City of Grit, Part I: An Ugly Problem to Have

Oct 3, 2016

Students arriving at Sheffield Elementary School may smile at the bright flowers growing in the overgrown yard just across the street. But the graffiti also indicates the flowering of violence. One gang has crossed out the tag of a rival group. This, says Janine Heiner Buchanan is an indication of provocation, which causes residents to feel unsafe.
Credit Christopher Blank/WKNO-FM

A beautiful city conjures images of clean streets and well-kept lawns. But there’s also the invisible: beauty’s impact on health, education, safety, and civic pride. In the first installment of our series, “City of Grit,” we look at why it is vital to predict and tackle blight before it starts to spread.

Janine Heiner Buchanan has an eye for spotting trouble. As managing director of Safeways, she advises apartment managers and landlords on safety and quality of life issues. She says she can predict a rise in the crime rate simply by eyeballing the scenery.

One thing she’s learned in this job: if it looks gritty, it attracts grit.

“You can see evidence of dis-investment here,” she says while driving in an area of Memphis called Parkway Village. “People not cutting the grass and parking on the lawn…”

She points to a long wooden fence whose owner has painted over some gang graffiti. It’s a losing battle.

“This sends a message to the whole community and everybody that passes here: If you’re uncomfortable with gangs, then you’re going to be uncomfortable,” Buchanan says.

Blight is a bigger problem than rampant ugliness.

“If you go back to the root word of blight, it means to stop progress,” Buchanan says. “It also frustrates the sense of community by causing people to withdraw.”

Buchanan’s definition is one of many now used to describe an enormous national crisis – one that has grown far more complicated than litter and lawns.

As the City of Memphis’ Director of Code Enforcement, Patrick Dandridge, puts it: “Blight is one of those things you know it when you see it.”

Today’s blight, he says, is a moving target. In the past few years, fighting it has generated new laws, ordinances, and increased cooperation between city and nonprofit groups.

“There’s very little that can happen in this city that cannot be connected to blight,” Dandridge says.

That small pocket of blight in your neighborhood – that one vacant or abandoned house? Now it’s called an indicator. Here’s what new research says about it:

  • Within 500 feet of blight, property values can drop by as much as 7.5 percent.
  • Abandoned houses are fire hazards, and they increase the risk of violent crime in your neighborhood.
  • Blighted properties cause health problems, producing allergens such as ragweed and mold.
  • Tires piled up in vacant lots breed mosquito-born diseases like Zika or West Nile Virus.

This house is representative of many on a block where most of the residents have given up abiding by city codes. Cars are parked on un-mowed lawns and unsightly boards cover broken windows. Several abandoned houses on the same street are depressing property values on the entire block.
Credit Christopher Blank/WKNO-FM

To get ahead of the problem, officials need to know more than just the location of vacant buildings. They need to prevent them from becoming blighted.

Researchers at the University of Memphis’s Fogelman College of Business now are building a computer model that spots blight indicators even sooner than before.

“We are trying to capture information from multiple sources that will give us a holistic perspective into the state of the blight,” says Dr. Naveen Kumar.

Researchers and city officials will soon be able to look up an address and get the full scoop on that house. The computer model pulls together bank information, MLGW bills, crime reports, code violations, even a picture. The model then generates a Blight Score on a scale from 1 to 10.

The score informs the city on how quickly to respond and what it might cost to stave off the problem.

“By applying different analytical methods, we can predict how the future may look like,” Kumar says.

In South Memphis, Buchanan explains why that’s important. She’s seen quiet, pretty neighborhoods transform into far more dangerous places, one blight indicator at a time.

Across the street from Sheffield Elementary, abandoned houses with broken windows and gang graffiti greet children and parents every morning. This lack of order, Buchanan says, leads to blight’s biggest stain on the social fabric of Memphis.

“It is an environment that fosters and facilitates violence in general,” she says. People can avoid blighted areas. But violence travels. This is why activists like Buchanan say citywide beautification is a priority, up there with law and order.

“We want these interventions to occur,” she says. “We’re not just going to drive past this blighted area and say thank god I don’t live here.”

New analytics will soon produce a better picture of how ugliness infects. Researchers also hope to prove that beauty can cure.  

NEXT: City of Grit, Part II. We look at the history of beautification in Memphis alongside the changing face of blight. Can the city recover its reputation as the "Cleanest City in America?" Maybe, but with the right kind of civic engagement.