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Residents say Cleaborn Homes has memories worth cherishing

As the arm of a backhoe crashed repeatedly into a building branded with the number 566, Christopher Dean framed the moment – the demolition of Cleaborn Homes. As the arm of a backhoe crashed repeatedly into a building branded with the number 566, Christopher Dean framed the moment – the demolition of Cleaborn Homes.

Christopher Dean
Christopher Dean

The Booker T. Washington High School senior was on site with a team of students filming a video they plan to add to the body of evidence they and others hope will move President Barack Obama to decide to speak at the historic school’s commencement.

On the Friday before, BTW principal Alisha Kiner had announced at an assembly that the school’s application was one of six left from thousands of entries in the Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge. And if enough people vote online, BTW could emerge as one of three that the president will make his selection from.

That possibility was interlaced throughout the Tuesday event dubbed the Cleaborn Homes Demolition. It was a reminder that the transition underway – and the people at the center of it – primarily must be focused on the future.

For Kourtney Paylor, the beginning of demolition at Cleaborn Homes included a measure of pain. Gertrude Robinson was there to help her get through. (Photos by Warren Roseborough)

Memphis’ fifth Hope VI project, Cleaborn Homes, will feature 400 mixed-income units, a new clubhouse, recreation facilities, greenways and parks. To make way for that, the old has to come down.

With the crackle of boards and bricks sounding in his ears, Dean said the video will note that 20 percent of BTW students lived in Cleaborn Homes. He lived at nearby Foote Homes, with plenty of Cleaborn Homes friends and memories.

“They did what they had to do. They want to make it a better community and I hope it does turn out for the better, and that they bring the people back and we continue building on BTW. We’re Warriors, we will survive.”

Asked to use his imagination, and envision himself standing at the same spot 20 years from now, Dean said, “Hopefully it still will be an African-American community and we have the black people here and we have the nice buildings that they plan on building and they bring us back. Do you feel me?”

The demolition program, orchestrated by Robert Lipscomb, Memphis Housing Authority executive director and director of the city’s division of Housing and Community Development, was about a 45-minute affair.

“This is not about buildings…it is not about a physical structure, it’s about creating opportunity and a better life for people and to give them a new lease on life,” he said.

A parade of people followed. Most picked up on that theme.

“You’ve got to tear down the negative, tear down the bad, tear down the ill, that’s what we are doing here, not necessarily in terms of those buildings there,” said Mayor A C Wharton, noting that sometimes the lack of full services that people need to have a wholesome life creates a bad situation.

“What we are doing is deconstructing that so we can construct the new homes here,” he said. “We don’t tear down until we see how we are going to build up.”

Robert Lipscomb sets the stage for former Cleaborn Homes resident Carrie Yancey.

Sylvia Yancey has an armful of Cleaborn Homes memories.

Congressman Steve Cohen arrived at the program after a visit to BTW, where he congratulated students, faculty and administration on their commencement challenge good fortune. At the demolition, he invoked Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, saying Dr. King was about social justice and that progress had been made on that front.

There is, said Cohen, a long way to go in economic justice.

“These type projects give people homes, create jobs, give people a good feeling about themselves.”

The debate about surrendering the City Schools charter had affected the children, he said, giving them a bad attitude about themselves. “They are good children, there are a lot of good teachers, Dr. Cash has done a good job and they need to be reinforced.”

Marsha Pierce, Hub director for the Memphis Office of Public Housing/HUD, acknowledged that HUD regulations can be a challenge. Lipscomb and his team pushed the envelope, she said. “Without that push, you can’t take homes and make them better.”

City Councilman Myron Lowery said that under the leadership of former Mayor Dr. Willie W. Herenton and Lipscomb and in conjunction with the City Council and multiple community partners, Memphis’ improvements in housing are the envy of cities throughout the country.

Council member Janis Fullilove was born across the street from Cleaborn Homes. She recalled her grandmother and wished she could have seen what Tuesday represented.

Councilman Joe Brown also was born in the Foote Homes. He linked rebuilding communities to a change in the mindset of young people. “Image change means a lot,” he said, volunteering that the Memphis area was overdue for federal dollars to bring about such change.

Ruby Bright and the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis have raised several million dollars for social services and funneled much of it into helping women and children in the area become self sufficient.

“If we are to have a strong and better Memphis for everyone, we have to include every one of our citizens in the process of economic development,” she said.

City Schools Supt. Dr. Kriner Cash said three of every four families in the Cleaborn Homes and Foote Homes were MCS families, with children in the public schools. He recalled the anxiety of students and parents when they learned last year that the developments would be transitioning. MCS responded with an arrangement with MATA that gave many the means to live elsewhere and remain in the area to attend school, also providing in-school meals for them, even though many had not taken care of all the paper work.

“Out of no way comes the way, often and always,” said Cash.

Given what the students and parents in the 38126 zip code are faced with, still deciding to get up and send their children to school, and with the students excelling, President Obama has to choose BTW, he said.

“This is the social justice issue of the country. This is the equality of opportunity in the country today.”

Carrie Yancey, former resident president and a MHA resident advisory board member, spoke officially for the residents.

“We the former residents of Cleaborn Homes wish to thank you all for the concern, support, finance and many of the services bestowed upon us in this time of transition,” she said.

The hardhat crew at the Cleaborn Homes Demolition included elected and appointed officials, former residents and other community partners.

“We got through it very quick, but it wasn’t easy.”

Yancey lived in Cleaborn Homes for 45 years, raising her children there. Now she’s at the Foote Homes. She thanked all the Cleaborn residents for coming, adding, “I hope that we can see yall again.”

There is no guarantee.

The Rev. Dr. Noel G. L. Hutchinson Jr., the pastor of nearby First Baptist Church, Lauderdale, said that with the condition of the buildings, transition was needed and that he does expect the new development to be a great improvement.

“The bad part about it is that there are a number of people who were here that won’t be back, because as studies have shown with all of these HOPE VI developments, when they are rebuilt some of the residents don’t get a chance to come back and they become dispersed all over city.”

That’s why Hutchinson made sure he had one of the T-shirts that flashed the message declaring that destroying buildings could never destroy the “click” that is Cleaborn Homes.

Young Dean agreed.

“People still are going to have Cleaborn Homes in their heart,” he said.

“We all know everyone from the Cleaborn Homes. We can tell when we see each other, even if for second, you can tell.”

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