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VOL. 127 | NO. 203 | Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Anti-Blight Efforts Kick Into High Gear

By Bill Dries

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As mid-day traffic made an s-curve in South Parkway, a block of Bullington Avenue behind the trees in the curve was getting a makeover from work crews from several city departments.

This 100-year-old, fire-scarred house was demolished this week.

(Photo: Bill Dries)

And the fourth house on the block to be demolished in a week’s time started to come down Monday, Oct. 15.

Anti-blight declarations have become the political equivalent of elected officials declaring they are against crime and for education. Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. is making the case for an anti-blight effort it took him some time to coordinate so that several city departments and hired contractors would respond together in a focused area.

That is the basic game plan of Wharton’s “25 Square” effort – as in 25 square blocks at a time.

“There’s no such thing as, ‘They sent me to cut the weeds. I know the (sewer) grate is missing. I know you don’t have a sidewalk. I know those tree limbs have been out there for two months. But I don’t do that,’” Wharton said outside the house at 746 Bullington. “We come in and we do the whole thing. That’s what our citizens expect and they get no less.”

Since July 1, the start of city government’s fiscal year, the campaign has cut and cleared more than 14,000 vacant and abandoned lots, according to Wharton.

That compares to a previous record for a year’s time of 7,891.

A bulldozer parked in the small front yard, over the tiny concrete walkway to the front door of the burned-out, two-story house, ripped away the front porch in a matter of seconds. That included a sign on the porch stating the ground rules for what was perhaps a boarding house divided into several apartments. Charred furniture in an upstairs room with a flame-shredded roof came tumbling down along with the brick chimney soon after.

Blight was the No. 1 problem cited by residents on the street and the area who were polled by Memphis police officers are part of an outreach effort Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong said will work to keep residents involved in maintaining the area.

Armstrong has said his introduction of more community policing efforts that emphasize prevention of crime will blend with instead of replace the department’s Blue CRUSH get tough efforts.

The signature of Blue CRUSH over six years was the boarding up of vacant houses used to sell drugs from or for gang activity.

But Armstrong was more vocal Monday about the shortcomings of just that approach to crime than he has been since succeeding Larry Godwin as police director a year and a half ago.

Armstrong said the feedback his officers got from the area was that the show of force wasn’t keeping crime out of the area for very long.

“It’s time for us to stop putting a Band-Aid on a problem and putting boards on these houses,” he said. “Truthfully speaking we come back in a couple of weeks – we come back in a couple of months – those boards have been vandalized. … The answer to that is we are no longer standing by and putting Band-Aids on the problem. Our overall goal is to fix and alleviate the problem.”

Blue CRUSH was a major component of Godwin’s approach to the city’s rising crime rate and also credited with bringing the overall crime rate down over the six-year period.

The area of South Memphis that includes the block of Bullington is 70 square blocks making it the most ambitious of the 200 similar undertakings launched with city funding as well as grants from the Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Memphis Area Association of Realtors.

The Bloomberg funding is part of the administration’s “Innovation Delivery Team,” which is working to reduce gun violence in three parts of the city as well as promote small-business growth.

The Realtors group won a $25,000 grant from the National Association of Realtors in March to demolish 20 vacant and blighted homes with no hope for rehabilitation.

“Our goal is to fight blight,” said Lee Holt, chairwoman of the group’s committee that spearheaded the grant application effort. “Our impression is so favorable – any time you get in and you get your hands dirty and you make the community stronger in a weaker area, everybody benefits.”

The funding helps to pay independent contractors who will be demolishing a total of 56 vacant homes over three weeks in the targeted area.

The two-story house, which included what looked like some additions also heavily damaged in a recent fire was built 100 years ago, according to the Shelby County Assessor’s office. It had 15 rooms.

The condemnation notice posted on the front porch showed the house was marked by the city for demolition in July.

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