City Reporter 

City Reporter

Soulsville Vs. Squalor

Stax development hasn't spurred neighborhood rebirth -- yet.

By Chris Herrington

On Wednesday morning, July 24th, the nonprofit Soulsville will celebrate the opening of its Stax Music Academy, the first part of the $20 million development project to open its doors in the once-thriving South Memphis neighborhood that has seen its share of problems over the last few decades.

But before gathered dignitaries and well-wishers enter the impressive new building for the first public tours, they may want to gaze across McLemore Avenue to see what neighborhood residents know all too well: The community redevelopment that the Soulsville project was, in part, meant to spur is still more dream than reality.

Directly across McLemore from the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which will have its grand opening next April, lies an abandoned, only partially boarded-up building at 919 McLemore that looks like a remnant from a war zone. Directly adjacent to the Stax Music Academy is 888 McLemore, a decaying property with a caved-in roof that is visible from one of the music academy's instruction rooms. Other neglected, abandoned, and deteriorating properties litter the area surrounding the Soulsville development.

This lingering blight amid one of the city's most high-profile redevelopment projects has Soulsville officials and neighborhood activists frustrated that the city hasn't been more proactive in encouraging redevelopment of surrounding properties and enforcing codes.

"It's been the only disappointment of the project," says Andrew Cates, Soulsville project developer. "There's been no requirement put on the owners of those buildings, only empty threats. We expect landlords to act responsibly -- meet code, provide a safe environment, and eliminate danger. We expect the city to enforce code on these properties, and, at some point, if owners don't respond, they have no option but to take the properties, condemn them, and demolish them."

According to Terry Emerick, director of planning for the city's Office of Planning and Development, the city has procedures in place for doing just that. "If property owners have neglected their property, the normal procedures of telling them to fix it have been implemented, and they still haven't done it, then, yeah, the city can move in and eliminate a public hazard," Emerick says.

Larry Jenkins, chief inspector of the OPD's office of construction code enforcement, says that the city took James Yancy, the previous owner of 919 McLemore, to court in November 1999, but the case was reset in May when it was determined that Yancy no longer owned the property. "All we can do is get them in court and let the court take over from there," Jenkins says.

For Lorene Jones, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1965 and is the president of South Memphis Citizens United for Action, neighborhood blight has long been a source of frustration.

"We have an interest in this neighborhood dying because we live here," Jones says. "We bought our homes here, and most of us are retired and cannot afford to move. It used to be a real nice neighborhood, but buildings like [the one at 919 McLemore] don't do anything for the neighborhood but drag it down and attract criminals. We contacted code enforcement and tried to get some of this corrected. We just feel helpless because we keep complaining about it and get nothing but promises."

Mary Kapos, the current owner of 919 McLemore, says that someone from the Soulsville neighborhood has contacted her about buying the building. "I have somebody who has promised that they are going to buy it, and that's why it's been left [in its current condition]," Kapos says.

Jeffrey Higgs, the executive director of the LeMoyne-Owen College Community Development Corporation, says that his organization is attempting to buy the property and expects the sale to go through soon.

Higgs says he isn't sure why the city hasn't acted on the property, since it's been neglected for years. "We've asked the city about [using] eminent domain, but they've been slow about it," Higgs says. "I guess you have to be careful about taking other people's property."

Sherlock Watson, the owner of the property at 888 McLemore, could not be reached for comment.

"We're extraordinarily appreciative of the city's partnership and investment in this project," Cates says. "Without the city's help, this project would not have occurred. And that makes it more frustrating that we haven't been able to bring this issue to closure, because we know the city cares about this project."

Drowning Victim "an Angel"

Late-night swim ends in tragedy.

By Janel Davis

Glenda Faye Campbell tried to fight back tears as she talked about burying her middle child, Dereck Kayson Campbell, Tuesday afternoon at Morning Grove Baptist Church in Cordova.

Dereck, 17, drowned July 9th when he and some other young boys decided to take a late-night swim. Police say that the boys cut a chain-link fence at the Lester Community Center and got into the swimming pool.

"[The other boys] begged him to go and swim that night, and he did. It was hot, and they thought it would be okay," says Campbell, in tears.

But it wasn't okay. A witness reported that Dereck, a good swimmer, did a front hand spring from the side of the pool into the deep end and never surfaced. "One of his close friends was with him, and I've been told he tried to save him, but they all got scared and ran," says Campbell. Dereck was transported to Methodist Central where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

In addition to his mother, Dereck leaves behind five siblings. According to Campbell, Dereck's father was hit by a car and killed two years and one month from the day of Dereck's death. "We are of the belief that a 'homegoing' is a time for rejoicing," says Campbell. "I guess [Dereck's] father wanted him with him."

She describes Dereck as a "Good Samaritan" and an "angel on earth." The Central High School student would have been a senior this year and had goals of becoming a welder. "Our relationship was a real good one," says Campbell. "Just like any child, he was a little rebellious, but I raised him practically by myself, with some help from my mom, brother, and sister. He was a sweetheart. All I had to do was ask him to do something and he would do it."

Parks and recreation deputy director Ken Moody says this was the fourth time the fence had been cut at the Lester Community Center pool area. "[The department] already uses security guards at area centers, and beginning next year, we plan to install 24-hour surveillance cameras as well."

Campbell's ordeal has made her an expert on love and loss. "To parents that lose young kids: Don't worry about what they've missed. They haven't missed anything. You can't watch them all the time. Just pray for them. God has his plans."

Campbell is asking for donations to help pay for Dereck's burial expenses. Anyone wishing to make a donation should call (901) 353-6464.

Have Class, Will Travel

Special advocates branch out for volunteers, visibility.

By Mary Cashiola

Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) are willing to go the extra mile to get volunteers ... literally. As part of an effort to increase their visibility, the nonprofit group that advocates for abused and neglected children will bring their training classes to Germantown later this month.

"We're trying to make the training -- which is difficult under the best circumstances because it's so intense -- more convenient to the community," says executive director Dan Michael. The 30-hour training, which takes two to three weeks, covers courtroom procedures, examines the special needs of abused and neglected children, and explores individual prejudices. "Our goal is to bring the training to the community rather than have them come downtown to Juvenile Court. Hopefully, it will get us into more communities."

CASA, which works out of an office at Juvenile Court, is a private organization whose volunteers function much like social workers. They do home visits with the children and parents involved in Juvenile Court cases and then make recommendations to the judge.

In June, the local chapter received $6,000 in a grant designated for urban CASAs. The urban groups usually have larger caseloads, more challenging cases, and more volunteer turnover than their rural counterparts.

Michael says they presently have about 150 active volunteers, but they could use 10 times that number. Volunteer coordinator Jennifer Poyner agrees.

"More volunteers are always needed," she says, "especially this year." Because of a restructuring with the Children's Community Service Agency, CASA's caseload has doubled if not tripled since last year. The group decided to focus on advertising and getting their message out.

"If you send out a blanket letter to all the Lions Clubs, you don't get much response," says Poyner. Instead, the group asks its volunteers for contacts and is training some of them to speak to groups about the organization.

After Michael spoke to the Germantown Volunteer Corps a while back, some of its members became very active in CASA. That eventually led to the Germantown classes.

"It all started because we needed more volunteers," says Michael. "In the aftermath of 9/11, we saw an upsurge in community volunteers, but it began to wane shortly thereafter." CASA is willing, however, to go anywhere.

"If FedEx wants us to come out and do a class, we'll come. If International Paper wants us to come, we'll come," says Michael. "We would love to be in Whitehaven, Frayser, Bartlett, Cordova, Midtown, you name it. We want to be in every spot we can be."

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