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Stuck in the Middle

Part 1: razing relic to past gives hope to blighted, forgotten neighborhood

‘Demolition Day’ a welcome sign of Binghampton’s promise

General Contractor Octavius Nickson (left) and Noah Gray, executive director of the Binghampton Development Corp., chat as a bulldozer razes vacant homes on Tillman Cove. during ‘Demolition Day’ ceremony Sept. 9. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian file)

More in this series
Part 2: A TIF grows in Binghampton
Part 3: Binghampton cherishes its diversity, potential

The public ceremony was held under a white canopy and a gray sky in the middle of a blighted and abandoned apartment complex in Binghampton, But Mary Williams was dressed like she was going to church. 

The mayor spoke, as did the developer and the general contractor and the man in charge of housing and community development and the woman in charge of community redevelopment. 

Williams, who lives in a quiet little apartment about two blocks east, shifted in her folding chair, waiting for officials to stop talking and excavators to start moving. 

It was demolition day in Binghampton. Again. 

The 100-year-old neighborhood in the middle of Memphis always seems to be under construction. 

“I’ve been praying for this day,” said Williams, a faithful lifetime member of the First Pleasant View Baptist Church next door to the demolition site. 

“I kept saying, ‘Lord, if you can bless me and give me some peace of mind, I hope I can live long enough to see Tillman Cove torn down. This is no place for children. It’s just a problem.’” 

Mary Williams sits in the Binghampton home where she has lived for 30 years. There was a time she feared for her safety in the neighborhood, but that is no longer the case. “I feel very safe in Binghampton. I was born here. I’m still here. I love it here.” (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

Williams knows all about Binghampton’s problems. She also believes in Binghampton’s promise. 

She grew up on the side of Binghampton that for generations was railroaded, redlined, right-of-way’d and relegated into a place most people drove through or avoided. 

The apartment building where she lived as a child was razed, along with a wide swath of the neighborhood, to make room for an interstate that was never built. 

The high school she graduated from in 1969, old Lester High, was closed a few years later to encourage integration that never happened. 

Over the course of her seven decades in Binghampton, Williams has seen too many houses, churches, schools and businesses left for dead. 

She’s heard too many gunshots and police sirens. 

“When I moved in over where I live now, I was scared. I’d hear a gunshot and dive on the floor, then I’d peep out the window to see if everything was all right. I’d sleep in my clothes in case I had to run out,” she said. 

“Now I sit on my porch and don’t worry. I feel very safe in Binghampton. I was born here. I’m still here. I love it here. I’d be scared to go anywhere else.” 

Williams hears fewer gunshots and sirens these days. She sees more and more blighted properties being removed or improved, and new houses and churches and schools being built, bringing new life to her old neighborhood. 

Lately she’s seeing even more progress, especially here along Tillman Street, with its new police precinct, the football field built for kids, the bike path on the south end, and the new shopping center by Sam Cooper Boulevard. 

“I thought that new shopping center wasn’t going to be nothing, but it’s nice for everyone,” she said, shifting again in her seat in the middle of a decaying apartment complex built three years before she was born. 

“I don’t know what they’re going to put here,” she added as she surveyed the ruins of Tillman Cove. “They can put anything they want, long as they tear it down. But we’re going to try to get them to put in something nice for everyone.” 

Binghampton was named for William Henry Bingham, an Irish immigrant, hotelier, planter and politician who founded the town and was its first mayor. The ‘p’ was added inadvertently by a clerical error when the town was incorporated in 1893. 

Tillman Cove is a relic. 

Its 116 apartments opened in 1948 in the rush to provide housing to veterans and their baby-booming families after World War II. 

Its 45 single-story brick buildings look more like military barracks than family apartments. Their formation filled an area large enough for eight football fields. 

Tillman Cove consisted of 116 apartments that opened in 1948 to provide housing to veterans and their families after World War II. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

When Tillman Cove was full, hundreds of men, women and children called it home. 

When it was closed in 2016, its 40 or so remaining residents were given about a month to find another place to live. 

The city bought the abandoned property for $800,000 last year and chose Elmington Capital of Nashville to develop the site. 

“The redevelopment of the Tillman Cove site marks the beginning of a continuous process of providing a social and economic platform for the residents of Binghampton to move forward,” Rosalyn Willis, president of the Memphis and Shelby County Community Redevelopment Agency, said at the ceremony. 

Binghampton boomed when Litchfield Car Works opened there in 1893. The factory produced boxcars and electric streetcars and employed as many as 3,000 people. By 1900, Binghampton was a thriving lumber and railroad town with its own water system, power plant, police, weekly newspaper, hotel, and school (Lawler, where Binghampton Park is today). 

As Mary Williams shifted in her seat at the demolition ceremony, Noah Gray stood to speak. 

Gray has been working on the edge of Tillman Cove for years. 

As executive director of the Binghampton Development Corp.  (BDC), his office is on the northwest corner of the abandoned apartment complex. 

Gray has spent a lot of time at two smaller apartment buildings that were equally distressed  the 20-unit Hope Community Senior Apartments across the street, and the 18-unit Tillman Crossing, which stands between the Shelby County Greenline and Tillman Cove. 

The BDC bought and renovated and now manages both properties. 

Gray talked about Tillman Crossing and the promise it held for Binghampton and the redevelopment of Tillman Cove. 

Noah Gray, executive director of the Binghampton Development Corp., talks to a crowd gathered for the Tillman Cove housing project ‘Demolition Day’ ceremony on Sept. 9. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

Police calls to the building have been reduced from several a week to one or two a month. 

All apartments are rented, and 80 percent are reserved for households at or below 80 percent of the neighborhood’s median income of $26,000. 

Tenants who pay their rent on time and maintain their property can earn annual cash rebates. 

“Tillman Crossing was the definition of blight. Police used to tell people on the Greenline to stop at Highland and turn around before they got to Tillman,” Gray said. 

“When we purchased the property in 2011, all but two of the units had major water damage. We found dead cats. Rats. We met drug dealers and prostitutes and politely asked them to leave. They did.” 

Gray grew up in Missouri. He first set foot in Binghampton as a college student on spring break in 2007. He volunteered that week with Service Over Self, a home-repair ministry founded by Christ United Methodist Church in 1986. 

He was so taken with the work, he came back as a summer intern, then moved to Memphis after he graduated in 2009 to take a job as property manager for the BDC, founded by Christ UMC in 2003. 

Gray and his wife were so taken with the neighborhood, they moved in. Until recently, they lived on Princeton Avenue, a few blocks northeast of his office. 

Noah Gray (center), executive director of the Binghampton Development Corp., holds his daughters Hannah, 3, (left) and Lucy, 1, while attending a discussion about the Tillman Cove demolition. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

“When we moved in, it changed the pronoun from them to us,” Gray said. “We weren’t just working with people in the neighborhood. We were working with and for our neighbors.” 

The BDC’s mission is to “mitigate blight, build hope, and restore justice.” Since 2003, the BDC has renovated 100 housing units and built 18 new homes in Binghampton, most of them on the more distressed east side of the neighborhood. 

It owns and manages about 70 properties, including the new Binghampton Gateway Center, the 48,000-square-foot retail center that opened last year on the corner of Tillman and Sam Cooper Boulevard. The project was the city’s first community-based PILOT (payment-in-lieu-of-taxes). 

Two years ago, the BDC led a successful neighborhood-wide effort to apply for a tax-increment financing (TIF) district. 

“With the Binghampton Community TIF District in place,” the application states, “Binghampton will serve as a bright spot for the reduction of social, economic and racial disparity.” 

Gray believes Tillman Cove will be the tipping point. 

“Gentrification is not the problem in Binghampton. Poverty and disinvestment are the problem,” Gray said. 

“The challenge is to eliminate the worst of the blight and replace it with development that drives investment and opportunity in the neighborhood without driving out the people who live here.” 

In the early 1900s, the Louisville & Nashville Railway (now CSX) and the Illinois Central Railroad (now Canadian National Railway) built railroad tracks through Binghampton. Today, only the Mississippi River carries more cargo north and south. 

Tillman Cove is a top priority for city and neighborhood leaders. 

Its demolition is the first expenditure made by the new Memphis Community Catalyst Fund, which the city is using to jump-start developments in “anchor neighborhoods” identified in Memphis 3.0, the city’s comprehensive plan announced a year ago. 

Its development is one of three projects the city is pushing for the new Memphis Opportunity Zones, a product of 2017’s federal tax reform offering incentives for investments in blighted areas. Others are the massive, $900 million Union Row project downtown and Heartbreak Hotel in the Edge district. 

Replacing Tillman Cove with high-quality, affordable housing also is the top priority of the 2018 Binghampton Community Redevelopment Plan — the blueprint for the new TIF district. 

It’s the product of interviews and focus groups with more than 250 people who live or work in Binghampton. 

About a dozen of them, including Mary Williams, make up the new Binghampton Community Advisory Committee, which held its first meeting last month. 

Longtime Binghampton resident Mary Williams (right) attends a community meeting where residents can ask questions and express any concerns about the Tillman Cove project. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

The committee will review each TIF proposal and make recommendations for how up to $26 million in tax-increment financing (TIF) will be spent in the neighborhood over the next 30 years. 

“Memphis has a real chance to do something innovative here,” said Andrew Murray, director of Planning and Community Development for the Community Redevelopment Agency, which oversees the TIF.  

“The neighborhood is in the driver’s seat. The people of Binghampton can push for development that benefits the entire neighborhood.” 

In 1970, about 200 neighborhood residents were displaced to clear right-of-way for Interstate 40, which was never completed. Sam Cooper Boulevard opened along the same corridor in 2001. Today, about 152,000 vehicles a day travel on I-40 near Sycamore View. By comparison, about 42,000 vehicles a day travel on Sam Cooper.  

As the demolition ceremony ended, Octavius Nickson put on a hard hat and walked toward the big track hoe excavator. 

He wasn’t here to tear down Tillman Cove. The city owns the property. That’s someone else’s job. But as general contractor on the project, Nickson will be leading the effort to build what takes its place. 

“I’ve got mixed emotions about pushing over all that history,” said Nickson, who grew up across the street in another, even bigger apartment complex called Red Oak. 

“I guess it’s unusual for a general contractor to care, but I want to be involved. I know what it’s like to see outsiders come in and just do things to your neighborhood without your input. I also know what it’s like to be the beneficiary of outside help.” 

Nickson grew up in Binghampton, and his life was shaped by opportunities provided by several of the neighborhood’s faith-based nonprofits. 

He attended the Neighborhood School (now Binghampton Christian Academy), a small, private church school next door to Red Oak on Tillman. During the week, he lived in a dorm on the school’s campus. 

General contractor Octavius Nickson, who grew in Binghampton and still lives in the neighborhood, watches as a bulldozer razes a vacant Tillman Cove house. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

“My mother wanted me in a different environment,” Nickson said. 

The school’s benefactors helped him get a scholarship to French Camp Academy, a Christian boarding school in Mississippi. 

After he graduated in 2006, he got a summer job as a construction runner for Service Over Self, a home repair ministry in Binghampton. 

That led him to the BDC’s construction job training program, run by Chris Hendrix, who first became involved in the neighborhood as a volunteer with Eikon Ministries in 2002. 

“It was a natural fit,” Nickson said. “I like to build things. There’s a roughness to it, working with your hands. But you also get to use your mind.” 

Nickson worked for another general contractor for several years, rising from ditch digger to superintendent. 

He saw diversity on job sites but not in the main offices. He contacted the Memphis Area Minority Contractors Association and learned African American owned firms were getting less than two percent of local government construction contracts. He also learned city and county officials were trying to do something about that. 

He decided to build his own construction company. He asked Hendrix to join him as a minority partner. 

“The city needed it and I was ready,” Nickson said. “Preparation met opportunity.” 

The offices of Nickson General Contractors are in Hickory Hill, but the owner and president still lives in Binghampton. 

He and his wife and their three children live in a house they bought on Allison Avenue, a house he helped to build while he was in the BDC’s construction training program. 

Nickson is prepared to replace Tillman Cove, but he doesn’t want to build something that displaces his neighbors. 

“I’m not a fan of drastic change,” he said. “We need gradual change that protects the people who live here. I want people in this neighborhood to have a say in what they need and want here.” 

Binghampton might be the busiest neighborhood in Memphis. About 12,000 people live in the neighborhood, but average daily traffic count on the neighborhood’s 10 major roads is more than 175,000 vehicles. The busiest five: Sam Cooper Boulevard, 42,399; East Parkway, 35,442; Summer Avenue, 26,070; Poplar Avenue, 24,815; Walnut Grove Road, 16,472. Tillman’s daily count is 12,143.

Tillman Cove has become a symbol of Binghampton’s struggle to overcome generations of disinvestment and disinterest. 

Its 70-year decline and fall are a testament to laws, policies and practices that kept Binghampton separate and unequal from surrounding neighborhoods. 

Its redevelopment will be a test. 

Justin Merrick (standing), executive director of the Center For Transforming Communities, led a Sept. 19 meeting of Binghampton residents to discuss Tillman Cove. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)
Justin Merrick (standing), executive director of the Center For Transforming Communities, led a September 2020 meeting of Binghampton residents to discuss Tillman Cove. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

Of the city’s attempt to revitalize a historically disadvantaged neighborhood that isn’t connected to Downtown. 

Of a distressed neighborhood’s capacity to determine its own destiny. 

Of the ability of people from different walks of life to work together for Binghampton’s promise. 

People such as Mary Williams and other members of the Binghampton Community Advisory Committee who want to reclaim it. 

Noah Gray and other leaders of nonprofit and faith-based organizations who want to help restore it. 

Octavius Nickson and other residents, current and former, who want to rebuild their own neighborhood. 

“We have a chance for Memphis to change the national narrative that gentrification and displacement are necessary in order to have neighborhood revitalization,” said Paul Young, director of Housing & Community Development for Memphis.  

“What’s happening in Binghampton today is a big deal for this community. It’s a big deal for the future of this city.” 

“We have a chance for Memphis to change the national narrative that gentrification and displacement are necessary in order to have neighborhood revitalization… What’s happening in Binghampton today is a big deal for this community. It’s a big deal for the future of this city.”  

Paul Young, Housing & Community Development for Memphis

David Waters’ reporting on issues affecting Memphis children is funded, in part, by a grant from the Urban Child Institute. UCI has no prior knowledge of topics Waters chooses nor is it involved in any aspect of the editorial process.

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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