At a community meeting recently, in a Memphis neighborhood called The Heights, a white woman named Linda Burgess – a resident since the 70s – stood up and said that she’d had an answer to prayer. She’d seen her African American, Hispanic, and Caucasian friends and neighbors joining hands in service of their community. They were working together on the Heights Line project: a pop-up public green space on National Street, designed to bring people together and to connect the historically overlooked neighborhood to exciting nearby developments. “Linda said that we’ve been needing this in our community,” explains Jared Myers, Executive Director of The Heights Community Development Corporation (CDC).
Myers’ agrees: his focus right now, at the CDC, is on housing, and he knows that building common spaces will bolster the local real estate market. “There are 1,100 vacant and abandoned homes in our neighborhood,” he says, “so there’s a great need for us to address blight. The first ioby project we did was to board up houses with students from the neighborhood. We painted artistic renderings on the boards, and then made sure these houses were secure, so that criminal activity wasn’t taking place in them.” The CDC has since gone on to rehab nine houses, which is a great start, but only a drop in the bucket. Drastic measures are needed. Big-picture thinking is what the doctor’s ordered. Enter: The Heights Line.
Connect the dots to combat disinvestment
There’s a lot of potential energy building in Memphis right now, on the creative place-making front, which is part of what The Heights green space was designed to tap into. The nearby Broad Ave Hampline, for example – a new bike lane running hand in hand with the revival of an abandoned commercial strip – has begun to bring vibrant new life to Binghampton. The Wolf River Greenway – a green space and trail network into which the city has invested 40M – is also close enough for Heights residents to enjoy… if only there were good, safe ways to walk and bike there.
“We’re disconnected,” explains Myers. “So we said well, let’s look at what we have. We have a median that runs down National Street, where there used to be a trolley that ran down Broad to National. We’ve got 89 feet of space there. All that space is being used for cars, but there’s a 15 foot green median that’s not being utilized as public space. We could connect our neighborhood to these other assets that are happening around us.”
It’s about time, too. “This is a neighborhood in Memphis that has been overlooked and disinvested in for many years,” explains Myers. “Our city has really struggled with sprawl. During the 70s there was kind of a perfect storm where businesses left. A lot of private schools were built during integration, and we saw a lot of families leave our neighborhood because of the schools and churches. It’s going to take us many many years to reinvest.”
what a pop-up green space looks like
The Heights Line pop-up demonstration, which has been blocked to traffic for several weeks, and will continue to be closed to traffic until Nov 11, has already been host to lots of community events, including a Halloween Carnival, block parties and cookouts, and even a 5k race. “Those things are important for our community, and we haven’t had those,” says Myers. “Typically our community will gather around a candlelight vigil, where someone has been shot or killed. Not necessarily the best time to gather. We do have block parties, community cleanups, back to school parties – but we don’t necessarily have the space to do all that.”
Having a shared green space is particularly important for The Heights, given its history of diversity, with white, Black, and Hispanic families living side by side. “That’s somewhat rare for Memphis,” says Myers. “We’re a very segregated city. Very rarely outside of a sporting event, like the Grizzlies, do you see a mixture of folks together. We’ve had to do a lot of our Heights Line distribution of materials bilingually, which is important and fun, and when you go into a room and you’re sitting amongst people who look different from you – it’s something that we weren’t intentional with on the front end, but now we believe that that’s a big asset.”
Right now, if you go check out The Heights Line, you’ll find a whole lot less car traffic than usual. You’ll find a nice water cooler, thirty planters filled with greenery, a dog station to help you pick up after your dogs, a solar light panel installed on a PVC pole, a Heights Line banner to create some identity. You’ll also find Myers’ favorite design element: a hammock grove, consisting of four nice hammocks hung up for anyone to lounge in. “I love that kids get to experience that,” says Myers. “And nothing has been stolen or vandalized. We know that that’s a problem in creative placemaking. But all our our benches are still there, all of our planters are still there, all of our hammocks. People could easily come and just drive off, but they don’t. They’e enjoyed it, they’ve left it, they’ve appreciated it.”
Myers would love to see the pop up turned into a permanent project that would cover the entirety of National Street. Heights residents will need to regroup after November 11, and see how everyone feels. Whatever comes of this iteration of The Heights Line, it’s gotten people civically engaged, and it’s gotten them speaking up – agreeing, disagreeing, compromising, and working together – and that’s a boon any way you slice it.
Feeling inspired? Want to take action in YOUR neighborhood? If you have awesome ideas about how to make your town greener, safer, and more fun, let us help! Tell us your awesome idea right here. We’d love to help you get started today.
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