Gentrify My Historic Neighborhood, Please

Posted by John Branston on Wed, Apr 24, 2013 at 6:29 PM

There seem to be some concerns about gentrifying Midtown if the Sears Crosstown project is completed.

I say we should be so lucky. Gentrification, a fancy word for raising property values and the quality of neighborhoods, is a good thing, not a bad thing. If the Crosstown planners who want to turn the Sears building into a vertical urban village can't understand that then I don't know why they're fooling with this monster.

My perspective on the Sears building comes, daily, from the front door of my house in the Evergreen Historic District three blocks from Sears, where the summer sun sets behind the tower. My wife and I bought our house in 1984, raised our children here, sent them to Snowden school down the street, and have welcomed and said good-bye to a succession of mostly exemplary neighbors. Friends who live in East Memphis or the suburbs or other cities say we live on a good street. We agree.

We paid $86,500 for the house. The county appraisal we got in March values it at $204,200, an average annual increase of 3 percent over 29 years in which we put on a few roofs and added a new garage, central air, and a bedroom-to-bathroom conversion. This compares to the nearly 9 percent annual return on the Dow Jones Industrial Average over the same period of time. If only . . .

Granted, I have taken pains to keep the county appraisal low because it means lower property taxes, and we don't plan on moving any time soon. On the other hand, this is a big chunk of our retirement plan, and if we did decide to move we would want to get top dollar.

One reason appraisals are all over the place in this part of Midtown is because of the notoriously uneven quality of the houses. There are a bunch of relatively new houses built on the old expressway corridor in the 1990s, several classic bungalows and four-squares that are 100 years old, and quite a few blighted wrecks. Some of them are occupied, some are not. A stone's throw from my place is a rental for college students. Some people would describe them as members of Richard Florida's creative class. The owners of the house, since 1989, own a small business in Midtown. They get rental income. The students are able bodied. But for whatever reason, nobody believes in house or yard maintenance. Every year, the neighbors have to notify code enforcement, which does what it can.

This is the story of Midtown. For every dump, there are four or five houses that are well kept, sometimes at great cost. A couple of fix-ups on our street were featured in the HGTV television program "Best Bang For Your Buck."
Bless 'em.

My friend Carol Coletta, a Memphian who studies and speaks about cities for a living, says "cheap cities are cheap for a reason." Memphis is a cheap city. Nashville isn't. We could use some Nashvillization in our neighborhoods. I am not at all sure that Midtown needs more housing on the scale the Crosstown planners envision. A case can be made that it needs less housing. There are good, 1999 houses with 1700 square feet of living space two blocks from Sears Crosstown on the market today for $118,000 and older houses selling for much less than that.

The neighborhoods around Sears Crosstown are affordable. They are not in any danger of becoming unaffordable due to gentrification. That is as wild an exaggeration as the fear-mongering stories about Kroger's at Poplar and Cleveland where many of us shop. Granted, 28 years ago there was a bombing at the old Kroger's across Poplar where Walgreen's is now, but, hey, stuff happens.

Seriously, rising property values, blight reduction, and increased home ownership are good things for neighborhoods and for Memphis at large. If this is gentrification, bring it on.

Comments (13)

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So much of this narrow-minded rant bothers me. I will just briefly address the smallest offense: it's just "Kroger". Unless you want to talk about something the store possesses, you can drop the 's. Even in glorious perfect Nashville the store is simply Kroger.

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Posted by yawn on 04/24/2013 at 7:03 PM


The traditional use of the possessive in this form, derives from the understood word 'store' that should follow: "..there was a bombing at the old Kroger's (store) across Poplar..." Theories about this which I have read, relate to archaic English usage, wherein most stores and businesses were appended with the surname of the proprietor. This is not standard usage, which has evolved to a more curt form such that the traditional usage is unclear. It has also been noted by some sources that this possessive form has a geographic variability which makes it more common in certain regions of the US, and thus in those areas, more acceptable.

Be that as it may, one is just as likely to hear this usage in Nashville as Memphis.

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Posted by OakTree on 04/24/2013 at 10:19 PM

Yawn, I suppose you chose this point because you couldn't see whether the author's fingernails were properly trimmed?

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Posted by Jeff on 04/25/2013 at 8:11 AM

This city could use a lot of gentrification. I understand the concerns, however, the benefits of gentrified neighborhoods greatly outweigh the disadvantages.

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Posted by Jamie Outlaw on 04/25/2013 at 10:32 AM

I agree with the author completely. In Memphis we do not have the luxury of whining about so-called "gentrification". Gentrify us. PLEASE.

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Posted by Chris in Midtown on 04/25/2013 at 11:19 AM

Gentrification is usually a great thing and we could be so lucky. You could turn the table and say that many of the residents that are most concerned about “gentrification” are those that would not have been able to afford to live in the neighborhood had it not “de-gentrified” (a fancy word for declined).

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Posted by barf on 04/25/2013 at 11:51 AM

I'm such an idiot. I guess the fumes get to me on occassion as I'm bleaching my clients here at the clinic. But I actually thought "gentrification" meant being a fan of that hot chick who sang "Ode To Billy Joe."

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Posted by Smitty Patterson on 04/25/2013 at 12:21 PM

I'm not seeing narrow-mindedness nor a rant here. Memphis, generally, and Midtown, specifically needs an infusion of wealth. The chip on my shoulder about Nashville's recent successes notwithstanding, I can't help but look at the success of the state's capital and think what Memphis can learn from it. Nashville has seen a substantial jump in property values by attracting businesses and individuals from elsewhere. Why is it that Memphis can't do the same? Poverty? OK, that's a major obstacle. But the Bluff City doesn't lack the energy and unique cultural attributes that attract folks from elsewhere. Before long folks from the coasts will begin to discover those things in greater numbers ... and that housing is dirt cheap in Memphis. Then, watch the prices rise.

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Posted by richbanks1 on 04/26/2013 at 9:01 AM

Good point re: the increase in property values in Nashville-Davidson. Considering the likely controversial nature of the city’ budget and proposed tax increase this year, it raises a lot of questions the answers to which I would like to read about should any ambitious journalist desire to tackle the research. We often hear how our property taxes are higher than elsewhere in the state by ”x” amount and how that is driving business to other cities. However, if the property values are higher to begin with in another city, both residents and businesses might be paying the same- or even more- despite a lower property tax rate. Before we say we are paying more, don’t we need to first examine what the average property values are in these other places?

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Posted by barf on 04/26/2013 at 10:56 AM

Anyone only needs to look at South Main, Cooper-Young, or more recently, Broad Avenue to see how these projects, for all their good intentions and "positive effects", simultaneously forces poor people and their businesses out of the neighborhood.

Of course the middle and upper class people of Memphis want gentrification; they're not the ones who stand to be displaced from their homes or have their neighborhoods radically transformed or made inaccessible, but those who stand to profit or benefit from the whole thing.

You see, the problem isn't with making neighborhoods more livable, it's that we're making neighborhoods more livable for affluent white transplants, not people who have historically lived and worked in these communities.

So now, the southern portion of downtown, once a predominantly low-income black neighborhood, has become a haven of tourism and home to some of the most expensive dwellings in the city, and completely rebranded as the South Main Arts District.

Cooper-Young, once one of Memphis' most ethnically and economically-diverse neighborhoods is now whiter than Lakeland and as expensive to live in as Germantown.

And the western section of Broad Avenue, once a 95% black neighborhood, is now being rebranded and gentrified. But how many of these businesses are owned or operated or even staffed by people who grew up in this neighborhood?

There is already talk amongst developers of turning Ft. Pickering/French Fort, another economically and racially diverse neighborhood, into the next Harbortown when the Harrahan Bridge project is completed.

I guess the assumption among most of you is that gentrification solves poverty and crime, and creates a livable community in the process. But the question I pose is: how and for who? Displacing communities and moving in affluent outsiders (residents or businesses), doesn't solve poverty, it increases it. It doesn't solve crime or fix the conditions that drive people to crime, it simply relocates the crime and amplifies the class and race disparities and divisions in an already historically segregated city.

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Posted by Count Dracula on 04/26/2013 at 11:33 AM

And speaking of crime;
Why is it that when rich folks steal an entire neighborhood from poor folks and retrofit it for their own uses, they are mythologized by the media as heroes and visionaries, but, when a poor person robs a gas station to survive because there are no job opportunities available to them, they are demonized by the media as the scum of the earth, worthy only of prison time?

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Posted by Count Dracula on 04/26/2013 at 11:42 AM

Thank you, Count. This article and accompanying comments are extremely disgusting. If only our city would improve resources and infrastructure in poor neighborhoods for the people already living in those neighborhoods instead of turning them into lil Disneylands for middle class white people....

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Posted by sm on 04/29/2013 at 7:54 AM

If we form judgements about neighborhood change based on superficial appearances, we fall into the same trap we fall into when we form judgements about people based on their skin color. What if we tried another way: a systematic look beneath the surface? Researchers made some surprising discoveries when they looked at what was happening to original residents of neighborhoods in Cleveland, NYC and elsewhere. To accept their discoveries, we have to be willing to let go of our assumptions about change, which is hard to do. But it might allow us to shift our energies to things we can make progress on: economic empowerment, inclusion, and access.

Posted by Data First on 10/30/2014 at 10:32 AM
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