Lance Allan 0000-00-00 00:00:00
What goes up must come down — except in Uptown Memphis. Uptown Memphis was little more than a dream and a plan 10 years ago. Even five years ago, as residential units were popping up throughout the area to the north of the Downtown Memphis core, it still had not become the mixed-income residential oasis city planners and community stakeholders had envisioned. But today, while there are still challenges and empty lots awaiting new construction, the future is brighter than ever, thanks to a variety of enhancements that range from new community projects and commercial development to education initiatives and neighborhood determination. And yet to be seen is the impact on Uptown that The Pyramid arena — soon to be reborn as a Bass Pro Shops mega-store — and redevelopment of the nearby Pinch District will have. Uptown is a public-private revitalization project started in the late 1990s by Downtown developers Henry Turley and Jack Belz and the city of Memphis. It involves reshaping a 100-block area east of Mud Island and north of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, bringing hundreds of new homes and apartments along with improvements to public spaces. The housing component is roughly twothirds apartments and one-third new singlefamily homes (each with a mix of market-rate and affordable units). The affordable Hope VI homes and all the apartments are complete. Still to be completed is the remainder of the market-rate homes. Tanja Mitchell, neighborhood coordinator working on the Uptown Rehab Project and events coordinator for the Uptown Community Association, has experienced firsthand the transformation the community has made. Not only has she worked in different capacities in the Uptown community through the years, but she also bought a home here in 2005. From her front porch, she points south to the Downtown skyline, then north at the horse-drawn carriage trotting by. She explains just what it is that she likes about the neighborhood. “Uptown,” she says, “is interesting, affordable, and environmentally conscious. It’s the coolest neighborhood in Memphis!” EDUCATION: One of the newest initiatives in Uptown isn’t about the coolness of the neighborhood. It’s about shaping its future leaders. Just a few years ago, Michael Whaley didn’t think he’d be where he is. The Dallas native moved to Memphis on a temporary basis to be a schoolteacher. He figured that when his two-year stint was up, he’d move on to other things. But something about Memphis, the kids here, and helping shape tomorrow’s leaders stuck with him. That, and one mission statement he wrote on a piece of paper more than two years ago: Memphis College Preparatory Elementary School provides kindergarten through fifth-grade students with the academic and ethical foundation necessary to excel in school and life. “We employ proven techniques taken from the highest performing schools across the country that serve a similar student population,” says Whaley, lead founder and director of the school, which opened its doors at 278 Greenlaw in August with an initial kindergarten class of 70. “We want to emphasize the idea that college preparation begins as soon as you start school. The whole idea is that not only is college possible, but it will be a reality.” Whaley and a team of educational, civic, and business leaders looked at a few neighborhoods for their school, where classes are named after colleges and students are called scholars. “We chose this Uptown neighborhood for a lot of reasons,” says Whaley. “We liked the location near Downtown and that it’s a historic, lowincome area that is seeing revitalization. We strongly believe that education is a key driver of positive change, so we saw Uptown as a perfect fit.” COMMUNITY: Community Garden Getting community partners and residents involved in what’s going on in Uptown has been key to the neighborhood’s Success. That involvement can be seen when neighbors wave at one another as they pass by. It’s evident at the progressive Thanksgiving dinner and during annual park events, such as the barbecue cooking contest and chili cook-off. And it’s there in the community garden, where residents, neighborhood partners, and businesses pay $20 a year for a box to call their own, to plant and cultivate just about anything that will grow. The garden, which started the day before Earth Day 2009, was made possible because of gifts. The adjacent St. Stephen Baptist Church donated the land just off Fourth Street. The Memphis Rotary Club provided the soil and materials for the fence and beds. Grow Memphis gave young plants, seeds, and gardening expertise. There aren’t many rules in the garden; basically, anything can be grown except tobacco and marijuana. Mitchell, who spearheaded the project and was quick to brag about her green thumb during the first Year, found her own way to turn the garden in her neighborhood’s favor. “Miss Cordelia’s worked out a plan with us,” she says, referring to the nearby Harbor Town restaurant and grocer. “We have a barter system. When the garden is plentiful, we pick some produce, go over to Miss Cordelia’s, and make the trade.” That positive sense of community that enabled an Uptown homeowner to grow her own vegetables in a neighborhood garden and barter it for breakfast at a nearby restaurant had to start somewhere. Mitchell should know about where the Uptown community has come from. “Growing up, I was always told not to go to North Memphis,” she says. “I can’t believe I’m working and living in an area once deemed forbidden! The North Memphis Community Development Corporation has completely changed this street.” As she says that, she points at the new houses popping up on both sides of a street in a North Memphis neighborhood that was once filled with blight. Skateboard Ramp Another complete change happened back in March, when an important development occurred inside the Greenlaw Community Center, where recreation abounds in the gymnasium, game room, and playground. A brand-new skateboard ramp, part of a Memphis Athletic Ministries Pilot program, opened to beginners and pros alike. On a recent evening, about 10 kids ranging in age from around 7 to teenagers are riding the newly installed skateboard ramp inside, popping frontside air or wobbling on “new skate legs.” A major development? Perhaps not to people living outside the community. But to the neighborhood children who are enjoying riding skateboards, their laughter is hard to argue against. COMMERCIAL: Not too far from the community center is a big patch of dirt with a bit of construction going on. But it’s still mostly dirt. Mitchell is hopeful that will change eventually. This piece of land, not too far from BRIDGES Inc. — a nonprofit community-building organization in the iconic “tilted” building on North Fifth Street — and the northern border of the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital campus is slated for commercial properties. The only activity so far on the three-acre site is a SunTrust Bank that’s under construction. It’s been a long time coming, but it’s a start; one that Mitchell maintains will lead to much-needed amenities, such as a grocery store or pharmacy — the types of things that are meaningful to residents and necessary to building a community. FUTURE: Looking at the past and the struggles of the former community gives even more hope as to what potential still remains, thanks to the coming Bass Pro Shops at The Pyramid and redevelopment plans for the Pinch District on The southern border of Uptown. Ryan Fowler, president of the Uptown Community Association, said the Bass Pro project will have a major influence on future neighborhood development. He is hopeful it won’t be in a negative way, though. “When The Pyramid project is complete, Uptown will become the front door to one of the largest tourist attractions in our city,” he says. “This is exciting and a little scary. Large-scale projects like this often spawn fast-paced development in surrounding areas. In Uptown, we hope to harness some of this energy, but in a way that complements our desire for sustainability, smart design, and a respect for the historical context of our community. If done well, the Bass Pro project could be a huge boost for Uptown residents by increasing access to jobs, upgrading the surrounding infrastructure, and boosting access to amenities.” The prospect of increased employment opportunities for Uptown residents is what has Mitchell excited. “Not everybody has a car,” she says. “If our residents can land a job at Bass Pro, they can walk to work, so the economic impact will be tremendous if this happens.” So where does Uptown go from here? It’s hard to say, but the community seems to be going up. One thing is clear, though, at least to community leaders like Whaley: Living in Uptown should mean open doors, not closed ones. Uptown Memphis, 949-1309, uptownmemphis.org.
Published by Downtowner Magazine. View All Articles.
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