Debbie Patterson remembers how nice everything appeared outside her car window as she drove through Parkway Village with her family back in 1994. The library, the Mall of Memphis, the residential streets — they all looked modern and clean. She and her husband decided it would be a great place to move their young family.
The following year, the family purchased a home near the mall, becoming the fourth Black household on the eight-home cove.
But what Patterson didn’t realize then was that Parkway Village’s white, wealthier residents were leaving. During her first five years on Knightway, she watched two white families move away, and by 2005, only one white resident remained.
Between 1990 and 2000, Patterson’s piece of Parkway Village flipped from 74% white, 23% Black and 1% Latino to 17% white, 69% Black and 12% Latino, according to census data analyzed by the Othering & Belonging Institute at the University of California, Berkeley.
The difference a decade can make
These changes saddened Patterson. Moving in, she knew her family would be excellent community members, but it appeared her white neighbors didn’t think so — as they packed their belongings and left.
“I think white people moved because there was too many Black people on the street,” said Patterson, a 59-year-old salon owner. “When the white people left, the services left. It seems like the City of Memphis has neglected Parkway Village.”
It was a clear case of the phenomenon known as “white flight.” The term is usually used to describe the period from the 1950s through the 1970s when white Americans moved from cities to the suburbs after Black people began desegregating their neighborhoods and schools. However, Parkway Village’s path through the 1990s and 2000s matches it well.
As the white people left, Patterson and other early Black residents of the neighborhood started seeing local media refer to the area as dying and crime-ridden. Then they watched their property values stagnate, their favorite stores close, the violent crime rate begin to rise and city services decline — from schools and parks to roads and trash.
As they left, the white people took their wealth, social capital and political power with them — a migration that continues to shape the neighborhood’s reputation and reality.
The difference 50 years can make
Within a couple of decades, hundreds of white families moved in; businesses filled four shopping centers and the city built a library and a few new schools — Knight Road Elementary, Sheffield High School and Wooddale High School — according to local historian G. Wayne Dowdy.
Dowdy lived in the neighborhood — roughly bounded by Winchester Road to the south, Getwell Road to the west, Nonconnah Creek to the north and Johns Creek to the east — from when he was 9 until he was 18. He said its story “starts and ends with race” and is a “textbook example of white flight.”
In Parkway Village, adults wouldn’t loudly or frequently voice their racism while Dowdy was growing up, he said, but the general understanding was that too many Black people would be bad for the neighborhood.
“There were always whispered discussions of ‘Oh, there are Black people moving in. … If it’s a small number, we can handle that,’” said Dowdy, who is white and whose parents left the neighborhood in 2005.
As middle-class Black families began moving in during the late 1980s and early 1990s, some white people left for purely racist reasons, Dowdy said, and the neighborhood started being seen as less desirable by white people looking for houses.
During the 1990s, home values in the neighborhood’s four core census tracts fell by almost 20% — adjusted for inflation — according to Census Bureau data. Lower housing prices meant lower-income families could afford to move into the neighborhood, and many of these families were Black. And once lower-income Black Memphians arrived in the late 1990s and early 2000s, classism started playing a major role, with higher-income families of both races taking offense at things like kids playing basketball in the street or overgrown yards, Dowdy said.
David Blackard, a white man who grew up on Wooddale Avenue in the neighborhood’s southeast corner, said Black people moving into the neighborhood didn’t bother his family, but crime and tall grass did.
“A Black family … were some of the best neighbors I ever had,” said Blackard, who moved into the neighborhood in 1971 and out in 1994. “As long as you keep your house up and keep your yard clean … it doesn’t matter what color you are.”
Carl Lewis Jr., a white man who lived on Gina Drive in the late 1980s and early 1990s and now lives in a small Kansas town, said the neighborhood’s early, middle-class Black residents were “family folks.” The Black people that arrived there after he left — who he perceived to be lower-income — were the ones he blames for ruining things.
“All the regular neighborhood (residents) moved out to different areas of Memphis, as the internal, worst parts of Memphis spread out and took over the neighborhood,” Lewis said. “It just became one of those areas you don’t want to go visit if you want to stay alive or keep your stuff.”
The neighborhood’s long-time and former residents told MLK50 that crime started to rise around the turn of the millennium. However, it’s hard to tell how much of this was perception versus reality. In 1998, Memphis Police Department officials told the Commercial Appeal the department was opening a new substation in the neighborhood because they were trying to stop “rising” crime from becoming “rampant,” but an MPD spokesman declined to provide historical crime data for the neighborhood to MLK50. And, the neighborhood’s homicide rate didn’t increase significantly until the mid-2010s, according to City of Memphis data.
No matter how safe the neighborhood actually was, what mattered for its future was that white Memphians “determined” it was unsafe around 2000, according to Dowdy.
The long-time Black residents who spoke with MLK50 complained that local television news stopped mentioning Parkway Village in anything besides crime stories.
The neighborhood’s former white residents who spoke with MLK50 said they left because they perceived crime was rising and investments in homes and schools were falling — largely excluding race altogether. Similarly, a 2003 Commercial Appeal article about the neighborhood didn’t explicitly discuss racism or white flight and instead praised the white people who had chosen to stick around that long. And in 2007, a Commercial Appeal editorial referred to the neighborhood as one of multiple “moribund” ones in Southeast Memphis, with its supposedly rising crime, though the article did not include crime stats.
“I’m really proud that a lot of people in 38118 who are white didn’t give up on Memphis,” former City Council member TaJuan Stout Mitchell, who is Black, said in the 2003 article.
But with the shift in perception, these remaining white residents didn’t stay much longer. Along with some middle-class Black families, almost all of them deserted by 2010.
What the white people took
Sterling Marshall, a Black man who bought a home on Knightway Cove the same year Patterson did, loved the bar and grill on the Mall of Memphis’ first floor. It featured a large window facing the ice rink, and he enjoyed watching amateur hockey while drinking a Long Island iced tea and eating some hot wings.
Lewis, who moved away the year before Marshall moved in, has fond memories of playing broom hockey on that ice. His dad managed the jewelry department at the mall’s Service Merchandise department store, so he spent a lot of time there.
Every former and current neighborhood resident relayed fond memories of the mall.
But once the white people left and took their cash with them, it was only a matter of time before the mall, Kroger and many other area stores and restaurants closed since those types of businesses are most profitable when located near higher-income residents. The mall was demolished in 2004 and replaced with a trucking hub in 2017; the old Kroger space is vacant; and a shopping center once home to two jewelry stores, a toy store and a grocery store is now home to a Dollar Tree, a payday lender and a barber shop.
As retail spaces were emptying, so were homes. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of owner-occupied housing units in the neighborhood’s four primary census tracts fell by almost 20%, as the number of renter-occupied units barely grew. By 2020, the tracts had 40% fewer owner-occupied homes than in 2000. While many local neighborhoods lost owners to the 2007-2010 foreclosure crisis, this was a particularly dramatic shift.
But it wasn’t just private businesses and homeowners that started paying less attention to the neighborhood, the residents said. Patterson noticed a clear decline at the schools her children attended.
“Old books. Used books. Stuff passed down to us from other schools,” Patterson said. “I call it spiritual wickedness in high places. … With segregation and racism, it’s not open like it was in the 60s, but it’s (there).”
The two high schools in the area — Sheffield and Wooddale — received 1 out of 5 scores in the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System.
The declining quality of the stores and schools — along with her new neighbors not caring for their homes — pushed Teresa Thornton, a Black accountant who moved to the neighborhood in 1993, to move her family to The Wyndham apartments near Germantown in 2007.
By then, she said the neighborhood she was living in hardly resembled the one she had moved to.
“When we moved there, the Mall of Memphis was the premier mall … (and) Wooddale was one of the better high schools,” Thornton said. “(In 2007), I just had to do something to get out.”
Since 2000, Black residents have noticed the city paying less attention to the library and parks in the neighborhood, such as American Way Park, which is now generally home to a couple of swing sets, a lot of litter and little else.
“They won’t even come and fix it back up to make it a presentable park,” Marshall said. “They don’t care about these areas.”
The $200 million Accelerate Memphis plan Mayor Jim Strickland unveiled in 2021 included $40 million for 16 parks, greenlines and community centers as well as $37 million for large-scale investments in nine “anchor areas.” Parkway Village isn’t home to any of these parks or anchor areas, though the plan does earmark about $800,000 for improvements to Knight Arnold Road.
Shelby County Commissioner Eddie Jones, who represents Parkway Village, said he was irritated when he realized the city had barely included it in Accelerate Memphis.
“(The city) isn’t doing nothing over there, and I’ll tell (Memphis mayor Jim) Strickland that straight to his face,” Jones said. “I went past (American Way Park recently) and it just looked like a tract of vacant land.”
A Strickland administration spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
To be sure, white Memphians’ decades-long march to the suburbs has made it much more difficult for the city to provide services like quality parks. As racially segregated neighborhoods became illegal and Memphis City Schools desegregated, white Memphians continuously moved farther from the city’s center. Between 1960 and 2010, the city repeatedly tried to retain white taxpayers through land annexations — from Raleigh to Cordova and Whitehaven to the borders of Germantown — which doubled its land mass. While this helped slow population decline, it left the city trying to provide police, trash, parks and other services to more square miles than Atlanta, Seattle and Orlando combined.
And the city still lost over 100,000 white residents between 1970 and 1990, according to the Census Bureau, as the overall population stagnated. As such, the city exemplifies “white flight” better than any other city, according to a Brookings Institute analysis.
With the neighborhood’s declining services and reputation, Patterson’s home hasn’t been much of an investment. The three-bedroom, two-bath home cost $61,500 in 1995, which would be $121,000 in 2022, adjusted for inflation. The property is now worth $115,000, according to Zillow.
And Patterson’s property value has fared better than most. According to Census Bureau data, property values in Parkway Village’s 38118 ZIP code only increased 11% from 2000 to 2020 before taking inflation into account. By contrast, values in Midtown — where Patterson’s salon is — have increased by 90% over the same period. Patterson sometimes thinks about how much more her home would be worth if she had bought one close to work.
This difference in property value trajectory can make a huge difference in Black residents’ wealth, as home equity is typically about 60% of an African American homeowner’s net worth.
From the stores and schools to parks and property values, Parkway Village’s Black residents said it’s easy to see how resources followed white people out the door.
Working to improve
Patterson is frustrated with the neighborhood’s rising crime and concerned about its future.
But she doesn’t think God would want her to leave when she can work toward the neighborhood’s improvement.
Last year, she hosted many of her neighbors on her back patio to form Cottonwood Park Neighborhood Watch. Since then, it has conducted four neighborhood cleanups and stayed in contact with the City of Memphis about services such as solid waste removal. For example, Patterson pointed across the street to a large pile of trash and tree branches sitting on a neighbor’s sidewalk. If no one alerted the city it’d sit there for at least a month, she said. (The City of Memphis says it conducts bulk trash pickup twice per month, regardless of whether residents call.)
For a recent cleanup, 20 people gathered on a Saturday at 8 a.m., as the temperature was already over 80 degrees and climbing. They chatted for a bit, prayed and then worked for two hours without complaint.
Patterson is also the interim executive director of the Parkway Village Community Development Corp., recently founded by a group that includes commissioner Jones. And this year, she started working with a nearby church, One Accord Ministries, to organize block parties, basketball tournaments and back-to-school concerts.
“(The neighborhood) seems like it’s taking up a whole big part (of my life). It’s being piled on quickly,” Patterson said. “I feel like it’s what God wants me to do right now.”
Jones said Patterson’s commitment and passion make her an ideal leader for the CDC. The work being done by her and others like her in recent years have him confident Parkway Village is “on the rise.”
Like most Black neighborhoods in Memphis, Parkway Village has struggled to attract capital investment in recent years. But Jones is certain the CDC will be able to convince some of the huge companies that have warehouses not far south of the neighborhood to deploy some of their philanthropic dollars there. And he’s confident the increasing number of residents working to improve the neighborhood will get the attention of local government.
“In government … you know who gets stuff done? The one with the loudest voice. Just come together and speak out,” he said. “The people are coming together.”
Patterson doesn’t think white people will return to the neighborhood anytime soon. But she doesn’t think the neighborhood needs them to return to the level of cleanliness, safety and economic vibrancy she enjoyed when she first moved in.
“I’m not looking for white people to come back,” she said. “I just want us to get what we need as who we are now.”
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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