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magazine home > archives > winter 2001 > features
The Greenlaw-Manassas neighborhood of North Memphis was once one of the city's most flourishing communities. In the past five decades, crime and poverty have taken a toll on the area, sending it into depression. Students at The U of M though are joining other agencies in a new project to return this neighborhood to its former thriving state.

Building Knowledge, Rebuilding a Community
by Lesley Katerski

Imagine a community where low-income residents can receive home maintenance information, health screenings, mentoring and other life-enhancement skills. That thought may soon be a reality. Students and faculty at The University of Memphis are drawing the blueprints for a construction project that will rebuild a local neighborhood plagued with poverty, dilapidated housing, crime and homelessness.

Closed store in Greenlaw-Manassas

Founded in the early 19th century, the Greenlaw-Manassas area was once an active neighborhood with churches, businesses, retail stores and a variety of houses, from mansions to shot-gun style.

Drawing the Blueprints

Empowering residents with the knowledge and tools to be self-sufficient is the goal of the Academy of Community Building, a new collaborative outreach program in the Greenlaw-Manassas area of North Memphis. Through this effort, The U of M is extending a hand to this once-thriving but now struggling community with contemporary revitalization plans. U of M students are stepping out of the classroom and working in this neighborhood to evaluate public housing.

"Memphis is a living laboratory because there are so many revitalization efforts," says Michelle Owens, a U of M graduate assistant working with the project. "These are excellent learning opportunities for students. You can read about urban revitalization and watch the videos, but to actually be in the middle of it and make an impact is invaluable."

U of M students will be directly involved in helping to achieve the goals of the project. Students will work in the Greenlaw-Manassas area to design the framework that will replace public housing and then examine critically how to rebuild the neighborhood.

"We think that there is an important agenda here," says Dr. Stan Hyland, director of the University's School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy. "At the top of the list is connecting the University to the community. The University can make the city and the region a better place to live. So hopefully the Greenlaw-Manassas area will be a better place to live. If knowledge can make a difference, we're going to test that. We're going to show that it can make a difference."

The revitalization of one of Memphis' oldest neighborhoods is a collaborative effort between The U of M, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, the city of Memphis, Lauderdale-Greenlaw LLC and Uptown Residents. It is unique because residents have a voice in the rebuilding while students are able to test their knowledge of community building. The University was awarded a $150,000 grant from the Community Outreach Partnership Centers Program to help create a Neighborhood Information System so residents can be involved in the redevelopment initiative.

The Greenlaw-Manassas neighborhood was founded in 1819 and was once an area of growth and prosperity as the first subdivision outside the original city limits. But beginning in the 1960s, poverty, crime and a lack of development sent the area into a downward spiral of decay.

Breaking Ground

The University is planning for the Academy of Community Building to be operational by this spring. The Academy begin with a full-time staff member, student participation, faculty involvement and 10 computers donated by the University. It will be housed in the old Oates Funeral Home building on Auction Avenue.

Victorian House
In 1984, the Greenlaw Historic District was established to protect the neighborhood's historic structures. After failed attempts at renovation, several historic houses have been left for rot.

Plans for the Academy developed from the HOPE VI (Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere) project to replace the deteriorating Hurt Village housing projects in the Greenlaw-Manassas neighborhood with mixed income housing. According to HOPE VI goals from HUD, encouraging working families and people with mixed incomes to move into the neighborhood will benefit the area by reducing concentrations of poverty. Other goals include providing support services, establishing high standards of personal and community responsibility and creating community partnerships.

The Academy will consist of three important components, including a Neighborhood Information System that will track physical changes and the overall impact of the project through computer mapping. A Community of Scholars program will encourage learning and development through tutoring, mentoring and computer training. The third component will link the project to a city-wide community-building effort involving LeMoyne-Owen College, MIFA and the Memphis Community Development Partnership.

The challenge of the Academy is building different knowledge bases. Graduate and undergraduate anthropology students will be working with residents to capture and understand their needs and concerns. "The community, the neighborhood people, the public housing residents-they have knowledge and it is very important to understand it," Hyland explains. "Knowledge isn't something that is just out here at the universities-it takes different forms."

Setting the Foundation

The Academy of Community Building grew out of a collaborative effort between the School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy (SUAPP) and the Center for Urban Research and Extension (CURE). SUAPP is part of the College of Arts and Sciences and was created through a reorganization of existing departments. The academic majors that make up the school include city and regional planning, criminology and criminal justice, health administration, public administration and social work. The collaborative focus of the school is to provide students with an interdisciplinary approach. Each academic unit though will continue to follow their current degree programs and maintain their individual identities.

"This is the arts and sciences way to create a knowledge base that is interacting with the city and region," Hyland says. "The school is the mechanism for innovation for enacting new programs that will enrich students' interests, such as neighborhood revitalization or public policy. This is where you would get your feet wet; this is where the action is."

Closed store in Greenlaw-Manassas

Stairs that might have once led to a family's home now go no further than this neglected lot.

SUAPP is closely linked to CURE, which addresses the University's urban outreach mission by facilitating research and outreach through university and community partnerships. CURE focuses on community issues at the University-wide level while SUAPP consists of degree programs, students, faculty and courses. "We see this as having two tools instead of one," says Dr. David Cox, director of CURE. "The purpose of CURE is to try to facilitate resources from across the whole campus, from across all the colleges and bring them together collaboratively and to engage them with the community. So one builds on the other."

In order to create a real connection with the community, students and faculty have to approach issues and problems as a team, says Hyland. "That is why you have a school and that is why you have CURE. It is the recognition that it is the team of resources, the team of talents that will have a sustainable impact as opposed to the individual," he explains.

The goal of the program is not to devise quick fixes for complex issues but to understand the components necessary for long-term solutions. The philosophy of the school concentrates on step-by-step building, working from the bottom up.

The revitalization of the Greenlaw-Manassas area is just one example of the partnership between CURE and SUAPP. "Public housing is such a complex problem that you need this real accumulation of people to do something," Hyland says. "Public housing is really a part of neighborhood revitalization; neighborhood revitalization is part of city revitalization. You begin to see the linkages that create this much bigger picture."

Hyland hopes the School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy will attract resources and funding to the University and allow students to continue to expand their knowledge through urban outreach efforts like the Greenlaw-Manassas revitalization. "We do want to have new resources that enable our best and brightest to continue to work on challenging problems, challenging opportunities," he says.

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