Revitalize black neighborhoods while preserving their history
Jevonte Porter grew up listening to family stories about a bustling era of arts and business in the Orange Mound section of Memphis. After World War II, locals flocked to performance venues like the WC Handy Theater; those without tickets often sold hot dogs or other products on the busy streets outside the premises.
To Mr. Porter, 25, these anecdotes almost sounded like fiction. As a child, he played hide and seek around abandoned buildings. Orange Mound – often cited as the first community in the United States founded and developed by African Americans – had become less the domain of street vendors and more of a food desert.
Now, Porter sees signs of revitalization taking hold.
Leading the effort are two local artists and developers, Victoria Jones and James Dukes, who want to transform the United Equipment Building – an abandoned animal feed factory and one of the locations of Mr. Porter – in Orange Mound Tower. The planned $ 50 million multi-purpose facility is expected to contain 100,000 square feet of space.
Similar developments are underway in nationally historically significant black neighborhoods, reallocating deteriorated structures in an effort to bring spaces for the arts, affordable housing and small businesses together under one roof.
In Atlanta, a former commercial building will focus on fresh food options through a locally sourced grocery store and shared kitchen space. In Oakland, Calif., A once-famous jazz club in a neighborhood ravaged by highway and transit encroachment is set to be reborn as an arts hub with a farmers market and gallery.
The plans are ambitious and difficult to achieve. A recent New York Times Magazine article on Orange Mound noted that racial demographics greatly influence where money is invested in the United States. Alone 23 percent of small black-owned businesses are likely to get bank funds, according to a 2020 Federal Reserve System report.
âPeople can demand better development in black neighborhoods,â said Nikishka Iyengar, who founded The Guild, a social enterprise program that runs the Atlanta project called Groundcover.
The Guild paid $ 550,000 for a 7,000 square foot site in the Capitol View district of Atlanta. Organizers plan to triple the size of the development by adding two floors of apartments, as well as art spaces. Community investors can buy shares of the project for $ 10.
The initial funds for Groundcover came from a grant from the Kendeda Fund, an Atlanta granting foundation that focuses on working with underrepresented communities.
âMany low-income black neighborhoods have been divested for decades and continue to struggle to attract capital,â said Ingrid Gould Ellen, professor of urban policy and planning at New York University. “Too often, reinvestment in these neighborhoods focuses on preserving physical assets but not cultural assets.”
To revitalize their neighborhood in Memphis, Ms Jones and Mr Dukes began working together in 2018 to own a large-scale mixed-use space. For decades, many buildings around Orange Mound have been demolished for urban renewal programs, said Jimmie Tucker, professor of architecture at the University of Memphis. The WC Handy Theater was demolished in 2012.
After purchasing the United Equipment Building, Ms Jones and Mr Dukes plan to christen it Orange Mound Tower.
âI have looked at this building my whole life,â said Mr. Dukes, music producer and native of Orange Mound. “Honestly, I haven’t spoken to someone who has no idea what this could be.”
Five miles northwest, Anasa Troutman wanted to create a mixed-use facility at the historic Clayborn Temple, which was an important location during the 1968 strike by sanitation workers and had fallen into disuse. But she experienced setbacks in her search for funding. The history of the temple was difficult to translate into discussions with traditional funders.
âBanks, investors wouldn’t talk to us even if it’s a historic building with an integrated audience in downtown Memphis,â Ms. Troutman said.
Big banks actively maintain a control structure that limits the opportunities for black developers and urban residents that their developments can serve, said Brandi Thompson Summers, assistant professor of geography and world metropolitan studies at the University of California at Berkeley. .
âThese places are important,â Ms. Summers said. âMaking a concerted effort to revitalize precious black spaces like this contributes to a form of black space creation that cultivates belonging in places where black people have been and continue to be evicted. “
Alternative lenders more familiar with the damaging effects of gentrification, town planning, and how lack of access to capital has hampered black developers are providing a lifeline for several developments.
The developers of the Orange Mound Tower and the historic Clayborn Temple have linked up with organizations, such as the Kataly Foundation and the Memphis Leadership Foundation, which provide financing, technical assistance and strategic advice to obtain financing.
Kataly promotes a ownership structure run by locals who will make decisions about ownership, said Nwamaka Agbo, managing director of the foundation, established in 2018 by Regan Pritzker, whose family founded the Hyatt hotels. He has a funds for restorative savings which reinvests through “capitalized” methods such as loan guarantees and grants.
âBlack communities are affected by a racial wealth gap and do not have access to the capital that the wealthier white communities have,â Ms. Agbo said. A typical white family has eight times the wealth of the typical black family, according to a 2019 US Federal Reserve investigation. âGiving a 0-1% interest rate loan to a community that normally wouldn’t be able to get it is one way to redistribute wealth,â she said.
The Memphis Leadership Foundation acquired Historic Clayborn Temple with funding from several local donors and foundations, with the aim of transferring the building to a non-profit group that would restore the space.
Other historically significant sites around the temple had already been demolished and gentrification was becoming evident in pockets across town, making purchasing the building attractive, said Larry Lloyd, founder of the Memphis Leadership Foundation.
In 2019, the title passed to Ms. Troutman, who received assistance from Kataly’s Restorative Savings Fund program.
Kataly also helped purchase Orange Mound Tower and Esther’s Orbit Room, a jazz club in West Oakland. Throughout the 1960s, when this neighborhood was recognized as the West Harlem, Esther’s Orbit Room has hosted musicians like Tina Turner and Etta James.
History should be used to demonstrate to investors that there is value in oppressed spaces, said Noni Session, executive director of the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative, which bought the club this fall. She plans to have black-owned businesses on the ground floor, with affordable housing for artist collectives at the top.
She noted how redevelopment in the late 1950s and 1960s affected Esther’s Orbit Hall and the surrounding neighborhood: the construction of the Interstate 980 interchange, the Cypress Street Viaduct, and the Bay. Area Rapid Transit quickly eclipsed the club. The club became a dive bar before closing in the late 2000s.
“It is the poor who often suffer at the hands of town planners who ignore history,” said Ms Session.
Even with sources like the Kataly Foundation, a large majority of commercial real estate developers are white; in an August 2020 report from the Urban Land Institute, only 5% of its members described themselves as black or African-American.
Mr Dukes called the purchase of the property in Orange Mound a defensive measure to protect the identity of the neighborhood. The United Equipment Building had been positioned as a potential craft brewery before he and Ms Jones turned their attention to the lot.
âWe knew how the building was advertised, you could tell by looking around town, gentrification was on its way,â Mr Dukes said.
Besides art galleries, performance space and affordable housing, Orange Mound Tower is expected to have food markets, a vital addition to an area lack of sufficient access to nutritious and affordable groceries.
The ground is slated to be opened for Orange Mound Tower next year, but it will face challenges such as generating sufficient income in an area whose reputation has faded over decades. Still, Mr Porter, who has never seen Orange Mound as a cultural hub, hopes the development will signal investment in the community, leading to a long-term renaissance of his neighborhood.
âWe are afraid of being displaced,â he said. âThat Orange Mound Tower plays a role in revitalizing the community will be so important. “