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OP-ED: A SouslvilleUSA strategy for crime reduction

by Jeffrey T. Higgs —

As crime and the perception of crime explodes around our city, I am drawn to facts and theories I have developed over the years regarding crime, its causes and how best to reduce it.

Contrary to what you hear, crime has been reduced in our city, especially in areas where urban community economic development (UCED) has occurred and is led by community-engaged leaders, CDCs, nonprofits and churches, all working together to ensure our communities are safe places to live, work and play.

One such community is SoulsvilleUSA.

When we started this journey in 1999, community leaders like Marlon Foster, Andy Cates, Reginald Milton, Robert Lipscomb, Deannie Parker and others collaborated with LeMoyne-Owen College and Metropolitan Baptist Church, to create a place where residents felt safe, families could thrive, children could learn, and all were welcomed.

What we knew then was we were working on “holy ground.”

Dedicated community organizations such as LeMoyne-Owen and its 160 years of educating young people; STAX Records and its historic creation of the “music of our lives” that represented an era of progress for Black people; Metropolitan Baptist Church, where Dr. King would meet and strategize; the intersection of Mississippi Boulevard and Walker Avenue, where Ida B. Wells and Peeples Grocery stood as a testament to Black business success, and the world-famous Four Way Grill were all founded on this historical ground.

In this community, Al Green and Hi Records produced some of the greatest music of our time and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his final speech at the historic Mason Temple.

How, then, does this history relate to crime reduction in our community?

Our collective belief is that the best way to reduce crime is to create equal economic development opportunities.

We know that a working person is less likely to commit a crime than a person who lives in poverty with no prospects of attaining sustainable income.

Moreover, a house that has a family living in it is not one that is blighted; clean streets create pride in the community.

Educated residents know how to call code enforcement and report crimes, and an informed community is a community that values itself and its neighbors.

Simply stated, the roots of crime are poverty, blight, neglect and lack of educational opportunities.

We do not have to live this way.

Crime and violence, then, are a result of our environment and how we train our children, how we treat our citizens and how we respect our neighbors.

The Bible speaks eloquently about loving thy neighbor as thyself. Violence, crime, and gun abuse are destroying our families and communities.

We must fight the elements of violence mentioned above. We do this simply by creating places that are livable and inviting.

It is our responsibility, as the adults, to create and show our youth the right pathways to success. No community wants violence and crime permeating the mindsets and behavior of its citizens.

We must fight these evils with aggressive policies and funding that assist communities in this work. Programs that are effective are needed to help in the fight for crime and violence reduction.

SoulsvilleUSA has taken steps to move in this direction. We recently collaborated with residents and created a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District for South Memphis/SoulsvilleUSA that was a result of hundreds of residents working together for a common goal.

The ongoing effort of the SoulsvilleUSA Neighborhoods Development District to secure a TIF (tax-increment financing) designation for South Memphis led to this December 2021 gathering. (Photos: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/The New Tri-State Defender Archives)

We believe, as a community, we are headed in the right direction. We are incorporating lessons learned from other thriving communities that have achieved success and applying them in our own neighborhoods.

We will revitalize our community using all the tools available in the toolbox.

As we enact this revitalization, our communities, hopefully, will begin to turn on the “lights of hope.”

We then can educate, inform, engage and revitalize all areas of our community, creating jobs for residents, removing blight and replacing it with positivity and hope.

While we cannot promise a “chicken in every pot,” we can promise we will work to create healthy, open inviting spaces, where crime has no place to hide.

Our dedication to this impactful work will provide jobs to those willing to work, create innovative educational technology and workforce training opportunity for those desiring to learn new skills and bring their skillsets back to the community.

These opportunities will be for those who would rather work than rob, cheat, or steal from their neighbor.

We are our neighbors’ keeper, and we will work to revitalize our community, thus bringing everyone along with opportunities to become engaged in the process of this revitalization movement.

Please plan to walk with us at 10 a.m. April 9, starting and ending at the corner of Walker Ave. and Dr. Hollis F Price Boulevard (Metropolitan Baptist Church), as the Memphis Crime Commission, FFUN- Stop the Killing, Memphis Police Department, City of Memphis, community partners, students, residents and your neighbors walk through SoulsvilleUSA and College Park to bring awareness to gun violence in our community.

Registration begins at 9 a.m. Resource partners will be available to provide private services and assistance for residents, as well as answers and connections for the community’s needs.

(Jeffrey T. Higgs is an executive committee member of the Memphis and Shelby County Crime Commission, a founding member of the SoulsvilleUSA Neighborhoods Development District, and CEO of LeMoyne-Owen College CDC and has worked since 1999 on revitalizing communities and creating economic development opportunities for residents of Memphis.)

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