MEMPHIS, Tenn. — In February 2022, ice covered the Mid-South from a massive ice storm. Many trees fell from the weight of the ice.
One of them fell across Cooper Street, a main thoroughfare in Midtown close to Overton Square.
Eventually, the ice melted and the tree got cleared, but after that, neighbors were left with a new problem: the base of the tree still digging its roots into the adjacent sidewalk, leaving it lopsided and impassable for many pedestrians.
“It’s just not accessible for folks,” said Nick Denton-Brown, who lives nearby. “You have to step over it. I’m sure anyone in a wheelchair, in a stroller, can’t get through it.”
Denton-Brown started reporting it to the city. He showed the record of his 311 request on March 20. After that, he and other neighbors made more requests. In fact, Memphis 311 showed nine sidewalk inspection requests at 64 North Cooper between March and October of 2022.
“Each time the city said the owner would be notified to fix it,” Denton-Brown said of his 311 tickets.
But in December, ten months after the tree fell, nothing had changed. That’s when we met Ariel West at the location.
“I saw it and I was like ‘oh gosh can I even make it over this thing,'” she said.
In Memphis, like most cities, sidewalks are the responsibility of property owners. The WREG Problem Solvers have already reported on the inequities in the system and the city’s process for giving out sidewalk citations.
A Problem Solvers investigation found the city gave out the most sidewalk citations to the South Memphis zip code of 38106, which has a poverty rate of more than 40 percent and where Black residents make up 96 percent of the population. The Midtown zip code that encompasses the sidewalk at 64 North Cooper Street has a Black population of about 26 percent and a poverty rate of 18 percent, according to the University of Memphis.
“If the owner can’t pay for it then we place a lien on the property,” Memphis Public Works Director Robert Knecht said.
The WREG Problem Solvers wanted to see what the city did with the owner on Cooper who’d been reported so many times, so we requested all citations issued to that address. There’s a four-unit apartment building on the property.
For months, recurring messages in the city’s open record portal said the city couldn’t find any responsive records to the request.
The Problem Solvers then went straight to the landlord, who lives less than three miles from the Cooper property. We asked about the status and whether it would be fixed.
Owner Tom Griffin said he thought the city was responsible for fixing the sidewalk.
“They never cited me for anything,” he said. “I never heard from the city.”
He promised to fix the sidewalk the next day.
“It seems like the city should be telling them it is their responsibility and it should get fixed at that point,” Denton-Brown said. “It’s frustrating you can’t put in a complaint and know that it’ll get solved.”
In mid-December, we asked the city’s spokespeople again if they’d done anything about the multiple sidewalk complaints at 64 North Cooper. They sent the 311 records from March but never provided proof they did anything.
Instead, the chief communications officer for the city of Memphis asked WREG to work with her to help the landlord responsible for the sidewalk.
In an email, Allison Fouche wrote, “Why don’t we (you and I) find a tree service that will help this property owner with getting this done and make this a positive holiday story.”
She suggested two tree companies by name.
It’s a much different tone than the one the city took with George Thompson over his sidewalk when they issued a citation, battled him in court, and took out a lien against his home.
He feared losing his house.
“I didn’t wanna take a chance on it,” he said.
Two days after we visited Griffin, the landlord, he had the tree stump removed. That allowed the sidewalk to fall back into place. The city never had to help him.
“People are very excited. I think everyone was ready for this to be done a long time ago,” Denton-Brown said.
This problem is solved, but Denton-Brown still has questions about how his city government is operating.