MEMPHIS MIDDLE NEIGHBORHOODS: Moving the Needle in the Right Places


By Austin Harrison

For decades now local governments across America have been hesitant to target neighborhood and housing resources into the types of communities that are most common in a city: the middle neighborhood. 

These are areas that are stuck between vibrancy and disinvestment but with enough strategic public investment, the tide could change. Memphis is in a position to lead the country on middle neighborhood interventions; this brief will outline what that could look like and what that would mean for all Memphians.

(Middle suburban neighborhoods dot the Memphis landscape from Zip Codes 38104 to 38126, and reflect diverse demographics. See the map in Figure 2 below.)

Many middle neighborhoods came out of the post-WWII building boom, like this one near Sherwood Forest in Zip Code 38111. (google maps)


In the decades following World War II, when many of Memphis’ urban core neighborhoods were growing rapidly there was a much different economic context. Most importantly, a higher percentage of city residents were earning at middle income levels. As the following shows (Figure 1), since 1970 Memphis, like peer cities St. Louis and Milwaukee, has lost families who make up the 80- 120% of Area Median Income bracket. This loss is particularly felt in neighborhoods closest to Memphis’ urban core and it is within this new economic reality that city leadership needs to operate.

FIGURE 1 | American Community Survey 2013-2017

In our peers, also lie our allies. Memphis is in a similar situation to other post-industrial American cities, and certainly is not the only city confronting this challenge. There is a larger middle neighborhoods movement afoot, taking place across the country. In 2016, Paul Brophy edited and authored a compilation of articles entitled On The Edge: America’s Middle Neighborhoods. The articles lay a framework for how legacy cities are addressing overwhelming needs in a resource-limited environment. The key is to focus public revitalization dollars in areas of the city where private market activities are in reach.


The growing awareness of middle neighborhoods and their subsequent endangerment in urban housing markets across the country is leading to various levels of action. Before outlining the nuances of a middle neighborhood strategy for Memphis, we must apply a very important lesson from the few cities which have implemented similar strategies: it is not easy and it takes time. Difficult decisions will be required. Commitment and focus to a target geography or geographies can oftentimes do more harm than good. 

So what are the components of a meaningful commitment to strengthen our neighborhoods on the edge of disinvestment and viability? Arguably the most important aspect of any real estate related question is location. The map in Figure 2 (below) shows the results of a Housing Market Segmentation Analysis, which is the most widely used tool for identifying potential middle neighborhoods to strengthen and prioritize their revitalization. 

FIGURE 2 | Memphis Housing Market Segmentation Analysis

When interpreting the results for action, it is important to keep in mind that statistical market analysis is only one part of a larger city-wide revitalization strategy. Areas of the city facing greater challenges than middle neighborhoods will require different interventions, such as community stabilization and urban greening, which are not market driven and which may not have a direct impact on housing markets.

Philadelphia has developed a blueprint for making a meaningful commitment to strengthen a city’s middle neighborhoods. In spring of 2017, Councilwoman Cherelle Parker brought forward a resolution “for securing funding to neighborhood organizations, intervention on vacant buildings, changes to Philly rules on Community Development Block Grants and targeting funds to promote racial and income balance” according to a local Philadelphia newspaper. There are numerous other best practices for Memphis to consider but this comprehensive approach is an idea to that gets the conversation started locally.


There are three action items for Memphians who are committed to pushing forward a strategy to preserve and strengthen Memphis’ middle neighborhoods.

1. Housing and community development advocates are working hard to incorporate middle neighborhood principles into various aspects of the city’s larger neighborhood revitalization policy at every level. BLDG Memphis and Frayser CDC are working on the Tipping Point Neighborhood Initiative, the Memphis-Shelby County Office of Planning and Development has baked in middle neighborhood ideals into their Memphis 3.0 plan, and the Blight Elimination Steering Team has had multiple middle neighborhood-related action items.

2. The American Assembly’s Middle Neighborhoods Community of Practice is a national working group made up of community leaders and practitioners working to implement middle neighborhood preservation strategies. Stay in touch with this group’s work and join if you can.

3. The Memphis Property Hub is the foundation of a data-driven approach to community revitalization in Memphis. Sign up (here), learn the program and find the middle neighborhoods near you!  <>

This article appeared in print in the April 2019 Equitable Issue of StoryBoard, on page 7.


Austin Harrison has been in the community development field for over five years. He holds a B.A. from Mercer University and an M.P.A. from the University of Memphis. Harrison formerly served as the Program Manager for Neighborhood Preservation, Inc., a Memphis based non-profit working to remove the systemic barriers to revitalizing neighborhoods.

Brophy, P. (2016).On The Edge: America’s Middle Neighborhoods. New York City, NY. America Assembly:
Columbia University.
Lombardy, P. (2018). What does it take to prioritize and strengthen middle neighborhoods?. Alexandria, VA. czb
Dent, M. (2017, March, 9th). Philly ‘middle neighborhoods’ like Tacony, Mayfair to get City Council hearing. Billy
Penn. Retrieved from
Mallach, A. (2018). The Future Of America’s Middle Neighborhoods: Setting the Stage for Revival. Cambridge, MA.
Lincoln Institute of Land Policy

One Reply to “MEMPHIS MIDDLE NEIGHBORHOODS: Moving the Needle in the Right Places”

  1. There is one really big hole I see in the discussion. Public education is no longer viable in Memphis. But it is in outlying communities. Middle class folks will naturally gravitate to where their children can receive a good public school education. That is not in Memphis. So can a childless middle class residential neighborhood work? Or, can a middle-class neighborhood work long time without viable public education? We’ll see.

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