The Klondike neighborhood in North Memphis has dozens of vacant lots and boarded-up houses, several closed schools and struggling little churches, and one mosque.
“We found this building on Zillow,” says Malik Shaw, co-founder and executive director of opens in a new windowMidtown Mosque, a small, peach-colored building on the northwest corner of Jackson and North Claybrook.
The building was a restaurant that went out of business, then a nightclub that burned. Five years ago, it was reopened as a renovated, repainted house of prayer and neighborhood revitalizer.
“We weren’t looking for any particular neighborhood,” Shaw says as he starts walking down Claybrook. “I knew nothing at all about this neighborhood. What we saw first was the building right there on that busy street corner. OK, I thought, that looks familiar.”
Shaw, 44, a Muslim convert, grew up in Detroit. He and his wife, Lettia, went to college here in the 1990s. They moved back to Memphis in 2010. He teaches history at Pleasant View School in Bartlett.
“We were living in Cordova,” Shaw says. “Shaykh Hamzah Abdul-Malik (imam and co-founder) lived up the street from me. We used to drive every morning to the Memphis Islamic Center in Cordova for prayers. It’s really nice, but it wasn’t what we were accustomed to. It’s not bad, right, just different. It’s the suburbs. We both grew up in the city. Our religious experience is very intertwined with inner-city life.”
Shaw, a tall, gregarious man with a full beard and a fulsome laugh, waves at a passing car as he walks. He stops every now and then to deploy his trash picker.
“The litter doesn’t bother me too much,” he says. “What bothers me most are the tires. I can’t tell you how many tires we’ve removed from these lots. Wrappers, paper, people just sort of absent-mindedly drop that stuff. But tires, man, you’ve got to put some thought into that. You have to decide to dump it in someone else’s lot.”
A quarter of the neighborhood’s lots or houses are vacant, according to census figures. On this block of Claybrook between Jackson and Keel, there are a dozen vacant lots. The mosque now owns half of them, as well as six other lots.
“We’re the majority owners on this block,” Shaw says. “It all kinda happened. That wasn’t our plan. We started with the garden.”
Shaw walks up to a fenced lot filled with vegetables and honey. Along with several beehives, there are eggplants, tomatoes, greens, and kale growing in raised beds. Five of the beds are made with old tires.
“We paid like $75 for the lot,” Shaw says. “It was a mess, all overgrown with weeds and broken glass and tires. We turned the tires inside out and filled them with dirt. Use what you have. We figured if we’re going to be down here, we need to be bringing something good, something that can benefit everyone. The Quran says, ‘Do good to the neighbor who is of kin and to the neighbor who is a stranger.’ ”
A middle-school-age boy rides past on a bike. “How you doing, young man?” Shaw says. He points across the street at two other formerly vacant lots that how hold a new playground. Shaw’s daughter Miriam painted the signs that hang on the fence in front. They say Laugh, Live, Love, Hope, and Peace.
“When the masjid, the mosque, was finished, I was looking at the land bank listings,” Shaw says. “Saw another property on Claybook. It was cheap. Like $50. I thought, why don’t we go ahead and get it? We can repurpose it, beautify it in some way. It’s only 50 bucks. Why not? That’s when we had the idea for a playground. We’d see so many kids out here. They’d be out in the middle of the street. There was no place for them to play. The closest playground is way across Vollintine, which is a racetrack. This street was a racetrack, too. It was actually worse. It was dangerous. Cars going 65 in a 25 zone. It was bad. Not anymore.”
Shaw points at new speed bumps positioned on Claybrook on both ends of the block. A truck drives by slowly. Shaw waves.
“One Saturday morning,” Shaw says, “we were out here working in the garden and an older lady who lives on the street taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘What are we going to do about this speeding?’ We, she said. That meant a lot to me. I said when we started that the people who are going to help us we don’t even know yet.”
Shaw pauses at the corner of Claybrook and Keel. Smothers Chapel CME Church sits on one corner. The mosque owns three other corners. One is grassy and shaded. Another is an orchard with apple, peach and plum trees. Another is an empty, two-story stone building.
“This is the third year for the orchard,” Shaw says. “The apples ought to be bigger this year. They were small last year. The squirrels ate pretty good. We’re going to turn that stone building into a shared community space. Put a computer lab in there with WiFi, a place where kids can come do their homework or where parents can come look for jobs. I always tell people, aesthetically the neighborhood is ugly, but the people here are beautiful. So instead of cursing the aesthetic darkness, let’s just remove it and see what we can do.”
Klondike history lessons
After he graduated from high school in the mid-1990s, Shaw, who is 6-3, left Detroit to play basketball at UT-Martin. He tore up his knee and decided to transfer to Memphis. He has a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s in education.
“Bad knees and bad grades, every inner-city kid’s downfall,” Shaw says with a laugh as he walks back toward the mosque. “But it was good. I had an intellectual awakening. I had to find a new purpose. I love history so that’s what I studied. I love the history of Memphis and the history of this neighborhood. People who live down at the other end of Claybrook are very active. They’ve been here since before integration. When I want a history lesson, I go down and sit with them on their porch. They tell me how this place used to be really vibrant.”
The long-tarnished neighborhood was named by people who were on their way to the Klondike gold rush in Alaska in the late 1800s. They ran out of money in Memphis and stayed. Klondike was one of the first neighborhoods in Memphis where African Americans could own their own homes. The street just to the east of Claybrook is Alaska Street.
“My daddy bought our house here in ‘48,” says Mable Shaw (no relation to Malik Shaw). She lives in a freshly painted, well-lit shotgun house next to an empty lot next to the CME Church on Claybrook. “I was a little girl then. All my children are grown now. My grandchildren are grown. If I live to see next year, I’ll be 85. People say to me, ‘You don’t look like 85,’ but I am. I thank God I’m still here. I’m still alive and that’s the main thing.”
Mable Shaw has seen the neighborhood grow and prosper, then decline and fall. In the 1960s, as wealthier residents of Evergreen just to the south fought and stopped the proposed extension of Interstate 40 through their neighborhood, construction of Interstate 240 cut Klondike off from its longtime neighbors, Smokey City and New Chicago.
Nearby factories and the massive old Sears building, which produced stable jobs for the neighborhood, closed in the 1980s. The subprime mortgage crisis that began in 2007 was particularly hard on Klondike and all of North Memphis.
“Doctors and lawyers and teachers all lived here,” Mable Shaw says. “I knew people who worked over at Firestone and Humko and International Harvester. There was a movie theater up on the corner. A beauty shop just down the street. There was a Jewish grocery store where that orchard is on the corner. All that’s gone now.”
Over the past 30 years, Klondike’s population has declined by more than half, from about 3,100 in 1990 to about 1,300 now, according to opens in a new windowcensus figures. About one in five residents has moved in within the past year. Three-quarters are renters. Klondike’s rates of vacancy, foreclosure and eviction are among the highest in the city.
“I made friends with the Muslims before they bought all these properties,” Mable Shaw says. “They are good people. If they got it, they’ll give it to me or anyone else who needs it. They can come in my house if they want. Not some of them others around here. I don’t fool with them. They try to come in my house, I’ll have something waiting for them. This neighborhood ain’t like it used to be, but I can feel it getting better again. Now, there’s still too much shooting. What they shooting for? We all belong to the same. We’re all sisters and brothers in Christ.”
Two years ago, to eliminate blight and encourage infill housing, the county sold opens in a new window150 vacant lots in Klondike to the Klondike/Smokey City CDC for $225,000. The funding came from the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis as part of a grant authorized by Neighborhood Preservation Inc.
“We tried to buy this house, but it was one of the lots NPI bought and froze,” Malik Shaw says, pointing to a boarded-up house on the street. “There was a sign up for a while that NPI was going to demolish it. I was kind of happy about it. It’s such an eyesore and a hazard. The sign is gone now but the house is still here.”
Shaw walks past another vacant lot. “That house here was abandoned and falling down. We bought it and tore it down,” he says. “We wanted to buy up all the eyesores and tear them down. But when the city or NPI or whoever froze all the lots, it stalled us on what we wanted to do. We bought that house over there, but a tree fell on it and we had to tear it down.”
Shaw points to an empty lot that used to be 741 Claybrook. Helen Barnum was born at that address in 1913, the 10th of 13 children. As an adult, she lived on Alma, one street over. She became one of the neighborhood’s friendliest residents and fiercest advocates. She’d call politicians and business owners to get air-conditioners for senior citizens. She started a food and clothes pantry. She registered voters at her home. She spent her evenings tutoring children. She died in 2004 at age 91.
“People who have lived here a long time still have a lot of pride in this neighborhood, but most of them are older and less able to keep up,” Shaw says as he walks toward the mosque. “The people are beautiful, real friendly, but due to the condition of a lot of the housing, the fact that a lot of the housing is owned by people who don’t live here anymore, they live in California or some other place far away, it’s become a transient neighborhood. Even more since the schools closed.”
Northside High, the neighborhood’s anchor at the other end of Claybrook, was closed in 2016. Klondike Elementary next door, which was taken over by the state’s Achievement School District in 2012, was closed in 2017. Perea Preschool uses part of the school.
A year ago, Northside Renaissance Inc. purchased the old high school building and its 11 acres from Shelby County Schools for about $400,000. The new organization has opens in a new windowplans for a mixed-use development. Partners include opens in a new windowNeighborhood Preservation Inc., The Works Inc., Pyramid Peak Foundation, opens in a new windowKlondike Smokey City CDC.
NPI officials referred all questions about the lots and the schools to the CDC. No one was at the CDC office, and several phone calls were not returned.
“I’m glad they are planning to redevelop that property,” Shaw says as he locks the mosque’s front door. “It should help, but schools are the pride of a neighborhood. It’s hard to replace that.”
Faith, food and fellowship
The mosque sits on the north side of the short, busy and blighted stretch of Jackson between Watkins and I-240. A strip of grass a yard wide separates the sidewalk from the cars, trucks and buses whizzing by.
“The city told us they are going to redo Jackson, do things to beautify it, calm the traffic, make it safer and more pedestrian friendly,” Shaw says as he walks west on the narrow sidewalk. “I hope so. It’s so dangerous. A car literally crashed into our front steps not long ago.”
The mosque now owns all three commercial buildings on the short block from Claybrook to Alma along Jackson.
“This is the most recent thing we bought,” Malik says, raising his voice above the traffic’s din as he walks past a boarded-up beige building next to the mosque. “It’s been vacant since we moved here. It was filled with tons of old tires and other junk. We’re still trying to figure out what to do with it. Right now we’re just trying to put a roof on it. We thought about making it a fitness place for people in the neighborhood. Give people a healthy place to exercise. Make smoothies. We also thought about opening a barbecue place. Beef barbecue. Smoothies or barbecue. Now there’s a contrasting business plan.”
Shaw walks past the third building, 1276 Jackson, a larger white structure on the corner of Alma. It was purchased in 2019 with the help of two local physicians. Shaw unlocks the entrance on the side and walks in. The mosque is using the building as a food pantry for the neighborhood.
“There were a million old tires in here,” Shaw says. “It was hideous looking and scary. The doors were half open and who knows who was inside? My father came to visit and saw this and said, ‘No, my grandbabies are not going to be walking past that building in that condition.’ So we fixed it up fast. COVID has slowed us down. It’s slowed everything down, but we’re still serving people here. Once a month. And we’re still delivering food to people who can’t get here.”
When the mosque opened in 2016, Shaw’s eldest child, Sabriyya, and a friend, Osman Celikok, started a opens in a new windowmobile food pantry. They went door to door taking orders and delivering food once a month.
“We got to know our neighbors and they got to know us,” said Sabriyya, who just graduated from college. “At first, people were skeptical, but as time went on, and we stayed consistent, they began to trust us.”
So many people in the neighborhood needed food, the mosque opened a permanent location. They call it The Table Spread, a reference to Surah 5:114 in the Quran: “Jesus, son of Mary, said: O Allah, Lord of us! Send down for us a table spread with food from heaven, that it may be a feast for us, for the first of us and for the last of us, and a sign from Thee. Give us sustenance, for Thou art the Best of Sustainers.”
Shaw opens another door and walks past a stack of new windows into the back of the building, which is being renovated. There’s a covered patio behind the building.
“We want to open a green grocery back here,” he says. “There’s no grocery store in this neighborhood. Right now people are just going to the gas station up on Jackson. All they can get is fried food and junk and maybe toilet paper and stuff like that. Paying crazy prices for it. We also might put in a kitchen back here to serve hot food on the patio.”
In the early 2000s, the Herenton administration targeted 20 of the city’s most distressed areas for redevelopment. The S.M.A.R.T. Neighborhood Revitalization Plan did not include Klondike.
“We’re not against progress or beautification, but if the changes are going to make property taxes and rents go way up and push people out of their homes, that’s a problem,” Shaw says. “We’ve all seen what can happen to black neighborhoods close to Downtown. You see what happened to Uptown.”
In 2017, as part of its efforts to secure funding for nearby Crosstown Concourse, the Wharton administration presented a plan to opens in a new windowrevitalize parts of North Memphis. It included infill housing, a civic plaza, new parks and open spaces, and improvements along Jackson Avenue. Nearly all the proposed improvements focused on Uptown and Smokey City, the neighborhoods west of Klondike on the other side of I-240.
“We’re trying to open another lane, another way of doing this,” Shaw says. “Why can’t people with good intentions who live here buy these lots and houses and repurpose them for the people who already live here? Then you have a stake in it.”
Mayor Jim Strickland’s administration has designated Klondike as one of nine “anchor areas” that will split $37 million in Accelerate Memphis funding for infrastructure projects.
In the coming weeks, the city plans to issue a final “Small Areas Plan” for opens in a new windowKlondike. It will include rezoning and redesigning the busy and confusing intersection at Jackson and Watkins just four streets east of the mosque. The city plans to add a plaza, calm traffic, and make the area more pedestrian friendly. The work is scheduled to begin next year.
Shaw walks out of the food pantry building and locks the door.
“It says in the Quran, ‘If you are grateful, I will surely increase you.’ We are grateful to be here with the people who are struggling. People on drugs. People who don’t have enough money. People who are hungry. People who are surrounded by violence. Young people who want to go to college but don’t see a path. Older people who just want to live out their days in peace. Dr. King said for religion to be relevant to people, it must feed their hearts, souls and stomachs. It’s a responsibility of religious leaders to take care of the people they serve.”
Malcolm, Martin and Malik
Shaw, whose given name was Calvin, grew up in a Baptist church and attended a Catholic school. He quotes the Bible nearly as readily as he quotes the Quran. He references Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as often as he does Malcolm X.
“I grew up in a church where people would get up to testify and tell where they came from and how God brought them through,” Shaw says as he starts walking north on Alma, which has even more vacant lots and boarded-up houses. “It was inspiring to hear that. That is what Allah has done for me. Brought me through. Dr. King said the purpose of a church is to heal the brokenhearted. That’s the purpose of a house of Allah.”
Shaw’s parents grew up in West Tennessee, and moved to Detroit in the 1970s. His father worked at Chrysler and ran the neighborhood watch program. His sister died when she was 5. Shaw was 4. His parents divorced when he was 12.
“I can identify with people who feel alone. As a child I spent a lot of time by myself,” Shaw says. “People are lonely. Families are broken down. I get that. I get the behaviors that come with being alone or feeling alone. Why people lash out. Why they need community.”
When Shaw was in the eighth grade, he read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” written by Alex Haley, who spent his childhood in West Tennessee. Shaw read it again in college.
“I saw Malcolm’s life and how he recognized the need to reform himself,” Shaw said. “It gave me a script on how to get myself morally right, how to morally correct myself, how to clean myself up morally, and that includes giving back to the community.”
The more Shaw learned about Islam, the more he wanted to know. He borrowed books from a young woman who had converted to Islam a few years before. Her name was Lettia. She was an Army brat who grew up in Germany with a German Catholic mother and an African American Baptist father from Alabama.
“I didn’t know I was Black until I moved to America,” Lettia Shaw said. “When I got here, people wanted me to choose. Am I a Black Christian or a white Christian? Islam gave me permission not to choose.”
Malik and Lettia both converted in the late 1990s. Black people account for 20% of America’s Muslim population, and about half of them are converts, according to a opens in a new window2017 Pew Research Center report. Historians estimate that 20% to 30% of African slaves in the United States were Muslims, many from West Africa.
“A big part of coming down here was for my kids,” Shaw says. “A large part of the Muslim community in America are immigrants, or the children of immigrants. We wanted our children to know where they came from, just like a lot of parents bring their kids back to the South so they’ll know where they came from. I wanted my kids to know their roots as Black Muslims, that this is Islam to us.”
The Shaws both converted before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Now they are raising their kids in a post-9/11 world.
“It’s been hard. But as African American converts, we didn’t feel the same sort of suspicion and fear that a lot of immigrant Muslims encountered after 9/11,” Shaw says. “In the Black community, there’s always been a narrative of being Muslim. Malcolm X. Muhammad Ali. This young man.”
Shaw smiles as Hamza Abdul-Tawwaab, the mosque’s young assistant imam, approaches. Abdul-Tawwaab came to Midtown Mosque from Southern California. He’s majoring in biology at the University of Memphis. His father is a convert.
“My father converted in prison, and when he got out it had changed him for the good,” Abdul-Tawwaab says. “Everyone in the Black community has a cousin or an uncle who became a Muslim and cleaned up his life. People are happy when Black Muslims come to a Black neighborhood. We don’t drink. We don’t womanize. We pray and help our neighbors.”
A few minutes later, another young man, Salahudeen Abdul-Malik (no relation to the imam), pulls up in a minivan and rolls down his windows.
He lives with his wife and their 20-month-old son in a small house near Mable Shaw’s house. His parents, both converts, live about a block away on the south side of Jackson. The men greet each other with “As-Salam-u-Alaikum” and talk briefly.
“I really like living here,” says Abdul-Malik, a recent Morehouse College graduate. “It feels very neighborly. I love sitting on Ms. Shaw’s porch hearing stories about the neighborhood. I thought the neighborhood would be a lot rougher than it is. You hear some loud cars without mufflers or with music blaring sometimes, but it’s surprisingly quiet. There are so many trees. You hear gunshots every now and then. But about all you hear at night are the cicadas.”
Mecca, Medina and Memphis
Just before New Year’s Day 2016, Shaw, his wife, and their five children, then ages 6-16, moved into a small house on Alma, one street west of Claybrook, four doors down from the future food pantry.
“It could be scary at night,” Shaw says as he walks down Alma. “That first New Year’s Eve, we thought bombs were going off. There was a man across the street just firing gun blasts into the air. My wife said, ‘I don’t feel safe.’ So we went to the mosque until all the shooting stopped.”
The opens in a new windowhomicide rate in Klondike is higher than in some Central American countries.
About two months after the Shaws moved in, the staff at Perea Preschool put up a opens in a new window16-foot banner that read, “Don’t shoot. Stray bullets kill.” Nearby shooting had forced the school into a lockdown four times in the previous six months. In July 2020, a stray bullet opens in a new windowkilled a woman who was watching fireworks on Olympic, the next street to the west.
“The Prophet, the Messenger of Allah, said, ‘Seek out the poor and vulnerable among you,’ ” Shaw says as he walks down Alma. “This is where the poor are. This is where the Prophet would be. So this is where we need to be. You’ve got to believe in what you’re doing. You’ve got to have skin in the game. You can’t do that while you’re swimming in Cordova.”
The family moved from a four-bedroom house with a pool and central heat and air in Cordova into a tiny two-bedroom house on Alma with no pool, no heating system, and no air conditioning.
“You talk about hot, man. But actually the cold was worse,” Shaw says as he stands in front of the house. “When it was hot, we’d use fans. But when it was cold, you’d wake up and see your breath. We tried a kerosene heater but my wife was worried about fires so we didn’t use it much. All the girls stayed in the bigger bedroom. We had the other room. Our son stayed on the couch, but he didn’t like it so he moved in with the girls.
After about a year on Alma, the family sold the house and brought another, larger one in the neighborhood just south of Jackson.
“I wasn’t really worried about our safety on Alma,” Lettia Shaw said. “Anytime you’d hear gunshots, it would be disheartening, but that didn’t happen very often. The house just wasn’t practical, especially as the girls were getting older. We just needed more space. And heat.”
Shaw walks past a boarded-up house behind the food pantry. Water is gurgling from the meter near the street.
“This neighborhood is different now,” Shaw says as he looks around. “It’s changing. You can feel the neighborhood changing. A lot of abandoned houses are finally being torn down. When we first moved here, you’d hear a lot of gunshots, almost every night. Now it’s rare. You’d see a lot of police raids around here, a lot of drug raids. Now it’s chill. I can walk around here at night, go to the masjid, and I don’t feel nervous or anything.”
The English word “mosque” evolved from the Arabic term masjid, which means “place of prostration.” During prayer, Muslims briefly kneel and touch their foreheads to the ground as a sign of submission (literally, Islam) to the will of God.
“When we tell people what we’re doing, they look at us funny and say, ‘Y’all moved down there? For real?” Shaw says with another laugh. “Yes, we actually did and we actually believe in this work. You gotta believe in miracles. To me it’s a miracle we’re standing here at this masjid in North Memphis. Young Hamza is from California. I’m from Detroit. Shaykh Hamza is from Connecticut. How did that happen? We just have to do our part. We see the potential in this neighborhood and we want other people to see it.”
Shaw unlocks the masjid’s door. It’s nearly time for Salat al Asr, or afternoon prayers. Observant Muslims pray five times a day, always facing Mecca, Islam’s holiest city.
Medina, Islam’s second holiest city, celebrated as the place where Muhammad established the Muslim community (ummah), actually is a bit closer to North Memphis.
“When the Prophet went to Medina, he said, ‘Spread peace, feed people, and pray in the middle of the night.’ That’s been our motivation,” Shaw says. “That’s why we started the garden first, to feed people. That’s why we moved to the neighborhood. We’re just here to spread peace. That’s why we opened a mosque. We can’t do any of this without Allah. One of my favorite Bible verses that really stuck with me is be faithful with a few and he’ll give you more. Just be faithful. Operate in good faith and it will work out.”
This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.