Victoria Jones, the executive director of the Black arts organization Tone, and James Dukes, founder and CEO of Memphis-based record label Unapologetic., stand in front of the United Equipment tower they hope to transform into a community anchor. Dukes wears the mask he performs in. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

Artists Victoria Jones and James Dukes really just want to make Orange Mound happy.

Not “happy” in the sense that they’re looking for everyone’s approval. “Happy” in the way where its next generation is full of hope and joy.

The way they’re going about this is quite unusual. These arts organization founders have chosen to become developers.

They purchased the United Equipment tower property southwest of Park Avenue’s intersection with Lamar Avenue last year. They’re now in the midst of the planning and fundraising necessary to transform it into apartments, office space and retail — a $50+ million endeavor they plan to start construction on by the end of 2023. But, they’re really trying to transform it into a beacon of hope, a producer of wealth for their neighbors, and a place for Orange Mound residents to feel comfortable.

The effort has already involved its fair share of setbacks, and the pair know there are mountains ahead. There are, after all, reasons that development in low-income areas isn’t common.

If they’re able to make it to the end of the trail, though, they think it could change Orange Mound forever. 

‘See the Vibranium’

The tower development was born from frustration, said Dukes, a musician and music producer who grew up in Orange Mound.

Jones and Dukes, who goes by IMAKEMADBEATS, had founded their own arts organizations — Tone, formerly known as The CLTV, and Unapologetic., — in Memphis in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Both saw unmined potential in Memphians as artists.

While they’re proud of what they were able to accomplish in their first few years as leaders of these organizations, they were also aggravated by the difficulty of getting people to invest in artists. Dukes, who regularly speaks in metaphors, compared these artists’ value to Vibranium, the precious metal from the film “Black Panther.”

“Even if you had a (greedy) heart, it still made no sense that you didn’t see the Vibranium in the ground here and build an infrastructure around that Vibranium,” said Dukes.

Facing similar challenges, the two started working closely together in early 2018. 

Jones wanted both organizations to place their headquarters near the Orange Mound Art Gallery, in the Lamar-Airways Shopping Center just east of Lamar and Park’s intersection. It was 40% vacant, and Jones was excited by the possibility of recruiting other Black-run firms and nonprofits to reinvigorate a center that had holes in windows, a leaky roof and frequent crime. 

Victoria leased space for The Collective in the center in October 2018, with the thought that Dukes’ team wouldn’t be far behind.

But leasing didn’t sit right with Dukes. It wouldn’t give the organizations control of their future, and he worried the landlord would raise the rent if the groups were successful in bringing more tenants, customers and activity to the area. If the groups created value, he wanted them to be able to benefit from it.

“I’m just hell-bent on ownership. That word is literally the rag that washes everything that’s in my cupboard,” said Dukes. 

Working with commercial real estate broker Darrell Cobbins and serial entrepreneur Bill Ganus, the pair attempted to purchase the shopping center. After numerous conversations with the owner, they believed they’d be able to buy it for $3.4 million, Dukes said.

On June 3, 2019, though, Jones was sitting in her new space when she checked her email on her phone. What she read was “devastating.”

“As you may have heard, (then-owner) Lamar Airways has contracted to sell the shopping center,” the email said. 

Jones texted Dukes to tell him the bad news. 

In his studio making music, Dukes read the text and started pacing. After half a year of work, ownership had slipped through their fingers.

But Ganus was undeterred. For a while, he had been bringing up the tower site across the street from the shopping center to Jones and Dukes, and he had already started talking to its owner. He pushed Jones and Dukes to tour it. Instead of renovating a shopping center — which could have been done for $5 million or less — he thought they should develop a 7-acre industrial site.

On that walk around the property, the idea clicked for Dukes. When standing in a trench in the middle of the site, he got the same feeling he did when he was looking for a house and toured the home he knew was the one. The shopping center would have worked as a starter home, but the tower was the dream home.

Jones and Dukes, also known as IMAKEMADBEATS, merged their local arts organizations in 2018. The $50+ million Orange Mound Tower project grew out of their shared frustration that wealthy people weren’t investing in the neighborhood. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

‘Why can’t good stuff be easy?’

While Dukes and Jones see Vibranium in Orange Mound, they aren’t blind to its problems.

In the early morning hours of July 23, someone broke into Tone’s offices at 2234 Lamar.

Jones received a call from the property owner that morning, and she showed up around 10 a.m. Her worst fear: That the artwork had been stolen. Instead, it was just televisions and other electronics.

“It was a huge (relief) … I literally felt my shoulders go down when I saw the artwork was okay,” she said. 

Her landlord had called the police, but theft, she thought, wasn’t worth sending someone to jail. She didn’t give the responding officer the TVs’ serial numbers. After he left, she immediately went to work finding someone to board up the broken window and finding the words to tell people what happened.

Then, she put her head down and began to cry.

“I was like, ‘Why is this so hard? I know this is the work I’m supposed to be doing. … Why can’t good stuff be easy?’” she said.

Removed from that day, Jones realizes that if good stuff were easy, she and Dukes would currently be working on a much smaller revitalization project. And, she has sympathy for a thief who may not have known where their next meal was coming from.  

In a way, the break-in was confirmation to Dukes and Jones that they’re where they need to be, working with other organizations to improve Orange Mound.

“What could it look like for us to focus on storytelling and healing work and sit up next to (the Orange Mound Community Development Corp.)  where they can focus on housing … until we fill every lane and then folks don’t have to steal a TV to make ends meet?” Jones said.

In the 38114 ZIP code home to the project and much of Orange Mound, the median household income is $27,000 and 50% of residents live in poverty, according to the Census Bureau. It hasn’t seen much investment in decades.

In areas private capital has avoided, major philanthropically minded developments can be key to drawing private investors and home buyers. This was a goal of the Crosstown Concourse development, which has led to the renovation of numerous blighted homes nearby.  

In one sense, Dukes and Jones hope their development is a Crosstown-like spark that brings additional investment to Orange Mound. But they’re also thinking long and hard about how to light the type of fire that won’t burn the neighborhood’s current residents.

“(The challenge) is how to build a community without displacing the community,” Dukes said. “I don’t want to do this and then a Starbucks pops up (on Lamar). That would be my worst nightmare.”

The duo hopes the development will encourage former neighborhood residents — from teachers to doctors to recent college graduates — who have moved to more prosperous parts of the city to return. Between 2010 and 2020, the ZIP lost almost 6,000 residents, more than any other ZIP in the county, which amounts to a 22% population decline. 

The primary goal, though, is not recruiting middle-class residents but helping the development’s neighbors reach the middle class.

Sunlight streams into a space beneath the tower that would be home to a music studio, if all goes as planned. The development would also include apartments, office space, performance space and retail.  Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

“When I think about … the brilliance that I saw growing up here that just lacked the opportunity or the space to capitalize on that brilliance … I believe that quote-unquote middle class already exists here,” Dukes said. “They just need the space and the opportunity.”

Dukes and Jones hope to provide this space at the tower with resources and places to work for artists and entrepreneurs. And they’re hoping to provide it through the wealth the tower project creates.

They are considering having a co-op of neighborhood residents own a portion of the development — like the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Co-Op in California—  which could be an opportunity for both immediate income and long-term wealth. 

Another option they might pursue is a community land trust. Through this model, they and neighborhood residents would purchase homes in the neighborhood and maintain them as “honorable living solutions,” as opposed to the slum-like conditions that out-of-state owners sometimes allow, Jones said.

While neither of these plans is set in stone, Jones said the team is committed to making sure profits from the development flow throughout the neighborhood.

‘We have the ability’

Before sharing profit, Jones and Dukes will have to generate one — a tall task in a neighborhood as disinvested as Orange Mound.

Viability for any development — whether in Orange Mound, Midtown or Collierville — depends upon the projected revenue from rent. In low-income neighborhoods, it’s significantly more difficult to recruit renters of apartments, offices and retail space who can pay the types of rates necessary to offset the construction costs, said Paul Young, president of the Downtown Memphis Commission and former director of the City of Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development.

“All the costs are the same as (developing in Midtown or Collierville), but the returns are much lower (in Orange Mound) because you have less rent coming in,” Young said. “In low-income areas, the rents are really, really low.”

In recent years, major developments announced for Downtown and Midtown have either stalled and failed. One south of Lamar certainly won’t be easier.

Todd Richardson, the co-developer of Crosstown Concourse, said he thinks Jones and Dukes will be able to pull the development off because of their passion but that it will be challenging. Along with finding the right tenants — aligned with the development’s mission but also able to pay the necessary rent — the most difficult piece will be getting enough people to believe in the project, he said. With Crosstown, he fought to convince people it was viable even after construction began. 

“(It was) very difficult … getting people to see beyond what they see,” Richardson said. 

Jones understands the project will be difficult but “knows” she and Dukes will pull it off. She said she hasn’t heard skepticism from Orange Mound residents and doesn’t care if non-residents are skeptical. 

In fact, Jones believes the project will be more than viable – she expects it to open with very little debt from the time it opens, which would be unusual for commercial development. The $200 million Crosstown Concourse, for instance, opened with $80 million of debt. 

To accomplish this, the group would need to land most of the $50+ million project cost in philanthropic and governmental commitments. 

An anonymous Memphis foundation and California-based Kataly Foundation have each donated $400,000 to help the project get going, and Dukes said the team has connections through the art world to national and international donors.

“We have the ability to pull in people from all over the world,” Dukes said. 

The group has already drawn significant interest, Jones said, as the “new, shiny” Black-led effort philanthropists want to invest in. 

Derek Fordjour — a successful New York artist who sits on Tone’s board — said he’s confident in the project’s ability to land philanthropic dollars in part because other artists have found funding in recent years for real estate-related projects. For instance, Rick Lowe — a painter and community organizer — built a series of row homes in Houston and Theaster Gates — a sculptor, performer and professor Jones said she’s a “fangirl” of — has developed housing, incubator space, and public space in Chicago.  

Fordjour said he wouldn’t be spending his limited time helping Dukes and Jones if he wasn’t confident in their ability to complete the project and become a model for others to follow.

“What can happen when you bring that kind of best-in-class art enrichment to communities that have been neglected?” Fordjour said. “The overall impact is so far-reaching that it has national implications. This is the kind of radical investment in blighted communities that can take what is historically a weakness and turn it into a real opportunity.”

Along with philanthropy, Jones said she’s hoping for major support from the City of Memphis. 

“What other large investments have we been making in this neighborhood? What have we done to honor (its history)?” she said.

It is extremely rare for developments to receive money directly from the city or Shelby County, with the Southbrook Mall renovation in Whitehaven being an exception. For Crosstown, the city and Shelby County covered many of the infrastructure costs — including sidewalks, streetlights, and sewage — but didn’t invest cash. 

An LLC owned by Unapologetic. and Tone purchased the property in May 2020 for $400,000. Jones knows finding tens of millions of dollars won’t be easy but she’s fully confident it will happen. She’s also confident her Black-led development team won’t give up control of the project in exchange for funding. 

“We have to do this through the lens of Black ownership and autonomy,” she said. “It’s not going to work any other way.”

‘Being able to see’

Like the Firestone smokestack in New Chicago, the United Equipment tower, which was home to a construction equipment dealer before it closed more than 20 years ago, has long been a symbol of disinvestment in Black Memphis.

As artists, Dukes and Jones have deep faith that this prominent symbol is powerful and that a redeveloped tower can be even more potent.

 Jones, left, and Dukes have ambitious dreams for their development. They want it to surpass mere viability, so they can quickly share profits with the Orange Mound community. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

“Everybody has driven by this building and imagined it,” Dukes said. “It’s the tower. Everybody knows the tower.”

If this iconic building can be reborn, Dukes thinks it can ignite the type of pride in Orange Mound residents that he saw in the eyes of Harlem residents when he lived in New York.

“It’s about being able to see that value in your community and yourself,” Dukes said. “And then, once that happens, that translates to what you believe is possible for you.”

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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