Feature image: A Craftsman Bungalow-style home with ornate spiral pillars in Vollintine-Evergreen. VECA is seeking a landmarks designation for the V&E area to preserve its historic aesthetic. (Cole Bradley)
By Ashley Davis, for High Ground News
Neighbors in the Vollintine-Evergreen neighborhood are fighting to preserve their community’s unique architectural history.
In the last couple of years, there’s been a surge in development in nearby areas like Overton Square, Crosstown, and the Medical District.
V&E residents said they’re not opposed to change but they want a say in it.
“It makes a statement about what we love about our neighborhood. We love the design of it,” said resident Suzanne Askew. “We like the various street sizes, the sidewalks, and the trees. In order to keep that same community spirit, we need [a] landmarks designation.”
The Vollintine-Evergreen Community Association is pursuing an official designation from the Memphis Landmarks Commission as a historic preservation district.
The designation will help residents protect current look and feel in the areas east-west from University to Watkins streets and north-south from Cypress Creek to North Parkway.
The majority of the houses in V&E were built between 1920 and 1950 in Craftsman Bungalow, English Tudor, and Colonial styles. Askew has lived in V & E for 14-plus years in a 100-year-old Tudor.
From 1997 to 2007, VECA members ensured most of the neighborhood was listed on the national register of historic places, but inclusion on the national register does not prevent demolition or put any limits on property owners unless they’re seeking federal development dollars. Even then, the community has little say in final decisions.
“I really honestly thought that being designated on the historic national register would protect us,” said Renate Rosenthal, who has lived in the same house in the neighborhood since 1975 and serves on the landmarks committee for VECA.
“Landmark designation gets us one step closer to being informed if changes are proposed that don’t fit with the historic nature of the neighborhood,” she continued.
Natasha Strong is a longtime resident and chairperson for the VECA committee working to secure the designation. She also serves on the Memphis Landmarks Commission. She said
most people are attracted to V&E for its architecture.
“We look at landmark designation as a neighborhood tool in the toolbox,” said Strong. “If you have landmark designation when things happen—whether its demolition or new construction—the neighborhood is required to be informed ahead of time and not when something is done and it’s too late.”
Andy Kitsinger is principal of a local planning, design & community development agency, The Development Studio. He’s also a consultant for VECA’s landmarks designation process.
He said it’s important for residents to be involved in their neighborhood’s planning process, but many communities don’t pursue the designation because they don’t know it’s an option.
“Landmark designation status is a great way to have more participation by residents in the process,” said Kitsinger.
In 2017, V&E residents started looking towards a City of Memphis landmark designation when they saw an increase in residential and commercial development in and around the neighborhood but weren’t always able to provide formal input before developers broke ground.
A new building’s design is largely decided by its developer.
Consider the dozen new apartment complexes on and around the Highland Strip. Their boxy build, sharp lines, blocks of color, and flat facades are becoming more common across the city.
This “fast-casual architecture” can clash with existing homes and buildings and change the look and feel of established neighborhoods.
Each of the city’s 16 historic preservation districts has its own set of design guidelines that its residents developed and use to govern demolition, new construction, and rehabilitation of residential properties. The guidelines apply to residential property, including apartment buildings, and sometimes include commercial properties.
The typically guidelines govern visible structures and facades like home additions, garages, fences, window styles, sidewalks, and paint colors.
If a builder or an individual homeowner wants to build, demolish, or make a big change, they have to seek approval from the landmarks committee. If their plan doesn’t meet the community’s design standards, they have to seek an exception.
The community gets a chance to weigh in on each application. Their guidelines aren’t fully binding, but the landmarks committee gives substantial weight to their recommendations.
PRESERVING HISTORY, EMBRACING CHANGE
Organizing for community improvement isn’t new to V&E.
In 1980, MIFA commissioned a complete neighborhood history. Entitled “Vollintine Evergreen: A Diverse Community,” it notes that V&E residents were part of the city’s first formally recognized civic club, the Evergreen Club. It formed in 1909.
By 1934, its residents and clubs claimed responsibility for recruiting Snowden School, the Memphis Zoo, and Vollintine School to the area. They raised funds for a playground, got the city to install sidewalks on Jackson and Vollintine avenues, and hosted an annual community picnic.
There are seven smaller neighborhoods in V&E, each with its own character and style. Steve Gadbois joined VECA in the 1980s. He said V&E became a truly unified community in the early 1970s, primarily to fight discriminatory housing practices like redlining.
Related: “Seeing Red: Mapping 90 years of redlining in Memphis”
“We’ve always been proud of the fact that the Vollintine-Evergreen neighborhood matches the city of Memphis,” said Gadbois, who moved into the area in 1986. “Whether its socioeconomic status, background, race or age—we’ve got it all.”
The MIFA history tells a more complex story of race and community development.
In the 1930s, residents actually “defeated movement to erect a Negro College” in the neighborhood.
Then in the late 1960s, a group of local faith leaders came together to discuss their dwindling congregations. After the 1964 Fair Housing Act abolished race-based housing discrimination, white V&E residents begin leaving the neighborhood. White residents feared an all-black neighborhood and were moving out fast.
The faith leaders wanted to stabilize the exodus and intentionally grow a more diverse community. They formed VECA to calm and educate existing white neighbors while including new black neighbors in the community’s continued growth.
The launched a neighborhood publication to dispel race-based myths and rumors and help white residents get to know their new neighbors who, like them, were primarily professionals with the same concerns for their families and community.
When schools were desegregated, VECA worked with white parents to accept and support the decision and remain in the neighborhood.
When real estate agents began blockbusting in the area, VECA wrote to the Attorney General, sent desist letters to the real estate companies, and warned residents in their publication. They got one agent fired and protected their members when a second threatened to sue.
The MIFA history quoted one VECA organizer to say: “We were trying to educate [whites] not to panic, not to sell unless you have to.”
It should be noted that the MIFA history was part of a series that included few black authors or sources.
Gadbois says the neighborhood wants to preserve its historical aesthetic character while also keeping the diversity of its community intact.
“We’re a very representative neighborhood that needs to stick together for the good of everybody,” he added.
Ashley Foxx Davis is an author, educator, artist and Memphis native. She’s been featured in Glamour, Ebony, and Essence magazines; Blackenterprise.com; TheRoot.com; and BET.com. Find her at kifanipress.com.