by Lydialyle Gibson
o longer a neighborhood and not yet a city, Hickory Hill is a different place than the one Memphis began clutching at back in 1987. And the issue of annexation is only one of Hickory Hills perplexities.
Central Churchs Reverend Jimmy Latimer, minister to a congregation 7,000 strong, digs at the core of Hickory Hills dilemma.
I think Hickory Hill has to seek its own level, find out who it is, he says. What bothers it is that its neither fish nor fowl, yet it still has a voice.
PHOTO BY DAVID SPARKMAN
In the Beginning: There were wild pigs running here on this land.
And I had to come out in a pickup and unwire the fence to let
the people come in to pray every Sunday. Rev. Jimmy Latimer,
According to the U.S. Census, whose survey extends farther south than the Hickory Hill annexation boundary, the proportion of blacks to the total population grew from less than 10 percent to almost 14 percent between 1980 and 1990. And the Election Commission estimates that this year, about 23 percent of Hickory Hills registered voters listed themselves as black.
The rapid urbanization since 1981, when the Hickory Ridge Mall was built, has also brought with it some confusion and crime. According to the Sheriffs department, whose definition of the area only includes the urban heart of Hickory Hill, crime has risen significantly, even since 1994, when sheriffs deputies responded to 10 rape calls; last year they received 90. The number of robbery complaints has risen 88.5 percent in those years, to 218 in 1997. Domestic violence complaints have risen 32 percent.
Latimer smiles. For 17 years, he has watched Hickory Hill grow into a would-be city, and he says the level of crime depends on where the sheriffs deputies are. Legs crossed on the couch of his two-room office overlooking Winchester Road, Latimer, a pastor for 33 years, reckons hes been around since dirt. When he moved his congregation of 2,000 men, women, and children out to this spot 1981, as far as he could see was fields.
There were pigs there were wild pigs running here on this land, he says, with a deep, intoxicating cadence. And I had to come out in a pickup and unwire the fence to let the people come in to pray every Sunday.
Now Central Churchs star-shaped dome commands a landscape of fast food, busy streets, and strip malls. Latimer believes that Hickory Hills confusion has something to do with Memphis notion of community.
In older cities, people understand community, he says. Where people are land-locked and cant just move, they understand living in the community and making a community out of where you are. Memphis has always been a pick-up-and-move town. The time for that, he says, is running out.
Whether or not that is true, Hickory Hill is nearing a cultural, racial, and economic crossroads. Meanwhile, its voice continues to splinter, and few people seem to have the same idea about what is going on.
Its 10 p.m., and still without lights, Hickory Hills wide, urban streets are swallowed in county darkness, except for the glow of fast-food restaurants and convenience stores and a trickle of late-night traffic. Sheriffs deputy Terrell Robertson has been patrolling the area since four oclock. So far, hes turned off a few burglar alarms, filed a missing persons report, and chanced upon an abandoned stolen car. Its a slow night, even for Hickory Hill.
Most of the crime in Hickory Hill is not from people who stay in Hickory Hill, says Robertson, explaining that crime intensifies closer to the city-county border. People with bad kids move out to the county to get them away from the city. But it doesnt work unless you cut the communication lines to the bad neighborhoods.
Robertson, 38, has been a Sheriffs deputy for 12 years. Raised in Whitehaven when it was still a quiet neighborhood, he moved to Hickory Hill five years ago with his three daughters. Two years after that, he started patrolling the area I like being able to look out for my home, he says. Tall, lean, and with an easy grin, he is one of a growing number of middle-class blacks moving out of the city in search of better homes and a better quality of life.
This is really not a bad area, but when things happen out here, its explosive because you dont expect it, he says. But I dont think crime is as bad as people say. People take any incident in the county and pick at it like its a sore.
And with that, he explains away several years of sensational, if episodic, violence in Hickory Hill.
In 1995, the restaurant manager of a TGI Fridays was shot and killed and the bartender wounded during a robbery after hours. A prisoner on furlough to attend his fathers funeral was arrested for allegedly robbing three Hickory Hill banks in as many days. A Hardees employee was killed walking to work before dawn, and a 72-year-old woman was found stabbed to death in her apartment. Just last year, a pastoral counselor was shot in the stomach in his office at Central Church. Two women were shot in the head within a mile of each other, apparently the accidental victims of a drug war. A Sheriffs deputy trying to serve a search warrant at an apartment was shot in the hand by a drug suspect and a gun battle ensued. Three months ago, a 44-year-old woman pumping gas at the Amaco at Knight Arnold and Hickory Hill was caught in the crossfire of a gang battle and shot as she ran for cover.
PHOTO BY DAVID SPARKMAN
Most of the crime in Hickory Hill is not from people who stay
in Hickory Hill. Deputy Terrell Robertson
The gangs out here are not like in the city, he offers. But they have been more noticeable in the last two years.
So noticeable, in fact, that last New Years Day Sheriff A.C. Gilless unveiled a program to sweep the Hickory Hill streets of crime, and sent county officers to seminars about combating gangs. In the programs first six weeks, 39 suspects in the area were arrested and charged, most of them gang members.
When gangs first came into the county in the last year, you know, rising, we almost thumped them completely out, Robertson says. Now they dont flash those signs anymore.
Despite his sometimes uncertain, sometimes emphatic insistence on the inflated reputation of Hickory Hills crime rate, Robertson does admit a few trouble spots. Easing down Jasmine Cove, Myers Road, and Flowering Peach Drive in the eastern corner of Hickory Hill, he nods solemnly toward the rows of duplexes, the yards of scrappy, uneven grass, the bits of trash in the driveways. Earlier in the day, as many as fifteen children were wandering around in front of these houses.
Whenever you see a lot of children out like that, you know theres going to be problems, he says. Trashy neighborhoods, unkept-up yards. Problems. If Hickory Hill does have a bad area, this is it. Everybody knows [duplexes] are for crime. Nobody wants their house to be near them, including me.
It startles Anita Woods to see customers walking up to her store. Even in broad daylight and especially when shes alone she keeps the door locked. Behind the tall flower stands and wedding bouquets and plastic cake decorations, she can hardly be seen at her desk in the back of the dimly lit shop.
This paranoia is new. Eight months ago, Woods, 30 years old and politely efficient, quit her job and opened her own catering business on Winchester Road, Hickory Hills main commercial drag. Since then shes become increasingly skittish, even though business, she says, is great.
Im going to take that [opening hours] sign down and just say, By Appointment Only, she declares, eyeing the street outside. People come around here looking like they maybe just came out of the crazy house.
Woods rattles off some of Winchesters recent violence: carjackings, an armed robbery at a store a few doors down, a kidnapping and rape at the post office across the street.
I thought it was a fairly decent area, she says. Now shes thinking of relocating to Midtown. The businesses on either side of me we keep an eye on each other. But its not very profitable if I have to keep my door locked all the time.
Meanwhile, the clerk at a nearby store, a brisk woman, middle-aged, with wiry blond hair and a cigarette-tough voice, says that three and a half years ago, she didnt hesitate to move and work out here. Not six months later, her house was broken into, and shes convinced that her new backdoor neighbors have been stealing from her garage.
The neighborhood is changing, she says. I see a lot more people in the streets, I hear a lot more loud cars, a lot more loud music late at night. Theres been huge increases in crime. Someone took something from the store right out from under my nose twice. She also describes a would-be holdup by a couple of suspicious characters that was interrupted by her manager.
Ill never feel completely safe around here like I used to, she says. You see small gangs of young men grouping together, and thats always bad. When we got here, the atmosphere was still small town.
And she believes she knows what is wrong. If I tell you, she says, hesitating, it would be racist. But its true. They [blacks] dont think about violence the way we do. Guns are a part of their daily diet. It has nothing to do with economics. It has to do with how you were raised.
The racist statement is why, after originally giving her name, the clerk called back the next day to ask that it not be used. Nevertheless, she echoes a growing sentiment among some of Hickory Hills longest-standing, middle class white residents, many of whom have already left for virgin territory further east.
PHOTO BY DAVID SPARKMAN
Ollie Johnson: All of us are striving for the same thing the
best place to bring our children up.
Buntyn and her four-year-old daughter have lived here for two years participating in the Housing and Urban Development Section 8 Existing Housing program. Based on Buntyns income, the Memphis Housing Authority pays part of the $500 monthly rent. Otherwise, she says, theyd be stuck in the kind of neighborhood where she grew up the stereotype of being black, poor, and living in the projects.
When I moved out to this area, I left all the fear behind of being robbed or hurt or attacked from behind, she says. Her daughter comes back from the kitchen, clambers into her lap with a handful of grapes and begins feeding them to her one at a time. I like the surroundings better out here. And she believes she appreciates those surroundings more than wealthier residents might. Youre working everyday, you appreciate somebody giving you a hand.
According to Anna Champion, manager of Memphis Housing Authoritys Section 8 program, Buntyn is like almost all Section 8 clients: hard-working, black, and a single mother. Among more established residents, she says, Section 8 has become an unfair scapegoat for Hickory Hills rise in crime.
People think these people are getting a free ride, and theyre not, Champion says. Theyre taking the low jobs and theyre working hard. Besides, she says, once its investigated, most of the crime in the area has nothing to do with Section 8 clients.
Although Buntyn hasnt dealt with any discrimination racial or economic first-hand (her apartment complex has, however, become mysteriously more black than mixed in the past two years), she has heard the talk of older, wealthier and usually whiter residents that low-income outsiders from the city are deteriorating Hickory Hill. And it makes her angry.
Just because youre Section 8 doesnt mean youve got to be guns and drugs, she says. Im not trying to commit crime. Im at work every day. This is not a sit-around thing, waiting on crime. Its an everyday struggle. Is it fair to say that just because Im a low-income person, I have to stay in an all-black area in South Memphis? Not all of us are out here trying to destroy Hickory Hill.
Silent, Passive Flight
At 56, John McClinton looks like he must have stopped aging about 10 years ago: strong chin, dark hair, grey-flecked mustache. Its almost evening, and in blue work pants and a pair of paint-speckled loafers, he is building wooden risers to put under the furniture in his rented storage space. Fifteen years ago when he moved to Hickory Hill with his wife and two children to buy the larger house he couldnt afford in the city, he was one of only a handful of blacks in the neighborhood. Since then, hes watched most of his white neighbors leave.
A lot of whites have a tendency to move out when blacks move in, he says with an ironic smile. But he doesnt seem angry; white flight is just a fact silent, passive. A lot of whites prefer to live with whites, he says, but they dont cause any trouble.
His neighborhood off Kirby Parkway is solidly middle class rows of one-story houses and open yards shouldered neatly beside each other. From here, McClinton, a retired city-school teacher, has seen the growing pains of Hickory Hills urbanization, including a rise in crime.
My grandmother and my mother used to say that the world is becoming wiser but weaker, he explains. Were wiser, but crime is one of the ways we are weaker. Its all because of the metropolitan area you get the growth, but you also suffer the criminal acts because of the metropolitan area. McClinton also insists that those committing crime in Hickory Hill dont live in Hickory Hill. They go where they can get away with it, he says.
In Hickory Hills journey toward wisdom and weakness, the battle over annexation strikes McClinton as ungrateful counter-intuition. I didnt move here to fight the city, he says. I moved here simply because there was a home that I liked that provided me with the space I needed. Collierville, Germantown these towns were able to progress because of Memphis. People make a beeline for Memphis to get the money, and once they get at it, then they go out and talk [negatively] about Memphis. To me, thats hypocritical. In order for the formula to continue to flow, they [Memphis] have to have revenue. Annexation is to be expected, kind of like white flight.
But to 37-year-old Gebbie Barrett, a black resident who grew up in a military family traveling from place to place, and who moved to Memphis from Florida two years ago, annexation and racism in Hickory Hill are not so neatly defined.
I think people are moving, she says. I dont know if its because of blacks moving in, or if its because they dont want the city. Of course, on the surface it looks like flight, but you have to get at the reason. Southern blacks are quicker to blame things on racism.
PHOTO BY DAVID SPARKMAN
Tom Jeanette: If we are annexed by Memphis, our taxes would double
and we would become part of the worst education system in the
entire state of Tennessee.
Like most other residents, she believes Hickory Hill is the victim of its own rise in crime Most of the time its someone coming from other areas and doing their dirt and leaving. She sees a real melting pot of classes out here and finds the neighborhoods increasingly racially mixed, like hers.
I see racism on both sides, she says, leaning forward earnestly. The races here seem about 50-50 right now theres no dominant race. She thinks racial relations in Hickory Hill require a more delicate interpretation than simply white flight or black invasion. And for the most part, shes optimistic about her mixed-race neighbors: Were not running in and out of each others houses, but we are saying hello.
The Klansman Next Door
Hickory Hill is looking better all the time to Rick Presley. Ever since the former Ku Klux Klansman next door moved away and stopped shooting at Presleys dog, tearing up his cars, and threatening to kill his children, he hasnt found any reason to complain.
The neighborhood has changed its a better place to live, he says with amusing understatement. But he still moves with an uneasy quickness and fidgets in his chair.
For Presley, the most worrisome thing about the Hickory Hill neighborhood he moved to three years ago wasnt the half dozen or so for-sale signs that went up in white residents yards within days of his arrival. It was the couple next door: Scott Shepherd, founder of the National White Rights Association, and his wife, Anita. Soon after Presley and his family moved in, the Shepherds broke into their home and tore the heads off some statuettes of black historical figures. That was just the beginning.
Over the next three years, Presley and his family endured vandalism, verbal harassment, shot-out car windows, and an attack with a shovel. He says he called out the Sheriffs department 50 or 60 times, only to find that [Shepherd] seemed to control them, they didnt control him. Finally, almost two years ago, he found a handwritten note on his front doorstep scrawled with, Leave Nigger Before Something happens to your Kids. KKK. Presley evacuated his wife and children and appealed to the courts for a restraining order. Then he filed a lawsuit.
Its been about a month since Presley won the civil case against the Shepherds, for damages they cant possibly afford to pay. Now hes writing a book about what happened.
Ive never been run anywhere, and that wasnt going to be the first time. This is all the explanation he offers about why he didnt just move when the trouble began. Being able to handle the situation other than violence pays off in the end.
Besides his own spectacular encounter with racial hatred and Presley says he knows of two other similar incidents in Hickory Hill he has noticed some quieter, more ordinary racism. I will say this, those [for-sale] signs went up pretty quick, he says. Ive seen a lot of white flight in the last three years. But most of the people who wanted to go have run, and the others who wanted to make a homestead for their family are staying, and they dont care about any of that.
And in their own way the Shepherds helped bring Presleys mixed neighborhood together, too. Presley says that his neighbors, although terrified of Shepherds vengeance, still encouraged him during his ordeal. And afterwards people would stop and talk about how everything turned out, he says. With the Shepherds gone, the neighborhood is settling back into a comfortable routine.
Presley, however, wont be around. Hes moving his family out east to the nine-bedroom house he just finished building.
The modest-looking Hickory Hill Missionary Baptist Church has stood on the same scrap of land on Winchester Road across from the Hickory Ridge Mall since 1870, back before Hickory Hill was Hickory Hill, back when Hickory Hill was a community of black farmers. In those days, there really was a hill of hickory trees.
Sixty-one-year-old Arthur Crutcher, chairman of the deacon board, remembers growing up two miles away and walking from the black elementary school on the site of the Hickory Ridge Mall, to church every day for revival. The whole community, he says, has grown up around and in fact is named for his church.
The changes dont bother me too much, he says, balanced in a chair too small for him in a childrens Bible classroom. I learn to roll with the times. Otherwise, you get left behind and youre sitting off grieving over something you cant do anything about. Too much grieving is not good for the body or the soul.
Crime, he admits, is up with urbanization, (Crutcher calls it a crime season) and the shifting racial balance of the last ten years causes some tension.
But isnt that true of most cities this size? asks Ollie R. Johnson, the churchs Christian education director, sitting across a desk from him. Its mostly fear, and lack of education. But all of us are striving for the same thing the best place to bring our children up.
White flight eventually must cease, says Crutcher. I dont see any place that whites can go where a number of blacks cant also go. I can be comfortable anywhere.
At his predominantly white Baptist church off Crump Road, Stan Roach has seen the neighborhood change, too. Associate pastor and youth pastor there for five years, he says that Hickory Hill is becoming more and more of an industrial area, and a more transient apartment community. Crime is definitely rising.
The church has been broken into and vandalized several times, he says. The custodian has to take all his equipment home with him. Two years ago, someone broke in and tore down almost every door with a lock on it and walked past computers and equipment to attack the Coke machine. He thinks the culprits are mostly kids.
Lets face it, he says. Hickory Hill has become the hot spot for crime. It has. But our people are set to stay her on this corner and minister to these people. They need God more than ever.
But Roach is still optimistic. I dont want you to think that this community is so down-trodden that theres no hope. But on the other hand, we do have some problems.
Side by side at a corner table in the Winchester Road restaurant where they first met almost two years ago, Tom and Denise Jeanette arent much for small talk. With annexation laws, city planning maps, and newspaper clippings printed from websites scattered in front of them, their faces show the momentum of several months of intensifying passion straight mouths, taut jaws, stone eyes.
Last year the Jeanettes led Hickory Hills movement to incorporate into the town of Nonconnah, an effort which raised $80,000 in six weeks but finally faltered following the court ruling that Chapter 98, the law which would have allowed Hickory Hill self-determination, was unconstitutional.
Now fully licensed lobbyists at the state legislature, the Jeanettes have formed the Tennessee Suburban League (whose name jibes at the already existing Tennessee Municipal League representing the city). Working for laws to protect suburban rights and for one to breathe life back into the Nonconnah movement Denise now splits her weeks between home and Nashville lawmakers offices, while Tom researches their legislative options from Memphis.
Look, here is the bottom line for us, explains Tom. If we are annexed by Memphis, our taxes would double, we would be represented by a city council that looks at us only as source revenue, we would get a dramatically reduced police presence, and we would become part of the worst education system in the entire state of Tennessee. So, double taxes, take away police and kill our schools is what Memphis is proposing.
They insist that Hickory Hill has all the services it needs already utilities, police, fire, schools, even a workable budget and that annexation to Memphis would only threaten all this.
Were at an age where we have to look at the future, our retirement, our kids futures we have a moral obligation to make sure that the laws are fair and that theyre open enough so that we dont have to keep re-addressing the same issues, says Tom. We dont feel like we can sit back and observe. We cant sit back and say, You cant fight City Hall.
City Hall, meanwhile, holds fast to the annexation bid originally proposed in 1987. According to a 1996 study by the City Planning Office, which has had annexation in the back of its mind since 1969, Hickory Hills per capita density exceeds Memphis by 35 percent. Since 1987, the population there has grown from 39,083 to 49,544, and Hickory Hill has reached near build-out level. Four fifths of the areas land was already developed by 1996, and between July of that year and the end of last year, 25 percent of the remaining vacant land was used. Between 1986 and 1996, the amount of commercial land rose by 120 percent, and to feed Hickory Hills burgeoning business district, the Nonconnah Parkway off I-240 was opened. Hickory Hill is no longer a loose collection of residential subdivisions, argues the City Planning Office, and its real, urban needs require real, urban services and real, urban taxes.
The trial that will decide whether Hickory Hill will become a part of the city of Memphis is set for July 14th.
We Are a Carnal People.
Andy Andrews left Whitehaven in 1993, when low-income residents on Section 8 invaded his neighborhood and his property values fell through the floor. He bought his own cove in Hickory Hill a house off Germantown Road with three acres around it and a building out back that he uses as the office for his small airplane business.
Sipping coffee on the couch in his living room dripping with decoration, the 68-year-old retired Air Force pilot describes how a month ago his home was robbed by burglars who cut the wires to his alarm system, unscrewed his motion sensors, and got away with $5,000 of his wifes jewelry.
Crime isnt bad in Hickory Hill yet, he warns. But he views the widening economic gap in Hickory Hill with deep apprehension.
This is an upwardly mobile society, less separated between the races, he explains. Of the areas black population, he says, These are upwardly-mobile blacks. These are homeowners. Most of the black residents are unfailingly kind and considerate, and they keep up their homes and yards. Its not a matter of race its a matter of economics.
That is why the whole idea of the Section 8 program strikes him as an endangerment. We are a carnal people, he says. We do not appreciate what we are given, but invariably we appreciate what we have earned. Quality of life is not determined by racial balance, its determined by the kind of people around us. And Section 8, he fears, encourages people with no moral fiber, who do not take responsibility for their own actions.
As a kind of proof, Andrews describes a recent episode. A woman living on the HUD Section 8 Existing Housing program very hardworking, he is quick to emphasize moved into a house near his, and soon after, one of her relatives, a young black man from somewhere else, put up a basketball goal and started playing in the public street with his friends. Andrews was upset by their language, their clothes, their demeanor, and the violence of their game, and he says that they harassed his wife (a shrinking violet who will not confront anyone at all) every time she drove past them. So Andrews told the young man to move the goal somewhere else.
He was very confrontational, Andrews remembers. And even though finally Andrews got the young man and his friends to stop playing in the street, the incident confirmed for him his notions of morality.
Anywhere in the nation, there is a problem with people who dont earn what they have either by the sweat of their brow or their intellect.
Theres Lots to Do
Despite all that they have heard about crime and urban deterioration in Hickory Hill, and all that they have seen working at the Hickory Ridge Mall, Celeste Menne, 21, and Jennifer Rhodes, 24, are looking forward to moving to their new apartment off Kirby Parkway and for some of the same reasons that other people are looking forward to moving out.
Hickory Hill has a lot to offer, says Menne. Theres restaurants, movies, convenient shopping. I like the area because theres lots to do, and everythings right here.
Although they do allow that Hickory Hill has gotten a little meaner Mennes nephews bike was stolen right out of his front yard last year and they both have heard about drugs in the older apartments behind the mall Menne and Rhodes believe its most vehement naysayers are being a little alarmist.
A lot more unsupervised teenagers are hanging around, she says, and people get scared and think, Oh, its a gang, theres drugs involved. Its a fear that she thinks is somewhat unfounded.
Menne chimes in, And there is more crime, but there are more people. I still dont feel threatened walking out to my car at night.
Monetarily but not morally Rhodes says, she and Menne are the kind of newcomers that longtime residents blame for Hickory Hills decline.
People say, Oh, its going downhill, she says. No, its not, its just overpopulating and soon another place is opening up further east. A lot of the zero-lot line houses here are good for the middle class because theyre affordable. But theyre bad for the rich. And they, she says, are the ones complaining.
Their manager, Michelle Mustin, 30, has worked in Hickory Hill on and off for the past eight years, and she finds the complaints easier to believe. A woman was shot a couple months ago at a gas station, she says. We leave the mall at night. Thats scary. And there is shoplifting, banks are being robbed right and left. She remembers this time last winter when people lay in wait to steal cars from elderly residents who left them running in the morning to warm up. People will walk up to your house and steal your car, she says.
Rhodes, undeterred, maintains, Overall, its still a good area. n
Lydialyle Gibson is a senior at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. She completed an editorial internship at The Memphis Flyer last month. Gibson was recently admitted into the graduate poetry program at Johns Hopkins University.
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