Tucked inside a few quiet blocks on the border between Midtown and the Medical District sits the remnants of the Washington Bottoms Community Park and Gardens.
Google satellite images of the site at North Watkins and Court streets still show raised beds, planted rows, seating, equipment, colorful signs and people working and relaxing, but it’s been years since there was life on the land.
In 2016, property owner Tennessee Health Management uprooted the garden and fenced the land.
The garden’s founders, members of Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality or H.O.P.E., speculated at the time that THM intended to sell the land to Kroger, but THM cited safety and security concerns.
THM’s 1.7-acre lot sits at the corner of 18-plus additional acres of undeveloped land which Kroger purchased in 2015, but community members’ frustrations with the vast, vacant field started long before that acquisition.
Since the early 2000s, residents in the homes and apartments surrounding the land have watched the parcels switch hands and seen promises like the Midtown Memphis Planned Development and rumors like the long-fabled Midtown Target come and go.
Meanwhile, the vacant field has been a fixture. Residents say the grass is often overgrown, and it encourages bugs, rodents, animal waste and illegal dumping.
“It isn’t [fully] enclosed so sometimes we see homeless people sleeping or people walking their dogs,” said resident Elizabeth Woodcock. “But more often than that, we see people dumping their trash there all the time. And there are many soiled mattresses lying around.”
Woodcock said she wishes the property owners were more responsive to what’s happening on their land in terms of its condition and the community’s needs.
“Having a place where the community can gather is valuable,” she said. “Since the garden’s gone, we’d at least like to see a dog park or something. But it shouldn’t be a place to dump your trash or a mattress depository.”
Residents have also expressed frustration that the garden was removed when there is seemingly no intended alternative purpose for the property and wonder if and when a plan for the entire area will finally take shape.
Kroger told High Ground their portion of the property is for sale again. THM did not respond to requests for comment.
Garden of H.O.P.E.
THM’s land was purchased by Court Manor in 1984 for Court Manor Nursing Home, which is now a subsidiary of THM. Its derelict buildings were demolished around 2010 and the H.O.P.E. crew began using the land a few years later.
The group was founded in 2012 with support from the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center and advocates for people currently or formerly experiencing homelessness.
For its members, the Washington Bottoms Community Park and Garden was more than a garden. It became a tool to bridge the divides that separate the housed from the unhoused.
It was a great spot for cookouts and special events and a place for the entire community to come together. H.O.P.E. maintained a small free library at the garden, had a projector to show movies and did activities with neighborhood kids on Halloween.
“It was a really, really good community resource,” said Tamara Hendrix, H.O.P.E.’s organizing coordinator.
“The children could come over and plant things. They learned how to plant vegetables and take them home. A lot of them thought that vegetables and fruits came from grocery stores until we showed them how to grow them.”
“I’m still mad that this happened in the first place,” said Dale Smith, a former Washington Bottoms resident who used to take his younger siblings to the garden events and activities hosted by H.O.P.E..
“This was another way to keep these kids off the street and out of trouble,” said Smith. “We weren’t hurting anybody. The garden was a good thing.”
H.O.P.E. and other garden advocates launched a petition to persuade THM to let the group stay, but the bid was unsuccessful.
Members of the garden crew said they also met with Kroger to discuss a possible land-use license if Kroger did purchase the property, but in a 2016 Memphis Flyer article, Kroger denied knowledge of the meeting and interest in THM’s two parcels.
High Ground asked Kroger if they were currently open to working with residents or community groups to purchase, lease or utilizing a portion of the land for public benefit like a small park or community garden. Spokesperson Teresa Dickerson said that with the property available for purchase again, Kroger is willing to speak with any interested buyer.
Rumors and promises
In 2007, Florida-based WSG Development Company purchased 76 parcels of the now-vacant property for just under $11.5 million. At the time, there were still several aging homes and apartment buildings dotting the land, which they and subsequent owners removed.
By 2008, WSG had amassed more than 90 lots and parcels.
That year, the Memphis and Shelby County Division of Planning & Development approved WSG’s proposed site plan for the Midtown Memphis Planned Development.
The plan outlined a 27-acre development with a 135,000-square-foot anchor store and smaller retail spaces, as well as residential units.
WSG’s hope was a mixed-use destination location in the city center, but the economic recession stalled the project and WSG eventually defaulted on their loan with Lehman Brothers Holdings.
TN Poplar Avenue LLC purchased the property in 2010 for $3.15 million. In 2013, they sought approval from the Land Use Control Board for a five-year extension on the Midtown Memphis Planned Development, siting the financial crisis for slow progress. The LUCB approved the extension with the caveat that the city could use some of the land for a new fire station and drainage basin.
But like WSG, TN Poplar Avenue was unable to manifest the expansive redevelopment project and sold the land to Kroger in April 2015 for $3.9 million.
At the time of the purchase, Dickerson stated that Kroger was excited about the potential growth of Crosstown Concourse and saw the purchase as an investment in the area.
Many residents speculated at the time and still today that Kroger bought the land to avoid competition with another grocer or big box retailer, specifically a rumored Midtown Target.
“My understanding is that Kroger is just going to sit on this property,” said Candice Hawkinson, an area resident since 2006. “They have a deal with the city to maintain it. They don’t want another food store in there to bring in competition.”
“Target was interested in buying it, but with the Kroger on Cleveland being across the street it would be direct competition for them, so Kroger would not sell the land,” said Woodcock.
A New Hope
Hendrix said that the H.O.P.E. garden has a new home.
“We have a fresh start,” she said. “We have a new property on Angelus Street next to Poplar Avenue and near the Cash Saver store on Madison Street. We started working on it last month.”
In addition to resurrecting the garden, H.O.P.E. is busy with outreach and plans for the future.
“We have meetings on Wednesdays at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral Church where we feed the homeless,” said Hendrix.
While the future of the Washington Bottoms properties is still undecided, H.O.P.E. is hopeful about their next steps.
“We grew greens, cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, watermelon and other things. Everybody said that we had the best watermelon they ever had. They stopped going to Kroger and only came to us for watermelons,” Hendrix said of the former H.O.P.E. garden.
“We’re going to continue our legacy.”