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Stuck in the Middle

Part 3: Binghampton cherishes its diversity, plans what’s next as development creeps in

Mutual aid, admiration builds neighborhood support systems

Carpenter Art Garden volunteer Jane Pate reads “Last Stop on Market Street” to after-school student Javion Hicks, 7. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

More in this series
Part 1: Razing relic apartments gives hope to historic, forgotten neighborhood
Part 2: A TIF grows in Binghampton

School buses arrive before the sun in Binghampton. 

They collect groggy teenagers from the corner of Holmes  Street and Nathan Avenue at 6:20 a.m., the corner of Red Oak Street and Mimosa Avenue at 6:38, and from 337 N. Merton at 6:40. 

Most of the neighborhood’s teenagers live within walking distance of massive East High, which sits just across Walnut Grove Road on Binghampton’s southeast corner. 

Binghampton students have been attending East since the early 1970s when desegregation and white flight closed the neighborhood’s old Lester High. 

But East was converted into an all-optional school two years ago, open to any county students who meet its stricter academic and behavior requirements. 

Now, most teenagers who live in Binghampton go to school somewhere else — Douglass High about two miles to the north or Central High about three miles to the west. 

“I used to know everyone. Now there are people from all over. Other neighborhoods. Other countries. Seems like it’s changing all the time. But I like it here. I like the people.”

Kerri Rogers, lifelong Binghampton resident

“Split the neighborhood again,” said Kerri Rogers, who has lived in Binghampton all of her 38 years. Her mother attended Lester High. She went to East. So did her oldest son. Her younger sons go to Douglass. 

Rogers knows that disruption visits every neighborhood, but it seems to have made a home in Binghampton. 

The neighborhood in the middle of Memphis always seems to be under construction and pressure, undervalued and underestimated. 

It’s a place of shifting schools and zones, roadways and redevelopment plans, neighbors and fortunes. 

“I used to know everyone,” said Rogers, who lives in a sprawling apartment complex called Red Oak. “Now there are people from all over. Other neighborhoods. Other countries. Seems like it’s changing all the time. But I like it here. I like the people.” 

Rogers works two jobs in the neighborhood — one as a special ed assistant at a charter school down the street, the other as an after-school teacher at the community center next door. 

She worries about her teenagers, especially the boys, but not as much as she used to.  She and her kids have become part of Binghampton’s nonprofit and faith-based support system. 

It’s a society of mutual aid and admiration, run by people she knows and trusts her kids with every day while she’s at work. 

People like Erin Harris and Tarlisa Clark at the Carpenter Art Garden. It’s a nonprofit that provides art, music and other after-school enrichment programs. 

Tarlisa Clark, who once lived in Binghamton’s Red Oak Apartments, moved after her son Tray, then 19, was shot last spring while walking home from the Carpenter Art Garden, where she is an employee. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

People like Willie Baldwin at Club Nathan, a weekly after-school program run by Eikon Ministries. 

People like Walter Casey, executive director of the Lester Community Center for the past 40 years. He was there when she was a kid. He’s still there. 

“It was rough around here for a while,” said Rogers. “I still don’t let them go out at night. But it’s better now. There are more people doing more things for our kids. More things for kids to do.” 

For the past several months, Terry, her oldest son, and Donte, another teen who lives with them, have been working with the art garden to create two new Binghampton landmarks: A mural and a mosaic. 

The mural — which includes an image of Penny Hardaway, the patron saint of Binghampton — is on the side of You’s Grocery Store on Scott Street. 

The large mosaic — a 6-by-12-foot “Welcome to Binghampton” sign — will grace the corner of Sam Cooper Boulevard and Tillman Street

“They are working so hard on that,” Rogers said. “I’m proud. They’re proud.” 

 THE SOCIAL NETWORK 

As Binghampton enters its second century as a Memphis neighborhood, it’s embarking on a bold and promising 30-year development plan. 

The neighborhood is the city’s newest Tax Increment Finance (TIF) District, which is expected to generate $26 million in neighborhood investments over the next 30 years. 

Unlike previous TIFs, the Binghampton plan was put together by people who live and work in the neighborhood – people who already have invested their lives in making it a better place. 

“One of Binghampton’s many strengths is its network of collaborative partners, who together understand that health is a holistic picture,” says the 2018 TIF Implementation Strategy Report. 

“Binghampton will serve as a model for achieving gains in social, economic, and racial equity as well as decreasing the percent of those living in poverty, as well as a bright spot in Memphis, for the reduction of social, economic and racial disparity.”

TIF Implementation Strategy Report

That network of nonprofits and individuals built a support system for children and families all across Binghampton. 

Their ambitious missions are reflected in the lofty language of the neighborhood’s generically named TIF Implementation Strategy Report. 

“With operating support from the Binghampton Neighborhood TIF District and a strong push over the coming years, lives will be changed, residents will thrive, and dignity and hope will be restored,” the 55-page report boldly proclaims. 

“Binghampton will serve as a model for achieving gains in social, economic, and racial equity as well as decreasing the percent of those living in poverty, as well as a bright spot in Memphis, for the reduction of social, economic and racial disparity.” 

In many ways, it already does. 

Over the past 20 years, Binghampton has become more socially, economically and racially diverse, thanks to the work of the Binghampton Development Corp. and the Center for Transforming Communities. 

Service Over Self and Eikon Ministries. Christ Community Health Services and First Baptist-Broad. 

The Carpenter Art Garden and the Refugee Empowerment Program. Caritas Village and Inspire Café — and other neighborhood nonprofit organizations. 

“It’s a real neighborhood, and you don’t find that very often anymore,” said Onie Johns, who opened Caritas Village in 2004.

There are fewer people living in poverty (33% vs. 40%) and using food stamps (23% vs. 30%). 

There are more homeowners (33% vs. 27%) and higher median household incomes ($30,000 vs. $26,000). 

Still, disparities remain, especially between the east side and west side, where there are more new homes and less blight, household incomes and house prices are almost double. 

“The TIF money can be used to build things, but it can’t be used for the sort of wraparound services that help children and families,” said Emily Trenholm, who led the Community Development Council of Greater Memphis (now BLDG Memphis) for 16 years. 

“Binghampton is blessed with a lot of nonprofits that have done that for a long time. You’ve got to have all of those nonprofits come alongside the TIF plan and keep helping. If this is done right, it could become a national model for how a neighborhood can be redeveloped.” 

A third of the neighborhood’s residents are under age 18. Two in three of those children live in poverty. One in five lived somewhere else last year. One in 10 were born in another country.

REFUGEE POWER 

Buses from several nearby schools arrive in shifts every afternoon at the Refugee Empowerment Program on the west side of Binghampton. 

“Take your backpack with you, baby,” Cam Echols Blackmon, REP’s executive director, tells one of the girls who can’t wait to get inside. “Did you get your snack?” 

She did. As did 52 other children who walked, ran, bounded or otherwise entered the cheerful and colorful basement of a former church that welcomes strangers from two dozen countries every day. 

Over the past two decades, the world has found its way to Binghampton. Catholic Charities and World Relief have resettled about 4,000 refugees in Memphis — more of them in this neighborhood than any other. 

The future of Binghampton was born in a refugee camp in Tanzania. A big city in Mexico. A tiny village in Nepal. 

Refugees have changed the face and future of Binghampton. 

A third of the neighborhood’s residents are under age 18. Two in three of those children live in poverty. One in five lived somewhere else last year. One in 10 were born in another country. 

After finishing their homework, cousins (left to right) Milagros Cruz, 9, Floribel Cruz, 6, Delfina Cruz, 5, and Sandbel Cruz, 9, play hind-and-seek among some pillows while attending the Refugee Empowerment Program. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

The REP provides several programs for refugee parents and their children, including after-school care. In turn, they provide perspective. 

“I have learned a lot about the world and history and culture,” said Blackmon. “I don’t call myself African American anymore. I’m not African. I don’t know which country my ancestors came from, and it makes a difference. As I’ve learned, there’s a big difference if you’re from Burundi or Rwanda.” 

Relief agencies set refugees up for a few months. Then they’re on their own. REP has stepped in to fill the gap. So have countless others in Binghampton. 

Blake and Katie Barber moved into the neighborhood about five years ago, drawn by its diversity and affordability. He’s a teacher. She’s a photographer. They’re from Kansas. 

“It took a while to get comfortable,” Katie says. “We got a puppy, a Doberman. We chained the grill to the fence. It’s so funny to think about that now.” 

A family from South Sudan lives across the street. A family from Central America lives next door. People down the street grew up here. 

“We take a walk almost every night with the stroller and the dog,” said Katie. “People are out grilling, kids are playing. We like to walk by the gardens, especially when people are working. You can hear a half dozen languages and see every color of person from every walk of life.” 

Several years ago, neighborhood residents and volunteers turned part of a church parking lot outside REP into a vegetable garden. They added others around the neighborhood. 

Families that work in the gardens also get to share in the harvest. This fall, the bounty includes peas, greens, kale, potatoes, okra and figs. 

Neighborhood children, many of them from refugee or immigrant families, earn money working in the garden and selling the produce. 

They can store produce in a flower cooler down the street at Rachel’s Flowers, owned by Binghampton resident Rachel Greer. 

They can sell it up the street to the cafe at Caritas Village, or at other restaurants over on Broad, or give it to the food pantry next door. 

“It’s redemptive,” said Blake Barber. “People taking care of their own land, their own neighborhood.” 

Godanse Nitanga reads aloud during a gathering at Car
Godanse Nitanga reads aloud during a gathering at Caritas. (Submitted)

Three summers ago, the Barbers volunteered to help with a writing and photography program for the garden kids. 

Godanse Nitanga came to Binghampton a decade ago from a refugee camp in Tanzania. She worked in the garden to earn a little cash. The perspective she gleaned was a bonus. 

“Most of what goes on in the garden is a great comparison of what goes on in my life,” wrote Godanse, now a junior at Central High. 

“In the garden there comes the harvesting, the best part. Harvesting is picking out the delicious plants we’ve grown together as a community. In my life, harvesting is picking out the great things in my life which are my family, friends and the great traits I have.” 

FUTURE OF BINGHAMPTON 

The future of Binghampton is foretold in a thick set of documents that detail priorities and financing plans for public and private developments for the next 30 years. 

The Binghampton Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District application includes a 52-page development plan and 68 pages of financial analysis. 

Priority Projects

  • New and redeveloped single-family homes.
  • Home repair and renovation grants. New housing for seniors. A community land trust.
  • Environmental cleanups along Cypress Creek and railroad corridors. Improvements at Binghampton and Howze Parks.
  • Mixed-use residential/retail developments on Tillman and Broad. Redeveloping Collins Yard into an international marketplace. More small businesses.
  • New streets and streetscapes. Extending the Greenline past Tillman. More pedestrian-friendly crossings at the three main intersections along Sam Cooper Boulevard. Reconnecting Merton to Broad.

The 55-page TIF Implementation Strategy Report contains more than a dozen charts, graphs and tables, including a Priority Project Implementation Matrix. 

“Our real challenge is reconnecting Broad Avenue to Binghampton,” said Pat Brown, former vice president of the Historic Broad Business Association and co-owner of T Clifton Gallery with her business partner, Tom Clifton. 

They moved the gallery to Broad Avenue in 2009 and soon felt called to be part of the street’s revival as an arts district. 

She remembers wondering if anyone in the city would come back to Broad. Now she wonders when the neighborhood itself will come back. 

“We know that a lot of people in the neighborhood think Broad is too white and not for me,” she said. “We can knit the neighborhood to the street by making it a jobs magnet, a place where neighborhood residents can work and start their own businesses.” 

strong>Arthur Jones, 6, (middle) recites a motivational quot
Arthur Jones, 6, (middle) recites a motivational quote at Club Nathan with help from gets help from Camp Outreach volunteer Clay Fuson (left) and club founder Willie Baldwin. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

Binghampton is learning there are two kinds of development. 

“Community development isn’t rocket science, at least not improving the physical development of the space,” said Eric Robertson, executive director of Community LIFT, which aided Broad’s rebound. 

“But community development is rocket science when it comes to the social component and understanding how poverty is connected to improving quality of life for the next generation.” 

The real future of Binghampton isn’t analyzing charts, graphs and maps. 

It’s doing its homework in the basement of an old church at the Refugee Empowerment Program on Merton, and inside a small apartment at the Neighborhood Christian Center in Red Oak. 

“Community development isn’t rocket science, at least not improving the physical development of the space. But community development is rocket science when it comes to the social component and understanding how poverty is connected to improving quality of life for the next generation.” 

Eric Robertson, executive director of Community LIFT

It’s wrestling at Stardust, blocking and tackling at the Hamp, shooting hoops at the Lester Community Center, kicking balls into goals at Binghampton Park. 

It’s creating music and mosaics and oven mitts at the Carpenter Art Garden. 

It’s saying its prayers and talking about faith and fear and hope at Club Nathan. 

“Our biggest challenge in Binghampton isn’t public safety or affordable housing or economic development,” said Justin Merrick, executive director of the Center for Transforming Communities on Merton. 

“It’s making sure our families are not pushed to the margins or pushed out by development. It’s helping kids find their voice and their future here. So 10, 20 years from now, Binghampton isn’t just a place where I used to live. It’s mine. It’s a place I own.” 

HURTING AND HOPING 

Buses roll by the busy corner of Tillman Street and Johnson Avenue every day — school buses, city buses, church buses. 

There are three churches within shouting distance of the corner. No wonder anyone who walks or bikes by can hear the voice of God — as played by actor Samuel L. Jackson.

“Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper,” says Jackson, reading from Jeremiah. It’s an audio version of the Bible playing 24/7 through a speaker attached to the outside wall of the Binghampton Community Church on the northeast corner of Tillman and Johnson. 

“The only way to truly understand what’s going on here, to see how it all fits together, is to have the eternal perspective,” said pastor Shun Abram. 

“My hope for Binghampton doesn’t lie in the goodness of other people. I thank God for that goodness, but this work is too hard, day in, day out. You can’t do it just out of the goodness of your heart. You need something stronger.” 

Abram and his wife moved to Binghampton a decade ago. They opened the church on Easter 2009. They’ve seen a lot of changes along Tillman Street. 

strong>A kid’s eye view of Binghampton, created by children
A kid’s eye view of Binghampton, created by children from Carpenter Art Garden. (Submitted)

A new police precinct. A new shopping center. A new football and soccer field for kids. Improvements to the park and school and community center across the street. 

“The neighborhood is getting more attention,” said Lt. Col. Vincent Beasley, second in command at the Tillman police precinct. 

Binghampton is only one of six wards patrolled by officers in the massive precinct, but Beasley takes a special interest. 

He grew up here. His family was the third to move into the new Red Oak apartments in the 1970s. His sister still lives in the neighborhood. 

Every time he drives by the Binghampton Community Church, he remembers when the little building was once a malt shop.  

“Kids would line up after school with their quarters,” said Beasley. “There was a lot of neighborhood pride back in the day. Some of that pride is gone, but we’re getting it back.” 

Part One crimes — homicide, burglary, robbery, vehicle theft, aggravated assault, rape and larceny — are down 8 percent in the precinct since 2011. 

The numbers are skewed. Aggravated assaults and robberies have dropped more than 50 percent, but burglaries have doubled. “Dollar stores make easy targets,” said Beasley. 

Parks do, too. Three years ago, local authorities issued a “gang injunction,” declaring a “Safety Zone” in a half-square-mile area around Lester Community Center and Howze Park. 

“It’s absolutely better for kids now, it’s safer,” said Walter Casey, who has been the community center’s executive director since it opened 40 years ago on the southwest corner of Tillman and Johnson. 

“Kids these days don’t have as much supervision as we did growing up. They don’t have as much respect for authority. But there’s more for them to do now. There’s a lot more opportunity.” 

Casey grew up in Binghampton. He went to Lester High with Penny Haradway’s mother, Fae. He watched young Penny play at Howze Park next to the community center. Now he watches neighborhood kids try to emulate Penny. 

There was a lot of neighborhood pride back in the day. Some of that pride is gone, but we’re getting it back.”

Lt. Col. Vincent Beasley, Tillman police precinct

“We’re all proud of what Penny has accomplished,” Casey said, “but there are kids here right now who will accomplish even more.” 

Roy “Soup” Campbell, founder of Eikon Ministries, didn’t grow up in Binghampton, but his children did. 

Campbell began volunteering in the neighborhood in the late 1990s, and bought a house on Waynoka Avenue on the east side of Binghampton in 1999. 

He remembers his youngest daughter, Tabitha, staring at the drug dealers and drug houses on the street, and asking him how long they had to stay there. She and her husband now live in the neighborhood. 

“They could live anywhere, but they chose to live in the Hamp,” Campbell said. “Every neighborhood, every street needs stability. Homeownership is the key. You can’t be what you don’t see.” 

Eikon’s neighborhood ministries include two after-school programs with Bible studies — the Bing Dance House for grade-school girls, and Club Nathan for all school-age kids. 

Every Tuesday afternoon, nearly 100 neighborhood kids show up at Willie Baldwin’s house on Nathan Street where they are met by tutors and mentors. 

Eikon bought the house next door. Volunteers helped build a tiny third house and basketball court behind them. 

“This was the worst block in the neighborhood,” said Baldwin, Club Nathan’s founding director. “Now it’s one of the safest. Kids need to have a safe place where people care about them.” 

Baldwin grew up in Hurt Village, a downtown housing project that has been replaced by Uptown development. 

When Baldwin was 10, Campbell showed up one day in the Hurt Village parking lot in a red pickup truck to share doughnuts, orange juice, and the gospel. 

“I was hot, hungry and tired, so I didn’t care what he was saying,” said Baldwin. A decade later, after several near-death experiences as a drug dealer, Baldwin remembered. 

“This was the worst block in the neighborhood. Now it’s one of the safest. Kids need to have a safe place where people care about them.”

Willie Baldwin, Club Nathan founding director

He joined Campbell’s ministry. He knows that not every kid who comes to Club Nathan is listening. Not every kid who comes to the program will come back. 

“Deago didn’t come back,” Baldwin said, “but his little brother and sister are coming now. We’re here. We’re not going anywhere.” 

Deago Brown, 17, was shot and killed two years ago outside a store on the southeast corner of Tillman and Johnson. A 15-year-old girl was arrested and charged with his murder. 

The pastor of the church across the street keeps listening for the voice of God. 

“I’ve been at this for 10 years and I still don’t have an answer,” says Abram. “But I know there’s no quick fix. This is a long-term deal. It’s going to take time. It’s going to take people who are willing to come alongside these families and these children, help stabilize their homes and their lives. 

“Not everyone in Binghampton is living in poverty, but a lot of people here live crisis to crisis. A lot of people want to help, but how do we help without hurting? It hurts to hope.” 

This story first appeared at www.dailymemphian.com under exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

David Waters
Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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