Louis Stephens moved out of Imogene Heights right after high school, and he doesn’t expect he’ll ever move back.
Stephens, 23, had lived in the neighborhood — located just south of Orange Mound in 38114 — his whole life. But when he looks at suburban towns like Lakeland and Bartlett or from 38114 across the railroad tracks into 38104 in Cooper-Young, he sees restaurants he’d like to eat at, attractions he’d like to visit, and the possibility to feel safe walking down the street at night.
“(In Imogene Heights), you can’t barely go outside and go down the street without the threat of something happening to you … (especially at) the corner stores and gas stations,” Stephens said.
According to Memphis Police Department data, there have been more than 11 aggravated assaults, eight thefts or robberies and three narcotics violations since Jan. 1 at or near the pair of gas stations at Airways and Ketchum in southwest Imogene Heights.
Stephens said many of his former Melrose High School classmates have left as well. For now, he’s living in Frayser, which he acknowledged isn’t safe either. After he finishes his undergraduate studies at the University of Arkansas Pine-Bluff and goes on to law school, he hopes to end up in a higher-income neighborhood; in 38114, the median household income is just over $27,000.
According to 2020 Census data released earlier this month, 38114 lost almost 6,000 residents between 2010 and 2020, a 22% drop. Orange Mound makes up much of the ZIP code, which also includes Imogene Heights, Castalia Heights, Rozelle and most of Glenview.
Area residents attributed most of the drop to situations such as Stephens’. Young people are leaving. Middle-age adults who inherit their parents’ houses rent them out or choose to let them sit vacant. The older generation is moving to nursing homes or dying out.
In the last five years, 38114 has lost two elementary schools: Magnolia and Charjean, where Stephens went.
School closures are often partially caused by population loss, but they can also accelerate it. When a school, store or any service closes its doors, people see it as a symbol of decline, according to Eric Robertson, president of the nonprofit Community LIFT, which works in distressed Memphis neighborhoods.
“The environment is speaking to people, ‘If you have means, move away from this place,’” Robertson said. “They can all see the disinvestment.”
Population loss usually builds on itself, according to research by depopulation expert Rachel Franklin, a professor at Newcastle University in England.
“As areas empty out, a vicious circle can commence, where few in-migrants arrive and the remaining population ages and produces fewer children, reinforcing the depopulation process,” she wrote in her July 2019 article, The demographic burden of population loss in US cities, 2000-2010 in the Journal of Geographic Systems. “Fewer inhabitants can mean fewer services, over time rendering cities and neighborhoods less attractive and less likely to attract in-movers.”
This cycle occurs most often in Black neighborhoods, she wrote. The population in 38114 is 91% Black.
Two other large Memphis ZIPs lost more than 20% of their population between 2010 and 2020: 38108, which is mostly in the Hollywood neighborhood, and 38112, which is mostly in Binghampton. The former is 61% Black and 24% Hispanic; the latter is 53% Black and 12% Hispanic.
Ed Cotton, 80, bought his Orange Mound home in 1977.
Back then, every home on Hugenot Street was in immaculate condition, he said.
“When I moved here, you had to ride a couple of hours to see a piece of (litter) on the street,” Cotton said.
Now, it’s common to find empty potato chip bags on the ground. The white house catty-corner to Cotton’s is falling apart. When the owners died, their children didn’t want it. The property is poised to be sold at a tax sale in February.
Cotton doesn’t blame young people for leaving; all of his five children did. The jobs in the neighborhood don’t pay much, and the new post office is the only real investment he can remember in decades.
In the last couple of years, two massive investments have been announced for Orange Mound. The City of Memphis is working on a $10 million redevelopment of the old Melrose High School into a library and senior living, while a pair of artists are planning a $50+ million transformation of the United Equipment tower property into apartments, office space and retail.
Cotton called both “a bunch of crock.” He hasn’t seen development like that in his 44 years in 38114, so he’s not going to believe in them until he sees them happen. He expects the neighborhood to stay on its current path.
Even if the development occurs, Stephens can’t see himself returning unless the neighborhood becomes much safer.
He said he knows multiple classmates who are dead or imprisoned. In 2020, a good friend — whom he taught to play trombone — was shot in a hotel room off Lamar Avenue.
At first, Stephens could hardly believe he was dead, given how strong he was. But, as Stephens pointed out, nobody is stronger than a bullet.
Britney Thornton, the 32-year-old founder of the community services nonprofit JUICE Orange Mound, thinks the trajectory of the neighborhood has improved in the last two years.
She, too, has seen younger adults decide to abandon their parents’ 38114 homes, preferring a more suburban lifestyle. But she sees the start of something new.
Along with the aforementioned major developments, Shelby County Assessor Melvin Burgess has been working with elected officials and nonprofits to improve property values in the neighborhood. And JUICE and other nonprofits have been doing their own work to fight blight, support small businesses and help people buy homes.
“I think the comparison of 2020 to 2030 will be drastically different than the preceding decade,” Thornton said.
Angela Barksdale, a 65-year-old who has lived in 38114 her whole life, agrees. To her, blight and crime caused the population loss, but both of those factors are reversible.
“There’s hope on the horizon. It’s just a matter of time,” she said.
Gregory Blumenthal, principal of GMBS Consulting, contributed data analysis for this story.
Disclosure: Community LIFT serves as MLK50’s fiscal sponsor. The organization has no input into MLK50’s editorial decisions or content. See our editorial independence policy here.
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
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.