By Mark Fleischer
“It’s like they just walked out. Like the rapture came and they just left.”
Beth Flanagan, a NPI consultant and registered lobbyist, shared her astonishment over the sights around each corner of empty Northside High School, as the NPI team toured the site of this year’s Neighborhood Preservation Summit (to be held Friday, May 1).
Flanagan’s was a sentiment shared by many on the walk-through last week, a tour filled with oohs and aahs and wows from the small group at every turn around the abandoned high school.
Located right off the I-69 at Vollintine Ave. in North Memphis, a short five-minute drive from downtown, the scale and symmetry of the school is striking. Built in 1967 to accommodate 1,200 students, its main campus building has the feel in places like a civic commons, with dramatic and airy spaces, courtyard views, a large auditorium, and a huge gym. Empty since the closure of the high school at the end of the 2016 school year, the tour and the upcoming Preservation Summit are opportunities to explore a possible future for the school, for private use or as a hub for the surrounding community.
* * * *
“This is a great example of a building in the middle of a community that has potential,” said NPI President Steve Barlow. “We don’t know what it is, but I think people coming here and seeing it can catch a vision.”
Possible futures for the sight has been envisioned as community campuses and incubators for local entrepreneurs and artists. Nothing is yet set in stone, but hope prevails. As a venue for this year’s Summit, the space itself is stunning, and it is not difficult to imagine the various possible public or private uses for the structure.
“Northside HS was an obvious venue choice,” said Imani Jasper, NPI’s Program Manager. “We support projects that revitalize properties and improve neighborhood health, and this location allows us to connect with the community of Northside alumni and connect them to the great work being done in the area by Klondike Smokey City CDC.”
Recent History Is Still Fresh, and Still Stings
Walking through the structure, the energy of its former life as a place for learning still permeates with the sights and distant echoes of teachers and teens. Down hallways, lockers are left open as though kids bolted away yesterday for summer vacation, some leaving their homework assignments behind. Out into the expanses of the auditorium, a banner still cheers on the Cougars, the school mascot. Class notes from teachers and students, fresh on chalkboards, still speak to hopeful classrooms. And basketballs, deflated but still good for two-pointers, lay around the gym floor waiting to be tossed into hoops with netting as fresh as new wrist bands.
* * * *
The school saw its last classes in May of 2016. After years of declining attendance and low test scores, the Shelby County School Board voted to shut down the school in the summer of that year after overall student enrollment had shrunk to just 36. It was a slow 15-year decline that was precipitated not only by its declining student performance and enrollment, but also in part due to deferred maintenance costs and the openings of nearby charter schools, and the reopening of Douglass High School in a new facility.
In its heyday the school placed a focus on technical and vocational programs for its students, which at one time had programs for printing, business, barbering, cosmetology, culinary arts and, with its own auto shop, automotive services.
The school closure broke hearts. “In two decades, the history of an entire generation of folks who did things will be just whipped,” 1982 graduate Michael Davis said (to Chalkbeat in 2016). “There will be no reunions, no reason to be affiliated.” And the closure left vacant a campus of over 14 acres inside and out, 66 classrooms across three stories of hallways, the gym, the auditorium, the auto shop and a print shop, and even an indoor shooting range.
There is much hope, however, in the reuse of the school as something for the greater community. In 2018 a group of community organizations (including the nearby Klondike Smokey City CDC), residents, businesses and others teamed up with Studio Gang in visualizing one concept that would bring the building back to life as an employment resource center.
And this May 1st, NPI and the Blight Elimination Steering Team host the bi-annual Neighborhood Preservation Summit, bringing community members together to explore our city’s progress and the future of Memphis neighborhoods.
“This year we are excited to have the Summit at Northside HS,” said Imani Jasper. “It reactivates this once vibrant community space and continues the conversations about how best to reactivate other neighborhoods and spaces like Northside.”
Open to the public, the Summit offers workshops on a range of resources, skills, and knowledge related to preserving and maintaining the value in participants’ neighborhoods. It also features a catered lunch, a keynote speaker, and an awards presentation honoring individuals, properties, and groups doing the hard work to make improvements throughout our city. Said Jasper, “if Memphians are interested in learning how to make their neighborhood a cleaner and more vibrant place to live, they need to attend the Summit.”
The future of the campus is, like the chalkboards room to room, a slate of hopes and dreams. And this year’s Summit is also an opportunity for the public at large, private investors, entrepreneurs and city officials to see for themselves the possibilities in Northside High School.
“I’m excited about it,” said Steve Barlow. “I think it’s going to be fun. I’m very excited that we can finally demonstrate the importance of creatively working through solutions to activate empty buildings.” <>