Dr. Carnita Atwater

By Tony Jones

MEMPHIS, TN — New Chicago Community Development Corporation Executive Director Dr. Carnita Atwater has filed a $20 billion dollar class action lawsuit charging a consortium of government officials with genocide due to noninvestment in the New Chicago neighborhood. The suit alleges continued generations of neglect to its needs.

Filed Dec. 15, 2020 in Chancery Court Div. 13, the suit’s intent is to reveal how government funds and incentives support gentrification in some areas while siphoning hope, health, dreams and money out of New Chicago like using a vacuum cleaner on crack. 

“Take a ride through New Chicago or several of the other historic black neighborhoods and tell me what you see, then take a ride down Union Avenue and tell me what you see,” Atwater comments about the neighborhood, centered around the long vacant Firestone Tire and Rubber plant on Firestone Avenue.

The suit lists Atwater and a half dozen plaintiffs, including “all the indigenous people and African American residents in the City of Memphis/Shelby County, New Chicago Community Partnership Revitalization CDC, New Chicago CDC, African American International Museum Foundation, African American Emancipation Proclamation of Justice in the United States of America, et al.”

A partial listing of the defendants includes Gov. Bill Lee, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris, (and former mayor Mark Luttrell), City of Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and other civic executives in their official capacity, and boards, including the EDGE (Economic Development Growth Engine).

The self-penned complaint amends an initial filing of $10 billion Atwater says was dismissed due to lack of legal representation. A search for a representative firm is underway for the amended suit.

An initial reading of the complaint certainly yields the impression that a civil rights era NAACP Legal Defense Fund litigation commitment may be needed, not only because of the scope of the complaint, but even for clerical assistance to iron out scads of obvious grammatical errors that could have been corrected with a simple spell check in any word processing program.

Admittedly no legal scholar, Atwater is correct that legal filings are amended as a matter of course and if the initial filing’s glaring surface errors leads anyone to automatically dismiss the suit as crackpot theory, the CDC is not daunted. “I will never give up…never,” she vows. “We want to know how they can come up with billions of tax payer funded support for projects over and over again for decades and we have to do everything but pick their pockets to get a dirty penny to keep black neighborhoods like ours on life support. Just open your eyes and tell me that these aren’t questions that should be asked?”

Only time will tell whether they find a litigator to assist them in this David and Goliath pursuit, but a Zoom conference call offers insight into why the group feels it has to take these steps. 

A private investor, identified as Katie Berry, recently purchased a vacant property at 969 Firestone Avenue, where she proposed to build 34 metal container homes available for rent, spread over 5 acres. 

The Memphis & Shelby County Land Use Board requires that before such a development can move forward, a property owner must notify and meet with community members to introduce their proposed vision. If approved by the board, it goes to the Memphis City Council for final acceptance or rejection. 

The required meeting was held as a Zoom conference on Monday, Feb. 1st. Property owner Berry and an undisclosed partner were represented on the call by Delinor Smith of Smith Building Design & Assoc., Inc. Approximately 40 people were on the call, forcefully expressing nearly unanimous objection to the container home idea.

A surprising moment came when Smith clarified that Berry and her partner in the plan are black, and also divulged difficulties they had in purchasing the property and that several large development companies are trying to buy the property from them. 

“Her motivation is to put something there that looks good, is attractive and that people can afford. A very strong home that could be put together inexpensively,” he said. “She’s willing to sit at the table and come up with some good ideas.”

A point of contention immediately arose over how the ownership was structured. Atwater pointed out that the property had been listed as being owned by “Bandele, Inc.” Atwater then read a media statement attributed to Hattiloo Theater founder Ekundayo Bandele stating he was not affiliated with the property.

Smith repeatedly assured the group of the owners’ good intentions and that all efforts would be halted until a second Zoom call meeting could be arranged to trade ideas to seek a solution.

But according to Atwater, those assurances were dismissed before lunchtime the very next day, supplying this reporter with a string of text messages claiming to follow a paper trail that was being changed in real time.

The matter then went before the Land Use Board Feb. 11th as originally planned. In sync with the strong objections stated on the Zoom call with area residents, the proposal was rejected 9-1. 

The blow by blow reveals the deep hurt and distrust driving NCCDC’s lawsuit filing. Several callers stated that NCCDC had tried to buy the same property in question several years ago as part of a community development plan, but allege they have been blocked time and time again on this and other projects.

Said former resident Jerome Sanders, “This is not anything that’s beginning now, it’s been going on since I was going to Chicago Park elementary school in the second grade. They stopped doing anything for New Chicago and people began to get a little desolate.”

Dr. Marcia Bowden owns a building across the street from the CDC. She commented on the call, “I find it very problematic that the CDC was not allowed to purchase this land several years ago.”

That is among the questions we will explore over the next several weeks.