renewal standards changed the fundamental philosophy of public housing as a place for families to live temporarily. Many families continued to live in public housing until they did better financially. But others began lifelong stays in public housing projects that spanned generations.

Years after the Franklins moved out, a teenaged Willie Herenton was living in one of the newer public housing projects, Foote Homes, in South Memphis. Mayor Willie Herenton was among those in the tent with Franklin for the Legends Park dedication.

Herenton confessed that he didn’t know much about Dixie Homes in those days. And his memory was different than Franklin’s. “There was a girl who was so cute that I admired,” he recalled.

“I caught the bus from South Memphis and came to Dixie Homes. It was dark. It had gangs here. But that girl was such a motivating force. ... That is the only memory I have of Dixie Homes. I’m glad that old development has been razed.”

Herenton was more than a spectator to the demolition of Dixie Homes and most of the city’s other public housing developments on his watch. With tens of millions of dollars in Hope VI program federal funding, Herenton has made the transition of housing projects to mixed-income developments a priority of his administration.

“One of the first bold decisions I made in 1992 was to fire the entire Memphis Housing Authority board,” he said. “I fired every member of that board. Leadership – I was not pleased with the condition of public housing.”

The shelf life of actions, words

Overseeing the transition out of public housing projects has been Robert Lipscomb, the city’s director of Housing and Community Development. The division includes as part of its turf what had once been the separate Memphis Housing Authority.

Lipscomb has vigorously defended the administration’s move to change the face of public housing. The approach came under fire earlier this year after an article in The Atlantic magazine linked a shift and rise in crime in some parts of the city to the movement of residents out of the phased-out public housing projects and into neighborhoods dominated by Section 8 housing.

Section 8 is a federal program that subsidizes rent in privately owned homes. On a day of different memories of the same place, Lipscomb told the group in the tent that the city will continue the policy.

“People will forget what we said here,” he said. “But they won’t forget what we did here.”

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