Thumbnail: Memphis is blessed to have passionate, committee leaders fighting for the future of their neighborhoods like Quincey Morris of Klondike/Smokey City. She speaks truth to power, she stands resolutely for neighborhoods, and she represents the kind of leadership found throughout Memphis.
Looking back at 2020, one of my highlights was my opportunity to talk with Quincey Morris, executive director of the Klondike/Smokey City Community Development Corporation and to get her candid opinions through the lens of a grassroots activist.
The conversation came about early this year when I was writing for MLK50 about the program by Memphis-Shelby County Economic Development Growth Engine (EDGE) that is giving six apartment developers $58 million in tax breaks to build 1,300 apartments in Midtown and East Memphis. Developers receive an average of $8.3 million in tax cut.
Meanwhile, Memphis, largely in neighborhoods similar to Klondike/Smokey City, has the need for 38,000 affordable housing units, a need untouched by EDGE’s program, which is the only tax incentive program that can target any neighborhood in Shelby County.
In other words, within a few miles of her struggling neighborhood, Ms. Morris sees new apartments coming out of the ground but with rents averaging about $1,050 in a city where 51% of African American workers make less than $15 an hour.
Real Economic Development
Ms. Morris’ wise words begin and end the first article: “When EDGE subsidizes pricey apartments, developers win and low-wage renters lose.”
Her comments provided context for the article: “In low-income neighborhoods like Klondike-Smokey City, there are so many issues and there are so many housing needs, but then we’re told, ‘We’re going to give millions of dollars in tax credits to developer.’ The result is the underserved are made even more underserved.
“Do we ever get to the front of the line when city government is giving out money?” she asked, repeating a question raised when the city provided $15 million for Crosstown Concourse.
The same article closed with another of her comments that sums up so much about public policy in Memphis. She said: “Everybody wants to talk about economic development. How can we do economic development if it doesn’t consider how to improve the lives of people in neighborhoods like mine? Real economic development is about people first, not real estate.’”
It Takes A Village
In this way, she powerfully summed up the frustration by neighborhood leaders in the way the politically connected developers and political contributors seem to get the most attention. The comments opening and closing the article were just part of a 90-minute conversation, and the rest of it deserves equal attention.
The Klondike neighborhood association was formed in 1996, and three years later, it became a CDC before adding Smokey City in 2000. Today, the population of the area is only half what it was in 1980. Vacant lots where families’ houses once stood pockmark the neighborhood, and she takes the decline of the area personally.
Because of it, she is committed to fighting for Klondike/Smokey City’s future and partners standing with her, particularly Neighborhood Preservation Inc. (NPI), The Works, and Cathedral of Faith.
“We have special relationships,” she said. “We are all passionate about Klondike. When you were raised in the community and know what the community was and watch it deteriorate by design, when you look at all the streets in the neighborhood and see vacant lots after vacant lot, when you see all the boarded up houses, when you see some vacant lots cut and some not, how can you say it’s not by design.”
More Than What You Read
Klondike is not alone, she added. “There are places like this in South Memphis too,” she said. “How can the powers-that-be not address these issues? It’s amazing how some elected officials are given a pass when they should be representing us.”
She also complains that the news media ratifies the neighborhoods’ negative images. “Klondike has low crime rates,” she said. “You don’t hear that. You hear if someone car jacks, but you don’t hear the positive things individual nonprofits are doing. It stands to reason we should get more positive media.”
To emphasize her point, she pointed to a crucial January, 2020, ceremony which received limited new coverage. Then, 150 properties in the neighborhood were transferred from the Shelby County Land Bank to the Klondike/Smokey City CDC. It was the first transfer of its kind for county government and marked the climax of a four-year process.
Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris, who was present for the transfer ceremony, said that the transfer required “some legal innovation.” The CDC and NPI agreed to form a nonprofit subsidiary that will handle demolition, rehabilitation, title clearance, and ongoing maintenance of the properties. It also agreed to hire North Memphis residents and minority contractors.
“If we didn’t have NPI and The Works as partners, we’d still be waiting,” she said. “The community does want houses, community gardens, green space, pocket parks, playgrounds for children where they can play safely and not walk long distances to enjoy them. I’m very excited, because it’s an opportunity for the community to have a voice in what it wants.”
She pointed out that county elected officials set aside their political differences and “it tells me there is hope for our county.” She said that the program was approved by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners unanimously.
It’s About People
Ms. Morris, retired manager of Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Memphis, advocates for a broad definition of economic development, but one laser-focused on people. “How can we do economic development if we do not consider how to improve their lives, how to make the community safe and walkable, how people can sit on the porch? Economic development is people, not real estate. We’re in business because we’re focused on people and family preservation.
“I have concerns when EDGE gives all kinds of tax credits to developers,” said. “What kind of assistance can I get for Klondike? We have a tendency to give tax credits and land to developers, but shouldn’t EDGE have a process that has a community advisory group? When are we going to open its doors to people who live in our neighborhoods rather than act as rubber stamp for developers?”
While EDGE is handling out tax breaks, she said someone in Klondike with an apartment complex has been seeking financing for 10 years. “EDGE waives taxes for developers while there’s someone right now who can’t get assistance because there’s no program to help her. There’s little or no concern for the little guy.
“It’s like we’re being told that in order to rebuild a neighborhood, we have to kill it or let it die. Then, some developer with no connection to the community can come in and make money.”
Fighting For Right
The Klondike/Smokey City CDC has a plan and it plans “to work our plan” which taps into the pride and heritage of the neighborhood. There’s the where heroes lived like Tom Lee; where Mary Elizabeth Malone, one of the 12 who integrated Memphis schools; community activists Charles and Alma Morris; legendary Booker T. Washington High Schools principal and pastor of Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church Blair T. Hunt; and W. Herbert Brewster, prolific composer of hymns, including “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”
“If you don’t know where you come from, you can’t know where you’re going,” she said. “There is so much history in our community. We want to preserve our roots and what Klondike/Smokey City stands for.”
However, for Memphis to be the city that it aspires to be, she said it must face racism. “We dance around it,” she said. “We call it equity and other things, but we need to deal with it straightforwardly. We’re putting band-aids on socio-economic issues when they need surgery and bandages. Then we turn around and say we’re going to give tax credits to developers. They should be required to put money back into the neighborhoods.”
Outspoken and a warrior for her neighborhood, Ms. Morris is sometimes criticized as difficult. “Some say I’m hard to work with and I’m territorial. They’re probably right. I see myself as the voice of my community. I know I have my community’s backing. One thing I’m going to do is fight for them and do whatever it takes. I thank the Lord every day for the opportunity to do His work.
“When I grew up, there were no vacant lots anywhere. There were parks where we played sports. There were doctors, dentists, hardware stores, we had everything. We didn’t have to walk for anything. We can’t go back to the past, but we can create a future where people move back and remind the rest of Memphis what the neighborhood once was.”
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