In 2011 the Memphis Housing Authority applied for a $30 million federal grant to tear down Foote Homes and replace it with mixed-income housing and mixed-use development. The 46-acre public housing development, built in 1940, is the last of six original public housing projects in Memphis. The city, with the help of federal grants, began demolishing the developments in 1997. Thousands of low-income residents have been relocated. Foote Homes has been the hiccup in Memphis’ push to reconstruct the vast public housing lands.

For the first time there was strong opposition to razing the community brought forth by residents, churches and organizations within the Vance Avenue neighborhood. Memphis didn’t get the grant. Many residents say they thought they were on their way out. Now nearly 1,200 people are living in uncertainty, unsure if the city will move to replace Foote Homes and uproot their lives.

Lisa Conrad smiles as she flips through family photo albums at her small four-person kitchen table. The table is always set — plates, silverware, napkins and a large glass vase with a bouquet of baby’s breath and pink, plastic roses. She flips from page to page, showing off photos of her old house, vacations and trips to visit her oldest son in California, where he is stationed with the Navy. Her most recent pictures show her youngest son, Joshua, a 10th-grader at Manassas High School who excels at both basketball and his school work. “He’s the last pea in the pot,” Conrad says. “Just Josh and I, we’re living the best we can. We don’t have much but we’re happy.” Conrad, a mother of five, has lived in Foote Homes for the past 12 years after moving from the Dixie Homes housing project during the time it was being torn down.

Conrad found refuge at Dixie Homes. “I was in a very abusive relationship and it was the best thing that happened to me,” Conrad explains about having the ability to move into public housing. “People call this the hood, the projects,” Conrad says. Her eyes shine and she pauses. “No, this is not the projects to me. This is a community development. I don’t get down with the hood.” Conrad has three other sons. One is a welder and two are in college, including an aspiring doctor in medical school. She maintains that it’s not the place that makes the people. “I’ve worked hard all my life, since I was 16 years old, to make a home for my children. My home is my castle. Home is where I live.”

On any given day in Foote Homes you’ll find children: running through the breezeways; playing basketball on the courts; or starting a game of their own on the uneven grass beaten down by generations of footsteps. The “bricks,” as some residents call the 46-acre housing project, refers to the ever-present walls of deep red bricks tagged with spray paint, cleaned, and spray-painted again.

“Most of the people who stay here are pretty much family,” Ivory Lobbins says. “When I say family, I mean they done pretty much grew up with each other for 25 to 30 years to where their kids and grandkids and their kids grew up around each other.”

“I don’t feel safe here,” says Lucie Slater, a single mother who has lived in Foote Homes for 10 years. She moved to the projects along with her mother, brother and older sister when she was 13 years old. It’s usually busy in the three-bedroom apartment she now shares with her brother. Jaiyla, her bubbly 2-year-old, loves following her mom around, even when it’s supposed to be naptime. Jaiyla’s father has been in prison on robbery charges since she was an infant and will likely be there until she’s a teen. “I’ve raised her on my own, no help,” Slater says. “We’ve been struggling, but we’re living, by the grace of God.” Slater also takes care of her older sister’s six children on weekdays while their mother is working. 

During the day she changes diapers, makes lunches and keeps the young ones entertained until the older children get home from school and then she helps out with homework. Slater’s father died when she was just 11. She was 18 when cancer took her mother. “I pray every day that I won’t let my baby grow up here (Foote Homes). She’s already getting older and sees a lot. I want to move away before she understands everything that’s going on over here,” Slater says. She recounts a recent experience. “Me and my baby had just finished saying our prayers that night and a bullet came through the window. It was a shock to me. We had just said ‘amen.’ ”

Lashonda Rayford has lived in Foote Homes on and off for most of the four decades of her life. Her aunt moved Rayford to the housing projects when she was 2. “It has gotten better from when I grew up here,” Rayford says. “Usually you couldn’t leave things in your house. You’d leave to go to the store and come back and your door would be kicked in. Now you don’t have to worry about that.” Rayford lost her father in 2005 and dropped out of school to take care of her mother, who died shortly afterward. “I spiraled down after they passed,” Rayford remembers. But, she says, her neighbors became like family. They watched out for her and made her feel safe. “This little ‘L’ that we live in, I became close to everyone here,” she says.

“I was born an only child so this is like my family. If I move I have no one. I wouldn’t have no family.” Rayford wants to stay in Foote Homes: “Everywhere is not perfect; everything is not going to be perfect; but it (Foote Homes) is perfect for me.” The uncertainty over the future of the housing project elicits a mixed reaction from other residents. Some want to leave, some don’t think about it much, and others, like Rayford, want to stay. “I wouldn’t know the first place to look for someplace to stay without having any income,” she says. “It would be like throwing me out on the street. I wouldn’t know what to do. I would be like a newborn coming into the world.”

Proctor Wilson, is one of the older residents of Foote Homes. He feels the connections between children growing up in Foote Homes while chatting with them from his frequent perch on a chair along the sidewalk near his unit. “They’re always asking me, ‘What happened to your leg, you used to walk?’ I say, ‘yes sir, poison got in my leg.’” Wilson laughs recalling the story. “You can get poison in your leg and you’re still living?,” he says in his best attempt at a child’s curious voice. “Poison is dangerous but as long as you got God on your side, God in heart, and God in mind you’re going to make it.”

Wilson worked for Shelby County Juvenile Court for 16 years, coached “everything but soccer” for more than 20 years and worked with the Memphis Housing Authority for 30 years. He’s watched as generations of children have grown up in Foote Homes. Slowing down due to health issues, including the gangrene that took his left leg, Wilson still strives to help the kids. “I’m about trying to keep the youngest to maybe 18 to 19 years old out of trouble. That’s what I’ve always done.” Wilson says. “I want to help somebody’s child so that one day they can say, ‘I made it.’ ”

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