A picture of closed Northside High School in Klondike-Smokey City. The school is overgrown with weeds and concrete is covered in mold and moss.
Northside High School remains closed in the Klondike-Smokey City neighborhood in Memphis on Sept. 29, 2020. Photo by Brandon Dill for MLK50

A meeting Wednesday evening between Klondike residents and the development group attempting a massive project in the neighborhood was tense at times.

Board members of Northside Renaissance Inc. spoke with excitement about how the redevelopment of Northside High School would be a major asset for  Klondike residents and a catalyst for further neighborhood improvements. The organization is a partnership between Neighborhood Preservation Inc., The Works Inc., Pyramid Peak Foundation, Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp., and others.

Some attendees, though, questioned whether the redevelopment of the school at 1212 Vollintine Ave., which closed in 2016, was best for them. They expressed concerns over the funding sources, how decisions are being made and building uses.

“With all the money that I hear is being invested … why was it not decided to turn Northside back into a community school that put the emphasis on African American children?”

Rev. Norman Redwing

“With all the money that I hear is being invested … why was it not decided to turn Northside back into a community school that put the emphasis on African American children?” Rev. Norman Redwing asked.

Redwing said he wants to see Black residents — who account for 99% of Klondike’s population — come together to help each other, and worried the project was a reliance on “white saviors.” 

Though the presenters didn’t say how much construction would cost, they said it would need significant support from institutions with major capital. Pyramid Peak — the city’s largest charitable foundation, which was established by Southeastern Asset Management founder Mason Hawkins, who is white — is already involved. But the group still needs a “lead funder,” according to The Works executive director Roshun Austin.

Austin, who is Black, told Redwing that Shelby County Schools decided to close Northside, and it would be extremely difficult to return it to educational use. In lieu of that option, Austin said the group is trying to keep the building from either sitting vacant or being demolished.

To accomplish this, Austin said the team is exploring different uses for the building that would generate enough rent to finance the development and keep the building well-maintained for years to come. This can be difficult in a neighborhood with a 55% poverty rate and could mean the inclusion of apartments and office space.

Archie Willis III, who is Black and whose development firm ComCap Partners is working for Northside Renaissance Inc., said redevelopment will certainly include a community theater in the old auditorium and a renovated gymnasium that can be used for basketball or other youth sports. Uses of the rest of the property are still being determined as the group figures out how to pay for the project, he said.

Belinda Kerusch, who graduated from Northside in 1973, told the group she hopes they commit some space to teach neighborhood residents technical trades since the school was known for its vocational-technical program.

The presenters also addressed fears that the major development — the largest in the neighborhood since Firestone Tire & Rubber closed its nearby plant in 1983 — could displace current Klondike residents. 

Alongside the redevelopment of the high school, The Works and Klondike Smokey City CDC are working to help current neighborhood homeowners improve their properties, so they remain there, Austin said. They also are figuring out how to make quality homes in the neighborhood affordable to former residents who might want to move back, she said. 

“You do want to attract people of (greater) economic power that can help … provide some stability from an economic base.”

Archie Willis III of ComCap Partners

Willis said that while he understands concerns of gentrification, a community that doesn’t have a mix of incomes isn’t sustainable. Without middle-class residents, it’s quite difficult to recruit amenities like restaurants or coffee shops, he said.

“The challenge of displacement can be managed if you’re intentional about doing that,” Willis said. “You do want to attract people of (greater) economic power that can help … provide some stability from an economic base.”

Radio show host Michael Adrian Davis — who attended Northside and sits on the Northside Renaissance board — said he expects the project to bring major improvement to the area. Currently, hundreds of properties in Klondike and Smokey City are vacant. 

“This is a dormant asset sitting in North Memphis for a while now,” Davis said. “To see the movement on it right now is really a good look, and I hope that a high tide will raise all boats.” 

Willis and Austin assured attendees that the development is the work of a nonprofit, so any revenue from the project will be pumped back into it. They also said that Wednesday’s meeting would be the first of many chances for community members to give input. 

By the end of this month, contractors will start removing the asbestos from the building, Willis said. If the financing comes together, actual renovations could begin in early 2022.

Jacob Steimer is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at Jacob.Steimer@mlk50.com

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