Revitalizing Black Neighborhoods by Preserving Their History

Jevonte Porter grew up hearing 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 spaces like the W.C. Handy Theater; those without tickets often sold hot dogs or other goods on the busy streets outside venues.

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, Mr. Porter sees signs of revitalization taking root.

Leading the effort are two local artists and developers, Victoria Jones and James Dukes, who want to transform the United Equipment Building — an abandoned feed mill and one of the locales of Mr. Porter’s childhood games — into Orange Mound Tower. The planned $50 million, multiuse facility is expected to contain 100,000 square feet of space.

The United Equipment Building in Orange Mound is a local landmark.Credit…Brandon Dill for The New York Times
The building, a feed mill that was abandoned more than 20 years ago, will be redeveloped as Orange Mound Tower.Credit…Brandon Dill for The New York Times

Similar developments are being started in historically significant Black neighborhoods nationwide, repurposing deteriorated structures with the goal of bringing spaces for the arts, affordable housing and small businesses under one roof.

In Atlanta, a former commercial building will focus on fresh food options through a locally sourced grocery and shared kitchen space. In Oakland, Calif., a once-famous jazz club in a neighborhood ravaged by the encroachment of freeways and public transportation is slated for rebirth as an arts center with a farmers’ market and a gallery.

The plans are ambitious, and difficult to achieve. A recent New York Times Magazine article on Orange Mound noted that racial demographics significantly influence where money is invested across the United States. Only 23 percent of Black-owned small businesses are likely to obtain bank funds, according to a 2020 report from the Federal Reserve system.

“People can demand better in development in Black neighborhoods,” said Nikishka Iyengar, who founded the Guild, a social enterprise program that is leading the Atlanta project, called Groundcover.

“To have Orange Mound Tower play a part in the revitalization of the community will be so important,” said Jevonte Porter, who grew up in Orange Mound.Credit…Whitten Sabbatini for The New York Times

The Guild paid $550,000 for a 7,000-square-foot site in Atlanta’s Capitol View neighborhood. Organizers plan to triple the size of the development by adding two stories of apartments, as well as arts spaces. Community investors can buy shares in the project for $10.

The initial funds for Groundcover came from a grant from the Kendeda Fund, a grant-making foundation in Atlanta that focuses on working with underrepresented communities.

“Many lower-income Black neighborhoods have experienced decades-long disinvestment, and continue to struggle to attract capital,” said Ingrid Gould Ellen, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University. “Too often, the reinvestment in these neighborhoods focuses on preserving physical assets but not the cultural assets.”

To revitalize their neighborhood in Memphis, Ms. Jones and Mr. Dukes began collaborating in 2018 to own a large-scale mixed-use space. For decades, many buildings around Orange Mound had been torn down for urban renewal programs, said Jimmie Tucker, an architecture professor at the University of Memphis. The W.C. Handy Theater was demolished in 2012.

After buying the United Equipment Building, Ms. Jones and Mr. Dukes plan to christen it Orange Mound Tower.

“I’ve been looking at this building my entire life,” said Mr. Dukes, a music producer and an Orange Mound native. “I honestly have not talked to somebody who did not have some sort of idea of what it could be.”

Anasa Troutman, the executive director of Historic Clayborn Temple in Memphis.Credit…Andrea Morales for The New York Times

Five miles northwest, Anasa Troutman wanted to create a mixed-use facility at Historic Clayborn Temple, which was an important location during the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike and had fallen into disrepair. But she ran into setbacks when looking for financing. The temple’s history was hard to translate in discussions with traditional funders.

“Banks, investors wouldn’t talk to us even though it’s a historic building with a built-in audience from downtown Memphis,” Ms. Troutman said.

Big banks actively maintain a gate-keeping structure that limits the opportunities of developers and the Black urban residents whom their developments can serve, said Brandi Thompson Summers, an assistant professor of geography and global metropolitan studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

“These places are important,” Ms. Summers said. “To make concerted efforts to revitalize treasured Black spaces like these contributes to a form of Black placemaking that cultivates belonging in places where Black people have been, and continue to be, pushed out.”

Historic Clayborn Temple, an important location during the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, had fallen into disrepair. Credit…Andrea Morales for The New York Times
Inside the temple. Its history was hard to translate in discussions with traditional funders.Credit…Andrea Morales for The New York Times

Alternative lenders more familiar with the adverse effects of gentrification, urban planning and the ways that a lack of access to capital have hindered Black developers are providing a lifeline for several developments.

The developers of Orange Mound Tower and Historic Clayborn Temple connected with organizations, like the Kataly Foundation and the Memphis Leadership Foundation, that provide financing, technical assistance and strategic advice to gain funding.

Kataly promotes an ownership structure led by locals who will make decisions about the property, said Nwamaka Agbo, the chief executive of the foundation, which was created in 2018 by Regan Pritzker, whose family founded Hyatt hotels. It has a restorative economies fund that reinvests through “integrated capital” methods like loan guarantees and grants.

“Black communities are affected by a racial wealth gap and don’t have access to capital wealthier white communities have,” Ms. Agbo said. A typical white family has eight times the wealth of the typical Black family, according to a 2019 survey by the Federal Reserve Board. “To offer a 0 to 1 percent interest loan to a community that normally couldn’t get that is one way to redistribute wealth,” she said.

The Memphis Leadership Foundation acquired Historic Clayborn Temple through funding from several local donors and foundations, with the goal of transferring the building to a nonprofit group that would restore the space.

Other historically important sites around the temple had already been demolished, and gentrification was becoming evident in pockets throughout the city, which made buying the building appealing, said Larry Lloyd, founder of Memphis Leadership Foundation.

In 2019, the title was transferred to Ms. Troutman, who received assistance from Kataly’s restorative economies fund program.

Kataly also helped back the purchase of Orange Mound Tower and Esther’s Orbit Room, a jazz club in West Oakland. Throughout the 1960s, when that neighborhood was recognized as the Harlem of the West, Esther’s Orbit Room hosted musicians like Tina Turner and Etta James.

History should be used to demonstrate to investors that there is value in downtrodden 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 on top.

She noted how redevelopment in the late 1950s and ’60s had hurt Esther’s Orbit Room and the surrounding neighborhood: Construction of the Interstate 980 interchange, the Cypress Street Viaduct and Bay Area Rapid Transit soon overshadowed the club. The club became a dive bar before closing in the late 2000s.

“It’s the poor who often suffer under the hands of city planners who don’t regard history,” Ms. Session said.

The art of Lawrence Matthews at the temple includes depictions of scenes from the civil rights era in the city.Credit…Andrea Morales for The New York Times

Even with sources like the Kataly Foundation, a vast majority of commercial real estate developers are white; in an August 2020 report by the Urban Land Institute, just 5 percent of its members described themselves as Black or African American.

Mr. Dukes called the purchase of the property in Orange Mound a defensive move to protect the neighborhood’s identity. The United Equipment Building had been positioned as a potential craft brewery before he and Ms. Jones turned their attention to the lot.

“We knew the way the building was advertised, you could tell by looking around the city, gentrification was on its way,” Mr. Dukes said.

Besides art galleries, a performance space and affordable housing, Orange Mound Tower is expected to have food markets, a vital addition in an area lacking sufficient access to nutritious and affordable groceries.

Ground is expected to be broken for Orange Mound Tower next year, but it will face challenges such as generating enough income in an area whose reputation has wilted over decades. Still, Mr. Porter, who never witnessed Orange Mound as a cultural hub, hopes that the development will signal an investment in the community, leading to a long-term revival of his neighborhood.

“We fear being displaced,” he said. “To have Orange Mound Tower play a part in the revitalization of the community will be so important.”

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