The governor once flew to Memphis to visit a particular business. Officials conceived of a route to steer him from the airport to the location while avoiding litter-strewn areas and blight, said Andy Cates, on the Greater Memphis Chamber’s Chairman’s Circle. Parts of Memphis, once known as the cleanest city in America, are now off limits to guests we want to impress the most.
The story isn’t an isolated tale. To show off the city to business prospects, officials find the cleanest routes and avoid boarded up and decaying buildings. “When there’s litter all over the place, it’s an immediate reflection on your city,” Cates said.
No more driving around the problem. In effect, that’s what the Chamber declared in late 2014. It adopted a battle cry – Memphis Clean by 2019 – to rid the city of trash and blight. What better time to get cleaned up than for the city’s 200th birthday? And what better motivation to tackle a problem that impacts not only the quality of life in neighborhoods but also the economic potential of a whole city?
Adopted by the Chamber’s Chairman’s Circle as one of the high-impact initiatives called moon missions, Memphis Clean by 2019 commits the resources of the business community to a collaborative effort that includes city and county government entities, schools and neighborhood leaders. Caleb Park, on the Memphis Clean by 2019 committee of the Chamber’s young professional group SoundCheck, believes at its core, the effort is about a revitalization of neighborhood pride. “For cities to be booming, people have to have pride,” said the information technology recruiter.
For years, Clean Memphis, a non-profit funded by public and privates monies, worked to remove litter and blight from the landscape but were “at capacity” with its resources until the Chamber tossed in its capabilities, said Janet Boscarino, its executive director. The Chamber adopted its zone strategy as best for community engagement. “Having the Chairman’s Circle adopt the effort as a moon mission has certainly helped us connect to more people in the business community,” she said. “There’s a greater sense of cooperation and collaboration than ever before.”
Here’s what is happening in four of the 28 zones:
Known collectively as “The Heights,” neighborhoods that include Highland Heights and Mitchell Heights incorporated the energy of students at Treadwell Middle School into litter removal. The Heights Community Development Corporation provided youths with barrels which they turned into domed garbage cans. Exposed to the environmental education component of the cleanup initiative, students painted the containers and placed them around campus. “If they’re painting these trash cans they’re likely to use them,” said Jared Myers, the corporation’s executive director. “It helps them take ownership.”
The collaboration brings a lot of entities to the table, Myers said, including Colliers International and Duncan-Williams, firms that worked on litter pickup, overgrown grass and flower planting. Myers wants the pride he feels in his community to catch. “When you start to clean up, you’d be surprised how many people join in. How you feel about where you live – does that matter? If you participate, you feel it does matter.”
Joel Martin moved to the community in the vicinity of Cherry and Quince roads after marrying his wife who has a 90-year-old aunt in the neighborhood. In their 50s, they ended up adopting a community of people mostly older than themselves and helping them with home repair and yard work. “You meet people and you start to love them and care for them,” he said.
Clean Memphis conducts litter sweeps of the area, and Wright Medical and International Paper are among businesses that have helped Oak Ridge residents on work days like one last spring when they collected 80 tires for recycling and wacked 3-foot-tall weeds at an abandoned house. With the emergence of the Chamber involvement, Martin expects the collaboration he’s seen in his neighborhood to be applied everywhere in the city. “There’s strength in numbers, as the old adage goes,” he said. “We’ve got to stop being siloed in our own areas. When people get rid of blight and litter, and people are putting out flowers, there’s a sense of peace and security. When a neighborhood is in shambles, that’s a green light for crime.”
One of the strategies of the clean initiative is making areas of tourism and economic development a priority to get quick impact, said Boscarino with Clean Memphis. In Orange Mound, volunteers flocked to Park Avenue businesses that gave permission for cleanup and beautification projects on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. “We can work hand and hand together, rather than say, ‘You’re in violation. We’re reporting you,’” said Don Gilbert, an Orange Mound Community Council member.
Another member of the Community Council, Mike Minnis, works to make vacant lots welcoming, productive places that don’t put a drain on property values. One lot is an all-season farmer’s market now. Other lots are slated for fruit trees and charging stations for handheld devices. The local youth are learning home repair skills so they can fix mom’s leaky sink or sagging porch. It gives them a place to put their pride and say “that’s my work,” Minnis said. “When you get to that level of thinking, you want things to look good. You’re invested. Self-respect is a basic part of making this clean thing work.”
The mortgage crisis hit the 38125 zip code hard, “and we’ve been cleaning up ever since,” said Lynda Whalen, a former real estate paralegal. At one time, the zip code had the highest foreclosure and bankruptcy rate of any in the city. The area’s biggest problem is what Whalen, chairwoman of the Southeast Memphis Neighborhood Partnership, calls “absentee investors.” Tenants change “constantly, and we have to constantly remind people they must take care of their property.”
Public works and code enforcement officials helped community leaders compose a friendly letter with tips to give to other residents on how to make the neighborhood look better. They approach issues without blame, finding that a lot of residents fail to keep up their properties because of lost resources such as the death of the working spouse. They feel overwhelmed, Whalen said, and the coalition of agencies and residents help find individual solutions.
“If we don’t keep fighting it’ll be the total destruction of neighborhoods. They will deteriorate, and we won’t be able to bring them back,” said Whalen, who has lived in the area for 40 years. “There’s no more backyard barbecues and block parties, but if only we could get just a little bit of that back, that would mean the world to me.”
Story by: Toni Lepeska
Photo by: Troy Glasgow