Blight Fight Takes Root Near Carnes Elementary

By Patrick Lantrip

Some of Mary Baker’s friends like to joke that she will eventually reclaim the whole city of Memphis, but just one lot at a time. “I say, what’s wrong with that?” Baker replied.

Mary Baker and James Alsobrook are two of the main forces behind the restoration of blighted properties near Carnes Elementary School.

(Daily News/Patrick Lantrip)

Her latest blight-busting efforts center on a seemingly forgotten neighborhood near Carnes Elementary School. Baker, who works for Neighborhood Preservation Inc., has already reclaimed one vacant property and transformed it into Carnes Garden – now she has her sights set on a second lot down the street which will be called Carnes Garden East.

“We’re going to take a piece of property that has been abandoned and misused and we’re going to turn it into something beautiful and something great for the neighborhood,” Baker said. “The whole idea is to make this into a walkway for the school children, the neighborhood, the business people and everyone else who wants to come through this way.”

Baker’s plans for Carnes Garden East include creating a walking path through the heavily wooded, abandoned property and connecting it to a railroad corridor that runs between Ayers and Decatur streets.

“It’s a wonderful treed corridor, like the greenlines that they have converted to wonderful walkways,” Baker said. “We got our own little greenline here, but unfortunately people have come and dumped stuff.”

Baker has a major, much-needed cleanup effort under way as a part of the MLK Day of Service on Monday, Jan. 16, at Carnes East from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. to clear the path for the walking trail.

“I hope we can get a lot of people to come out and help us keep going,” she said. “We got a good start, we just need volunteers to help us keep going.”

She hopes the renovations will mirror the success of the original Carnes Garden, which now in its third year has become an integral part the neighborhood.

“Anytime you put in something new, people are going to be skeptical,” said head gardener James Alsobrook. “But once you clean the area up, then you start meeting the people in the neighborhood.”

Alsobrook has lived next door to Carnes Garden with his brother Al, who builds handmade doghouses for a living, for about 15 years.

Projects like these and the volunteers they bring are vital to this neighborhood in particular, because most of the properties need improvement because they are abandoned or owed by older people who may not be able to physically help with the cleanup efforts, Alsobrook said.

In addition to the fresh vegetables and herbs Alsobrook tends to in the Carnes Garden, he also maintains an “edge of the woods” garden that mimics natural refuge for local flora and fauna, like the eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly, which frequents the garden in the summer.

Baker hopes to create a larger edge of the woods garden for the walking trail at Carnes East, because the natural wooded area is a great educational resource for neighborhood children who might not get the opportunity to enjoy places like the Lichterman Nature Center.

Next on the agenda is a third abandoned lot further to the east. Even though this lot is strewn with a Sisyphean amount old bricks and giant slabs of concrete, Baker is undaunted.

“We’re like Frank Lloyd Wright,” Baker said. “We like to use as much of the materials that are already on the site as we can.”