The federal government’s foray into urban redevelopment that began under the New Deal reshaped cities across America—with mixed success. The Public Works Administration (PWA) began clearing slums in many cities in 1934, but work was temporarily halted after a Supreme Court ruling in 1935 prevented the federal government from condemning private property for low-cost housing. That left the housing projects to local control.
Memphis, Tennessee was one of the first cities in the nation to pick up the banner of housing for its poor. It chose two rundown, crowded neighborhoods—uptown Memphis and Quimby Bayou—to site the first two of five public housing projects paid for with New Deal funds.
Public housing was subject to local segregation laws, and Lauderdale Courts, one of the first such housing projects in the nation, was for whites only. Constructed in 1938, Lauderdale Courts’ Colonial Revival-style apartment buildings were arranged around a common area and connected via bisecting walkways, a design feature meant to foster community relationships. But by mid-1990s Lauderdale Courts was deemed derelict. What ultimately saved it from the wrecking ball was unit #328—home to a teenaged Elvis Presley and his parents from 1949 until 1953.
Elvis fans forged partnerships with local preservationists, historians, and developers to save Lauderdale Courts and transform it into mixed-income housing. After a $36 million rehab it reopened in July 2004 as Uptown Square, with 347 apartment homes. It is one of the few New Deal housing developments still in existence and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The office still bears the PWA plaque. Dixie Homes opened in 1938 for black families. It featured two-story apartment-style homes with balconies and a commons, meant to encourage community building. Dixie Homes was demolished in 2006. LeMoyne Gardens, constructed in 1941 for black families, was demolished in the 1990s despite having been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The fate of Memphis’s two other New Deal housing projects is still in play. Lamar Terrace, built in 1940 for whites, is undergoing redevelopment as University Place, mixed-income housing. The fate of William H. Foote Homes, constructed for blacks in 1940, is in Limbo. The City had planned to raze it and redevelop the area for mixed-income housing. But a grassroots organization in the Vance neighborhood, opposed the plan, which it said would disperse longtime residents.
Recently, the group convinced the City to put the demolition on hold in order to consider the community’s own proposal, which calls for renovation, not removal, of these homes. The group is holding fast to the original New Deal vision of fostering relationships within a community.