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VOL. 127 | NO. 168 | Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Venson Center Work Kicks Off Heritage Trail

By Bill Dries

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The ambitious $1 billion, 10-year redevelopment project called Triangle Noir during former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton’s administration is now called Heritage Trail.

And the first move beyond the demolition of the Cleaborn Homes public housing development is the exterior renovation of the R.Q. Venson Center high rise at Beale Street and Danny Thomas Boulevard.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, were on hand Wednesday, Aug. 22, for the debut of the new lighting for the public housing development. It and the other three high-rise developments for the elderly operated by the Memphis Housing Authority got the upgrades in their facades.

“We’ve come a long way with this building,” said Greg McNeal, resident president of the Venson Center, who likened it to an ugly duckling becoming a swan. “Patience is a virtue. It was all worth it.”

The 215-unit high rise that was built in the 1970s is named for Dr. R. Q. Venson, who, along with his wife Ethyl Venson, founded the Cotton Makers Jubilee during the Great Depression when the founders of the Cotton Carnival refused to allow black citizens to participate in the events promoting the city’s cotton industry.

“We’ve come a long way with this building. Patience is a virtue.”

–Greg McNeal
Resident president, Venson Center

Ethyl Venson also served on the Memphis Housing Authority board.

“When I look at people like that in my past, I realize what I have to live up to,” said Memphis Housing Authority commissioner Ian Randolph. “It makes me want to strive to do more.”

The facelift was funded with federal stimulus money through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the project was managed by The Pickering Firm.

City Housing and Community Development Director Robert Lipscomb said the next step is interior renovations of the high rises.

“We are going to do a lot more renovation now of the interior units,” Lipscomb said. “We’ve done the common areas.”

Beyond that, Lipscomb said future plans include an upgrade of nearby Church Park and a walking trail that connects the large group of historical sites in the area around and south of FedExForum.

“It’s going to be well lit. It’s going to be a beautiful area. We’re going to redo Church Park. We’re going to redo Clayborn Temple,” Lipscomb said. “We’re going to have a walking trail from the National Civil Rights Museum all the way down here with monuments and points to recognize African-American history.”

The high rise is in the first block east of the Beale Street entertainment district. It’s a block where what was once the city’s main thoroughfare of black commerce and social life during the days of segregation by law began a transition. It went from the nightspots and bars with professional offices upstairs on the other side of Fourth Street to First Baptist Church of Beale Street, Church Park, the offices of Robert R. Church Sr. and Jr. and further east the stately homes where they and other wealthy Memphians – black and white – lived.

R. Q. Venson was a dentist with an office on Beale near Third Street.

As Triangle Noir, the effort had more ambitious goals including two proposals for luxury hotels on the south side of Linden Avenue between Fourth and Danny Thomas. The buildings there have been cleared, but private financing for the projects has been more difficult.

The redevelopment for new residential and retail mixed uses for Memphians of different income levels living together is centered on Cleaborn Homes.

The high rises are being remodeled as the city’s nearly 15-year project with federal funding to eliminate large public housing projects like Cleaborn Homes has left only one of the large projects standing – Foote Homes.

Lipscomb said the high rises have a different role.

“Hopefully they will be stabilized. We are going to do a lot more renovation now of the interior units. We’ve done the common areas,” he said.

“These are seniors. They need to be close to the medial center and everything else. They have limited access. So, there was not a need to disperse them as much as the family units.”

The early and tentative thinking about the high rises when Triangle Noir first began to take shape was that one or more of the high rises might be sold. That’s no longer part of the plan.

But Lipscomb says he has no regrets about the move away from the large housing projects that once defined the nature of public housing in Memphis and other major U.S. cities.

“There was so much poverty concentrated and people couldn’t see other people getting up and doing stuff and learning from other people. The poverty was concentrated and it’s been proven that didn’t work,” he added. “Is it the right thing to do? I don’t know. But we know what has not worked. We’re still trying to learn and see what works.”

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