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Five Points has been languishing for years. Why hasn't anybody done something?

by Joe Tarr

There are a lot of things that catch your eye when you cruise down Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue through the Five Points neighborhood. There are decrepit brick buildings that once housed corner shops and restaurants, but have been vacant for years. Or the wide open concrete lot where Cas Walker's grocery store once stood. The street corners where young men loiter. If you're white, maybe it's that all those loiterers are black.

What Steve worries about—when he sees two white guys from Metro Pulse snapping photographs along the road—is all the garbage. He grabs a brown trash bag and starts frantically tossing shredded plastic, soda cans and scraps of paper from the curb inside the bag. It would take him days to collect it all, but he grabs what he can. "What are you taking pictures of garbage for?" he demands.

This cracked space of blacktop—which most of Knoxville has little use for—is where Steve does business. It's out here among the drunks and drug dealers, where the cars from Hamblen and Jefferson counties come cruising for dope on weekends, that Steve sells T-shirts, sweaters, down jackets and sneakers out of the back of his white van. It's not the most lucrative commercial enterprise, but he makes some money doing it (he also has a night job). And he sees it as a service to the community—providing both consumer goods in a neighborhood where no one else will and an example that it's possible to beat drug and alcohol addiction.

"I think the perception [of Five Points] is warranted," says Steve, who didn't want to give his last name. "You're in the inner city. People ain't able to get jobs, so they do what they've got to do to get money. They use drugs and drink. Some people ain't allowed to drive to get their prescriptions, so they go to the dope man.

"There ain't no money being spent here. They did that thing with the lights down [the block] seven or eight years ago, but that's it. I'm sure there's people who could identify a solution to the problem."

Residents have been looking for a solution to Five Points for some three decades. Aside from a $7.5 million reconfiguring of streets in 1992 and a Dollar General store aided by government subsidy, little has happened in the neighborhood.

Plenty of people are jaded, but not everyone has given up. They insist Five Points could become a model of new urbanism—a traditional mixed-income neighborhood surrounding a commercial center of shops, restaurants and offices. Plans are underway for a plaza on the very concrete where Steve does business. Anchored by a soul-food restaurant, the plaza would also include offices, smaller shops and a business incubator. There's also talk of bringing in a small grocery store.

"If you drive through Five Points, it reminds me of an egg that's been incubating. It's almost time to hatch," says Zimbabwe Matavou, president of the Black Business/Contractors Association. "You can see pressure on the shell. You can see these impromptu businesses—people selling [clothes and CDs] out of their cars. There's a spirit there. Five Points has potential."

But people have heard this kind of talk before. Will Five Points get past the dreaming stage this time?

Five Points gets its name from the intersection of four streets—Ben Hur, Olive, McCalla, Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue (which used to be called Vine). One of the points was taken out by the reconfiguring in 1992, but the name has come to represent the larger neighborhood that stretches along MLK from North Kyle Street to South Cherry Street, and reaches out to Plymouth and South Olive streets.

KCDC, Knoxville's housing authority, has drawn up a Five Points Comprehensive Redevelopment Plan, which was approved by City Council in January 2000. It isn't a plan that explains how to redevelop Five Points, but it details every piece of property in the neighborhood, and outlines what residents want to see happen there.

The neighborhood includes about 9,500 residents, 36.9 percent of whom live in poverty. The unemployment rate is 14.6 percent. The plan identified 54 homes that are in need of major repair or demolition.

The numbers don't give much of a clear idea of what the place is like, though. Many residents can't help measuring the present against the past. When James West moved into a house on Ben Hur in 1950, there was plenty here. "We had restaurants, a fish market, a dry cleaning establishment, and all kinds of businesses," he says. "It was just a thriving area."

Latanya Terrell lives down the street from the Wests in the same house she grew up in with her brother and two sisters. She was in the first grade when Walter P. Taylor Homes was built. "It was nothing for us to play to 11 o'clock at night up and down the streets in the summer. We didn't even think about locking our doors."

Today, she won't get out of her car if she sees someone she doesn't know on the street. "The older I get, the more cautious I am," says Terrell, who works at the Oak Ridge Credit Union. "At some point in the next few years, I'd like to move—to something I could just open the garage door and go right in."

There's no clear consensus on when Five Points took the turn for the worse. Some people say the construction of Walter P. Taylor Homes was the beginning. Others say it was the Urban Renewal programs in the late '60s and early '70s—which displaced hundreds of black families and businesses in the eastern quarter of downtown, and the Morningside and Mountain View neighborhoods. Justified in the name of slum clearing and road building, homes and businesses were leveled en masse.

"I saw a commercial area completely destroyed and there's been no effort yet to bring it back," Matavou says of the '60s programs. "Urban Renewal was the worst thing to happen to black folk in Knoxville since slavery. That's how bad Urban Renewal was."

Mayor Victor Ashe agrees: "I think you can date all this back to the late '50s when a decision was made to destroy all the commercial area around what is now the James White Parkway. That was a flourishing, successful business sector that was primarily African American. If I could repeal anything from the last 50 years, that along with the location of Neyland Drive would be it."

Many of these displaced families moved farther east, triggering a white flight from the area, Matavou says.

"Five Points became exclusively surrounded by the African American community. Whites moved north and west. But the businesses in Five Points remained white owned," he says.

Ironically, neighborhood integration elsewhere compounded Five Points' problems, says Dennie Littlejohn, an activist and member of the Neighborhood Housing and Commercial Services.

"Not that integration is a bad thing. But before [black people] were able to live in Farragut or wherever, there was no place else to go," he says.

When white neighborhoods slowly began accepting middle- and upper-class blacks, many of those more fortunate families left the traditional black neighborhoods, Littlejohn says, and those neighborhoods became predominantly poor. And then many of the remaining businesses closed, taking even more jobs with them.

The final blow was the crack epidemic of the '80s. "There was still life here in the early '70s," Littlejohn says. "But by the '80s, people were moving. Black people who could afford to get out did. The only white people left were the ones who couldn't afford to move."

"It's bottomed out. It can't get any worse. You're starting to see people take better care of their houses. You're starting to see people trying to get businesses started. The thugs aren't as obvious as they were."

The crime rate has dropped significantly in the past four years. In 1997, there were 755 felony offenses reported here, compared to 435 in 2000—a 42 percent decrease, according to the Knoxville Police Department.

Chief Phil Keith attributes the decline to more cooperation between police and residents—which led to a bigger police presence and walking beats. "You hate to say you've turned a corner," Keith says. "But I think it's better."

Both West and Terrell say they've noticed improvements in recent years. "It's not as bad as it was. It really never was that bad," West says.

John Davis was about to be relocated for his job in the mid-'80s. He and his future wife were cruising around Knoxville. Driving through Walter P. Taylor Homes, they came across a vacant building. "We said, 'That'd be a great place for a little store.'"

Although everyone tried to talk them out of it, Davis and his future wife took a chance and opened a convenience store there. "It boomed. It was really successful. From the beginning, people were so grateful to have someone serve them. They'd been ignored for so long," says the Maryville native. "These people have the same needs as everyone else."

Davis and his wife opened a second store in the heart of Five Points, at the corner of MLK and Ben Hur in 1993. In 1998, they opened a third on Brooks Road. It's one of the few success stories in Five Points. "They're good people," Davis says of his customers. "You know 90 percent of the people who come into the store."

"I have my kids down here. In the summertime, you can find them out back playing. I'll fly a kite with them out back. I wouldn't put them in an unsafe environment."

Although there are drug dealers down the street, Davis says everyone respects each other's space. "I walk a thin line. The love of my life is sitting on the floor in there," he says, referring to his daughters. "I'm not Marshall Dillon. I'm not going to intimidate anyone. As long as I respect them, they respect me."

Across the street from the Express Mart is Hobby's Paint and Body Shop, which has been here since 1963. Don Hobby says there's no magic to making a business work in Five Points. "It's a good neighborhood, a good community. Any businessman if he's not a redneck or stupid can make a living here. You've got to get the support of the community," he says. "I'd go up there and sleep in the middle of the road at night. This community loves me. But I built that relationship—I didn't demand it.

"The years I've been here, I've seen people come out here and be arrogant and hateful and cheat these people. If you do that, you don't stay," he says.

The most noted arrival in Five Points is the Dollar General store at McCalla and MLK. After four years of business, the store is not yet self-sufficient, and KCDC gives some operational assistance, says Alvin Nance, KCDC's chief executive officer. The store serves as a job training ground, says manager Angie Keith. Business is doing better.

"At first, a lot of people did not want to shop at this store because of the area. Now, we get people from all over," Keith says. "People didn't even expect the store to last six months because of the area. They expected robberies, which we've never had. We've only had one break-in, which wasn't extensive."

The store gets a lot of business from Walter P. Taylor Homes across the street. KCDC is considering adding more coolers, in order to stock perishable and frozen foods.

Over on the old Cas Walker site, Steve says he's here not just to make money. "It's a little bit more than coming down here selling, raping the community, and going back home....I try to provide some service for the community. Somebody will pull up with seven kids in their car, I'll give them shoes. A lot of people don't have money to pay someone to take them to West Town. If they do, they don't have money to buy stuff once they're there. That could lead them to steal."

He also will give some of the stragglers a few dollars for helping him set up and pack up. Today, a man named Clyde is helping him. Slurring his words, he's a little drunk, but he says he no longer uses drugs. His mood swings from slightly belligerent to playful. "Five Points is not what it used to be because there's no togetherness in the community," he yells. "Put understanding together with unity, then you've got community."

Frank Hodges is a landlord, not a philosopher. But he doesn't see anything complicated to what Five Points needs. "I don't have any idea, other than money. It takes money to get something going, and when people don't have it, it creates problems," says Hodges, who owns several rental properties in the neighborhood. "Lack of money makes people lie, cheat and steal. A lack of money means a lack of education. Everything leads back to finances."

But how to go about getting some money into Five Points is a question no one's been able to answer yet.

One group that has been trying to figure it out for more than 10 years is the Neighborhood Housing and Commercial Services (NHCS). Supported over the years by the city, donations, fund-raisers and grants, the group has concentrated on providing home-improvement and ownership loans. Attempts to attract commercial development have been less successful. Although it's had two directors and a staff in the past, the group ran low on funds about 2-1/2 years ago, and now there are no paid staff members. The group owns seven vacant lots, which it hopes to develop for commercial or residential use. It's considering renting a building at MLK and Ben Hur to Alice Andrews, who wants to open a performing arts school where she'll teach dance, piano, and tap dancing.

NHCS worked with KCDC in drafting the redevelopment plan. Passed in January 2000, little has happened with the plan since then.

Nance says City Council approved the concept, but no money. "Typically what happens is once Council has approved a plan, it pretty much sits on a shelf until Council decides to fund it. Nothing has happened with it since then," he says. "I think the plan we've got now is good. It identified boundaries, vacant lots, and the properties that need to be redeveloped or demolished.

"[Council] has got to fund redevelopment. We can't go out and start acquiring property until then," he adds.

At an NHCS board meeting last week, president Pat Crippins expressed both frustration at how little has happened, and hope that something finally might take off. "Right now is the time. We've been sitting around this table for too long without anything happening," she says. "I'm glad to see people looking this way again. Because it was almost like they took a [180 degree] turn away from us after the plan passed."

Their hope has been re-ignited in part because of a City Council with five new members. Mark Brown, the freshman councilman who represents Five Points, has promised to make development here a top priority. "In the late '80s and early '90s there was a big push to get Five Points done. A lot of those resources dwindled away. People moved on," he says. "People have been trying and trying for years, and it's tough to get something going....But let's get Five Points on track, let's get it started.

"We have to continue to dream. Sometimes it's hard to do. Failure will do it to you," he adds.

Right now, there are roughly two philosophies on how to go about rejuvenating the neighborhood. One camp argues that it's best to focus on housing development and let commercial follow—an approach that KCDC has applied to Mechanicsville with its Hope VI project. The other is that commercial development is essential for neighborhood redevelopment.

"It's a chicken-or-the-egg thing—what comes first, the businesses and then the area cleans itself up, or the area cleans itself up to attract businesses?" Davis says.

KCDC's Nance believes focusing on residential development is the way to go. "I've always felt stronger about residential development. I don't see the commercial driving residential, I see residential driving commercial. If all the property gets used for residential—so be it. But in the meantime, you've created a strong community and you've put property back on the tax rolls," Nance says. "There's more resources available to do residential in this city right now. Banks have a warmer, fuzzier feeling about doing residential than about doing commercial."

Those at the NHCS disagree. "It's been said, 'Why reinvent the wheel—why not do what Mechanicsville's done and concentrate on residential?' We have the residents. NHCS has been involved in that from the start. What we need is jobs. We need commercial development," says Ronald Wade.

Wade's company—Twenty-Two-Fifteen Corp.—is working with NHCS to develop a plaza on the old Cas Walker site. It'll be anchored by a soul-food restaurant, which would include three conference rooms. The restaurant would be operated by one of the major soul food restaurants in the South, although nothing has been finalized. Wade says they have secured several private investors, but he would not name them.

"You can go to any city in the United States and find a good soul-food restaurant. We don't have one here now," Wade says. The structure would also include space for offices and smaller shops, as well as a business incubator where budding entrepreneurs could run a business for a few months before finding their own location.

Twenty-Two-Fifteen would later like to bring in a small grocery, perhaps across MLK from the restaurant.

A grocery store has been a long-term goal of the neighborhood. Like nearly every other goal, it has proved elusive. Nance says it makes more sense to put a grocery store on Magnolia, which gets much more traffic. "Does a small grocer work [at Five Points]? Yeah, but can you convince a small grocer to come in there?" Nance says. "I'm really not certain what you can lure to the Five Points area."

But there is hope. The Partnership for Neighborhood Improvement and the Knoxville Area Chamber Partnership are paying for a marketing study for the Five Points region. Due in early February, the study will identify what type of grocery could work and recommend various options, says Terrence Carter, executive director of PNI.

The consultant—Keith Wicks of Minneapolis—says a number of inner-city neighborhoods have been able to attract grocery stores. "The success varies. It varies depending on the ownership and operation. It also varies depending on the overall character. A freestanding store will typically struggle, more so than a shopping center. If the architecture is overdone, where it becomes more for beautification than function, that can be a barrier [to success]."

Although he has just started looking at the neighborhood, Wicks thinks a small grocery could work there. Figuring out what kind is the trick. There are about 9,000 to 10,000 people in the immediate vicinity. Wicks will examine the possibilities for a conventional small grocery and a discount store as well as some kind of hybrid. "I think it could be competitive with the chains that people are forced to drive out to," he says.

Carter says this type of project would certainly qualify for brownfield redevelopment and Empowerment Zone funding. He wouldn't speculate on how much money might be available. There's now about $12.3 million in EZ funds that is yet to be appropriated. "I couldn't possibly say how much out of that money would be one, necessary, for any Five Points projects, or two, approved by the board," Carter says.

Although everyone thinks it would be great for the neighborhood, Davis is worried he'll get put out of business because of it. "I will not drive by here in 10 years with my daughters and point to a major development and say, 'Remember when we used to run a store there?'" he says. "We will not be kicked out. We've paid our dues."

Others seem to recognize that, and want to include him in any plans. "[Davis] has been there for a while, he's made a commitment to the area—he needs to be included," Brown says.

The excitement is growing once again in Five Points, but it'll take a lot more than studies to convince people.

"This is an old, old, old, old endeavor," Matavou says. "This is the third administration we've been dealing with. We were dealing with it when Tyree was mayor.

"Part of the problem was we did not have inside city government an advocater for our position. Everyone knows you need to know someone. The mayor may be receptive to our ideas. But when we're not there, there's no one to show him how it could be done."

Matavou's group—the Black Business/ Contractors Association—filed a discrimination complaint against PNI for the way it administered EZ funds, awarding money to brownfields projects but not Five Points. That complaint has not yet been resolved.

Matavou would like City Council to approve various incentives—tax credits, breaks, etc.—for any development that happens in the Five Points area. They're also looking for a bank that doesn't have an East Knoxville presence to open a branch there.

Mostly, advocates would like the city and PNI to make Five Points a priority. "Five Points has preceded most development efforts that have taken place in Knoxville, and it has continually been left off the burner," he says. "When it's been gotten on the burner, it's been left on the back burner. We're having trouble scooting it up."

Even the mayor is upset that more hasn't happened here. "I'll be the first to tell you it's frustrating. There's no magic wand to wave," Ashe says. But he adds that the city has done what it can. "We didn't have the market interest in Five Points. The government cannot force something to happen. I can't direct Kroger to put a store in there."

With the state looking at siphoning sales-tax revenue off of the cities, he's skeptical that there'll be money to do much of anything. "I hope with Councilman Brown's youth and energy, we'll be able to get something started," he adds.

Those who stand to benefit most from redevelopment are the most jaded of all. Steve has learned his own hard lessons in life. Out of jail for 18 months, he's been off of drugs and alcohol for about seven years.

Asked if he'd someday like to have a store here, he says, "I probably couldn't afford it."

Looking around these street corners, you wonder if Knoxville can afford not to invest in this place.

January 17, 2002 * Vol. 12, No. 3
© 2002 Metro Pulse