“The poor in our countries have been shut out of our minds, and driven from the mainstream of our societies, because we have allowed them to become invisible.” 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech

Decades of disinvestment and decay have left a perverse inheritance for the children and grandchildren of those who live in Memphis’ low-income neighborhoods.

Much of South Memphis, where four generations of Phyllis Bedwell’s family live, is such a place.

Bedwell, a housekeeper at a rehab center, lives a half mile from Mason Temple, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rallied on behalf of underpaid black sanitation workers on April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated.

About this story

This article was originally published in The Commercial Appeal on April 27, 2014. The content is no longer available on The Commercial Appeal’s website, so we are bringing it to you here.
The story was written by Wendi C. Thomas. Photos are by Yalonda M. James. Data by Grant Smith.

Here in Census tract 50, bounded by Third, McLemore, Wellington and the railroad tracks north of Crump, the median household income is $18,000.

Dining out means drive-thru windows. There is no grocery store or traditional bank branch.

The neighborhood library, Gaston Park, is windowless. In the park that bears the same name, few trees shade the walking track. Shards of glass twinkle beneath the picnic tables near the playground.

Research shows that people who are born poor are unlikely to climb into the middle class, said Patrick Sharkey, the author of “Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress toward Racial Equality.”

But even if Bedwell’s family income rises, economic segregation will persist, he said.

“It would take about three generations before a family starting off in a neighborhood with this level of poverty could expect to live in a neighborhood where the average level of income is closer to the average level in the city as a whole.”

The geography of economic segregation is not unique to Memphis, which is the nation’s poorest large metropolitan area, but the degree is unparalleled. On the list of the 10 large metros (at least 1 million people) where the wealthy are the most segregated from other economic groups, Memphis comes in first.

This holds true for Census tract 85, the East Memphis neighborhood where small-business owner Julie Lewis, 40, lives with her husband and three young children.

Bounded roughly by Goodlett, Walnut Grove, Mendenhall and Park, this area has a median household income that tops $112,000. That’s more than three times the city median of $36,817 and more than two times the median for the eight-county metro area, which is $47,477.

Eating out could be fast food, but it also could mean heavy silverware and tablecloths.

Lewis, who says Whole Foods is too pricey, shops at the recently renovated Kroger on Mendenhall and when chicken is on sale, Fresh Market.

Much of the mile-long walking track in Audubon, the neighborhood park, is shaded with trees. On the park’s far end is a golf course.

Sharkey’s research shows that Lewis’ children and her children’s children will almost certainly maintain their place in an amenity-rich, high-income neighborhood.

“The persistence of neighborhood advantages and disadvantages is much stronger than the persistence of family poverty or wealth,” said Sharkey, a sociology professor at New York University.


On a map of the city, the wide swath of low-income neighborhoods — the sea of poverty, as Mayor A C Wharton calls it — follows the shape of the letter C.

Start the C in Binghamton and head west toward the Mississippi. Pass over North Memphis, where the former Firestone plant once stood with its middle-class jobs.

Follow the bend in Interstate 40 past Downtown and then head east.

Before the C comes to the Kellogg’s plant where the company locked out union workers last year, it sweeps over Bedwell’s small apartment complex near Third and Crump.

In 2013, Neighborhood Scout, a website that tracks crime and school data for real estate buyers, named this rectangle of land the nation’s 11th most dangerous neighborhood.

The dubious distinction seemed warranted Monday afternoon, when more than seven police cars clogged the street behind Gaston Park. An anonymous tip led officers to an alleged gang member with a loaded 9 mm semi-automatic tucked in the back of his pants.

As an officer tucked the handcuffed suspect into a squad car, a boy rode a big wheel down the sidewalk.

In this neighborhood, 19 percent of homes are owner-occupied; the rest are rentals. The real estate website Zillow lists more than 10 houses in foreclosure and one for sale.

Block after block is dotted with abandoned homes and empty apartment buildings. The more fortunate ones have sheets of plywood nailed to the doors and windows, as if to seal in hope of a rebirth inside.

Less fortunate structures are open to the point of immodesty. Some charred and some crumbling, they seem to boast of their surrender to blight.

In Bedwell’s neighborhood, nearly 30 percent of adults are unemployed. Nearly 90 percent of the households earn less than $35,000 per year and 64 percent of the residents live below the poverty level.

The courtyard of Bedwell’s two-story apartment complex is serene, save for a tiny, yapping dog standing guard.

Rusted stairs lead to her apartment, which she found through the same friend who helped her get the housekeeping job, where she dilutes the cleaning fluids so as not to aggravate a chronic breathing condition.

On the wall are pictures of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. On an end table sits a job training certificate from Advance Memphis, a faith-based nonprofit committed to revitalizing the nearby Vance Avenue neighborhood in 38126, the poorest urban ZIP code in the state.

On minimum wage and hours just shy of full-time, $350 a month in rent is affordable.

“I feel pretty safe,” Bedwell said, sitting on an overstuffed couch in her living room. “It’s not a lot of crime over here. We look out for each other.”

Her apartment doesn’t have washer or dryer connections, but it’s no big deal, Bedwell said, because the Laundromat nearby is clean. A bus stop is less than a block away, but Bedwell, who got her GED after dropping out of South Side High, hasn’t had to rely on public transportation in two years.

“God blessed me with some money,” Bedwell said. The money came from a settlement her brother received after an accident about 10 years ago that left him partially paralyzed.

With little credit history, she paid cash for a $1,999 special from a used-car lot that welcomes buyers with bad or no credit. She’s reluctant to even check her credit score, which was dinged from unpaid hospital bills dating back 30 years, from when her oldest son was critically injured.

She was living in South Memphis when she got a call at work. Her son, then about 10 years old, had been sliding down a hill on a piece of cardboard box when he slid into the street and under the wheels of a passing car.

Around the same time, her mother was struck and killed by a police car while walking home from a friend’s house in South Memphis. Bedwell hadn’t been speaking to her mother.

“I was down real low for some years and years,” Bedwell said, “but I got back on my feet.”

All credit belongs to God, Bedwell testifies. Her favorite song is a gospel oldie. “Jesus, be a fence all around me every day,” she sings. “Jesus I want you to protect me as I travel along the way.”

Her faith distracts her from ruminating on what she lacks — like much money left after monthly bills.

“If that’s what you have to work with, then that’s what you have to do,” she said matter-of-factly.

Last month she graduated from a financial management class at Advance Memphis, which will help her get a traditional bank account.

No longer will she have to rely on the nearest financial institution, Ace Cash Express. For $10 a month, her paycheck is deposited on a prepaid card. Without fail, clerks offer her a payday loan on every visit. Every time, she declines.


In the hollow of Wharton’s “C” of poverty are the higher-income neighborhoods that hug Poplar, headed southeast.

The relative affluence skips Binghamton and the University of Memphis area, but peaks in Census Tract 85, where Lewis, an Indiana native, lives. Compared to where Bedwell lives, the median household income in Lewis’ neighborhood is six times higher, the poverty rate (5.1 percent) 12 times lower and the unemployment rate 15 times lower. Zillow shows a handful of houses in foreclosure and dozens for sale, with prices ranging from $55,000 to $1.75 million.

The Lewises’ home, bought in 2004, cost a small fraction of that. Although the three-bedroom house is in the coveted White Station High attendance zone, proximity to her husband’s job in the financial industry was the priority. The real estate agent advised that any further south wouldn’t be as safe.

After the college-educated couple bought their house, they learned how much more home they could have gotten for the same price if they’d ignored the agent’s advice.

Around the corner from her home, signs in empty lots advertise luxury homes. Almost all of the lawns are carefully tended.

Outside, pink azaleas hug the front of the Lewises’ brick home and a 15-year-old minivan sits in the driveway. Inside, her oldest daughter’s reading flashcards hang on the refrigerator. The smell of homemade bread fills the kitchen, where Lewis brews a cup of coffee.

Her family doesn’t fit the East Memphis stereotype, Lewis said. For starters, Lewis is white and her husband, who grew up in Memphis, is black. They chose to send their two school-age children to New Hope Christian Academy, an urban, college-prep elementary school in Frayser.

She is one of few white parents there and one of few moms with a schedule flexible enough to volunteer at the school.

Based on household income alone, Lewis granted she would be considered affluent. But to her, rich is a state of mind that celebrates excess, not careful stewardship of God-given resources.

To illustrate her point, she tells a favorite story about her father-in-law, who grew up in the Dixie Homes housing project.

While riding the bus to school as a child, he passed a work crew sweating in the heat. The boss was sitting in the truck in the shade.

“He looked at them and thought: ‘How do I get to be in the truck?’ ” Lewis said.

Her father-in-law went on to graduate from Humes, to college and landed a good job at Goodyear Tire in Union City, which closed in 2011. Even though her in-laws came from meager beginnings, he and his wife sent two children to college.

Life can be hard, but attitude matters, she said. “What are you going to do with the circumstances God has given you?”


According to a 2014 Pew Research Center/USA Today poll, 60 percent of Americans, including 76 percent of Republicans and 49 percent of Democrats, say those who want to get ahead can if they work hard enough. Evidence indicates that such faith in the bootstraps mythos is unjustified, especially in Memphis.

According to a 2013 Harvard study, the odds that a child born poor in Memphis will have family income of at least $70,000 by the time she’s 30 are 2.8 percent.

A 2013 Pew Charitable Trust report found that of the families that start at the bottom of the income ladder, 40 percent stay there and 70 percent never climb to the middle.

Hard work and perseverance are noble attributes, but they can’t replace better public policy, said Angela Glover Blackwell, CEO of Policy Link, a national research institute focused on increasing economic mobility.

“If you don’t have mass transit in your neighborhood, you can’t decide to go make mass transit for yourself,” Blackwell said.


Michael Rhodes, who grew up in East Memphis, thinks about intergenerational poverty and geography more than most.

He is director of education for Advance Memphis and lives in the Vance Avenue neighborhood where he works.

“In America, people can succeed,” he said, “but I think we have to look at how the isolation in our city has created an environment in which some people, failure is almost an impossibility and in others, success requires this huge heroic act.”

He uses his childhood as an example: He grew up with two involved parents, in an area where any adult who wanted a job had one, with good schools and parks and streets free of trash and violence.

“The whole system is designed to help me succeed,” Rhodes said.

For him to fail would be an act of rebellion. “I would have to turn and run from the entire trajectory that my environment has created for me.”

He compared that to his neighbors in a census tract where the median household income is less than $13,000.

“Young men who grew up in isolated areas of poverty, they have the exact opposite experience,” he said.

“Isolated poverty creates situations in which for them to succeed would mean swimming upstream.”

The marker of success, Rhodes lamented, is a different address.

“When people do grow up in our neighborhood and they succeed, success becomes moving away.”

“The biggest heroes are the people who achieve economic and education success against difficult circumstances and stick around to be a part of the renaissance and the revolution in their communities.”

As published in The Commercial Appeal April 27, 2014