Not long ago, Charia Jackson had a date with a young man who had moved to Memphis from California. He said he would pick her up. She told him she lived in Frayser.
“He said, ‘Oh, no. I’m not coming up there. Ever,’” said Jackson. “I could not get him to come to Frayser. We met somewhere in East Memphis. That really stuck with me. I mean, it’s safe enough for me and my son. Why not him?”
It’s hard to blame the guy. Frayser’s fretful reputation as a perilous part of the city is supported by a set of staggering statistics.
This is an area of town where grown men don’t want to go pick up someone for a date.
A few years ago, the University of Memphis identified five “hot spots” for crime in Memphis. Three were in Frayser. The city schools’ anti-gang program is in two high schools — both in Frayser. The Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team has chosen Frayser as one of two target areas for its campaign to reduce youth gun violence by 20 percent.
This is a neighborhood where babies are born to die, or at least to struggle.
Frayser’s 38127 ZIP code continues to lead the county in teen pregnancy and infant mortality. A decade ago, nearly four in 10 Frayser children lived in what the federal government defines as poverty. Today it’s six in 10. Unemployment here has more than doubled in the past decade to more than 17 percent. The state considers 11 of Frayser’s 14 public schools to be failing. Fewer than half of Frayser’s adults have high school diplomas.
This is a place where the number of homeowners underwater has nothing to do with the three bordering, flood-prone rivers, the Mississippi, Wolf and Loosahatchie.
Frayser led the state in subprime mortgages and foreclosures every year of the past decade. The number of empty houses — 3,000 and counting — has tripled in 30 years. Aggregate home values dropped from $667 million in 2005 to $334 million in 2010.
This is a part of the city where mayors go to hold news conferences about urban blight.
Last February, when Memphis Mayor A C Wharton announced a new round of lawsuits against negligent property owners, he did so outside the nearly abandoned Peachtree South apartments across from Frayser High.
Thirty of the 86 new lawsuits are about Frayser properties. An estimated one in five Frayser properties is out of compliance with the city’s housing code.
“Frayser is the first example of the effects of deindustrialization combined with racial transition on a white, working-class neighborhood,” said Dr. Phyllis Betts, who has been studying Frayser for more than a decade as director of U of M’s Center for Community Building and Neighborhood Action (CBANA).
“Add the impact the mortgage crisis and the collapse of the economy had on Frayser, well, fixing it will be a monumental challenge. Can Frayser be saved? Maybe. It’s too soon to say, but I know a lot of good people are working hard on Frayser’s behalf.”
‘Declining swing neighborhood’
Two men got into a fight outside Forest Park apartments in Frayser one afternoon this summer. One man shot the other and ran. Dozens of children who had just eaten a lunch provided by a church group saw it all happen.
The incident barely registered on the police blotter, but it touched a nerve in this formerly bucolic, previously booming, now beleaguered neighborhood 5 miles north of Downtown.
Three days later, the children were surrounded by a solemn assembly of leaders of a loosely organized but increasingly focused and unprecedented effort to save Frayser.
“We’re here to say that this sort of behavior is not socially acceptable in Frayser or anywhere else,” Rev. DeAndre Brown, an ex-con, married father of five, and founder of Frayser’s Blight Patrol ministry, told the crowd. “These are our children. This is our community. We are here to reclaim it.”
Brown was joined at the scene by directors of Frayser’s two community development corporations, the president of the Frayser Exchange Club, two retired science professors, leaders of the new Achievement School District in their baby blue “Find me in Frayser” T-shirts, black-uniformed Memphis police officers, and Brown’s fellow ex-offenders in their lime green Blight Patrol T-shirts.
All are weary of Frayser being defined by blue flashing lights and yellow police tape. All are part of a fledgling but surprisingly well-supported effort to revitalize what sociologists are calling a “declining swing neighborhood.”
The effort is being guided and supported by a slew of nonprofit organizations, philanthropic foundations, banks and government agencies — all drawn to Frayser by major policy changes in the way federal, state and local governments are choosing to intervene in distressed neighborhoods.
“Frayser has become a national laboratory for the future of urban neighborhood revitalization,” said Eric Robertson, president of Community LIFT (Leveraging Investments for Transformation), a new nonprofit group that is coordinating the Frayser effort with the help of a $225,000 federal grant.
“What happens in Frayser will affect neighborhoods around the country. It also will have a great impact on the future of Memphis. As Frayser goes, so goes Raleigh and Whitehaven and Hickory Hill and Cordova. If we can’t save Frayser, we can’t save those other neighborhoods.”
Folks in Frayser are eager for positive change, but after generations of being tossed about by massive socioeconomic forces such as deindustrialization, suburbanization and urbanization, they don’t want to play poster child for well-meaning outsiders using Frayser’s woes to cash in on grants or bolster resumes.
“There’s an awful lot of attention being paid to Frayser, and that’s encouraging but also concerning,” Steve Lockwood, executive director of the Frayser Community Development Association, told his fellow members of the Frayser Steering Committee, which began meeting in October to develop a long-range neighborhood revitalization plan.
“We need more resources, but there’s a general sentiment that over the years things have been done to Frayser rather than with Frayser. Frayser wants to be treated like a partner, not a client.”
‘Aren’t you afraid?’
“We had a better view before the company next door put that big berm in the way, but you can see why this land was so attractive to my grandfather,” said Coscia, who was born in 1927 in her bedroom in a house built by her grandfather on land once owned by Dr. John Frayser himself.
“It was the most wonderful place to grow up. It was as pretty an area as you could find. It’s not quite what it was, but it’s still nice.”
The Frayser of Coscia’s childhood in the 1930s and 1940s was an agricultural community whose rich hills were graced with dairy and truck farms, and whose proximity to Memphis and the Mississippi River lured wealthy landowners and developers.
Coscia’s grandfather was an Italian immigrant named Victorio who owned three farms in Frayser and a 1912 Cadillac he converted into a truck. Every morning before dawn, Vic Coscia and his sons would fill the truck with onions, tomatoes, sweet potatoes and other vegetables and deliver them to Downtown hotels.
Dorothy Coscia remembers when the father of FedEx founder Frederick W. Smith owned a log cabin in Frayser. She remembers when the Poor Clares opened a monastery in the neighborhood and when International Harvester started building tractors just around the corner.
She remembers wine fermenting and garlic drying in the big barn that still stands. A few weeks ago, someone broke into the barn and stole Coscia’s riding mower.
Coscia, whose Alta Vista Neighborhood Association still meets every other month, isn’t giving up.
“People ask me, ‘Aren’t you afraid out there?’ But nobody seems to bother us really,” said Coscia, a long-retired high school teacher. “I wouldn’t trade this old place for any place in Memphis.”
It certainly isn’t the city’s most distressed neighborhood. By comparison, some areas of North and South Memphis make Frayser look like Germantown.
What Frayser has going for it — one of the primary reasons it’s getting so much attention — are its pluses as well as its minuses. CBANA ranked Frayser-Raleigh No. 4 in needs (crime rate, school performance, housing stock, employment, and so on) — but No. 1 in opportunities.
“The neighborhood has a wealth of assets — both community and human, including many schools, police and fire services, public green space including a golf course, and many fine nonprofits,” the CBANA study concluded. “Frayser’s civic engagement is a model for the rest of the city.”
CBANA’s analysis was used to develop the Greater Memphis Neighborhoods Plan, “a comprehensive public/private plan to support neighborhood development” approved by the City Council in 2011.
The plan targets three neighborhoods for economic and community development: Binghamton, upper South Memphis and Frayser — by far, the largest and most complicated priority.
Frayser has the form of a suburb with much of the dysfunction of a large urban area. Its more than 40,000 residents include a growing number of ex-cons and public housing refugees who inhabit aging subdivisions and ailing apartment complexes.
The neighborhood is burdened by thousands of foreclosed, boarded-up or burned-out homes, hundreds of blighted, vacant lots, several foundering commercial areas, and predatory lenders.
Even its assets are dubious. A pretty public golf course that’s losing money every year and now closed for winter; more than a dozen tree-lined parks police are working to secure from gangs and general neglect; an airport that’s remote and private; a community center built on a pauper’s cemetery filled with nearly as many dead bodies as there are live ones in Frayser.
CBANA produced a series of maps highlighting the varying degrees of unemployment, foreclosure, blight, crime, teen pregnancy and infant mortality across Memphis. The higher the rate, the darker the shade. Frayser’s 20 square miles were consistently dark.
“We’re talking about the destructive impact of generations of disinvestment,” said LIFT’s Robertson, “It’s like Frayser has been hit by a slow tornado that over decades has caused billions of dollars in damages.”
Not your father’s Frayser
Tim Dwyer still drives by his childhood home, 1552 Alta Vista in Frayser, every Sunday on his way to Mass. Dwyer’s father, a foreman at the old International Harvester, bought the house new in 1954.
“People kid me when I tell them I’m from Frayser, but I wouldn’t take anything in the world for it,” said Dwyer, a General Sessions judge and founder of Shelby County Drug Court. “It was the perfect place to grow up.”
The Frayser of Dwyer’s childhood in the 1950s and 1960s was booming. Conveniently located between the burgeoning factories of North Memphis and west Frayser, and the growing Navy base in Millington, Frayser’s population doubled in the 1950s and grew again by half in the 1960s. More than 10,000 of Frayser’s 14,000 homes were built in those decades.
Dwyer’s home was a block from the woods, three blocks from the junk yard, and easy walking or biking distance from two lakes and three rivers. Dwyer and his pals would cut through yards — “and nobody would yell at us” — on their way to a nearby fishing hole, tree house or cave.
“We had it made,” Dwyer said. “We’d go down to a boat dock behind International Harvester and cross the Mississippi over to a sand bar on the Arkansas side. We’d water ski under the old bridge. That was before we had any sense.”
Dwyer’s parents lived in that house more than 40 years. His father died in 1996. His mother moved to Bartlett in 1998.
“After things started changing in the ’80s, we tried to get them to move, but Dad said he built that house and paid for it and he was going to stay in it,” said Dwyer, who after college and law school moved to Raleigh, then to Bartlett.
“It’s sort of depressing to see what has happened to the neighborhood. I guess it will always be home, but I wouldn’t go back there to live.”
“If poverty is a disease that infects an entire community in the form of unemployment and violence, failing schools and broken homes, then we can’t just treat those symptoms in isolation,” presidential candidate Barack Obama said in 2007. “We have to heal that entire community. And we have to focus on what actually works.”
What works, according to the Obama administration’s 2011 Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative, begins with “an authentic desire for change within the community and active involvement of neighborhood residents throughout the revitalization process.”
What also works, the administration concluded, is “targeting limited resources rather than spreading them thinly across an entire city offers greater returns, especially in high-poverty neighborhoods.”
That’s the same conclusion the Greater Memphis Partnership came to in 2008. The partnership was formed by leaders of the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, the Assisi Foundation and the CD Council.
They were concerned that limited resources were too widely and thinly distributed among the city’s many distressed neighborhoods as well as more than 60 community development agencies — many of them staffed by one or two people and all competing for the same grants.
Equally discouraging, banks and large, national foundations weren’t contributing to Memphis neighborhood CDCs.
From 1998-2006, the Community Foundation donated $7.5 million to local CDCs while banks gave $400,000.
“Local neighborhood development was antiquated and fragmented,” said Emily Trenholm, director of the CD Council. “And in a community with so many needs, we needed to find a way to prioritize and coordinate.”
The partners created River City Capital Investment Corp. to gather capital from major financial institutions and philanthropic foundations and make loans and grants to agencies and programs in Frayser, Binghamton and South Memphis. They also created Community LIFT and hired Robertson to help those neighborhoods develop long-range improvement plans.
“This is not the way things have ever worked here,” Traci Sampson, CEO of Consilience Group, which helps local agencies with strategic planning, told members of the Frayser Steering Committee at a recent meeting.
“It could be an amazing thing, but we have to build it first. And that starts with you. You have been living and working in this neighborhood a long time. You know it better than anyone else. This has to be your plan.”
Tomeka Hart still remembers the day she moved into a little house near a golf course on Chattering Lane in Frayser in 1976. She was 6. Her mother, a maid, and her father, who worked for Ronco Foods and Wonder Snack, both grew up in North Memphis.
“The house was actually smaller than the public housing we were in on Hollywood, but it was our house and our yard and we loved it,” said Hart, president of the Memphis Urban League. “Back then, Frayser was a place you moved to, not from.”
The Frayser of Hart’s childhood in the 1970s and 1980s was a neighborhood in transition. Lower-income African-Americans were moving in as blue-collar whites, many of whom had worked at Frayser’s closing factories, were moving out.
In 1980, three in four Frayser residents were white; by 2000, that figure had declined to one in four. As unemployment rose, so did crime.
“I saw things change,” said Hart. “Drugs, crack, they were everywhere.”
Concerned about the quality of Frayser’s schools, Hart’s parents sent her to Snowden School for two years. Hart noticed the difference.
“I could take algebra 1 and French at Snowden, but those classes weren’t offered at Georgian Hills Middle,” she said. “When I went to Trezevant, there were no AP classes, no calculus, no computer classes. It wasn’t fair.”
Those experiences stayed with Hart, who grew up to become a City Schools board member. Her parents still live in Frayser. She’s tried to get them to move. They’ve had their home broken into twice.
“I’m not worrying so much about my parents,” Hart said. “They’ve lived there so long, even the drug dealers know them, and they aren’t going to hurt them. But I do worry about my community.”
‘We know what we need’
The 1977 “Frayser Planning District Study” yielded several new parks, some commercial center improvements, and interest in developing greenways along the Wolf, Loosahatchie and Mississippi rivers.
A few years later, Frayser lost its two largest employers — International Harvester and Firestone. The plan wasn’t big enough.
In 2004, city and county officials helped the Frayser Community Association and Frayser CDC develop Frayser Futures: A Comprehensive Plan for Growth and Development.
The plan resulted in zoning changes designed to support single-family residential development. The city replaced a small public housing project next to the golf course with single-family homes. But bigger hopes were broadsided when the housing market collapsed in 2007 and the larger economy followed the next year.
The Frayser Steering Committee began working on the new plan in October. Their work will be guided and funded by Community LIFT and the Center for the Study of Social Policy.
Last week, the committee hired former city councilman and county commissioner Shep Wilbun as full-time site director. He will spend the next 18 months working with the committee to “build neighborhood capacity.”
The idea is help Frayser help itself.
“We have capable, competent people already working in Frayser, people who know and love Frayser, people who’ve been there through thick and thin,” said Rev. Michael Ellis, whose Impact Baptist Church runs ministries for single moms, pregnant teens, and young men and women looking for jobs and careers.
“We know what we need. Help us connect to resources that will help us long after all the grants run out.”
Charia Jackson, a 2002 Central High graduate, moved back to Frayser four years ago. She bought a little foreclosure on Steele Street two blocks from where she lived as a kid.
Jackson’s mom grew up in North Memphis and was bused to Frayser in the 1970s.
“My mom lived in a rundown little apartment in North Memphis. She couldn’t wait to move to Frayser,” said Jackson. “We had a big backyard. Peach trees. Apple trees. Grape vines. I was king of the backyard. Now I have a backyard for my son.”
Jackson is well aware of Frayser’s woes — as a housing counselor and a resident. She’s enrolled her 6-year-old son in a nearby charter school. Only four of the 20 houses on her block are owner-occupied. Two years ago, someone broke into her house and took her TV and laptop.
The Frayser of Jackson’s son’s childhood is a “declining swing neighborhood,” but she believes it is on the upswing.
“Housing is so cheap and everything is so close,” Jackson said. “I love this part of town. I’m seeing a comeback.”
“All eyes are on Frayser.”
Frayser’s woes have attracted a bevy of well-funded government programs, each bearing its own high-minded acronym:
LIFT (Leveraging Investments for Transformation): a new nonprofit group that was awarded a federal $225,000 BNCP (Building Neighborhood Capacity Program) grant to help Frayser plan its revitalized future.
BLOC: Better Lives, Opportunities and Communities: the city’s gang intervention program funded with a $4 million Bloomberg grant.
GRASSY: Gang Reduction Assistance for Saving Society’s Youth: a federally funded gang intervention program from Memphis City Schools.
NOVA: Network for Overcoming Violence and Abuse: a county program funded with a $2 million federal grant to provide counseling to children and families exposed to violence.
Teen+: another county program funded with a $4.2 million federal grant to provide pregnant and parenting teens receive prenatal care and other support services.
COP: Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong’s Community Outreach Program, focusing on Frayser’s toughest wards.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s ASD: the $10.4 million Achievement School District, which is operating six schools in Memphis, including three (so far) in Frayser.
Multiagency initiatives: Operation: Safe Community (a product of Memphis Fast Forward and the Memphis and Shelby County Crime Commission), the Early Success Coalition, and the Multi-Agency Gang Unit (led by U.S. Atty. Ed Stanton and Shelby County Dist. Atty. Gen. Amy Weirich).
“No other community has seen this infusion of money, resources and attention,” said Michelle Fowlkes, executive director of Operation: Safe Community. “All eyes are on Frayser.”
Faith-based nonprofit groups: AGAPE Child and Family Services, the Urban Youth Initiative, Youth Visions, the Catholic Diocese’s Jubilee Schools, and charter schools such as Memphis Business Academy and New Hope Christian Academy.