Friday, January 23, 2015

The transformation of public housing in Memphis

     By 2016, the demolition of the last of Memphis’ large public housing developments for families could end the “warehousing” of some of the city’s poorest African-American residents and literally wipe clean the last vestiges of family public housing forever.
     The William H. Foote Homes, located on Danny Thomas Boulevard north of Mississippi Boulevard, was built in 1940 for low-income families. It is the last of the city’s public housing developments that was home to innumerable families from the onset.
University Place, built on the site of the Lamar Terrace
housing project. (Photo: Wiley Henry)
     The first tenants who took a survey were “gratified” to transition to their new digs with “inside toilets, adequate heating, and electricity,” according to a newspaper article during that period on an addition to Foote Homes.
     But the blueprint for housing the city’s indigent families is being revamped. There was merit in public housing; however, arguments abound over whether or not poverty, errant behavior, unsanitary conditions, and criminal activity come into play when there are large concentrations of people.
     “Crime is a result of poverty to some extent,” Robert Lipscomb, director of Housing and Community Development (HCD) and executive director of Memphis Housing Authority (MHA), reasons. “So we have to reduce poverty. And when you do that, you will see a reduction in crime.”
     Lipscomb is the face of public housing dismantlement and a proponent of replacing them with modern mixed-income communities. “We have to make sure that people have a good place to live, a choice of where they want to live,” said Lipscomb.
Lamar Terrace before it was redeveloped into University
Place. (Photo courtesy of Memphis Housing Authority)
     Although more than 400 families remain at Foote Homes, the fate of the 420-unit development is contingent on a Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that will be used to raze the development and replace it with a new community of mixed-income residents.
     Memphis was among four finalists vying for the grant in 2013, but was not one of the three cities that HUD selected. Lipscomb, however, is determined to secure the grant. A new development team is working diligently to meet the Feb. 9 deadline for the next round of funding some time in June or July.
     If Memphis is awarded the HUD grant, Lipscomb said, “We’ll be one of the first communities to get rid of public housing – and that says a lot about Memphis.”

MHA’s deteriorating housing stock…

     Lipscomb got his marching orders to clean up public housing nearly 20 years ago when Dr. Willie W. Herenton was the mayor of Memphis. Most developments were in disarray and conditions festered steadily to a point where they’d become blighted havens for youthful indiscretion, drugs and criminal activity.
     A Jan. 13, 1997, audit of MHA, from 1983 through June 30, 1996, was explicit and stated unequivocally that “MHA is not fulfilling its primary mission of providing decent, safe and sanitary housing for low-income families.”
     Squalor pervaded the developments and residents seemed resigned to live in such horrific conditions – those who remained. Of the 22 low-income housing developments that MHA owned and operated at that time (more than 7,000 units altogether), the large family developments suffered the most from interior and exterior decay, according to the audit.
     Several units were boarded up due to a lack of demand; others were extremely dilapidated. And deteriorated plumbing, electrical, walls/ceilings, and floors, among other infractions, were declared “unsafe.”  
     HUD’s Office of Inspector General had made it crystal clear that “MHA’s housing stock and grounds are in poor condition due to age, lack of maintenance and ineffective use of modernization funds, and have been for many years.”
     There was rampant theft, too, and people were vacating the developments, Lipscomb added.
     HUD put the city on notice with a recommendation that MHA be declared “in default of its Annual Contributions Contract (ACC), and initiate steps to obtain new management of MHA’s maintenance and modernization operations.”
     Translation: HUD was threatening to take over MHA’s operations.
     “The OIG report was horrible,” said Lipscomb, who was asked by MHA’s board of directors to replace Jerome D. Ryans, who was MHA’s executive director. Lipscomb took over in February 1999. Prior to his new duties, he’d run the city’s Housing and Community Development agency and left in 1996 to take a post at The LeMoyne-Owen College, his alma mater.
     “We were on HUD’s ‘troubled housing list’ for years (along with MHA’s Section 8 program) and was about to be taken over by HUD,” said Lipscomb.
     Problems were widespread. At the behest of Herenton, the city’s first African-American elected mayor, Lipscomb went to work. One of the mayor’s goals was to increase affordable housing for Memphis citizens.

Transforming public housing…

     MHA is the second oldest housing authority in the United States. The Memphis City Commission created it in 1935.
     The serious deterioration of public housing over subsequent decades and the “horrible” OIG report, however, precipitated a move by the Herenton administration to create something different for the city’s low-income residents.
     By the time the second African-American mayor moved into City Hall, the city was well on its way to becoming a “A City of Choice,” a tagline Mayor A C Wharton Jr. has used to pitch Memphis. The pitch includes transforming MHA’s public housing stock into a beautiful oasis of mixed-income communities with manicured lawns and ample amenities.
     Lipscomb is now working in tandem with Mayor Wharton to finish the job. The mayor once called the transformation of public housing a “revolution.” He is just as determined to make affordable housing a reality for low-income residents as his predecessor.
     LeMoyne Gardens was MHA’s first development to be demolished after receiving a $481,000 HOPE VI planning grant in 1994 and a $47.2 million HOPE VI Implementation Grant in 1995. LeMoyne Gardens was redeveloped with public and private funding and renamed College Park. A statue of Dr. Herenton, the fifth-term mayor, stands upright on its base facing his alma mater, The LeMoyne-Owen College.
     MHA has received five HOPE VI grants altogether from HUD, which set in motion the “revolution” that transformed public housing. “We had to do something,” Lipscomb said.
     Hurt Village, for example, was transformed into homes and apartments called Uptown, which was redeveloped in phases to include Metropolitan Apartments, Magnolia Terrace, Greenlaw Place, and scattered site rental units.  
     Lamar Terrace morphed into University Place. Dixie Homes was replaced with Legends Park Place and McKinley Park (on-site homeownership phase). And Cleaborn Homes is now called Cleaborn Pointe at Heritage Landing.
     Lauderdale Courts, another large family development, was redeveloped as Uptown Square with the use of mixed financing. It is also located in the Uptown area. Altogether, all five HOPE VI grants totaled $144 million.
     The unsightly developments were transformed into aesthetic environs, both residential and commercial. The HOPE VI grants were a game-changer for MHA. Still, there are other residential communities in its housing stock that have been – or are being – redeveloped, rehabilitated, or renovated.
     Foote Homes is the last family development to be demolished, which is targeted for a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant. The grant “supports those communities that have undergone a comprehensive local planning process and are ready to implement their ‘Transformation Plan’ to redevelop the neighborhood.”
     The Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant replaces the HOPE VI grant. The Feb. 9 deadline is looming and Lipscomb and his team are making haste to meet it.
     “Around 2016, you’ll see some evidence of people moving forward,” said Lipscomb, keeping a positive attitude that the last age-old family development will go by way of the wrecking ball.

Brown Baptist stands in the gap for cancer survivors

     “We want you to get well, stay well, and be healthy,” Pam Taylor Verdung told a group of cancer survivors and supporters recently at the American Cancer Society’s (ACS) Mid-South Division’s first monthly meeting at Brown Missionary Baptist Church in Southaven, Miss.
     More than 20 women, including two men, reflected on the past year, discussed new business, and remembered those among the group who recently lost the battle to cancer – Jackie Evans and Joe Harvey.
     Although the death rate from cancer has fallen 22 percent since 1991, there will be 1,658,370 new cancer cases this year and 589,430 deaths from cancer, the American Cancer Society’s journal CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians reported recently.
The Brown Missionary Baptist Church Cancer
Support Group. (Photo: Wiley Henry)
     “We’re diagnosing cancer earlier,” said Verdung, the senior director of community engagement for the ACS’s Mid-South Division. “That’s why you’re seeing better treatment. And it’s because the volunteers and doctors help us to get the word out.”
     Brown MBC is playing an active role in disseminating information through its partnership with the ACS and expanding its reach in “the communities to support those that are dealing with this dreadful decease.”
     “We believe that ‘I can do all things through Christ that strengthens me,’” said Dr. Bartholomew Orr, the church’s senior pastor, referencing a Bible verse that denotes his belief in the power of healing through faith and prayer and his support of the church’s Cancer Support Group.
     “Our belief here at Brown Missionary Baptist Church is to watch over one another in brotherly love; to remember each other in prayer; to aid each other in sickness and distress; to cultivate Christian sympathy in feeling and courtesy in speech; to be slow to take offense, but always ready for reconciliation, and, mindful of the rules of our Saviour, (and) to obey it without delay,” Dr. Orr said.
     In 2011, the Cancer Support Group sponsored a Cancer Prevention Study, or CPS-3 study, of which Danita Brown, an ACS volunteer, coordinated. Brown is also a breast cancer survivor and member of the “Community Action Team of Shelby County” CHA program. CHAs (Community Health Advisors) are volunteers who advise, advocate, mentor, assist and refer women to appropriate resources for screenings, treatment and care.
     “We reach out to men and women with all cancers,” Brown said.
     “The support group promoted the study through the churches internal organizations and health ministry,” said Bert Fayne, a health initiatives representative for the ACS of Tennessee. “Pastor Bartholomew Orr made announcements at all three services encouraging members to participate in the study.”
     Dr. Orr enrolled in the CPS-3 study himself, Fayne said.
     “After Pastor Orr came down from the pulpit and enrolled, additional members followed. The event was so successful, we ran out of screening supplies.”
     Without the church’s support, Fayne believes the ACS would not have made its goal of African-American enrollment and participation. Because African-Americans have a higher mortality rate of cancer than whites, their participation is essential for cancer prevention studies.
     The ACS is second in the nation to the federal government in supplying funds for cancer research. Breast cancer is among the cancers that ratchet up the mortality rate and drive Brown MBC’s support of cancer survivors and its advocacy of cancer research. African-American women are more likely to die from breast cancer before age 40 than non-Hispanic white women, the ACS reported in its Surveillance and Health Services Research in 2013.
     The support group is very active in the community, steering women to get help and participating in such initiatives as the annual “Making Strides Against Breast Cancer” (MSABC) walk to “finish the fight against breast cancer.”
     MSABC unites the community to honor and celebrate breast cancer survivors while raising money to fund life-saving research, support programs, and provide free resources to help women through every step of the cancer journey.
     In 2013 and 2014, the support group donated to benefit MSABC. The group also sponsors an annual brunch for breast cancer survivors from Memphis and Mississippi.
     Free mammogram information also is given to women who are uninsured and in need of a mammogram, Fayne said.
     “We go out into the community and educate women and men on the importance of knowing their bodies,” added Brown, who participates in community educational programs at local churches. She also makes media appearances to reach African-American women and the underserved population.
     Fayne attends meetings each year, too, at the behest of the support group. She keeps them updated on the latest information and services of the ACS.
     Community Health Advisors also make their rounds at church events throughout the year. Besides advocating for women, they set up educational displays on cancer awareness and detection, programs and services, such as transportation to the doctor’s office for cancer patients.
     Although cancer can be successfully treated, Brown said, “We’re determined that if cancer comes back, it just has to catch us.”
     (For more information about the American Cancer Society, contact Bert Fayne at (901) 725-8629.)

New playwright stages first-time play at The Evergreen Theatre

     Last year in June, Cassandra Kaye Clements wrote a 20-minute skit for a family life class at Belhaven University, where she was trying to finish her Bachelor of Arts degree in human services.
     The skit turned out to be an impressive undertaken, which sparked an idea that Clements decided to pursue. She transformed the skit seven months later into a full-length stage play that will run Jan. 9-11 at The Evergreen Theatre, 1705 Poplar Ave.
     The show starts at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 2 p.m. on Sunday. The ticket price is $18.
     “God dropped the idea on me in June, and I wrote the play in a day,” said Clements, who would transfer to Lancaster Bible College to finish her coursework in time for graduation this summer.
Cassandra Kaye Clements (center) transformed a skit
into a full-length play. (Courtesy photo)
     Lancaster, in partnership with MCUPS (Memphis Center for Urban Theological Studies), accepted Clements’ credit hours from Belhaven, which allowed her to move expeditiously toward her original goal: to become a counselor.
     But then Clements had an epiphany and changed course. She is founder, playwright, and director of Vision Made Plain Productions.
     “I was going into counseling,” she said, “but I wanted to continue my drama ministry. That will be my career; that’s where I’m headed.”
     Clements also plans to continue studying theology, which undergirds the stage play that she aptly named “And Humbled He Stood.”
     “It’s a story that was inspired by God,” said Clements, the product of a difficult childhood. The storyline, she said, is based in part on “my crazy childhood.”
     “My misery has become my mission,” said Clements, born to an 11-year-old mother and raised by her grandmother in the Fowler Homes public housing development.
     “My life could rival any Lifetime movie,” she said, “and I have made every effort to walk the path that God has ordered for me, realizing many mistakes along the way.”
     The play is moving and filled with scenarios of emotional and mental abuse. It is a real-life story of a couple struggling with terminal illnesses and the reality of families and church leaders being tricked by the devil to disobey God’s covenant.
     Clements plays the role of Rubie Gatlin, the first lady of the church. The central character, Dale, “is a man of wisdom, courage, honor, integrity, who exemplifies the fruits of the spirit in his everyday lifestyle.”
     True men of God still exist, she added.
     “This ministry has blown my mind,” said Clements, 43, a receptionist at Logical Systems, Inc. in Bartlett. “It’s bringing everybody together. It’s for the people who don’t go to a traditional church.”
     Clements said she’d like to run the play to the Orpheum Theatre; and, from there, “to nation to nation to tell the story through my drama ministry.”
     “We’re almost sold out,” she said, and added that she has other stories that she plans to convert to stage plays.
     Meanwhile, Clements is eager to graduate college and take home her 4-year college degree. The mother of two children – a 14-year-old son and 21-year-old daughter – she is determined to stay her new course.
     “My daughter was the one who challenged me to pursue my goal. She will be graduating from U.T. Chattanooga the fall,” Clements said.
     (For more information, contact Cassandra Kaye Clements at 901-288-5511 or by email at

One man, one play: Bringing Dr. King back to life

       Rabia Louis Haynes was 13 years old when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968. Forty-six years later, the spirit of Dr. King is embodied in a one-man stage play entitled “If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Were Alive Today.”     
       “I wanted to keep Dr. King’s legacy alive,” said Haynes, an actor, writer and director, who will perform the play at the Harrell Performing Arts Theatre in Collierville at 440 West Powell Rd. The show dates are Jan. 29 – 31 at 8 p.m.; Feb. 1 at 3 p.m.; Feb. 5 – 7 at 8 p.m.; and Feb. 8 at 3 p.m.
       The play is approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes without intermission. General admission is $20; students and seniors: $15; and groups of 12 or more: $10. Tickets can be purchased online at or at the door on the day of the play at no additional cost.
Rabia Louis Haynes plays the role of Bobby, who relies on
the iconic civil rights leader's guidance to overcome some
unfavorable situations. (Courtesy photo)
       Haynes has loaned his thespian talents to the stage play numerous times since 2011, the year he fleshed out the script. In fact, he’s rolled out the play in Memphis five times in four years before a bevy of theatregoers.
       “Our greatest enemy is forgetfulness. Non-violence is still the way to go even in 2015,” said Haynes, adding that young people in particular need stimuli in the form of entertainment. “They don’t have the attention span to listen to Dr. King’s words of non-violence.”
       Haynes wanted to do something that’s entertaining, yet maintain the seriousness of the message that Dr. King tried to convey. “Society as a whole did not hear Dr. King,” the actor said. “Society often responds out of fear.”
Haynes brings “Dr. King back to life as the audience follows the experiences of a man named Bobby who finds himself in unfavorable situations and relies on the guidance of his hero, Dr. King, to overcome whatever obstacle it is that he is facing in that moment.”
The hypothesis of Haynes’ stage play is as close to reality in 2015 as it were during the turbulent civil rights movement when throngs followed the iconic civil rights leader and looked to him as their moral compass.
Whether there is one person or 100 people in the audience, Haynes said the play has earned the respect of the audience and kudos for him. In fact, “I’ve never done a show where I didn’t get a standing ovation.”
Haynes ventured into acting at Laurence Merrick Drama College in Los Angeles in 1975 when he was 20 years old. He’d migrated from Chicago’s South-Side and took up residence on the west coast, where he’s lived since.
Raised by a single mother in the crime-ridden, 4,400-unit Robert Taylor Homes public housing project, Haynes and his seven siblings endured the conditions in what was declared the nation’s largest housing project.
Haynes admits he was the class clown in school. The attention he sought no doubt took his mind away from the travails of life and provided the impetus he needed to pursue a career in acting. Laurence Merrick was his launching pad.
“That’s when I began to take acting seriously,” he said. “At that time, I was chosen as the No. 1 actor at the school.” 
The acting bug was seriously chomping away at Haynes, who’d completed Dov S-S Simens Hollywood Film School in New York City as well. For 40-plus years, the 59-year-old thespian wrote, directed and produced more than eight plays.
During those years, Haynes honed his skills in other areas such as sound, casting, editing, composing, cinematography and production. Using Leon Isaac Kennedy, Jermaine Jackson, Akon, Eve, and Swizz Beats as references, he’s added to his repertoire improvisation, dancing, comedy, Martial Arts and voiceover.
A member of the Screen Actors Guild, Haynes has shadowed noted director Stephen Spielberg on the set of “The Terminal” starring Tom Hanks. He also has performed for Saudi Emirs and worked as a director for PBS.
Memphis is ground zero for “If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Were Alive Today,” Haynes said. “The dream began April 4, 1968, and Memphis is the most important place where this play should be.”
Haynes is contemplating taking the play on the road to Atlanta, Chicago and Washington, D.C., and hopes to start scheduling the play at certain theatres in those cities very soon.
Although Haynes is comfortable with his performance as Bobby, he’s assembled a tight-knit crew of light and sound operators to help him transform the legacy of Dr. King into a meaningful stage play that awakens one’s consciousness.
“I believe God has put this in my heart to do this,” said Haynes. “I won’t stop. If I do, I would be disobedient.”