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Opening of Orange Mound Library greeted with pride and optimism despite tragedies

It’s not really like alumni of Melrose High School need a reason to show up and show out; they kind of do that anyway, and in numbers. But on Friday, a long neglected Melrose High School Building opened its newly renovated hallways as the Orange Mound branch of Memphis Public Libraries.

And so — with an actual reason to show up and show out — Melrose High alumni and Orange Mound residents turned out by the hundreds on Friday to cheer and show their love for their neighborhood — which has been through a lot lately.

The April 20 shootout at a local park that left two dead and seven others injured was still on everyone’s minds. And indeed, even as the celebration at the library unfolded, Memphis Police were responding to another shooting on nearby Barron Ave in Orange Mound. How does the saying go? “It was the best of times and the worst of times . . .”

But let’s stick with the optimism and hope that was palpable at a building that had set dormant since 1979. While only the first floor is open now, continuing renovations on upper floors will eventually open up an assisted living facility for seniors — a perfect complement to both the library itself and the nearby Orange Mound Community Center.

The Historic Melrose School Revitalization project has secured a $17.25 million budget for Phases 1 and 2, focusing on preservation and the new Orange Mound Library. Phase 3, which will add residential units, is currently in pre-development. Funding for the project includes $10 million from Accelerate Memphis, $4.15 million from a Community Development Block Grant, $2.1 million from the City’s Capital Improvement Program, and $1 million from a federal grant championed by Congressman Steve Cohen. An additional $2 million from the federal grant is earmarked for Phase 3.

More than just books, too. There’s also a slick genealogy center, aimed at empowering people to trace the steps of their ancestors:

Wearing school colors, Golden Wildcats of all generations crowded in and around the tent that often felt more like a old fashioned revival than a ribbon-cutting. As it turns out, “revival” is indeed the perfect word. That’s what Mayor Paul Young wants the project to kick off.

“Certainly over the past week, we’ve seen some tragic events unfold,” Young said before the celebration. “This is a time of healing for this community and it’s great to see a bright spot that’s focused on the next generation of Orange Mound residents. It’s absolutely going to be a hub for this community.”

I was wise enough to prop up my phone to livestream the ceremony; I was NOT wise enough to fully charge my phone and/or have a backup battery handy. Meaning, I only caught the first 20 minutes of the program.

But with the opening prayer and a performance by the Melrose High Singers — not to mention a crowd of Melrose alums with a REASON to shout — you’ll see what I mean when I say it felt like a revival:

Events like the opening of a library, the sound doesn’t carry the way semi-automatic gunfire does. A library won’t unfire any bullets. But as Young said in his remarks, “You can’t tell them to put the guns down and not give them something else to do.”

From its very origins, Orange Mound was built on resilience, on bouncing back, on turning adversity to advantage. No, a library won’t unfire any bullets — but it might just keep a few more kids from picking up a gun in the first place.

That won’t make any noise . . . but if the people of Orange Mound have anything to do with it, it WILL certainly resonate.

Fun Facts (Courtesy of City of Memphis):

    • This building was originally constructed for $137,000 in 1938 using funding from The New Deal under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
    • The original width of the first-floor corridor has been maintained.
    • The new light fixtures in the main corridor are replicas of the original school fixtures.
    • The new windows were made by the same company that did the windows for Crosstown Concourse.
    • The interior color scheme is based on the official school colors of Melrose High School – maroon and gold.
    • The accent walls with orange stripes were inspired by the Osage orange trees that once dotted the area and from which the neighborhood gets its name.
    • There had never been a branch library of the Memphis Public Libraries in the Orange Mound neighborhood – until now.

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