Jevonte Porter grew up in the Orange Mound neighborhood of Memphis with family stories about a busy era of arts and business. After WWII, locals flocked to performance venues like the W.C. Handy theater; those without tickets often sold hot dogs or other merchandise on the busy streets outside the venues.
To Mr. Porter, 25, these anecdotes almost sounded like fiction. As a child he played hide and seek in abandoned buildings. Orange Mound – often referred to as the first community in the United States founded and developed by African Americans – was less the domain of street vendors than more of a food wasteland.
Now Mr. Porter is seeing signs of revitalization.
At the forefront of the effort are two local developers, Victoria Jones, an artist, and James Dukes, a record producer named IMAKEMADBEATS, who are redesigning the United Equipment Building – an abandoned feed mill and one of the settings for Mr. Porter's childhood games. in the Orange Mound Tower. The planned multi-purpose facility worth 50 million US dollars is to cover an area of 100,000 square meters.
Similar developments are being started nationwide in historically significant Black Quarter and decaying structures are being repurposed with the aim of uniting spaces for art, affordable living space and small businesses under one roof.
In Atlanta, a former commercial building with a local grocery store and communal kitchen will focus on fresh grocery options. In Oakland, California, a once famous jazz club is set to be reborn as an arts center with a farmers market and gallery in a neighborhood devastated by highways and public transport.
The plans are ambitious and difficult to achieve. A recent New York Times Magazine article on Orange Mound found that racial demographics have a significant impact on where money is invested in the United States. According to a 2020 report by the Federal Reserve System, only 23 percent of small businesses owned by black are likely to get bank money.
"People can ask for better development in black areas," said Nikishka Iyengar, who founded the Guild, a social enterprise program that runs the Atlanta project called Groundcover.
The guild paid $ 550,000 for 7,000 square feet in Atlanta's Capitol View neighborhood. The 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 in the project for $ 10.
The initial funding for Groundcover came from a grant from the Kendeda Fund, an Atlanta-based charity that focuses on working with underrepresented communities.
"Many low-income black neighborhoods have seen decades of divestment and continue to struggle to attract capital," said Ingrid Gould Ellen, professor of urban policy and planning at New York University. "Too often, reinvestment in these parts of the city focuses on preserving material assets, but not on cultural assets."
To revitalize their Memphis neighborhood, Ms. Jones and Mr. Dukes began working together in 2018 to own a large mixed-use space. For decades, many buildings around Orange Mound have been demolished for urban renewal programs, said Jimmie Tucker, an architecture professor at the University of Memphis. The toilet of the Handy Theater was demolished in 2012.
After purchasing the United Equipment Building, Ms. Jones and Mr. Dukes plan to name it Orange Mound Tower.
"I've been looking at this building all my life," said Mr. Dukes, a music producer and native of Orange Mound. "I honestly haven't spoken to anyone who had no idea what it could be."
Eight kilometers to the northwest, Anasa Troutman wanted to build a mixed-use facility in the Historic Clayborn Temple, which was an important site during the plumbing strike in 1968 and which had fallen into disrepair. However, she suffered setbacks in her search for financing. The history of the temple was difficult to translate in discussions with traditional donors.
Nov. 23, 2021 at 4:21 p.m. ET
"Banks, investors would not speak to us even though this is a historic building with a built-in audience from downtown Memphis," said Ms. Troutman.
Large banks actively maintain a gate-keeper structure that limits the opportunities their developments can serve for developers and black city dwellers, said Brandi Thompson Summers, assistant professor of geography and global metropolitan exploration at the University of California, Berkeley.
“These places are important,” said Ms. Summers. "Making concentrated efforts to revive cherished black spaces like this one contributes to a form of black tracking that cultivates belonging in places where blacks have been and continue to be displaced."
Alternative lenders, more familiar with the negative effects of gentrification, urban planning, and the ways in which lack of access to capital has hampered black developers, provide a lifeline for several developments.
The developers of the Orange Mound Tower and the Historic Clayborn Temple have partnered with organizations such as the Kataly Foundation and the Memphis Leadership Foundation, which provide funding, technical assistance, and strategic fundraising advice.
Kataly promotes an ownership structure run by locals who make decisions about the property, said Nwamaka Agbo, the executive director of the foundation, founded in 2018 by Regan Pritzker, whose family started Hyatt Hotels. It has a restorative economics fund that reinvests through "integrated capital" methods such as loan guarantees and grants.
"Black communities are affected by a racial wealth gap and have no access to the capital that richer white communities have," said Ms. Agbo. A typical white family has eight times the wealth of a typical black family, according to a 2019 Federal Reserve Board survey. "Offering a 0 to 1 percent interest rate loan to a community that normally couldn't get it is one way to redistribute that wealth," she said.
The Memphis Leadership Foundation acquired the Historic Clayborn Temple through funding from several local donors and foundations with the aim of transferring the building to a nonprofit group that would restore the space.
Other historically important sites around the temple have already been demolished and gentrification has spread across the city, making buying the building attractive, said Larry Lloyd, founder of the Memphis Leadership Foundation.
In 2019, the title was transferred to Ms. Troutman, who received support from Kataly's Restorative Economics Fund program.
Kataly also helped buy Orange Mound Tower and Esther’s Orbit Room, a jazz club in West Oakland. During the 1960s, when this neighborhood was recognized as the Harlem of the West, Esther's Orbit Room was home to musicians such as Tina Turner and Etta James.
The story should be used to show investors that there is value in rundown space, said Noni Session, executive director of the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative, which bought the club earlier this fall. She plans to have Schwarzes-owned shops on the ground floor with affordable housing for artist collectives on top.
She noted how redevelopment in the late 1950s and 1960s had harmed Esther's Orbit Room and the surrounding neighborhood: construction of Interstate 980, 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 at the hands of city planners who don't care about history," said Ms. Session.
Even with sources like the Kataly Foundation, the vast majority of commercial real estate developers are white; In an August 2020 report by the Urban Land Institute, only 5 percent of its members identified themselves as Black or African American.
Mr. Dukes called the purchase of the Orange Mound property 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 property.
“We knew how the building was being advertised. If you looked around town, you could see gentrification was on its way, ”said Dukes.
In addition to art galleries, an event venue, and affordable housing, the Orange Mound Tower is expected to feature grocery markets, an important addition in an area where there is insufficient access to nutritious and affordable food.
The Orange Mound Tower is expected to break ground next year, but it faces challenges like generating sufficient revenue in an area whose reputation has faded for decades. Still, Mr. Porter, who has never seen Orange Mound as a cultural hub, hopes the development signals an investment in the community and leads to a long-term revitalization of his neighborhood.
“We fear we will be evicted,” he said. "It will be so important that Orange Mound Tower play a role in revitalizing the community."