Robert and Avalon Robinson live in a cozy yellow house in a quiet suburban neighborhood. Flowers and foliage surround the front steps. A wreath decorated with purple blossoms hangs on the door. The lawn is freshly mowed.
In fact, all the houses on the street, which are modeled after homes in Williamsburg, Virginia, are equally picturesque. But the neighborhood is not in Germantown or Collierville or East Memphis. It's located in the heart of Hickory Hill. Or as some Memphians call it these days, Hickory 'Hood.
When the Robinsons moved into their home on Clarke Road in 1996, the neighborhood of 42 homes was alive with activity. Residents got together regularly for progressive dinners, Fourth of July parades, women's teas, and Easter egg hunts. But in the last three years or so, interest in the neighborhood gatherings has dropped off. Elderly residents are moving to nursing homes or to live with family, and younger couples are moving in. Avalon Robinson says many of the younger residents aren't interested in upholding the community's traditions. This past year, there was no Easter egg hunt, and it's looking like the Fourth of July parade is in jeopardy.
While the neighborhood remains one of the nicer Hickory Hill communities, the Robinsons are well aware of the area's increasingly bad reputation. They wonder if that image has become some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: People hear about crime in Hickory Hill, so they stop maintaining their property and attending community gatherings. They think that a lack of concern by residents may make criminals think the area is an easy target or even that crime in the area is more acceptable.
Whatever the case, crime in Hickory Hill has increased. The housing market is stagnant. Foreclosures are common. But there's something else emerging in Hickory Hill, something positive. All over the community, churches, businesses, and individuals like the Robinsons are coming together to fight back.
In July 1998, attorney Dan Norwood and the two remaining members of Hickory Area Residents for Tomorrow (HART) raised their white flag and surrendered in the longest annexation fight in Memphis history.
When the Memphis City Council moved to annex the 14-square-mile suburb in 1987, residents resisted. Twelve of them formed HART and filed a lawsuit to block the annexation.
Residents were concerned about the possibility of increased crime, putting their children into city schools, and paying both city and county taxes. At the time, Hickory Hill was a quiet, predominantly white suburb with a strong economic base.
At one point, there was even discussion of incorporating Hickory Hill as a city called Nonconnah, and leaders raised $80,000 in six weeks. But the idea was shot down when Chapter 98, the law that would have allowed Hickory Hill self-determination, was ruled unconstitutional.
Most of the original HART members moved out of Hickory Hill as the lawsuit dragged on. At the final showdown, Madelyn Andre and Jerry Rhodes, both of HART, agreed to sign a document settling the almost decade-old lawsuit on the condition that the newly annexed suburb receive $150 million in capital improvements. The deal was agreed to, and on December 31, 1998, residents of Hickory Hill became Memphians.
Among the promised improvements were four new city schools, five parks, a police precinct, two new fire stations, and a large community center. Almost six years later, the schools are open, as are the fire stations. The 55,244-square-foot state-of-the-art community center opened its doors in the spring of 2002, along with an 80-acre adjoining park.
Residents are still waiting for the police precinct. According to Rhonda Lee, public information officer for the Memphis Police Department (MPD), the Hickory Hill precinct is in the budget for the next fiscal year, but she says the possibility of it happening anytime soon "is still wishful thinking."
In addition to political changes, Hickory Hill's demographics are also in flux, according to a study by the U of M's Center for Community Criminology and Research. The number of white residents declined by 50 percent over the past decade, while blacks increased by 450 percent and Hispanics by 700 percent. People under 18 years old now make up one-third of the Hickory Hill population.
"Hickory Hill has changed dramatically," laments Beverly Hibbler, an 11-year resident. "We've got empty houses. We've got old, abandoned cars in the front yards. We've got a lot of Section 8 people moving in because everybody else is moving out. We've got a whole lot of crime in my area, and everyone's selling their houses."
She's at a meeting for the new Southeast Memphis Initiative (SEMI), a public-private strategy to rebuild Hickory Hill. Dr. Phyllis Betts, director of the Center for Community Building and Neighborhood Action at the University of Memphis' School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy, has asked attendees to talk about the good and the bad of Hickory Hill, in hopes of learning what problems should be addressed first. Many residents are focusing on the area's negatives.
"It needs to get back like it used to be, because if it doesn't, it's going to be a ghost town soon," says 20-year resident Laverne Buford, citing commercial and residential vacancies. "Soon there'll be a project mentality, and it's going to go downhill fast. If it doesn't improve in three years, I'm going to sell my house and move on. I want to be able to look out the door without seeing somebody shooting guns or selling drugs."
A couple of residents, however, have a more positive outlook, claiming crime in Hickory Hill isn't much worse than crime in nearby Germantown. One man says the news media simply harp on Hickory Hill's crime because of the area's image. But statistics tell another story.
According to 2000 census data, Hickory Hill's population of 62,495 makes it twice the size of nearby Germantown, with a population of 37,348. MPD figures show that six homicides, 188 cases of aggravated assault, and 921 residential burglaries occurred in Hickory Hill in 2003. In Germantown, there was only one homicide, 19 cases of aggravated assault, and 116 residential burglaries.
Yet some Hickory Hill residents insist that their neighborhood is plagued by a perception problem. "A great deal of the problem is what you see in the media," says Robert Robinson. "Hickory Hill does not extend all the way over to Getwell, but when a crime happens there, it often gets attributed to Hickory Hill on the news. Statistics would bear that there would be more crime here because the population of this area alone is larger than Jackson, Tennessee. With a larger congregation of people, you're going to have more crime."
Captain Jim Nickels of the Hickory Hill Community Action Policing Unit (Co-Act) says stores in the Hickory Ridge Mall suffered fewer "loss prevention" problems during the last Christmas shopping season than the stores in Wolfchase Galleria.
"We also had fewer cars broken into and fewer cars stolen. People were as safe shopping in Hickory Hill over the holiday season as they were anywhere else," he says.
Perception problem or not, there were 300 home foreclosures in the Hickory Hill area over the past three years. That's 15 percent of the community's single-family residences, although it's possible that some homes were foreclosed on more than once in that period. Thirty-five homes were still vacant when the U of M's Center for Community Criminology and Research did a study last year.
Betts says that first-time home buyers are often attracted to the area for its affordability (the average price of a three-bedroom home is $88,303), but they also may be the largest contributor to foreclosures. She says inexperience with home ownership and maintenance costs leaves many young couples with no other choice than to default on their mortgages. Large numbers of foreclosed homes can lead to the decline of a neighborhood, she says.
"If you've got vacancies on a block, then people are a little more squeamish about their own investments," says Betts. "So then they, in turn, may not invest in maintenance, and then you can see a whole block starting to look rough around the edges."
Commercial vacancy is also a growing problem. The Sports Authority store on Winchester recently went out of business. The Mega Market building on the corner of Winchester and Riverdale has been vacant for some time. On May 30th, SteinMart's Winchester location is closing for good.
Several residents also voiced concern about what they see as an influx of government-assisted Section 8 housing, but their concerns appear to be unfounded. According to Memphis Housing Authority (MHA) statistics, there were 265 families utilizing Section 8 in the area in January and February. That's only 5 percent of the 5,200 families assisted through Section 8 citywide.
"It may be that a couple of apartment complexes appear to be Section 8 because the owners and managers aren't concerned about maintenance," explains Betts. "I think the real problem is there are pockets of folks who are letting their property go down."
On the positive side, the U of M study shows that half of Hickory Hill's residents now own their own homes, and vacancy has dropped from 10 percent in 1990 to 7.5 percent in 2000. In fact, at $47,216, Hickory Hill has a higher median income rate than the city as a whole. Hickory Hill residents are also more educated than city residents overall. One in four adults in Hickory Hill has a bachelor's degree or higher, and 87.2 percent of adults have at least a high school education.
"I see you looking out that window! It's 1 o'clock in the afternoon! Time to get up and come eat a hot dog!" shouts pastor Leslie Ratliff into a microphone on a sunny Saturday. He's emceeing a block party in Keystone Cove hosted by the community-building resource group Coalition of the Willing. A few people are peeking out of their windows to see what the commotion is all about.
Three women are grilling hot dogs, while about a dozen small children are jumping up and down inside an inflatable bounce house. Family-friendly hip-hop blares in the background. Parents are eating and laughing at Ratliff's attempts to get people out of their homes.
His pleas seem to be working. Several groups of children and a few adults begin strolling toward the gathering. As they approach, Ratliff calls them up to the mic for comical interviews. Prizes ranging from food coupons to matching lamp sets are given away.
At 2 p.m., it's time to pack up and allow Keystone residents some peace and quiet. But first, Ratliff instructs everyone to hug the person next to them and proclaim, "I love Hickory Hill!" As the neighbors embrace one another and repeat those four words, it seems most of them actually mean it.
The crime and housing statistics indicate Hickory Hill is a community in decline, but many residents don't see it that way. Some of them are joining a grassroots movement to change the area's bad image. The Coalition of the Willing, a collaboration of schools, residents, businesses, faith-based organizations, neighborhood watch groups, and law enforcement groups, is at the core of that movement. The coalition was formed in September and acts as a resource agency connecting residents with services and support. Churches, businesses, and citizens' groups adopt schools and neighborhoods, providing mentoring volunteers, grants, food, clothing, and furniture.
"We're going out and rallying people to let them know that we are the ones who can make a difference, and we don't have to pull on government for support," said Sharolyn Ware, a member of the coalition team.
They're also hoping to improve community relations through events such as block parties. By helping people to meet their neighbors, the coalition hopes to strengthen residents' concern for what happens in their neighborhoods.
The group's founder, Stephen Nielson, is the pastor at Christ the Rock church on Winchester. Members of the coalition are also on the board of SEMI. Several local resource agencies have signed on to SEMI, including the Memphis Housing Authority, the code enforcement office, city and county police forces, and the district attorney's office. The University of Memphis' Center for Community Building and Neighborhood Action is in charge of collecting and researching data on the housing market.
"We've had some success in inner-city low-income neighborhood redevelopment, so we know what to do when an area has deteriorated," says Betts. "What we don't have is a model for a neighborhood that is beginning to suffer signs of housing-market stagnancy or high rates of commercial vacancy. And we don't have a model for an area that is beginning to suffer from reports of crime that are higher than what folks anticipated when they moved into their neighborhood. So what we're doing is trying to establish a new model, and we're starting with Hickory Hill."
Betts says a community development corporation (CDC) will eventually break off from SEMI to acquire vacant residential properties, rehabilitate them, and put them back on the market. The CDC will also work with banks to accomplish their mission. Betts says their goal would be bringing in buyers who are less likely to default on their loans.
She says a study of vacant and abandoned commercial property in Hickory Hill is also under way. Once a CDC is formed, the organization will buy vacant commercial properties as well. Miari Anderson, the SEMI liaison from the city's Housing and Community Development office, says they're trying to determine what kind of retail stores will prosper.
"There are a lot of statistics to back up a higher income level in Hickory Hill, so there's great consumer potential there," says Anderson. "If we can make that common knowledge, then that will help to attract businesses back in."
While SEMI tackles the housing and commercial vacancy issues and the Coalition of the Willing works to provide resources, a collective called Reach & Teach is working on the crime problem by targeting at-risk youth. It provides mentoring volunteers every Tuesday night for children of single mothers. Nickels says 54 percent of the homes in Hickory Hill have single mothers as the head-of-house. Reach & Teach hopes to provide kids with positive male role models. Their biggest success story is that of a teen involved in a gang who made a complete turnaround after his mother took him to the Co-Act office for mentoring.
"He's left the lifestyle and become one of the leaders at the Hickory Hill Community Center. Prior to that, he'd been banned from the center," says Nickels. "We show him that we care. We call him up and ask how he did on that math test, and when he does something good we brag about it. If he falls down, we encourage him to get up and dust himself off again."
Also fighting the growing crime rate, as well as code enforcement issues, is the Police and Citizens Alliance (PACA), a team of citizens that acts as a support group for the MPD's East Precinct.
PACA works to address the smaller issues that the police force may not have the time or resources to confront. According to Robinson, who serves as president of the PACA ambassadors (those who have graduated from the Citizen's Police Academy), the group spends a considerable amount of time addressing code violation issues in both residential and commercial areas.
They're also setting up meetings with stores in the Hickory Ridge Mall to assist them in getting security guards to patrol their parking lots. And they recently met with several area apartment managers on crime problems within the complexes.
Robinson says PACA and the other community groups are doing all they can with available resources, but he'd like to see the city and county more involved. He cites changes in other areas of the city, like the recent resurgence of the South Main area downtown.
"If we could get Mayor Herenton and Mayor Wharton to say three little words -- 'Clean it up' -- that'd be all they'd need to say. If they would tell that to the public works director and the parks director, you'd see a remarkable difference in a short period of time," he says.
Meanwhile, various groups will continue to hold community meetings under the SEMI umbrella throughout the coming months. The next official SEMI summit meeting is scheduled for June 3rd at the community center.
"One of the things about the Southeast Memphis Initiative and these other community programs is that you have to be willing to make an investment," says Ware. "If there's trash in your neighbor's driveway, whether you put it there or not, it's still your responsibility. Picking up that one piece of trash may not beautify the whole community, but it's going to make a difference at that one house on that one street in that one neighborhood in that one city."
By starting small, these groups are hoping to effect change from the ground up. Ware cites a story about a boy who spots a starfish that has washed ashore. He picks it up, and a cynical person walks by and says there are too many starfish and you can't save them all. The boy says, "Well, I'm going to save this one."