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How the Real Estate Boom Left Black Neighborhoods Behind

Paula Campbell’s house in the Orange Mound neighborhood of Memphis has a brick facade and neatly trimmed evergreens near the door. From the front yard, she can see across the street to her sister’s house, her daughter’s house and the little blue cottage her grandparents built more than 70 years ago. Campbell, who is in her 50s, with placid eyes and hair she often pulls into a ponytail, grew up on the block and moved away as a young woman. Although Orange Mound has changed in many ways since her youth, this stretch of Cable Avenue has always felt like home, and so 10 years ago she returned for good.

One dreary afternoon, Campbell walked around the corner of her garage, her cardigan hitched above her head against the rain, and gazed at the empty house next door. Mildew flecked the white sideboards and sagging carport; broken lawn furniture littered the yard, and a stray cat slunk through the weeds before disappearing beneath a tilting shed. Campbell and her husband, James, have twice tried to buy the decaying property — a house she lived in as a child — so they could clean it up. But they couldn’t persuade the absentee owner to sell. “I’ve taken pictures of it and sent it to code enforcement,” she said. She sighed and shook her head. “I’ll just keep doing it, keep taking pictures.”

The house next door is a symptom of a far bigger problem affecting Campbell and other homeowners in Orange Mound — one of the country’s oldest and most storied Black neighborhoods, a community where generations built homes and bet big on the American promise that homeownership would build prosperity. Despite a prime location near gentrifying midtown neighborhoods and the University of Memphis campus, Orange Mound’s property values plummeted by 30 percent from 2009 to 2019.

Campbell’s house, for example, is 4,000 square feet, with curved interior doorways and 12-foot ceilings. She and James finished building it in 2017. They paid about $300,000 in cash, drawing in part on the retirement savings she earned during her 25 years working as a lieutenant for the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. But it’s assessed at only $150,000.

Campbell said that if you took her house “and dumped it in Germantown or Cordova or Central Gardens,” which are predominantly white neighborhoods and suburbs, it would be worth twice as much. Campbell didn’t build to get rich; she wanted to retire in the community that had nurtured her and her siblings into adulthood. Even so, the numbers rankled. “I am concerned about the property value, I am concerned,” she said. “Not just for us, but for everybody that wants to be here.”

Paula Campbell outside of her home in the Orange Mound neighborhood of Memphis.Credit…Gioncarlo Valentine for The New York Times

In Memphis, as in America, the benefits of homeownership have not accrued equally across race. United States housing policy has leaned heavily on homeownership as a driver of household wealth since the middle of the last century, and, for many white Americans, property ownership has indeed yielded significant wealth. But Black families have largely been left behind, either unable to buy in the first place or hampered by risks that come with owning property. Homeownership’s limitations are especially apparent in Black neighborhoods.

Owner-occupied homes in predominantly African American neighborhoods are worth, on average, half as much as those in neighborhoods with no Black residents, according to a 2018 Brookings Institution and Gallup report that examined metropolitan areas. From 1980 to 2015, homes in white neighborhoods appreciated at twice the rate of those in communities of color, according to another recent study. And these discrepancies cannot fully be explained by objective differences, such as crime rate, poverty levels and neighborhood amenities, according to Andre M. Perry, who co-wrote the Brookings study and wrote a book on the subject, “Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities.”

Too often, Perry said, we ignore policy choices and patterns of disinvestment, placing the blame for a neighborhood’s conditions on the people who live there. “Black people are not broken, our homes are not broken, but they are devalued,” Perry says. “If we can change the narrative that the condition of Black homes is the result of individual decisions, then we can actually get to policy to solve problems.”

For neighborhoods like Orange Mound, the solutions cannot come fast enough. The decline has been crushing for local residents, many of whom struggle to sell homes or borrow against them for critical repairs. Orange Mound has an enviable location near downtown, a rich history and a fierce communal identity. It created strong institutions in its churches and schools. Working-class strivers, including Campbell’s grandparents, raised families and bought homes, viewing property as a path toward equality. So why isn’t Orange Mound thriving? Why isn’t more than 130 years of homeownership enough?

Before it became a Black neighborhood, Orange Mound was a plantation that grew rich from the labor of enslaved people. Beginning in 1825, John George Deaderick Sr. bought 5,000-odd acres of land just outside Memphis, started farming and built a lavish colonial house. He died shortly after arriving in the region, but his wife and sons continued to manage the land, and they kept buying human beings until the end of the Civil War. Afterward, in 1889, one of Deaderick’s heirs sold portions of the property to a white developer named Elzey Eugene Meacham, who in turn made the improbable decision to sell plots to Black people.

That’s how Orange Mound, which took its name from the osage orange bushes that grew on its eastern edge, became the first subdivision in the country designed specifically for Black buyers, who hurried to put 50 cents down on $40 lots. When Meacham conceived of Orange Mound, the rural South’s formerly enslaved citizens and their children were flocking to cities in search of work. Some newcomers had already settled in the vicinity, and Meacham may have sensed an untapped and ready-made market. Orange Mound had the advantage of being both proximate to Memphis and remote enough — not yet within the city limits — to offer refuge from the racial terror roiling many downtowns. Migrants most likely knew about what happened in 1866, when white police officers and regular Memphians attacked a Black neighborhood, burning churches and schools, raping women and killing at least 46 people.

Amid such brutality, Orange Mound emerged as a quietly radical alternative. It gave newly freed Americans and their descendants the chance to own land and build homes, a middle-class rite that was unreachable for a majority of Black Americans at the time. Owning land, as the Princeton scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has observed, was synonymous with claiming full American citizenship. The first civil rights bill, passed in 1866, made the right to buy and possess property integral to the definition of freedom. The period from 1870 to 1910, which encompassed Orange Mound’s founding, coincided with one of the biggest jumps in Black homeownership rates in United States history.

Hazell Glover Jones’s parents, who moved from Alabama to Memphis sometime around 1919, were among those who saw the neighborhood as a pathway toward a better life. Her father worked in an ice-cream factory, and her mother was a homemaker. They settled in North Memphis upon arrival, but one day Jones’s mother spotted a new, two-bedroom house being constructed on Park Avenue, Orange Mound’s central retail corridor. The Glovers bought that house, where Hazell was born in 1945.

Hazell Glover Jones outside her home in Orange Mound. Credit…Gioncarlo Valentine for The New York Times

“We had a garden, a pear tree, an apple tree in the back yard,” Glover Jones, 76, recalls. “I always told people I thought I was rich because we just had so much food.” She ventured into greater Memphis on occasion, shopping in downtown department stores where she wasn’t allowed to try on clothes, or visiting the zoo on Thursdays, the only day it opened to Black people. But she didn’t need much in the exclusionary white world because Orange Mound was its own universe: There was a baseball team, the Orange Mound Sluggers; the beloved high school, Melrose; and nightclubs to rival Beale Street, like the W.C. Handy Theater, where Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan and B.B. King performed. “We were just self-sufficient,” Glover Jones says. “We stayed in our own little bubble.”

Today the laws that permitted businesses to ban Glover Jones from their dressing rooms are gone, and yet most Americans still live in neighborhoods primarily composed of people who look like themselves. African Americans, in particular, are likely to live in extremely segregated neighborhoods like Orange Mound, the stubborn legacy of 20th-century policies designed to concentrate Black Americans in certain spaces and exclude them from others. In 1933, the Roosevelt administration created the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (H.O.L.C.) to aid a nation reeling from the Great Depression, and the New Deal poured billions into bailing out banks and homeowners. But Black homeowners were excluded from much of that largess. Instead of seeing Orange Mound as a place ripe for recovery, the H.O.L.C. viewed it and many other Black neighborhoods as lost causes, labeling them as “hazardous” on maps that lenders used to make decisions about where and how to risk their money. This now notorious practice of redlining institutionalized discrimination in the housing market, promoted residential segregation and diverted capital from Black neighborhoods.

As Richard Rothstein detailed in “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America,” enforcing segregation became a nationwide project, as commonplace and as poisonous in the Northeast and West as in the former Confederate states. Local, state and federal policies during much of the 20th century included exclusionary zoning laws, race-based deed restrictions, discriminatory rules governing the construction and occupancy of public housing and, perhaps most infamous, race-based lending.

In just one example, the Federal Housing Administration, which in 1934 began insuring mortgages with the intent of helping the middle class afford homes, was so committed to segregation that it withheld mortgage insurance from both Black buyers who might wish to live in an integrated neighborhood and white buyers who planned to rent to African Americans. Rothstein recounts a 1958 case in which a white homeowner in Berkeley, Calif., rented to a Black tenant, only to find himself under investigation by the F.B.I. and permanently barred from receiving another F.H.A.-backed mortgage.

The Fair Housing Act outlawed discriminatory lending in 1968, and the public and private forces maintaining the racial status quo in residential housing became subtler, if not less effective. One such example, from the early 1980s, comes from Memphis itself. The city had closed the northern end of a street that led from a Black neighborhood into a white one, citing a desire to increase safety and reduce “undesirable traffic.” Black residents and civic organizations sued, and the case went to the Supreme Court, which reversed a lower court’s finding and upheld the city’s right to close the street. Thurgood Marshall, the only African American justice at the time, dissented, objecting to the city’s coded language, the closure’s disproportionate impact on Black residents and the real financial harm that might come to Black property owners.

Glover Jones’s parents moved to Memphis from Alabama around 1919. Credit…Gioncarlo Valentine for The New York Times

Marshall saw what the white majority on the court could not: that a so-called “inconvenience” was actually a racial penalty with the power to perpetuate segregation and seed lasting psychological and economic disadvantage. What’s apparent 40 years later, in Orange Mound and elsewhere, is the crystallization of that disadvantage.

One day Paula Campbell drove me to see a different Memphis neighborhood, one on a very different trajectory from Orange Mound’s. Binghampton, to the north, sits beyond the grand historic homes of Central Gardens and near the crown jewel of Overton Park. Like Orange Mound, Binghampton has struggled with poverty, abandoned homes and the ravages of disinvestment. The neighborhood is also majority Black, as is the city of Memphis, although it is far more integrated than Orange Mound, which is more than 90 percent Black; Binghampton, by contrast, is roughly 66 percent Black.

Campbell drove her white pickup past East High School, a baroque masterpiece built for whites during segregation, and soon began to point out some of the repurposed buildings that marked Binghampton’s revival. One housed a craft brewery; another had been converted into an ax-throwing gym; a third housed a bar with an arcade and board games. At a strip of tidy storefronts on Broad Avenue, she slowed. “That’s the restaurant,” she said, pointing at a building trimmed in pink neon where she ate earlier. “And it’s real small and just cozy, you see? You see?” She crept forward, shaking her head at a coffee shop, a ramen restaurant, a high-end lighting store, gleaming bike lanes. “You see there, how they’re improving?” she asked. “We have no signs of improvement.”

Campbell paused outside a storefront with a dark roofline and red awning. “Look, Broadway Pizza has been there for years, for years,” she said. “And they built around it. It just — it makes me mad. It just really makes me mad. Just look at this, look at the clothing stores. Just a whole row.” Campbell grew quiet. She turned left across a crosswalk, past a curving bus-stop shelter that doubled as public art. She noticed a wedge of land stretching before her, its reddish soil leveled and covered with stacks of concrete blocks. “Look at that over there,” she said softly, as she steered south toward home. “It’s going to be houses.”

A commercial strip in Binghampton.Credit…Gioncarlo Valentine for The New York Times

The pendulum swung in Binghampton, says Noah Gray, the executive director of the Binghampton Development Corporation, most visibly in the past decade, transitioning from a neighborhood that no one considered a good investment to a place that developers look to eagerly. Homes now sell for as much as $400,000, well above the median home price for the city. Investment has begotten investment and driven philanthropic interest, with Gray’s organization poised to help build a $54 million, 219-unit affordable-housing complex. There’s commercial activity, residential construction and nonprofit organizations serving youth and working adults.

Progress has nonetheless come with some predictable downsides. Home prices have risen, and long-term residents have faced the prospect of being priced out of both the purchasing and rental markets. As the Memphis daily newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, has reported, Broad Avenue, the centerpiece of the neighborhood’s rising fortunes, strikes some residents as “too white” and “not for me.” Binghampton’s celebrated diversity — the neighborhood has a significant immigrant population — might already be on the wane. The census block immediately south of Broad is now nearly evenly split between Black and white residents.

But Campbell isn’t the only person to view Binghampton’s recovery as a potential blueprint. Melvin Burgess, the Shelby County property assessor, whose jurisdiction includes Memphis and the suburbs, is in the early stages of trying to initiate a similar economic recovery for Orange Mound. Burgess, who has a boyish face and gray at his temples, is the son of Memphis’s first African American police chief and remembers when Memphis was flush with flourishing Black neighborhoods. About two years ago, he asked his staff to run some numbers on property values. Because Burgess’s wife grew up in Orange Mound, he knew the neighborhood’s homeowners were most likely in trouble. But the degree of wealth being lost still shocked him.

“It’s a no-win situation,” Burgess said. “You know and I know that with your home, if you have no equity to borrow against, to send your kids to college, to do some things around the house, or just to have extra cash — especially in the Black community — that’s the only asset you have, that’s the only asset you have to let you be economically stable.”

In April 2020, I joined one of his redevelopment meetings on Zoom. Burgess’s task force included politicians, government staff members, nonprofit representatives, business leader and academics. Henry Turley, a powerful developer known for reviving Memphis’s downtown, appeared in one rectangle, seated in front of a wall painted with leafy designs. In another, Mark Sunderman, a University of Memphis business and economics professor, peered into his camera from behind glasses and a bushy white beard.

Melvin Burgess, the Shelby County property assessor. Credit…Gioncarlo Valentine for The New York Times

Sunderman talked about creating an inventory of housing stock so that the task force could determine how best to market the neighborhood and meet its varying needs. The average Orange Mound home was 70 years old. Some homes had been abandoned or foreclosed on; others had fallen into disrepair in the hands of multiple heirs who either couldn’t afford to make repairs or who were hindered by estate problems. The neighborhood varies at a microlevel, he noted. The ghosts of torn-down houses — crumbling driveways, concrete steps to nowhere — dominate some blocks, while other streets still brim with life, full of orderly lawns and basketball hoops where kids play in the afternoons.

Turley, who spoke with a gravelly Southern accent, asked Sunderman if he could calculate the cost of doing nothing in Orange Mound. Turley wanted the professor to quantify not only the lost tax revenues that come with depressed property values but also societal costs, such as unemployment and the price of imprisoning people who commit crime in the area. “You’ve got to prove to others that reinvesting in low-income, inner-city neighborhoods is worthwhile,” he said.

Turley’s sense that the task force would struggle to attract investors is well supported. Burgess often talks about the invisible “economic wall” that seems to surround and constrain Orange Mound, isolating it from market-driven upswings in adjacent communities. Racial demographics play a significant role in influencing where money is invested across America, according to the Urban Institute. One study in Chicago, for instance, showed that white neighborhoods received 4.6 times as much market investment per household as majority Black neighborhoods. Even when researchers adjust for income levels, the pattern doesn’t shift: Capital flows away from communities of color.

People in Orange Mound often describe the neighborhood as a victim of its own success: Integration allowed the well-educated and ambitious children of the civil rights generation to move where they pleased, and the neighborhood hollowed out as the upwardly mobile voluntarily exchanged city life for the suburbs. But it might be more accurate to say that the suburbs were chosen for them. In Memphis, as in much of America, the city’s geography is a physical manifestation of racial injustice.

In the early 1970s, when federal courts forced city schools to integrate, white Memphians fled to private schools and suburbs at astonishing speeds. By the fall of 1973 alone, one-quarter to one-third of white students had left city schools. One elementary school’s demographics flipped almost entirely in the span of six short years: from 98 percent white to 100 percent African American. White flight is often understood as a psychological phenomenon driven entirely by individual racial fears. But that interpretation minimizes government’s complicity in catering to racial anxieties.

As Martavius Jones, a Memphis city councilman, points out, construction outside the city limits was heavily subsidized by city-owned Memphis Light, Gas & Water, which provided new power and gas lines to areas that didn’t pay city taxes, generously underwriting the eastward march of wealthy whites fleeing integrated schools. “My maternal grandmother lived in a little old house on Josephine Street,” Jones says, referring to an Orange Mound address. “I think about all the little old ladies and little old men who constantly paid their taxes, and those taxes went to build up the infrastructure outside the city limits of Memphis.”

Americans aren’t accustomed to thinking of utilities and other public assets as drivers of residential segregation and inequality, says Louise Seamster, a University of Iowa sociologist who studies racial politics, but these obscure entities and small decisions can play a major role in the distribution of wealth and power across metropolitan regions. “So many of the rules for development were built around a certain model that implies the creation of a white suburban space and on building through debt, based on this promise of future growth,” she says. “Being an already existing Black community doesn’t fit that model.”

In the decades following school integration, Memphis became increasingly Black but remained under largely white political control. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, Shep Wilbun served as one of three Black City Council members out of 13, and he recalls his sense that the city didn’t provide services to Black neighborhoods in the same way that it did for white ones. “The streets were not being paved, lights were not being kept on,” Wilbun says. “The garbage was being picked up, but not in the same way. When garbage was picked up in some neighborhoods, they carried a broom to sweep behind the truck. In Black neighborhoods, they did not.”

Memphis chased its swelling suburbs, approving annexation after annexation. A result is an exceptionally low-density city, with a population similar to that of Detroit — itself famous for sprawling — only spread over an area nearly twice as big. The most recent census showed a population decline, creating a context in which it’s almost inevitable that some neighborhoods, like Binghampton, will win the economic lottery, while others will lose. With so much available space for so few people, there’s scant incentive for private developers or home buyers to take bets on ailing communities.

Memphis’s history mirrors a national approach to Black city neighborhoods that the Princeton sociologist Patrick Sharkey describes as a pattern of “abandonment and punishment” in which federal policy shifted resources away from people and neighborhoods and into the criminal-justice system. That has been our national approach to urban inequality, Sharkey says, for the past half-century.

Homeownership alone simply isn’t sufficient to insulate Black families or communities from these longstanding political and historical forces. “It’s not just about homeownership,” Sharkey says. “Communities that could be stable and thriving places to live have not received the basic investments that are taken for granted in most towns and cities across the country. And when a community doesn’t receive basic investments, then it becomes vulnerable.” Indeed, homeownership cannot only fail to deliver wealth; it can bind people to declining neighborhoods, turning the asset that most of us see as the key to financial security into an anchor that limits mobility and ties individual fates more deeply to those of neighborhoods.

In the waning weeks of winter, just before the pandemic began, I pulled up outside a brick house two blocks south of Campbell’s home on Cable Avenue, not far from Beulah Baptist Church, an Orange Mound institution known for supporting civil rights activism in the 1960s. The house was occupied by Karita McCulley, who appreciated its wooden floors and the fact that her youngest children, Keirra, who was 18, and Kaylob, who was 10, had their own rooms. Kaylob was doing homework, and McCulley had wrapped her slender figure in a long brown cardigan. Her 4-year-old granddaughter — the child of an older daughter — tugged at her sweater sleeve and waved a box of candy. “The eyes get me,” McCulley said, opening the box and reluctantly surrendering four sweet-and-sours. “And she knows it.”

McCulley, who is in her 40s, belongs to the first generation born after the civil rights movement, a group of African Americans who should have benefited tremendously from the opportunity gains of the 1960s. But despite the freedoms of the post-civil-rights era, her generation has experienced relatively little economic mobility.

McCulley arrived in Orange Mound for the first time as a teenager, trailing her mother, a warehouse worker and former Job Corps instructor, who came to the neighborhood for the same reason as those before her: the chance to own property. McCulley’s mother bought her house in 1997. She planted a garden and grew greens. On warm evenings, the family would start a grill and sit outside, playing dominoes or spades on a card table, sharing food and conversation with neighbors. But the idyll didn’t last. Her mother refinanced to make home repairs and signed an adjustable-rate mortgage. When the payments ballooned, the house went into foreclosure. The next buyer lost the house to the bank as well, and the city eventually razed it.

This experience foreshadowed a mid-aughts subprime-lending crisis in which Memphis emerged as a case study in the ways the housing bubble disproportionately affected Black buyers and communities. In 2009, the City of Memphis and Shelby County sued Wells Fargo, accusing the bank of engaging in lending practices that were deceptive, predatory and discriminatory. The suit’s accusations included credit managers who marketed subprime loans by targeting predominantly Black ZIP codes, software that the company used to “translate” marketing materials into the “language” of “African American” and loan officers who joked about “ghetto loans.”

A home in Orange MoundCredit…Gioncarlo Valentine for The New York Times

The flood of foreclosures devastated Orange Mound and similar Memphis neighborhoods, the city and county argued, accelerating the abandonment and neglect of properties — and leaving a costly mess for homeowners and local government. Wells Fargo reached a settlement that included a payment of $3 million to the city and county, $4.5 million in housing-related grants and a pledge of $425 million more in loans to residents of Memphis and Shelby County. Regulators would later settle with another bank, BancorpSouth, for its dealings in Memphis, alleging the company engaged in modern-day redlining.

The mortgage crisis did more than change the way Orange Mound looked; it robbed it of wealth and of people who felt a sense of ownership over the neighborhood. Researchers at the University of Chicago calculated that in 1990, not long before McCulley first settled in Orange Mound, the neighborhood’s rate of homeownership was 53 percent, which may sound modest but is higher than national rates of Black homeownership today. It has now fallen to about 42 percent, according to the assessor’s office.

McCulley was among the renters, although she longed to buy the house that she and her family leased. She saw homeownership as a potential bulwark against crises like the one she suffered when her husband died of cancer in 2012, leaving her with a single income and $40,000 in medical debt. The house that McCulley and her husband had been living in, in another Memphis neighborhood, was suddenly too expensive. She briefly relied on food stamps and felt so ashamed that she forbade her children to tell anyone. She became profoundly depressed. She didn’t want to work anymore; she didn’t feel like doing anything.

But McCulley did work. She got a job as a home health aide, sometimes spending 16 hours a day with her elderly charge. She moved to Orange Mound and started over. Not long after settling into a rental, she was mowing the lawn when a man stopped and insisted on doing it for her. “Nowhere else in Memphis is somebody going to walk past your house and help you cut your grass,” she said. “And for me, that was a big thing.” People remembered her from her teenage years and would call out to her in passing: “Hey Miss Karita, how you doing? How’s your mama doing?”

McCulley methodically paid down her debt. She also realized that she had a talent for working with the elderly. She liked their wisdom, and she liked helping people. She became a certified nursing assistant and found a job in a hospital, where she worked nights and monitored her kids in the day, attending softball games and majorette performances and remaining active in their education. “I’m on the P.T.O.,” she said. “I’m a Shelby County Schools parent ambassador. I do a lot of things that people don’t want to do — meetings.”

Although the median home price in Orange Mound is around $30,000, ownership remains out of reach for many of the neighborhood’s working poor. McCulley had about $8,000 in savings, earned $34,000 a year and received her late husband’s Social Security payments; the family was comfortable enough that her children’s friends sometimes thought they were rich. But McCulley said she couldn’t qualify for a $27,000 mortgage. Her credit wasn’t bad, merely insufficient. “I was raised by a woman, my grandmother, who raised us that you buy it,” McCulley said. “You don’t rent it, you don’t pay a note on it, you buy it.” She had used only one credit card in her life, and she closed that about a decade ago. Her home health care job paid in cash, and she preferred to pay bills in full.

Yet McCulley had bought the gray sectional on which she sat using a line of credit, a decision made on the advice of a credit counselor. “I don’t have — what’s it called? — that magic number,” she said. “I’m trying to get to 650.” She was tired of landlord hassles, of begging for repairs or paying for them herself to save the energy.

She rose from the sofa and walked to the dining area, resting her hand atop a bookcase. She’d been acquiring things for the house that she thought might become permanent: a farm-style dining table, a blue M in swooping script for the front door. She salvaged the shelves beneath her palm from a curb, then sanded and refinished them herself. On the wall above, she affixed an adage about second chances.

A little more than two years after Burgess announced his plans for Orange Mound, he had other pressing matters on his mind as assessor, including trying to figure out how to ease the burden on Shelby County homeowners who were facing property-tax increases from a surging real estate market. But he remained optimistic about Orange Mound. “My goal is to keep doing the work and to have a plan that we can take all over the country to revive these inner-city neighborhoods,” he said last month, as he drove back from Nashville, where he was working with state legislators on securing funds for the task force. He already helped get a moratorium passed by the Shelby County Board of Supervisors on the sale of county-owned property, a measure designed to prevent investors from buying land while it was cheap, betting on Burgess’s eventual success and then pricing residents out. He was also in talks with law-enforcement officials about crime reduction and was courting local entrepreneurs to do business in the neighborhood.

His task force is now officially a neighborhood development corporation, an entity defined under Tennessee state law that is led by community members and nonprofit groups rather than by the assessor’s staff. They’ve drafted a redevelopment plan and connected existing nonprofits, and are pursuing tax incentives designed to attract investors. But residents are impatient, and almost nothing he does comes without criticism. “The people from the community, they want to see stuff work right away,” Burgess said. “It’s a heavy lift because you’ve got so many hurdles.” In five years, he said, they’ll see more commercial activity on the main drags.

And yet his goal has grown even more complicated as the pandemic gives way to an economic resurgence. Home values increased somewhat in the last year in Orange Mound, pushing the poorest families further from owning. What’s even more problematic, according to Burgess’s staff, is an influx of out-of-state investors who buy single-family homes and put them on the rental market at inflated prices, driving homelessness and creating profits for companies with no attachment to the neighborhood.

The Binghampton comparison helps illustrate just how difficult a goal Burgess had set for the neighborhood. Binghampton’s revival struck Campbell as new, but in fact, grass-roots activists had planted the seeds for change as early as 1986, creating a groundswell of interest that would later leverage private dollars, charitable giving and public tax incentives.

If Burgess’s task force can succeed in the same fashion, it would represent an overdue triumph but one that’s unlikely to be widely replicable without sweeping federal policies aimed at racial and economic inequality. In Memphis, for example, according to a report by the Urban Institute, 20 percent of Black residents live in metropolitan neighborhoods where more than a third of the population is poor, while only about 2 percent of white Memphians do. Brett Theodos, a senior fellow with the Urban Institute, said that improving the fortunes for all neighborhoods of color, rather than just a handful, will require a tenfold increase in municipal, state and federal commitments. “Otherwise, we’re going to keep putting $10 million into a place, which will feel heroic and will feel like a lot, and it won’t fundamentally change that place,” he said. “Or maybe we will improve this place over here, but meanwhile three other neighborhoods are declining because we’re ignoring them.” Orange Mound, he said, probably needs $1 billion over several decades to transform into the vital place it once was.

Paula Campbell in front of the home she wanted to purchase.Credit…Gioncarlo Valentine for The New York Times

Perry, the co-author of the Brookings report, said that equitable redevelopment — the type that brings economic gains and rising home values without displacing existing residents, especially renters — requires investing not only in buildings but in people. These neighborhoods need microloans for current homeowners and down-payment assistance for would-be buyers. “What we should really be talking about is how to get capital into the hands of potential homeowners, business owners, tax credits to current homeowners,” he said. Many traditional redevelopment policies provide tax benefits to the rich, he said, without addressing historical and present-day biases that inhibit the health and growth of Black people and their communities.

Paula Campbell, for her part, keeps pushing. She has been lobbying the city to install video cameras to catch the illegal dumpers who drown Orange Mound’s streets in garbage and used tires; she organizes crews of volunteers who don gloves and bag the trash themselves, even though it reappears at such a pace that she’s sometimes discouraged. She is working part time for her niece, who runs a home health care agency but plans to quit by year’s end and dedicate more of her time to activism and service. “I know I can do more,” she said. “I need to do more.”

Last month, on an unusually warm Saturday, she took her granddaughters to a festival in Orange Mound Park. There were snow-cone and jewelry vendors, three-on-three basketball games, a free concert. Old friends drifted past. Campbell spotted one of the organizers and flashed her a thumbs-up. The crowd swelled to about 120 people; everyone seemed to be laughing or dancing, and wherever Campbell looked, she was reminded of what Orange Mound is worth.


Vanessa Gregory is a writer based in Oxford, Miss. Her last article for the magazine examined the 1935 lynching of a sharecropper and the ways that crime echoed in the lives of his children and grandchildren. She is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi and was a 2015 Mississippi Arts Commission fellow. Gioncarlo Valentine is a self-taught photographer and a writer in New York. His work focuses on issues faced by marginalized populations, especially the experiences of Black and L.G.B.T.Q. communities.

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