At The Root is a new MLK50 series that highlights everyday radical action. As the writer and activist Angela Davis said, “radical means simply grasping something at the root.” This visually-driven feature will be recurring. To suggest an idea for At The Root, email visuals director Andrea Morales at andrea.morales@mlk50.com 

Yellow signs rippled through the Memphis city council chambers during the Wednesday afternoon Memphis Shelby County Board of Adjustment meeting. Neighbors from the Uptown and Downtown Memphis communities hoisted them for two hours until it was their turn on the agenda to explain their message to the board, again: “No parking garage.” 

Since last fall, Uptown residents have been in conversation with their powerful neighbor, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and its fundraising arm, ALSAC, regarding the construction of a proposed multi-story parking garage on the north side of A.W. Willis Avenue. 

For St. Jude, the parking garage is part of its strategic plan for growth over the next decade. But community members see the move as an unacceptable imposition on the character of their neighborhood so they organized their presence at the meeting following weeks of canvassing and conversations with each other.

The land where St. Jude is proposing to build a new parking garage is bisected by a portion of the Gayoso Bayou.  “We are being asked to trade a half mile of beautiful green space for a garage with traffic, air pollution, light pollution and decreased pedestrian safety,” Uptown resident Andre Jones said.  

In the 1990s, city investments helped its rebirth through the construction of affordable single family homes with yards. That created a promise that was attractive to residents like Rychetta Watkins, who moved to Memphis for a teaching job in 2008 and found home in the community. It similarly helped Valerie Peavy make the leap to open her coffee shop and neighborhood institution, The Office@Uptown, in 2013 (which closed last year.) 

Watkins and Peavy sat next to one another in the city council chambers Wednesday, along with about 30 of their neighbors and supporters who were there to make sure, like they’ve had to more than once in years past, that the voices of the community did not go unheard. 

“We have time and time again come up against developers and planners about what the community could and should be,” Watkins said during an interview. “We live in an attractive part of town. People think that making Uptown better means not asking us what we think.”

When speaking to the board during the meeting, Watkins described her gratitude to St. Jude and its mission, noting a personal appreciation since her niece recently received treatment there. But as neighbors, she argued that the hospital is only moving in service of its corporate interest. 

A rendering of the proposed parking garage is projected on the screen at the Board of Adjustment meeting on Wednesday. St. Jude and ALSAC have been at the location since 1962 and have been steadily growing and expanding the campus’s footprint. They acquired the parcel of land for the proposed garage last year, part of what Watkins referred to as a “Frankensteinian” move to acquire land.

“We can hold both truths,” Watkins said. “The mission of St. Jude is important, but they have troublesome practices when it comes to dealing with the community.”

Andre Jones, a contractor and developer who is an Uptown resident, also spoke to the board in opposition to the project and described the neighborhood’s current state as a reflection of over two decades of communal evolution by his neighbors. “We know how a walkable, sustainable, equitable neighborhood should look and feel,” he said.

ALSAC chief legal officer Sara Hall (right) speaks at the podium during the Wednesday meeting. “The truth is, St. Jude employees will never set foot on our sidewalks because of the sky bridge,” Jones said during his turn at the podium, referencing the pedestrian walkway in the proposal that would be built to cross A.W. Willis between the garage and the campus. “Unlike us, they will never have to navigate the hazards caused by the increased traffic it will create.”

While St. Jude and ALSAC organized meetings and presented rosy and supportive community feedback in their application, Watkins, Peavy and Jones all described a lack of authentic engagement. Many Uptown residents have been working on organizing and development projects for their neighborhood together for years and none of them had been tapped by ALSAC for their opinion, Peavy said. So they set out to gather their own feedback and found that most neighbors were in opposition. 

Caitlin Lloyd, an Uptown resident, wore a homemade hat to the meeting to express her opposition to the parking garage project. “It wasn’t a matter of opposing the project,” Watkins said about taking ALSAC’s community feedback to task. “It was about calling them to the table. You can’t try to ram it down the throats of the people in the community.” 

There was a brief sigh of relief for residents in December when a timing issue seemed to complicate the project’s timeline and news of the application’s withdrawal had begun to circulate. That changed earlier this month when the hospital announced they were going to move forward with asking for the necessary variances to begin construction. 

The already mobilized residents, along with staff at BRIDGES USA, which has its offices in Uptown, set forth on a grassroots campaign to bring attention to that turn of events. 

Jerred Price of the Downtown Neighborhood Association which also provided allyship, celebrates with Uptown residents outside of the meeting. The Board of Adjustment heard from ALSAC, as well as several residents, and noted more than 400 e-mails received in opposition to the project. The members  voted 4-1 in favor of the residents. Cheers erupted as the yellow-sign wavers spilled into the lobby of Memphis City Hall and collectively embraced. It felt like a victory.
“For them to push this as hard as it was, we took it as an attack on our community,” Peavy (left) said, between hugs following the decision. “Everyone told us that we would lose. ‘It’s St. Jude. They’re going to get whatever they want. They can do whatever they want.’ But the fact of the matter is we have a voice.” 

Andrea Morales is the visuals director for MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Email her at  andrea.morales@mlk50.com


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