Memphis, Tenn. — The crumbling house where Aretha Franklin was born looks no different from many others on Lucy Avenue in Memphis’ Soulsville neighborhood: empty and shuttered, with plywood over the windows. A rear section has collapsed, and weeds grow all around it. No one has lived there for years.
It’s a monument to urban blight, and daunting evidence of how much work it will take to fix it.
Now, however, in historic Memphis neighborhoods like Soulsville and Orange Mound, an effort is underway to reclaim the landscape of abandoned houses and trash-strewn vacant lots.
It’s making Memphis a leader in the fight against the blight epidemic afflicting America’s cities.
“I’ve become frustrated, angry, energized, charged, fired-up, all at the same time,” said Roger R. Brown, pastor at Greater White Stone Missionary Baptist Church, which has bought abandoned properties and teamed with businesses to beautify the area. “We’re going to address this area and make a difference.”
Memphis is the first U.S. city to draft a charter document linking city agencies and community organizations to confront neighborhood blight, experts say. An innovative program enlists University of Memphis law students to sue homeowners on the city’s behalf, forcing them to develop reclamation plans or give them up for demolition.
“The Memphis thing now is a model for a lot of other places, particularly because they did such a good job of establishing a collaborative group,” said Kermit Lind, a lawyer who has worked with the Cleveland Municipal Housing Court. “With the charter, that is a step ahead.”
Leaders in many American cities have long struggled to reduce vacant lots, abandoned buildings, uncollected litter and environmental contamination, according to a 2016 report by Joe Schilling and Jimena Pinzon. Blight can lead to school closures, drain municipal budgets and decrease property tax collections.
In recent years, several U.S. cities have launched coordinated anti-blight campaigns. Cleveland and Baltimore have used courts and data collection to rescue neighborhoods left empty by job loss, suburbanization and the Great Recession of nearly a decade ago, which set off a wave of foreclosures.
Revitalization has brought mixed results in New Orleans, which saw entire neighborhoods wiped out by Hurricane Katrina, and in Detroit, where vast swaths were turned into ghost towns by the loss of manufacturing jobs.
Experts say the Memphis Neighborhood Blight Elimination Charter, crafted by lawyer Steve Barlow with the help of Schilling and Lind in 2016, has generated momentum. Barlow outlined a plan to unify government agencies, community groups, businesses and others to help repair houses or rid neighborhoods of properties beyond saving.
Previously, groups rarely communicated, leading to scattershot, often contradictory programs.
The charter links blight remediation with the city’s land use and community development plans, codes and economic development efforts.
“They’re creating a new playbook,” said Schilling, a senior researcher at the Urban Institute who co-authored an article with Lind about the effort in the University of Memphis law review last year.
The groups use a database to identify neighborhoods with numerous troubled properties.
Clean Memphis, which organizes neighborhood cleanups, enlists volunteers who pick up trash. Employees of Memphis-based businesses pitch in.
“There’s so much work to do,” said Peyton Dodson, a Watkins Uiberall employee who wore protective gloves as he filled bags with trash in the Soulsville neighborhood.
Meanwhile, Judge Larry Potter presides over Shelby County Environmental Court, where homeowners must address problems identified by code enforcement officers — from crumbling facades to plumbing and electrical problems.
Potter grills owners about their plans. Some tell him they can’t maintain properties and surrender them for demolition. Potter presses others to make repairs.
“It’s time to put the pedal to the metal,” Potter told Lemoyne-Owen Community Development Corp. President Jeffrey Higgs, the receiver in the Franklin case, during a recent hearing.
Lind, a lawyer, used Ohio’s residential public nuisance statute in Cleveland’s housing court to abate blighted housing conditions. He said students sometimes assist prosecutors for credit or as part-time employees in other cities.
However, “it is unusual, if not unprecedented, for student lawyers to represent a city government” as they are in Memphis, he said.
The home where Franklin was born in 1942 and lived for two years before her family left Memphis is currently in limbo in Potter’s court. It’s been vacant for years, and there’s no marker indicating its significance.
The house was scheduled for demolition before Memphis Heritage volunteers stabilized it, hoping to avoid demolition. Now a court-appointed receiver is raising money to fix up and move the house to “a location better suited for tourist traffic,” said city attorney Kenya Hooks.
“The receiver has also been in contact with Ms. Franklin’s representatives and hopes to have her on board to support the project,” Hooks said.
Higgs, the receiver, told Potter on Feb. 23 he was working on a plan with the DIY Network to move the house to another spot.
“I would like to see this house saved,” said the judge. “I want to see it in a secure location.”
A hearing is set for March 23 in Potter’s court. A spokesman for Franklin said the singer did not respond to a request for comment relayed to her.
Though Franklin’s birthplace might be saved, the same can’t be said of the empty houses surrounding it on Lucy Avenue. That work will take longer and be harder, and it probably won’t be televised.
But those involved say they finally have a plan in place to succeed.
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