Hickory Hill: A Neighborhood in Transition
By: Lauren Berry and Brooke Dickerson
A carousel stands still, frozen in time in the empty center of a mall that once thrived. The mall is eerie and unusually quiet.
The carousel’s horses, crafted in Italy, stare straight-ahead, begging for someone to ride them. But there are no children, no sounds of laughter. Instead, the only noise is that of feet shuffling against the floor, as early morning mall walkers’ speed through Hickory Ridge Mall. No one stops to look at the carousal, pristine and intricately painted.
Patrick Jacobs is the general manager of Hickory Ridge Mall, and he has been since 2003. He’s old-fashioned, just like the mall, and proudly states that he still uses a flip phone. Sitting at his desk in the mall’s back offices in a room lined with plaques of accomplishments and Memphis posters, he recalls the rise and fall of this Memphis mall, along with the carousel’s history. “This big, beautiful Italian, double-level carousel was brought in on a lease, probably within the first year,” Jacobs said. “It was so important that they made it a part of the logo.”
The mall opened in 1981, and the carousel arrived sometime during its peak in the late 80’s. At the time, over 100 stores provided Memphians with major upscale department chains like Macy’s and Goldsmith’s. Hickory Ridge Mall became an instant Memphis attraction to residents and shoppers from all over the area.
”We have people bringing their kids back to see the carousel they rode when they were kids,” Jacobs said. “They have a preconceived idea of what it is.”
In many ways, the mall feels a little like a ghost town. With outdated food court signs and empty retail shops, Hickory Ridge Mall, like the carousel, attempts to cling to its past life.
But Hickory Ridge Mall is still standing despite its vacant stores and bare halls that inhabit it. It’s still standing, after its neighborhood, Hickory Hill, was annexed by the city of Memphis in 1998. And it’s still here after being nearly destroyed by a tornado in 2008 and reopened two years later.
Since 1987, the city of Memphis fought to annex Hickory Hill. It was a long battle that generated concern by many opposing residents at the time. They feared that if annexed, the quality of schools and neighborhoods of Hickory Hill would decline.It’s almost as if they saw into the future.
The neighborhood’s annexation on Dec. 31, 1998, sparked the first major demographic shift in Hickory Hill, which changed the population dramatically.
The white population dropped by 50 percent.The African American population grew by 450 percent and the Hispanic population by 700 percent.
“You could name the high-end restaurants that were popular that immediately jumped east,” Jacobs said. “When all those physical changes happened, they just abandoned buildings. Best Buy used to be two streets down, and they moved a mile east to be in a better economic position.”Jane Amaba used to live in Hickory Hill 23 years ago, before the area started to change. Hickory Hill offered her a quick drive to the airport for business trips she took for her job at FedEx. She now resides in Collierville.
“Everyone that worked for Federal Express used to live in Hickory Hill,” Amaba said. “Since a new campus for FedEx was built, everyone moved away from the area and they continue to move further and further east of Memphis.”
Annexation also caused real estate taxes to nearly double. Traffic patterns began to change. Crime increased. People moved east. Hickory Hill began to lose its momentum. Then, the tornado struck.
“As for the mall, we were responding well to change pre tornado,” Jacobs said. “We were looking at services, government offices, and conveniences for the whole community. But the tornado hit. There were major damages. The previous owner started working on his insurance settlement and we were closed for two years. We had to empty the place.”
During the time of the tornado, retail was shrinking in the area as the economic crash was also occurring. The mall suffered major damages, from lights to retail stores.
‘The skylights were gone,” Jacobs said. “We lost 70 air conditioners on the roof that were thrown around like toys. We had to watch the roof for leaks as water penetration in a building is a big time problem that can lead to structure damage and mold.”
Along with the neighborhood’s commercial problems, crime also increased. Crime rates, including rates for murder, rape, and burglary are higher than the national average.
For instance, on Feb. 6, a man was shot in Hickory Hill and placed in critical condition. Then on March 14, two men opened fire on a car at the corner store on Mendenhall road, causing one person to be pronounced dead on the scene.
“We have somewhat of a cloud in Memphis, that has been cast in Hickory Hill over time, because of crime,” said economic development director of Hickory Ridge Mall, Jimmy Haley. “It seems to have been highlighted in Hickory Hill, in my opinion, more than other places in the city.”
Despite these ongoing problems, Hickory Ridge Mall continues to evolve, with talks of new, fresh ideas alongside young entrepreneurs. And Haley is at the heart of it all.
“The plans are to take this property and change it into a center of attraction for families here in Hickory Hill area and in the Memphis area,” Haley said. “ We want to turn it into a multiplex, which is the Towne Center that we now have.”Haley is passionate about the project. He encourages people to call the mall “Hickory Ridge Towne Center,” a rebranding proposal to try to change the negative stigmatism that follows the original name.
He is confident and positive that change will happen if community leaders and the extended Memphis area change their negative Hickory Hill mindset.
“There’s a lot of time and energy spent on the negative side of what’s happening in the community,” Haley said. “The difference is we don’t have enough people that care enough, to want to see Hickory Hill become a thriving part of the city.”
Already, mall administrators have turned four of the nicer retail rooms into event rooms for wedding receptions, birthday parties, or other special occasions. But one group has already made a big difference inside of the mall, Good Shepherd Pharmacy. This charity based pharmacy helps the uninsured and seniors in the Medicare donut hole, already serving more than 500 uninsured Memphians with roughly $755,000 worth of free prescriptions.
“People thought this was too good to be true,” said Ben Ridge, chief analytics officer of Good Shepherd Pharmacy. “Word of mouth is stronger than any advertiser. That has been very crucial in our growth.”
And growth is just what the mall needs. Growth is what the mall looks to as it aches to bring people back, riding the carousel just like they did before.