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Can Raleigh Spring Back?

Raleigh has good housing stock, nice neighborhoods, and is racially balanced. Can it be saved from the foreclosure crisis — and become a model for turning other Memphis neighborhoods around?

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Although he served his last mayoral term 174 years ago and died in 1840, Isaac Rawlings recently re-emerged from the far reaches of local history to shed light on an issue facing Memphis today. Volunteers stumbled onto Rawlings' family plot in the historic Raleigh Cemetery during a cleanup event last March. Until then, the gravesite had been obscured by several years' worth of vegetation that still shrouds most of the seven-acre property at East Street and Old Raleigh-LaGrange Road.

"Basically, it was just us in there doing what we do," said Derek Kifer, lead investigator and founder of Ghost Hunters of Southwest Tennessee. "That day we probably reclaimed about two acres."

Last November, Kifer approached Kevin Brooks, president of the Raleigh Community Council, about cleanup efforts in the all but forgotten cemetery. But after another cleanup session in the spring, the underbrush started creeping back and became unruly during the summer months. All of which begged the question: Why wasn't anyone else maintaining what is possibly the oldest major cemetery in the county?

As far as many area stakeholders are concerned, the neglect that has marked the Raleigh Cemetery for so many years might well be a metaphor for Raleigh itself.

Gwen Holloway, who lives in the Twin Lakes neighborhood north of Yale Road, keeps a tight vigil on the area. She's been living there for 30 years and would rather stay than go. But sometimes staying is a trial.

"I could've moved, but the house that I have is sufficient for me and my husband," she said. "But when I see my surroundings go down, and the value of my property, then I'm concerned."

She said she's seen what once was a "beautiful, beautiful community dwindle down to nothing" and places a big chunk of the blame on what she calls the shoddy maintenance work of city employees and contractors.

"I understand that there's a lot going on in the overall city ... but get to me at least sometime," she said.

Similar complaints surfaced more than once during a town hall meeting last month at Raleigh's Greater Imani Church.

Why does it take so long for the city to respond to requests, area residents asked. Why do trash collectors leave so much garbage behind? Why is grass allowed to grow so high? Why are so many vacant properties left to crumble or, worse, become the targets of vandals and drug dealers?

To which Mayor A C Wharton responded that it takes four to six weeks to complete many projects because of a strapped city budget and not enough workers — or mowers — to go around. Then he asked for patience.

"If it doesn't get done, it's not because [city councilman Bill Morrison] is not bending our ear and saying, 'Stay on it,'" Wharton said.

That was cold comfort to some in the audience who openly criticized the city's Public Works Department, among others. A few uncomfortable questions and earnest-seeming responses from some of the city department heads who spoke at the meeting didn't appear to quell the underlying sentiment that Raleigh's aging white holdouts and growing African-American population aren't getting the attention they deserve.

"No need for me to sugarcoat it," Holloway said. "That's how I feel. We're left behind."

But not necessarily for long, Morrison said. Since his election in 2007 to the council's District 1 seat, Morrison has made Raleigh and, by extension, nearby Frayser top priorities. District 1 covers all of Raleigh and parts of Frayser and Cordova.

Although the Raleigh-Frayser area might seem worlds away from its cushier neighbor, Morrison begs to differ. He said Cordova's destiny — and the economic destiny of greater Memphis — is closely intertwined with the ultimate success, or failure, of Raleigh and Frayser.

"If we can turn Raleigh and Frayser, we can turn the city," Morrison said.

The first and most urgent task in that quest is finding a way to reposition the Raleigh Springs Mall. Before it began to wither in the late 1990s, the mall was a big regional draw. That was before Wolfchase Galleria opened in 1997.

"When Wolfchase opened, Raleigh Springs Mall was seriously hurt," said Dexter Muller, senior vice president for community development at the Greater Memphis Chamber.

Muller has been working with Morrison and others to address some of the most pressing issues in Raleigh-Frayser. Prior to the mall's decline, it served as the primary shopping destination for the 70,000 to 100,000 people in Raleigh and Frayser.

"That's a good-sized town," Muller said, "bigger than Jackson, Tennessee."

A walk through the mall now reveals that it is past its heyday.

A beat-up Persian carpet lies at the entry to one store, while a hotdog vendor operates from the darkened doorway of what appears to have been a fast food restaurant. In the midst of it all, a brawny security guard makes his rounds, looking anything but relaxed.

But for all the gloom inside it, the mall's bones still shine through its battered face. Its ownership configuration, however, isn't as pretty.

The main mall and its out-parcels belong to three ownership groups. Property records show Angela Whichard Inc. of Raleigh, North Carolina., owns the largest piece.

"We don't own the mall itself," said a woman recently who answered the phone at Whichard. "That has been sold to Raleigh Springs Mall Realty Management."

The firm the woman named does show up as an owner of two of the mall's smaller parcels. No one could be reached at the company's office in Little Neck, New York. The other parcel owner is Sears Roebuck & Co., which has operated its anchor store — the only remaining anchor at the mall — since Raleigh Springs opened in 1971. The other anchors, Dillard's, Macy's, and J.C. Penney, sold off their parts of the building long ago.

But if all those parcels could be combined into one local owner or ownership group, the mall might have a chance at another life, Muller and Morrison said. Which means Raleigh and its environs would have a much better chance as well.

"If we can get that mall back, I really believe we can turn things around," said Kevin Brooks.

The possibility might come to fruition sooner than anyone expected.

"We should see movement on a mall deal in the next six months," Morrison said.

He declined to identify the "interested parties" he's talked to about the mall properties.

Meanwhile, another urgent to-do in Raleigh is the improvement of Austin Peay Highway, a once vital artery now pockmarked by a vacant Schnucks building at its intersection with Yale and a welter of low-end strip centers in the opposite direction. Also on the hit list is the vacant and unattractive Serra Chevrolet dealership on Austin Peay.

"The state is going to consider selling that to us but not in the near future," Morrison said. "They are planning on tearing down some parts of it and using it for storage for some of their vehicles."

Morrison and others have tapped architecture firm Looney Ricks Kiss to develop a master plan for Raleigh based on residents' concerns and ideas. One of them is to beautify Austin Peay by adding a median and making it more pedestrian-friendly, said Steve Auterman, the LRK planner who's in charge of the day-to-day project details.

Austin Peay is a seven-lane roadway, and a median might help with traffic flow, not to mention provide some much needed visual appeal.

As for the mall, Auterman said it probably won't recapture its glory days, but it could serve as a mixed-use shopping center for residents who want the kinds of retail and restaurant offerings they enjoyed as recently as a decade ago.

"Turning the mall back into a regional shopping mall may be a difficult proposition [because] Wolfchase is not that far away," he said. "So when we look at large buildings with large parking lots like that, you might start seeing additional retail closer to the street. There could be possibilities for things like medical offices to support the hospital in the area."

Muller identified Methodist North Hospital off Covington Pike as one of the area's biggest assets. The other is Raleigh's proximity to the interstate and quick access to other parts of the city and county. He also cited the area's high homeownership rate as a plus.

"Raleigh and Frayser are two very strong and nice neighborhoods," Muller said. "The fundamentals in those areas are very good."

Raleigh is the fourth wealthiest of Memphis' 15 largest neighborhoods, according to reports. The 24-square-mile area with about 44,000 households also is the fifth-lowest for residential vacancies.

However, Raleigh's and Frayser's main challenge, at least in recent years, has been the real estate bubble's spectacular implosion.

Real estate data from Raleigh's predominant zip code, 38128, show bank sales jumped from 246 in 2004 to nearly 500 last year, according to Chandler Reports. The average price of non-bank-sale homes went from $92,704 to $55,763 during the same period.

In Frayser, bank sales totaled 444 in 2004 and reached 518 last year. They peaked at 580 during the worst of the financial crisis in 2008. Between 2004 and 2009, the average sale price plunged from $52,930 to $33,342.

"From the housing market, Frayser has been devastated," Morrison said. "If you've got $5,000 cash, you can go to Frayser and buy a house."

While that might sound like a heck of a deal to some potential buyers, the rock-bottom prices in Frayser's housing market have attracted out-of-town and absentee landlords who neglect their properties and drive the area deeper into despair.

That downward spiral ripples outward and doesn't stop with Raleigh.

"You have a lot of folks moving from Frayser to Raleigh and then from Raleigh to Cordova," Morrison said. "What we have to do is stop that by making Frayser again a sustainable community. ... We can't fix Raleigh if we don't fix Frayser."

The key is to eliminate the glut of rental homes and vacant properties in both areas and to play on strengths such as homeownership and diversity. Community Council data paint a picture of Raleigh that real estate numbers don't. For example, the percentage of family households in Raleigh's main zip code tops 70 percent. That's higher than the state average of 69.3 percent.

Languages spoken in the area range from English and Spanish to Sub-Saharan African (1,304 people), Irish/Gaelic (1,513), Italian (552), German (1,277), French (302), Swedish (65), Hungarian (42) and Norwegian (39), although they certainly aren't the only tongues spoken.

Recent mapping data by San Francisco computer programmer Eric Fischer made big news last month. It supports the image of a surprisingly diverse and integrated Raleigh. While comparing census data from all over the U.S., Fischer found that Raleigh-Frayser and Hickory Hill are the most integrated parts of Memphis by far.

So perhaps the perception that Raleigh is a down-at-heel enclave is in need of a makeover too.

Auterman, of Looney Ricks Kiss, even said that when they were polled in person and online, Raleigh citizens were frustrated with the area's image, which they said has been distorted by the media.

"Something bad happens in Raleigh, and it gives it a bad rap even if it didn't quite happen in Raleigh," Auterman said.

Perceptions should begin to change when the vacant Schnucks building near the mall is converted to an arm of the Memphis Police Department's Traffic Bureau, Morrison said. The City Council was scheduled to complete an authorization on November 9th to demolish the eyesore and start construction anew between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

That's good news to Stanley Echols, who has lived in Raleigh and sold real estate there for years. Echols works in the Bartlett office of Crye-Leike.

He chuckles with a mixture of amusement and disgust when he talks about the corner the vacant Schnucks shares with a lone Regions bank location. Across the street is an equally lonely SunTrust.

"We've got to do something about that corner of Austin Peay," he said. "Unless we get some interest back and start building some infrastructure back into the community, I just don't think we're going to see a turnaround."

Even so, parts of Raleigh continue to hold their own. Scenic Hills, Forest Lakes, and the Windermere areas are more "premium" neighborhoods, along with many of the properties nearest Craigmont High School off Covington Pike.

"We've still got some homes that can sell for what was owed and sometimes a little better," Echols conceded.

Clearly, Raleigh's revitalization is complicated.

"Frankly, there's no silver bullet," said the chamber's Muller. "That's what always comes to the forefront in this. There's no one thing you can do. You work on infrastructure. You work on the appearance of the area ... and you have to go beyond that with public-private partnership on redeveloping properties like the mall."

And perhaps treating living people and dead buildings with greater respect is as much a reflection of society as the way it cares for its ancestors' final resting places.

In addition to Isaac Rawlings, the Raleigh Cemetery also houses the remains of the Shelby family of Shelby County fame, prominent Masons, and many others entombed in unmarked graves or still hidden by weeds and brambles.

"A little flower of love, that blossomed but to die, transported now above, to bloom with God on high," reads the barely legible tombstone of 13-year-old James Harris. He died in 1926.

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