So here’s the scenario: City leaders tear down the community’s last public housing project. They get a boatload of federal money to replace the projects with a mixed-income apartment complex.

The promise: Renovated housing in a chronically disinvested neighborhood will spur private investment. Amenities that other neighborhoods take for granted, such as a grocery store, will then follow. 

That’s what city leaders, developers and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development thought would happen in South City, the rebranded part of town long known simply as South Memphis.

Foote Park at South City replaced the Foote Homes public housing project. Photo by Brad Vest for MLK50

But two years after the first residents moved into Foote Park at South City, the development that replaced Foote Homes projects, private investment is nowhere to be found, reporter Jacob Steimer learned.

The longed-for grocery store seems like a long shot: Grocers use a formula to calculate whether a new store would be profitable, a housing official told Jacob, and in South City, the math’s not mathing.

This dilemma – residents need a grocery store, but grocers insist they can’t make the money they’d need (want?) to make it worth their while – reveals the limits of such redevelopment efforts. In a battle between profit motives and the people’s needs, the people will almost always lose.

I’m reminded of these words from our namesake’s 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech: “…we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society.

“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

(We’re proud to co-publish this piece with Next City, a fellow Surdna Foundation grantee.)