Stepping Up in Memphis 

Neighborhood Watch is a great tool for turning around our city.

Deputy Chief Sharonda Hampton, in her recent address upon being appointed the new head of Memphis Police Department's homicide division, said "We can do our part, but we can not do it without the community. I challenge everyone to step up." 

Speaking as one of many working to revamp Neighborhood Watch in Cooper-Young, I couldn't agree more.

For over a century, the economic vacuum of eastern sprawl has sucked the life out of the rest of the city, leaving behind little more than blight and urban decay in many neighborhoods. It started with the first "white flight" suburb of Annesdale Park, picked up speed with the plotted demise of the trolley car and subsequent rise of the automobile, and took off like a fighter jet with the post-WWII baby boom and German-inspired roadway improvements.

By the time Congress introduced the Fair Housing Act of 1968 — which sought to undo more than three decades of forced segregation imposed by the National Housing Act of 1934 — it was too late, the momentum of economic realities and political will was too deeply engrained.

Now, a decade and a half into what was supposed to be our Jetsonian future, the phenomenon of eastern sprawl is fueled by "anyone who can afford it" flight, leaving increasingly desperate segments of our population left to endure entire swaths of worsening decay.

The 2010 census lays out in clear detail the precise pattern of this flight. On a recent two-hour bus tour hosted by newly elected (and very promising) city Councilwoman Jamita Swearengen, whose District 4 encompasses the very heart of our inner city, I couldn't help but gaze in utter bewilderment at what I saw. The fabric of inner-city Memphis is ripping to shreds. And there is nothing any one person can do about it — not Hampton, not some new exorbitantly salaried police director, not even the mayor himself.

On the leadership side, we have to stop chasing the tail of the almighty dollar out the Poplar corridor and refocus our energies on making the inner-city population feel like something other than third-class citizens. It's time for the vortex of the economic engine to close back in on itself, for the city to recognize its two greatest, and presently most overlooked resources: the tens of thousands of inner-city residents ripe for gainful employment and the thousands of inner-city acres ripe for redevelopment.

On the citizen side, we have to follow precisely what Hampton advises. We all have to "step up," and there is no greater, or more proven, method for doing so than Neighborhood Watch. Those not familiar with the developmental history of Memphis are left no choice but to believe that things simply are the way they are, and there is nothing they can do about it. But nothing could be further from the truth. Just as a home is more than a mere collection of sticks and plaster, so too is a neighborhood — or a city — more than a mere collection of domiciles. It's time for us all to do our duty, for ourselves and for each other.

Don't get me wrong, although my family ties to MPD date back to the 1870s, prior to my most recent involvement with Neighborhood Watch, the closest I ever came to a police station was when my Boys Club was in the former Mounted Police horse barn on Barksdale behind the Midtown Walgreen's. This does not lessen my commitment to civic duty. We all owe allegiance to the men and women in blue, but until we are ready to uniform 75 percent of the population and assign them in rotating shifts to guard the remaining 25 percent of us, we must, each and every one of us, accept the responsibility of being stewards of the community. To learn more about how to start or revitalize a Neighborhood Watch program in your community, contact your local MPD precinct, the office of Memphis Area Neighborhood Watch, or visit www.nnw.org. Or better yet, visit our website at www.cywatch.org. Drop us a line, and one of us will be glad to walk you through what we have learned so far.

Aaron James is a retired architect whose family roots in Memphis and Shelby County date to 1827. He is researching his family for a soon-to-be self-published book (www.facebook.com/AmericaAFamilyPerspective).

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