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VOL. 131 | NO. 14 | Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Clean Memphis, Chamber Work to Spruce Up City


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Janet Boscarino’s career in business development had her traveling frequently. And while she always enjoyed coming home, one thing stood out that she hated: the amount of litter she saw across Memphis, especially compared to some of the cities she visited for business.

Students form MLK College Prep and Memphis Business Academy join forces to focus a clean and healthy Wolf River Watershed. Students removed litter and other debris from the watershed surrounding the Wolf River Watkins access.


And about that same time she recalls reading about a drop in the city’s population as Memphians chose to move elsewhere. She began conversations with others, and they agreed that the time was right to take action.

Clean Memphis began in 2008 with a vision of making Memphis safer, cleaner and more connected.

“We all met and decided you can either complain, move or do something,” said Boscarino, executive director of Clean Memphis. “At first it was naive: We’ll get everybody more together and do cleanup projects. But when I researched existing efforts and other cities we realized there are a lot of people doing good things in neighborhoods but not a coordinated method.”

One of the biggest efforts of the coordinated method is the annual MLK Day of Service, which was Monday, Jan. 18, and saw coordinated teams of volunteers spread out across the city. Now in its seventh year, the effort launched in the Soulsville neighborhood in conjunction with LeMoyne-Owen College.

The MLK Day of Service has been important for that neighborhood where residents and volunteers have been joined by the efforts of more than 300 employees of nearby Lehman-Roberts Co. to remove hundreds of tires, trash and overgrowth.

“It’s a massive project in Soulsville, not only to clean up but clearing pathways to schools, cut back overgrowth on vacant properties,” Boscarino said.

Monday’s service day was a launch of the organization’s efforts to make real change in the city’s appearance, and it goes hand in hand with the Memphis Clean by 2019 moon mission of the Greater Memphis Chamber’s Chairman’s Circle.

By their nature, moon missions take staunch effort to attain. Shea Flinn is senior vice president of the chamber’s Chairman’s Circle, and he said the goal of a clean Memphis by 2019 – the city’s bicentennial – is important for the community because it’s something everybody experiences in day-to-day life.

“The long-term sustainable piece is raising a generation of young people who better understand how to interact with the environment.”

–Janet Boscarino
Clean Memphis

“One of the first things visitors and residents notice about an environment is whether it’s clean,” Flinn said. “This came out when the governor was coming to town last year and we had to get him from the airport to Presidents Island and we want to impress our governor. We tried to find the cleanest route there and couldn’t do it. Our solutions were zero. That’s unacceptable.”

The Chairman’s Circle members voted in December 2014 to start the effort, which got underway in March. There are three areas of focus: blight, trash and community awareness.

Flinn said they knew with Clean Memphis’ efforts that there was no need to reinvent the wheel.

One of the things that makes the Clean Memphis effort possible is coordination. Boscarino’s observation of model cities was that they don’t look at the big picture and its potential to overwhelm. Areas are broken down into smaller geographic places and teams are created.

So Clean Memphis used that idea and created a strategic plan. They divided Memphis into 28 zones and worked with neighborhood groups to train on how to identify and report blight and how to grow volunteer numbers.

The chamber’s involvement helped better coordinate those zones and identify the businesses located in each. Zone captains then step in to coordinate volunteers and cleanup efforts in each zone.

“We all have a stake in this game,” Flinn said. “We needed to organize the efforts. Instead of many schools of fish we have one pushing toward this one direction. Whether it’s the business community, government or nonprofits it’s too big for any one group.”

Education is a key component. Clean Memphis has three teachers on staff who visit schools to provide environmental education.

“The whole ‘don’t be a litter bug’ thing doesn’t work anymore,” Boscarino said. “The long-term sustainable piece is raising a generation of young people who better understand how to interact with the environment.”

Other points of emphasis include blight, and taking a list of the top concerns in each zone and finding ways to mitigate those issues. Of course it’s not always as simple as stepping in and asking a property owner to clean a lot, especially if they’re located out of town.

“They’re not nuisances, they’re a clear and present threat,” Flinn said. “They have a halo effect. One blighted house can take down an entire cove. It’s a substantial challenge. You’re dealing with real constitutional property rights. It becomes a tight rope to walk.”

PROPERTY SALES 53 210 10,146
MORTGAGES 53 214 11,160
BUILDING PERMITS 245 474 22,646
BANKRUPTCIES 271 271 6,490