Editor’s note: On July 26, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it will conduct a “pattern or practice” review into the Memphis Police Department.
It’d be understandable if a casual observer assumed Tyre Nichols was beaten to death on the streets of a violent, impoverished neighborhood.
After all, the Memphis Police Department’s Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods unit was created to reduce violent crime by focusing on “hot spots.”
But on Jan. 7, SCORPION officers pulled Nichols over for alleged reckless driving at the intersection of Hickory Hill’s Ross and Raines roads, which simply doesn’t meet that description.
In 2022, there was a single homicide within a .5-mile radius of the intersection and three within a 1-mile radius, according to MPD’s own data. That’s roughly equivalent to Overton Square or the Memphis Botanic Garden — low-crime cultural centers — and a far cry from the middle of Frayser or North Memphis’ Hollywood neighborhood, areas with frequent homicides, according to MPD.
As for car thefts — another SCORPION focus that seemed ubiquitous in 2022 — there were 165 within a mile of the intersection, roughly equivalent to the botanic garden and far fewer than Overton Square or the middle of Frayser.
The surrounding neighborhood — 1,700 households in southeastern Hickory Hill lumped together by the U.S. Census Bureau — had a median household income of $48,750 and a 12.3% poverty rate from 2016-2021, while the city as a whole sat at $43,980 and 24.2%.
In other words, it is a middle-income, low-crime neighborhood. And Nichols’ neighbors are proud of it.
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It’s unclear why the SCORPION officers chose to patrol that quiet corner of Hickory Hill. The Memphis Police Department’s public information officer did not reply when MLK50: Justice Through Journalism asked this question via email, and City of Memphis chief legal officer Jennifer Sink declined to answer it.
“Out of the 35 years I’ve been here, it’s really just been peace and harmony,” said William Bullard, a Black retired postman who bought his home when it was built in 1987.
But area residents also know they have a perception problem. White Memphians started calling it “Hickory Hood” after largely abandoning the area in the 1990s and 2000s. When local media visit, it’s usually for a story on crime. Regardless of the actual statistics, the neighborhood has a rough reputation that’s at risk of worsening because of the national attention in recent weeks.
But Stacy Spencer, chief apostolic officer of New Direction Christian Church five minutes from the Ross/Raines intersection, is confident that the poor perception won’t last long. Given the neighborhood’s assets and direction, the longtime neighborhood advocate thinks Memphians who degrade Hickory Hill will be shocked when they return there in the coming years.
Spencer paraphrased Ezekiel 36:35 “Those who said Jerusalem is a place of ruin will now come back and see it’s the Garden of Eden.”
A cherished community
Azalea bushes, manicured yards and crape myrtles sit frozen in front of brick houses.
The Brandywine subdivision — where Nichols was brutally beaten — has a homeowners association that is strict on appearances and pays for periodic patrols by a private security company. Longtime residents spoke highly of the association and boasted of decades without crime issues.
Freddie Short, who purchased his home here almost 30 years ago, said he’s never met a neighbor who isn’t friendly. He hopes Memphians who have been watching footage of his street on the news realize it’s a safe, upscale place that residents work hard to maintain.
“It’s ironic that we pay (security guards) to keep our neighborhood safe, and the biggest crime ever committed in this neighborhood was committed by the police,” said Short, who is also Black.
The neighborhood has barely changed since 1994, he said, other than most of the white residents leaving.
No homicides have occurred in Brandywine in the last five years, and only two have taken place within half a mile — a nearly identical record to Overton Square in Midtown. And beyond their crime rate, the two areas share similar household income levels and poverty rates, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
However, the predominantly white Overton Square area’s reputation among white Memphians is nothing like Hickory Hill’s. Property values in the two neighborhoods reflect this difference, with homes near the Square selling for more than 2.5 times the cost of a home in Short’s census tract despite being older and having fewer bedrooms, according to census data.
Even though Short doesn’t see any decline from his doorstep, white flight, racism and damaging media narratives have taken their toll on his and his neighbors’ reputation and wealth.
Racist flight and punch lines
In 1987, the year Bullard’s home was built, the City of Memphis approved the annexation of Hickory Hill’s 14 square miles, and a long legal battle began.
The area’s white, middle-class residents organized against rising taxes and, more importantly, the specter of their kids being bused to inner-city schools.
“The annexation fight was primarily driven by (people saying), ‘We don’t want to live in the same place as Black people. Memphis is a Black city,’” said local historian G. Wayne Dowdy, who is white.
Bullard, who’s Black, watched his white neighbors flee to DeSoto County. His census tract shifted from 88% white, 10% Black and 1% Latino in 1990 to 38% white, 56% Black and 3% Latino in 2000. In 2020, the share of white residents was down to 5%. He calls the people who left “separatists.”
With the changing racial demographics, Dowdy remembers the reputation of Hickory Hill changing almost overnight — from a peaceful suburb to one supposedly riddled with crime.
In 2001 — shortly after the annexation was completed — Commercial Appeal columnist Ron Maxey wrote that “the image has … taken root among some people of a place in decline that’s been overtaken by gangs and crime,” despite the fact that Memphis Police Department data showed a 30% drop in crime in the area during the preceding year. By 2008, Target, Pier 1 Imports and other major retailers had followed the white residents east. When a tornado hit the area that year, Rafferty’s and Red Lobster closed their Hickory Hill restaurants as well, and Shelby County residents joked that “the tornado knew where to hit,” according to another Commercial Appeal column.
Though the columnist defended the neighborhood against such crude jokes, he also wrote that the neighborhood had “been in decline since the 1990s.” And in 2015, a Commercial Appeal article declared the neighborhood was “plagued by crime” despite providing no data.
Lynda Whalen, the white chairwoman of the Southeast Memphis Neighborhood Partnership, blamed much of Hickory Hill’s perception problem on television news, which she said exaggerated the number of crimes occurring in its 14 square miles. She also said the inaccurate “Hickory Hood” nickname, which became widespread in the 2000s, became a label impossible to peel off.
“I don’t know how to turn that (reputation) around,” said Whalen, whose Burlington neighborhood sits just east of Hickory Hill. “It’s sad (because) they’re some beautiful homes.”
Spencer, the pastor, has been working on that turnaround for decades. When he launched his church in 2001, he saw white people fleeing and stores closing. He was confident, though, that his church could alter the neighborhood’s narrative through economic development and a commitment to education.
He founded the Power Center Community Development Corp., which launched the Power Center Academy charter schools and develops affordable housing.
“We’re trying to transform that name (from Hickory Hood) back to Hickory Hill,” he said. “We haven’t allowed that stigma to stop us from doing good.”
Shock and anger
Tandra Lewis and Marcus Jones feel perfectly comfortable letting their six kids roam outside in Brandywine. They love the neighborhood and have a great relationship with the security guards, who stop and chat with them from time to time.
They were completely shocked when they saw two of the subdivision’s street names appear in the videos of Nichols’ beating on CNN Jan. 27.
Jones already placed little faith in the Memphis Police Department, and the officers’ killing of Nichols in his neighborhood multiplied his skepticism.
“That’s why people don’t stop for them,” he said. “If they throw their lights on me, I ain’t going to stop until I get (to a place) where I see a lot of people are at.”
Lewis, furious at MPD, said she’ll now think twice before calling them when she sees something suspicious. Short, too, said the incident transformed how he thinks about the police.
“I don’t care how fast they react to this,” Short said. “I don’t care how fast they run to the sink and wash their hands. … If forensics is done on their hands, some of Tyre’s blood would be found on the chief of police’s hands and others.”
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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