Friday, August 31, 2007

This Week On Smart City: The Renaissance City

Are we on the verge of a second renaissance? Patricia Martin thinks so. In her new book, Ren Gen, she writes that cultural consumers are at the heart of this new generation and that a surprising group of cities will emerge as the new centers of this second renaissance. Patricia is President of Chicago-based LitLamp Communications Group.

Central to a renaissance is learning, and libraries are fundamental to learning. Martin Gomez is president of the Urban Libraries Council, an organization of leading libraries reinventing their future in a digital world.

Smart City is a syndicated, weekly hour-long public radio talk show that takes an in-depth look at urban life: the people, places, ideas and trends that affect us all. Host Carol Coletta talks with national and international public policy experts, economists, business leaders, artists, developers, planners and others on the pulse of city life for a penetrating discussion on urban issues.

In Memphis, Smart City is broadcast on WKNO FM, 91.1, at 9 a.m. Sundays. It is also webcast and podcast at the Smart City website, which also has a listing of broadcast times in other cities and the sign up for a weekly newsletter.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Baptist Ministerial Association Finds It Impossible To Love Thy Neighbor


Apparently, in the minds of the Memphis Ministerial Association, He would scream, threaten and bully.

In fact, if we’ve ever seen the antithesis of Christ-like behavior, it was in the reception that the preachers gave their Congressman, Steve Cohen.

While a guiding principle of the Gospel normally is “love the sinner and hate the sin,” apparently, in Congressman Cohen’s case, his main sin was being white and tolerant.

It’s About Character

As members of the group channeled a brand of intolerance and misinformation that would have made the late Jerry Falwell proud, Congressman Cohen tried to explain the proposed hate crime bill that is pending in Congress. Apparently, some in the audience were concerned that the law would prevent them from preaching hate from their pulpits. It won’t.

It's a sad commentary on how hollow the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist preacher who truly lived his faith, sometimes seem today. These days, for some, it apparently is all about the color of someone's skin, not about the content of their character.

Just imagine the indignation of Rev. Robert Poindexter of Mt. Moriah Baptist Church if a white person had said: "Harold Ford Jr.'s not white so he can't represent me. That's just the bottom line." Any person who would make such a comment would be rightly vilified and attacked, but sadly when the roles are reversed, there seems to be an astounding lack of empathy and self-reflection.

Civility MIA

Of course, we need to keep all of this in balance. Not all of the ministers were rude or lacked good manners, if not civility.

Some in attendance were just as embarrassed by this rude behavior as any other Memphian of good will, but most held their tongues as Congressman Cohen was chastised, scolded and upbraided – and even called “boy” - by some members of the Baptist Ministerial Association. It's a troubling trend in our city these days, but moderate and progressive African-American leaders often seem unwilling to call down the unreasonable, outrageous comments of their colleagues, whether it is the Ministerial Association, Memphis City Council or the Shelby County Board of Commissioners.

In all of those bodies, the majority of members are reasonable and civil, but remaining quiet results in the strident members and their coarse rhetoric becoming the “face” of the organization to the world. It’s unfortunate and unnecessary.

Speaking Out

We seem to still be in a period of transition in Memphis as mainstream African-American leaders come to grips with a central fact of life - they are now in charge – and because of it, when they criticize someone of the same color, it is not an act of treason but a test of leadership.

But back to the Memphis Ministerial Association’s meeting with Congressman Cohen: It was so clearly political in nature, tone and attitude that it should raise questions about the organization’s IRS status. If it was not political but philosophical, we assume that the ministers will now publicly condemn Rep. Ford's support of the same hate crime bill when he was in the U.S. Congress. And while they’re at it, they can upbraid the NAACP, PUSH, and Urban League.

Most troubling to us, however, is the undertow of ugly anti-Semitism in all this. One Ministerial Association member has even told his congregation that "someone who doesn't believe in Jesus shouldn't be representing us." Of course, the fact that Jesus was a Jew seems to elude him as much as the basic knowledge of his own religion.

Rocky Start

For ministers of a religion built on the premise that only people without sin should cast the first stone, many in the Memphis Ministerial Association need a rock pile for all they’re throwing these days – and all because a federal law suggests that inciting violence against gays should be against the law. It’s a strange church that doesn’t already have that on its list of sins.

Based on the comments about gays by Rev. LaSimba Gray of New Sardis Baptist Church, we’re just glad he wasn’t alive at the same time as his Savior. Surely, he would have been the first to criticize someone who roamed the countryside with 12 other men – a little too Village People for sure.

But in truth, this isn’t funny. It isn’t entertaining. It is, in short, appalling that the members of the majority race of the majority religion should have so little regard for the backbone of our society – fair play, equality, brotherhood and tolerance. In a way, however, we owe the ministers our thanks, because for just a few minutes, all of us trapped in our white skin felt a little of what it’s like to be gay.

Tucked In The Closet

Most of all, all of this certainly illuminates why so many African-American gays and lesbians live their lives deeply in the recesses of the closet.

Just as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson mistakenly believed that God had taken sides in presidential elections, our own Baptist ministers mistakenly believe that he has taken sides in the values wars. To most of us who become spectators to these kinds of events and the regular pronouncements about “family values,” we end up feeling like our faith is being stolen and it’s time to reclaim it.

As a result of the kind of behavior shown at the Memphis Ministerial Association meeting and the kind of anti-gay vitriol spewed by some prominent Christian leaders, there is a misperception by the news media that somehow these views represent Christianity and that these people represent our faith. The truth is they are uniformly 180 degrees from what our faith means.

Civil Dialogue

To us, the essence of Christianity calls on all of us to ensure that gay and lesbian partnerships have legitimate legal protection, regardless of our individual views on gay marriage. These are matters of fundamental civil rights, and it’s disturbing that those who have felt the sting of inequality are not now leaders for equal rights for every American.

As Sojourner magazine has wisely said, let’s not worry about taking a position on gay marriage right now, but commit ourselves to the civil dialogue between Christians who understand that their faith is anchored in justice and compassion. If the heads of our churches can’t lead that kind of discussion, we are doomed.

As for us here, we continue to believe that the legalities of marriage should be separated from the church – as they once were. Couples, whatever their gender, should be free to receive civil union papers from the government. These would protect basic rights, such as inheritance, ownership of property and health insurance. It’s then up to individual churches to conduct marriage ceremonies, and each of them can decide whom they are willing to marry. We have no quarrel with churches who believe that marriage is a sacrament between a man and a woman, as long as they do not interfere with the churches that offer blessings on same-sex couples.

The Secret Lives Of Gays

There’s just something strange about the Church taking a stand against people who want to make life-long commitments. With the 50-50 chances of heterosexual marriages succeeding, certainly same-sex ceremonies can’t do much injury to the record of straight couples. After all, the weakening of marriage is solely a creation of heterosexuals.

Here’s the dirty little secret about gays and lesbians – the values they exhibit in their daily lives are no different than the rest of us. They are committed to their neighborhoods, they love their family, they follow the law, they volunteer to charities, they try to be good citizens, they want meaningful relationships and most remarkably of all, they are religious.

As George Lakoff points out in his book, Moral Politics, the religious right is based on a “strict father” metaphor of morality, in which a wise father (whether church or political leader) sets the rules and the children (the people) do what they are told. These black-and-white moral values exist, in the father’s view, not just to help people behave morally but to maintain social order and discipline.

Threatening Power

Adherence to these rules implies the legitimacy of the “father,” who often is treated or sees himself as speaking for God. As a result, the people who move away from that established order are doing much more than misbehaving or acting immorally. More to the point, they are threatening the rules by showing that other paths are possible and calling into question the “father’s” authority.

We don’t do the theory justice here, but clearly, the Memphis Ministerial Association is so invested in this father-child view of the world that even a hate crime bills becomes a threat. It’s too bad, because in the end, anytime we strengthen the rights of every one in society, we strengthen our own. In fact, there’s no greater lesson from the civil rights movement than that.

In the end, these ministers have to know in their hearts that the hate crimes act isn’t really about eroding their First Amendment rights – unless they are urging members to create violence – and all in all, it’s just a little too reminiscent of the firebrand preachers in too many Southern churches who gave their congregations permission to hate blacks during the civil rights struggle.

Support Hate Crimes Bill

The Baptist Ministerial Association is calling on people to write the offices of Congressman Cohen to oppose the hate crimes bill. We urge you to do just the opposite, and for that reason, here’s the congressman’s mailing address:

1004 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515
Phone: 202-225-3265 and fax: 202-225-05663

If you want to send an email, click Contact me on his website at

Hopefully, before the Baptist Ministerial Association meets with him again on this issue, they take a verse from their own book: “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Democratic County Commissioners Continue To Aim Low

The new Democratic majority on the Shelby County Board of Commissioners is still showing growing pains, and based on yesterday’s performance, it clearly seems to be stuck in adolescence.

First, it questioned the impeccably run Porter-Leath – arguably the city’s best–run center for children and family services – and thumbed its nose at a plan to bring badly needed funds to Shelby County’s Head Start program.

Second, it then took an unprecedented step in removing a job in the budget of an independent elected official because they had questions about whether she was opposing their ill-conceived proposal for a second Juvenile Court judge.

City Council Reins

All in all, the commissioners offer convincing proof that following this year’s City Council elections, there will be no doubt about legislative body is the poorest.

It’s a dramatic commentary in how far the board of commissioners has fallen in only a handful of years. Once, the County Commission played Senate to the City Council’s House of Representatives, but those days feel long ago.

When Mayor AC Wharton recommended Porter Leath to provide Head Start to more than 1,000 young students, it was after detailed analysis by his administration. Surely the commissioners aren’t suggesting that Mayor Wharton isn’t clear-eyed in his focus for what is best for the Head Start students.

What About The Other Kids

In fact, the mayor’s chief motivation was his long-held concern that Head Start is only touching a small percentage of the students eligible for it. In Shelby County, this amounts to about 25,000 young people who are denied the Head Start experience, and the Porter Leath contract offered opportunities to expand the number of students in this universally loved program.

Instead of seeing Porter Leath’s pledge of $5 million in capital investments as major opportunity for the program, a majority of the commissioners saw it as a take over of the Head Start program. (We’re still unclear what sinister business motivation lies behind a plot to control these young African-American minds.)

At the peak of the rhetorical hurricane, one commissioner even suggested that because Porter Leath is headed by a white man – although there’s only one white Head Start teacher in the whole system – there isn’t enough cultural sensitivity in Porter Leath for these young students. All in all, it conjured up images of a Seung-Il Moon meeting as the black Head Start teachers are reprogrammed to a white view of the world.

Voting Down The First Amendment

If that wasn’t enough, in the same meeting, a majority of commissioners voted to remove a public affairs position from the budget of embattled Juvenile Court Judge Curtis Person. Their motivation: a concern – apparently not backed up by any facts – that Judge Person created the job to fight the commissioners’ plan to create a second judge.

We’ve been told by people who were there at the time that Susan Thorp, who’s currently in the position, was approached during last year’s elections by Judge Person about opening up the court to the public and media and creating stronger community outreach programs.

Ironically, at the time, Ms. Thorp was supporting one of Judge Person’s opponents, Veronica Coleman, and after the election, they cemented their agreement, but in a dreadful coincidence in timing, she went to work at Juvenile Court at the time that the second judgeship proposal was being unfurled.

No Mas

When we contacted Ms. Thorp, she emailed this reply:

“I don't comment - and never have commented - on political issues between Juvenile Court and the County Commission. But I do want to emphasize that I am dismayed about the unfounded rumor that I was hired as the Court's public affairs officer to ‘fight’ the commission. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Even if the facts were different and Judge Person had hired her to communicate his differences of opinion with the commissioners, it’s hard to imagine how they justify the elimination of the position.

The Shakes

The old-timers in county government can remember no precedence for such a vote, and most fear that it could have a chilling effect on the discussions before the commissioners. After all, the commissioners have now said that they may simply eliminate anybody who disagrees with them.

Leading the opposition for both of these issues was new Commissioner Sidney Chism, once predicted to be a moderating influence on the board of commissioners but sadly seems predisposed to be an increasing source of race-based accusations.

All in all, it left observers shaking their heads at the sorry state of decision-making at the board of commissioners and the quick death of the promise of a Democratic majority.

Sentencing Guidelines Influence Ford Verdict

Former Tennessee Senator John Ford was sentenced to 66 months in federal prison today by U.S. District Court Daniel Breen.

In our post of April 30, 2007, we calculated the federal sentencing guidelines and predicted a sentence of 63-78 months.

If you're interested in understanding the complexities of the guidelines, here's the link to the earlier post.

Monday, August 27, 2007

County School Board Plumbs The Depths of Political Opportunism - Again

The Shelby County School Board – the local political equivalent of The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight – has done it again.

This time, it’s in playing the role that it seems to relish most – Big Brother – as its members ignore the advice of Tennessee’s Attorney General, the state’s highest legal authority, so Shelby County can continue its drug tests of athletes, band members, cheerleaders, and others in extracurricular activities.

The fact that there’s no evidence that such testing accomplishes anything is of little interest to the board, which always seems willing to use students as pawns in their political gamesmanship.

Drugged Out County Students

Its single-minded attitude about testing as many students as it can is quite a revelation. Who knew that there are so many drugged-out students in all of these extracurricular activities in the county schools?

Although common sense would suggest that students who get involved in extracurricular activities have lower risk for drug use or that drug testing discourages student participation in these activities, more to the point, there is no reliable research that indicates that drug testing produces any discernible impact on drug use in adolescents.

The second revelation to us is that these county students are apparently so out of control that their parents welcome the board’s usurping of their responsibilities. Or at least that’s what Shelby County School Board chairman David Pickler indicates.

Eroding Privacy

Maybe so, but it’s hard to believe that parents welcome suspicionless drug testing of their children when there’s no cause or behavior to suggest drug use. While we admit that we’re strict constructionists when it comes to civil liberties, we also think as parents, it’s our job to teach our children that their privacy matters and that the nibbling away of our basic freedoms shouldn’t be accepted quietly.

That’s one of the most interesting developments when these so-called conservatives gain power. Despite complaints about liberals injecting big government into the private lives of Americans, as soon as these moralistic conservatives take charge, they use government to intrude into the hearts of families in support of their own beliefs.

Time after time, particularly as they invoke bogey men like drug use, terrorism and crime, they claim that they are right. And they are – far right. And in decamping out in the fringes, they corrupt the kind of conservatism that has been such a strong influence in political thought in the history of the U.S.

Moralism As Method

The Shelby County School Board has shown an unerring tendency to advancing this kind of narrow agenda. In doing it, it’s tried to get religion taught as part of the county curriculum, it’s resegregated several county schools, it’s carved out attendance zones based on racial considerations and all the while, it’s espoused the beauty of a special school district whose motivations are largely political.

It really shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. After all, the county district, in its own mission statement, acknowledges that it’s focused on “high moral character.” It rarely seems to grasp the notion that this is the job of parents, because what may be moral character for one is not necessarily moral character for another.

But political differences aside, it’s worth listening to the recommendations of experts like the American Academy of Pediatrics, whose official position is in opposition to involuntary drug testing.

Lack Of Evidence

As these children’s experts say, there needs to be more research on the safety and efficacy of school-based testing, and there’s the need for attention to early rehabilitation rather than punitive measures in districts that are drug testing students. Acknowledging that proponents can point to no independent research that drug testing helps adolescents refuse drugs, the Academy of Pediatrics concludes that drug testing poses significant risks that outweigh any limited benefits.

For example, there’s the potential for damaging the school-child and school-family relationships, and “regardless of the reason it was performed, drug testing was not significantly associated with reduction in the use of marijuana or any illicit drug among students,” the Academy said.

In addition, the Academy questioned the reliability of the testing. For example, to ensure the validity of the specimen for testing, an adult at the school needs to watch a student urinate or the collector must use an expensive federally approved protocol for ensuring the chain of custody.

Flunking The Test

If the school is using hair or saliva testing, there are questions about their validity. Hair testing tells more about historical drug use than current use, and although saliva testing is more accurate, it doesn’t perform consistently across all drugs.

Then, according to the Academy, there is the problem of false positives, especially when screening for amphetamines or opiates, that can be caused by cold medicine and food. More to the point, it’s “fairly easy to defeat drug tests and most drug-involved youth are too familiar with ways to do so.”

Except for marijuana, information is limited and the drug use has to be within the previous 72 hours, and standard tests do not detect many of the favorite drugs of adolescents, such as alcohol, ecstacy and inhalants.

Alcoholics Unanimous

As the doctors point out, drug testing may inadvertently drive more students to use the most popular drug of choice in high schools – alcohol. Alcohol is associated with more adolescent deaths any illegal drug but isn’t included in most standard tests. Also, drug testing may drive adolescents to shift from drugs with low mortality rates – like marijuana - to those representing higher danger, such as inhalants.

But, worst of all, the entire environment for the testing is punitive, and the lack of adequate adolescent drug treatment and mental health treatment remains.

In the end, drug testing encourages alcohol use, foments the rebellious streak that is a biological part of adolescence and discourages wider participation in extracurricular activity.

And most of all, students see drug testing as a challenge rather than a deterrence.

Ultimately, drug testing in Shelby County Schools has little to do with fact, and all to do with hysteria and political opportunism.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Invest A Few Minutes To Help Your Neighborhood

Our friends at Coalition for Livable Communities are conducting an online survey on the livability of our neighborhoods.

The Coalition supports healthy, vibrant and economically sound communities in Shelby County. To do it, the organization works to educate residents and build support for a vision, agenda and policies for livable neighborhoods.

That’s why it’s an important investment of your time to help the Coalition gather information through the survey, because your responses will be used by the group to develop its programs.

All responses are anonymous, but you can sign up for prizes.

To take the survey, follow the links on the Coalition’s website at

Friday, August 24, 2007

This Week On Smart City: Changing Times

Just when you think you know what makes cities tick, something changes - population, the economy, technology. So the question, what makes cities work, never gets old. And it's never been more important.

Ken Corey and Mark Wilson have taken a deep look at the global knowledge economy, how it is reshaping cities, and how urban planners ought to respond. Ken and Mark are co-authors of Urban and Regional Technology Planning: Planning Practice in the Global Knowledge Economy.

Jay Walljasper takes a more down home approach, urging all of us to get out and "do it ourselves" when it comes to improving the places we live. Jay is author of The Great Neighborhood Book: A Do It Yourself Guide to Placemaking.

Smart City is a syndicated, weekly hour-long public radio talk show that takes an in-depth look at urban life: the people, places, ideas and trends that affect us all. Host Carol Coletta talks with national and international public policy experts, economists, business leaders, artists, developers, planners and others on the pulse of city life for a penetrating discussion on urban issues.

In Memphis, Smart City is broadcast on WKNO FM, 91.1, at 9 a.m. Sundays. It is also webcast and podcast at the Smart City website, which also has a listing of broadcast times in other cities and the sign up for a weekly newsletter.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Rhetoric About Civil Rights Museum Is So Old School

About 15 years ago, a prominent State of Tennessee official called the mayors’ offices for Memphis and Shelby County because of his concern about the direction of the National Civil Rights Museum.

Concern about the deep acrimony, the ugly personal attacks and the lack of attention to pressing issues led him to call on behalf of state officials who had concluded that they needed to begin the planning for a take over of the museum.

In a sentence, the official’s message was that the National Civil Rights Museum was headed for disaster.

At the helm in those troubled days was Circuit Court Judge D’Army Bailey, who displayed an enthusiastic willingness as board chairman to lob grenades at board meetings and to engage in the acerbic rancor that consumed the board’s regular meetings.

In those days, it was so clear that the days of local control over the museum were numbered, and no one thought so more than officials in state government, who ultimately held the title to the facility.

Eventually, however, a fatigued majority of the museum’s board of directors drew a line in the sand and voted Judge Bailey out of office as president.

While there was no call for him to leave as a board member, he did so, and today, his replays of a revisionist history of those days captures media attention disproportionate to the actual concern in the community about the potential of transferring the ownership of the museum from state government to a locally-based, locally-controlled, diverse board of directors.

Today, somehow, Judge Bailey’s time-worn complaints still command media attention although its source is clearly personal and although his chief supporters are a state legislator known for his reliance on the politics of divisiveness and a blogger whose following is as baffling as his regular disrespect of the facts.

Sadly, the news media seem unable to grasp some simple facts about the so-called African-American community. Today, there is no monolithic black opinion and there is an entirely new generation of leaders worn out by the suggestion that these old warhorses and their old school rhetoric represent them.

In this way, the voices amplified so readily by the media are as frozen in time as the photographs on the walls at the National Civil Rights Museum.

Here’s the post that we wrote about a month ago on this subject:

Old Grievances At Civil Rights Museum Divert Attention From Real Priorities

Memphis never seems to have so little energy that it isn’t willing to fight an old battle one more time.

The current archetype for this tendency is taking place at the National Civil Rights Museum, where, 16 years after being ousted, its former chairman of the board is still warring with those in charge of Memphis’ most nationally known museum.

The fact that it is a one-sided war makes it no less of a distraction for the museum at a time when it should to be dealing with its competitive position in light of a proliferation of African-American heritage museums in the U.S.

Déjà Vu All Over Again

While Circuit Court Judge D’Army Bailey has railed for years about his rejection as chairman in a vote 15 years ago, he has a new platform for complaints this year in light of the potential for state government to exercise the option to turn over ownership of the museum to the Lorraine Civil Rights Museum Foundation, whose board has been chaired by civil rights giant Benjamin Hooks since Judge Bailey’s removal.

The foundation has been leasing the museum from the state since groundbreaking for the $8.8 million project in 1987. The museum opened in 1991, and by then, the most dependable facts of life about it were the quality of its exhibits and the rancor that was a regular feature in its board meetings.

In the end, the vote of no confidence for Judge Bailey resulted more from the tone of the meetings and the constant conflict than it did from any fundamental differences of opinion about the future direction of the National Civil Rights Museum.

An Old Conversation

An aspiring actor who’s appeared in several Memphis-based movie productions, Judge Bailey’s script these days suggests that his demise stemmed from a take-over by corporate interests led by local civic leader J.R. Hyde III. Of course, often overlooked in the retelling is the fact that Mr. Hyde only had one vote, and it was a majority of the board that voted to remove Judge Bailey from office.

The vote did nothing to affect Judge Bailey’s board membership, but his immediate resignation from that post eliminated his best platform for have a voice in the life of the museum. Like all of us, Judge Bailey’s strengths are also his weaknesses, and the passion and outspoken opinions that he brings to his civic activities weren’t necessarily the skills needed for an effective board chair.

Repeated today in terms that sound more like control and politics, the complaints by the judge feel more and more stuck in a time warp. In casting the issue as a power struggle for the board, he appeals to populist ideas like reconstituting the board to be dominated by civil rights, labor, African-American legal and legislative members.

Wrong And Wrong

The fact that it’s the wrong question at the wrong time may indicate why it immediately attracted the support of Tennessee Representative Joe Towns Jr., who shares Judge Bailey’s incredulous notion that corporations are dominating decisions about the museum’s future.

The right questions to be asking are the ones facing every African-American heritage museums these days: How do we succeed in an increasingly more competitive world? How do we develop new sources of revenue and get more people to the ticket booth? How do we get into the top tier of museums and attract more corporate and philanthropic support?

It’s as if the critics give the board of directors of the National Civil Rights Museum no credit for the accomplishments over the years: the expansion of the Freedom Awards and the international legends attracted to Memphis to accept it each year, the ability to balance the budget and increase revenues without any state operational funding for 13 years, the designation by USA Today as one of 10 national treasures, one of only three U.S. museums named to the International Coalition of Historic Sites of Conscience, one of only three African-American museums accredited by American Association of Museums and the 12,800-foot expansion of the museum in 2002.

In the parlance of the judge, in this case, the burden of proof rests with the complainant. In the context of similar museums, the record of the National Civil Rights Museum is an object of envy. Several African-American heritage museums and sites have shut down, more have revenue shortfalls that have caused cutbacks in staff and services and even more are saddled with debt and declining attendance.

More Cities Taking The Plunge

And yet, more and more cities – most notably Cincinnati with the $110 million Underground Railroad Museum and Louisville’s $75 million Muhammad Ali Center – have opened major black attractions, and even more are planning huge investments in hopes of grabbing a foothold in African-American tourism.

Atlanta has plans for a $100 million, 100,000 square foot civil rights and human rights center (adjacent to Georgia Aquarium) that will house the papers of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., bought last year for $32 million by Atlanta leaders; $200 million National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, VA; $70 million International African-American Museum in Charleston, SC, and the $500 million Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

Even Nashville is getting into the game with a proposal for a Museum of African-American Music, Art and Culture.In 1991, when the National Civil Rights Museum opened, it was largely thought in Nashville that it would only be a matter of time before the State of Tennessee would be forced to take over operations of the museum because it was assumed that it would be dependent on state funding to stay open.

Surpassing Expectations

And yet, with only nominal financial support for the Museum from state government (no operating funds for the past 13 years and only $1 million in the 2002 expansion), its board and staff have cultivated private, corporate and philanthropic funding for operating costs and capital investments.

The opening of the National Civil Rights Museum on the site of the assassination of Dr. King was a major reason for the burst of interest in African-American heritage sites. There’s never been a more competitive environment for the National Civil Rights Museum, and because of it, this continuing controversy about 1991 is about more than political theater. More to the point, it has the potential to divert attention from the real priorities of the museum and to damage its national reputation.

Right now, Memphis needs to step up to develop and implement a plan of action that ratifies and strengthens the past success of the museum and defines it as such a nationally unique place that it stays in the top rungs of the nation’s African-American museums.

The Real Question

Today, newer museums are known for their interactive technology, their digital experience and their up-to-date exhibitry. No one can compete with the National Civil Rights Museum on history.

But the staff and board understand that the museum also has to live up to visitors’ expectations, and they’re investigating the best ways to do this.It’s hard to make the case that the present board hasn’t earned the right to make it happen.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Yo! What About The Other Failing Schools?

We’re the first to admit when we make a mistake. So here it is: we were wrong about Memphis City Schools Interim Superintendent Dan Ward.

We had misgivings that he would just be a caretaker during a transition period when Memphis City Schools should be engaged in a period of self-reflection, self-examination, analysis and priority-setting. It’s our view that these transition times aren’t just “down time” for districts, but the best time to develop a strong plan for transitioning from one superintendent to another and to making sure there is no lost momentum for school reform.

But, we were wrong about Mr. Ward, because soon he will apparently unveil a plan to close 99 city schools.


Or at least that’s the only conclusion we could reach based on the shut-down of Yo! Academy with a speed unseen in the city district in decades. We're just taking Mr. Ward at his word.

In explaining his recommendation to shut down the charter school, Mr. Ward concluded that to keep Yo! Academy open would be to condemn students to attending a school that is not working, according to The Commercial Appeal’s fine education reporter, Dakarai Aarons.

In light of this unequivocal operating philosophy, we’re looking to see some dramatic action in the coming months as he delivers what he promised – making sure that students aren’t attending schools that aren’t working.

Free The Memphis 99

Last time we checked, that would be 99 of the schools in his district.

Of course, you wouldn’t know that’s the number as a result of the conspiracy of silence that exists between the educational bureaucrats at Memphis City Schools and the Tennessee Department of Education. Through their breathless news releases about the increasing numbers of schools in good standing, they mislead the public at best and lie by omission at worst.

At the time that these releases are issued, both state and local education officials know the truth - the reason the numbers of schools in good standing are going up is because the state has lowered standards for proficiency and that the city is masterfully executing the minutiae of No Child Left Behind. More than anything, both Tennessee Department of Education and Memphis City Schools know – even in the midst of their celebrations about schools in “good standing” – that none of this means that our students are learning more or better.

Lowering Standards To Raise Success

After all, to be judged as proficient in reading in Tennessee classrooms, an eighth grader has to answer only 40 percent of the questions right. In 2004, it was 43 percent, and in 2003, it was 51 percent. Last time, we got one of our children’s report cards, that test score was a solid “F” no matter who calculated it.

Supt. Carol Johnson was masterful in her use of safe harbors, a strategy made possible under No Child Left Behind and she was only taking advantage of the provisions of the sweeping federal law. Admitting on the front end that we are seriously oversimplifying the definition of safe harbor, in essence, it gives districts a way to include schools that really aren't making AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) – but are making strides – into the list of “good standing” schools.

There are 41 of these safe harbor schools at Memphis City Schools. Or put another way, of those 128 schools touted in news release for setting a new record in “schools in good standing,” 41 of them actually are not making AYP.

Let’s Be Truthful

In other words, when you add the 17 schools that are targeted for not making AYP this year to the 41 schools in the “high priority” category and then add the 41 safe harbor schools, the number of Memphis City Schools that aren’t meeting the No Child Left Behind standard is 99 out of a total of 186 schools, or 53 percent of the schools.

While there is much to commend about Memphis City Schools these days – and for the record, we have done so – we need to be honest about the facts and what they mean. Rather than pacify the public with public relations statements, Memphis City Schools needs to tell it like it is – a time of crisis that requires every one of us to work to improve our schools and to support the kinds of programs that can make a difference.

We do nothing to address the scope of the problem by soft peddling the consequences and the reality.

Getting The Boot

Which brings us back to Yo! Academy.

It was booted out of the district after one year on the “high priority” list of schools (Tennessee is the only state where the local school board can close charter schools). Meanwhile, the infamous 17 schools have been on the list for six years, and most of the other 82 who aren’t making AYP have been on the list for multiple years.

So, what was the real motivation for the blinding speed shown in closing Yo! Academy? It seems clearer and clearer that it was an act of political theater, designed to show that the Memphis City Schools’ administration and board of commissioners won’t countenance poor performance in its schools.

The Subtext

The fact that Yo! Academy was a charter school – always a preferred target for the teachers’ union and traditionally-minded administrators – made the action ever more sweeter. But most of all, it gave the board the chance to simulate leadership without really showing the real thing. After all, Yo! Academy was one of the smallest student bodies in Memphis, with just over 100 students.

And the fact is that the board has looked the other way year after year as traditional public schools affecting the lives of tens of thousands of students fail to meet standards even as the standards themselves were being reduced.

Quickly becoming the poster child for cynical political symbolism, Yo! Academy isn’t the real problem. More to the point, it’s the problem of style over substance by the people we entrust to lead Memphis City Schools. It is the willingness to engage in the sacrifice of a small number of students to give the appearance of displaying the bold leadership needed to turn the district around.

What About The Others?

Meanwhile, as the Five-Year Comprehensive Plan for Memphis City Schools shows, a multitude of schools continue to remain open with dismal physical space, without the capacity to adapt to the digital opportunities for education and without even a science laboratory, as in the case of Trezevant High Schools.

One underlying reason for the closing of Yo! Academy was to deliver this subliminal message: even charter school can’t succeed, so we’re really not doing all that bad at Memphis City Schools.

The difference is that the charter schools never tried to hide the facts from the public, and in fact, each year, University of Memphis’ highly regarded Center for Research in Education Policy (CREP) conducted an exhaustive study of the charter schools, spelling out the progress and the problems of the individual schools. Yo! Academy had been highlighted in the latest reports.

We’re Waiting

Memphis City Schools should be as forthright with the facts about each of its schools. If it was, we’d be focused now on the futures of 99 schools right now instead of acting like the problem rests with 17 schools that can’t seem to get their acts together.

If the board will hire CREP or Harvard University or someone with national credentials to do the same kind of analysis of its schools, we’ll be the first to lead the applause. Until then, we are left with the manufactured spectacle of the closing of Yo! Academy.

Now the ball is in Mr. Ward’s court, and if he’s true to his word, the closing of this school was just the beginning.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Reality Of DeSoto County Taxes Belies Rhetoric

Some people raised their eyebrows last week when Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton said people who moved to DeSoto County from Memphis are now paying more taxes.

But, the truth is he’s right.

“People in Mississippi are paying more taxes than we are,” the mayor said a little too broadly, but quickly refined his target more accurately to DeSoto County.

Required Reading

While we always consider Business Perspectives – a publication of University of Memphis’ Bureau of Business and Economic Research (BBER) – required reading, we’re not sure why local economic development organizations aren’t papering the area with copies.

The notion of the land of milk and honey – and its lower taxes – is a myth widely perpetuated by real estate developers and homebuilders as they work hard to justify continued sprawl, overuse of tax freezes and continued emphasis on warehousing and distribution.

If local officials had a dollar every time they’ve been told that a company would move to the greener pastures of DeSoto County if public subsidies weren’t approved or that our homebuilding industry would be killed by higher taxes, they could pay off the Shelby County debt.


That’s why the analysis by Dr. Jeff Wallace, economist and associate research professor of the BBER, into the relative tax burdens of Shelby County and DeSoto County caught our eye, particularly this sentence about the historic southerly migration:

“Hidden behind the movement was the widespread belief that taxes were too high in Shelby County and were particularly onerous in Memphis. Taxes in Memphis and all of the communities in Shelby County were lower than those in Oliver Branch and Southaven. The taxes in Memphis, Olive Branch, and Southaven were comparable. The other communities in Shelby County had decidedly lower taxes…”

As Dr. Wallace emphatically concluded: “The evidence is clear – taxes are not lower in DeSoto County.”

Reality, Not Rhetoric

Well, finally, someone actually checked the reality behind the rhetoric. It’s also testament to a simple fact about sprawl. In the end, in trying to escape the problems of urban life – high taxes, pressures on public services and crime – they are often only replicated in another place.

Here are the assumptions for the analysis – $80,000 income, $150,000 home and two cars (2003 Saturn L200 and 2000 Chrysler Town and Country Van).

When comparing unincorporated areas of Shelby County to unincorporated areas in DeSoto County, Shelby Countians pay $865.39 less - $2,644.39 versus $1,779. That’s even with the much-loathed fire fee and wheel tax, by the way.


Meanwhile, the taxes in every city in Shelby County – including Memphis – are less than the taxes in Olive Branch and Southaven. While the difference for Memphians is about enough for a meal for two at Wendy’s, the savings for other cities range from $535 in Germantown residents to $887 Arlington.

Of course, the monkey wrench in the Mississippi equation is the state’s income tax and its personal property tax on automobiles. It more than offsets the much higher property tax bills for Memphians.

For example, the Memphis big two – the property tax and sales tax – amounts respectively to $2,726.25 and $1,850. The wheel county tax accounts for $100, the city wheel tax $60 and vehicle registration $48. The total Memphis tax bill: $3,007.50.

Tax Savings

Olive Branch taxpayers start with a much lower property tax bill - $709.50 – but they soon catch up and pass Memphians. There’s the $294.39 personal property tax on the cars; the $2,030 state income tax; and $1,400 in sales taxes. Total taxes: $3,017.89. (The total in Southaven is $3,059.89.)

Here are the tax totals for other Shelby County towns:

* $2,130.00 – Arlington

* $2,266.25 – Millington

* $2,322.50 – Bartlett

* $2,338.75 - Collierville

* $2,442.50 – Germantown

Crossing The Line

While Memphians only save about $10 when compared to Olive Branch and $52 to Southaven, they can – and do - increase their savings by crossing the county lines to take advantage of those lower DeSoto County sales taxes.

While Dr. Wallace was making a strong point about the relative tax burdens of Memphis and Shelby County with its southern neighbors, we couldn’t help but think about the unjustifiable disparity of the tax burden between Memphians and taxpayers outside of the city limits.

It graphically points up the disincentive that Memphians pay to live in the city. They immediately give themselves more disposable income by abandoning the city and moving anywhere else in Shelby County.

Fairness First

You’ve heard our position before, so we won’t belabor the point, but suffice it to say that regional services should be moved to the broader countywide tax base. In this way, the property tax bill for Memphians each year would roughly be the same as residents of Germantown, Collierville and Bartlett.

It’s one of those rare opportunities to inject fairness into our local tax structure. And overall, it’s the one doable thing that could put Memphis into an immediately better competitive position.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Problems At Peabody Place Rock Downtown Rhetoric

If anything should qualify us to be honorary members of the Belz family, it’s the pained feeling that shoots through our bodies every time there’s a new headline about a failed business at Peabody Place.

The latest was about the closing of Ann Taylor Loft, the latest on the lengthening list of businesses who found the mall environment problematic on its best days and heart-breaking on its worst.

Putting so much of their own money – as well as public incentives - at risk, the Belz family certainly deserves better. And yet, it’s hard to escape the potent reality that every failure at Peabody Place is another troubling sign for downtown Memphis.

Wanted: Magic Bullet

These days, patriarch Jack Belz and the rest of his family are grappling with ways to reverse the tide of problems at Peabody Place, but there is one thing they have decided already – there’s no easy answer.

Among the ideas being reluctantly considered is converting the complex into an outlet mall. Actually, this was considered when Peabody Place was in the planning stage, even including a big box retailer like Wal-Mart or K-Mart. It was probably the safest course of action, but Belz Enterprises felt that aiming higher would best serve the interests of downtown.

Unfortunately, the company’s higher ambitions haven’t been supported by the marketplace, and as the Belz family considers its options, no one understands the problems associated with an outlet mall – particularly the apparent contradiction between it and the Peabody Hotel brand. But at this point, the first priority is stopping the flow of red ink.

Fortress Mentality

As Belz Enterprises considers Peabody Places’ future, we find ourselves remembering a visit to Louisville four years ago as that city faced a similar question - what to do with a failing enclosed mall that was supposed to be downtown Louisville’s salvation. It opened in 1982, a jarring suburban transplant plopped down into the fabric of downtown, separate and apart.

The Galleria was so big that it spanned Fourth Avenue which was closed so more space could be put inside what largely appeared from the outside to be a walled fortress. It reflected a traditional mall sensibility – get the people inside and keep them there.

Only the mall sensibility didn’t work. From the outside, the massive walls and glassed-in entrances were uninviting and austere. On the inside, you could just as easily be in suburban Louisville, because there was no connection to its urban setting.

Starting Over

City of Louisville officials weren’t sure what to do. Eventually, city government bought back the mall for $4 million so it could control the project’s future. After accepting proposals from several development companies, Louisville selected Cordish Co. to tackle the problem and sold the Baltimore-based company the Galleria for $1.

The company decided to start over. It knocked the sides out of the old mall, restored traffic to Fourth Avenue, evicting the typical suburban mall mix of stores and focusing on the creation of a bright, lively, bustling entertainment zone.

In setting out to literally turn the Galleria inside out, officials with Cordish Co. said that for the project to be successful, it had to have a “distinctive sense of place,” something graphically lacking in the Galleria; it had to connect directly with its urban surroundings; and it had to respond to the expectations of the public looking for a uniquely urban experience.

Soul Reborn

Put another way, Cordish executives said the place had to have a “soul,” and if anything was obvious about Galleria, it was the very soulless atmosphere of the place.

The new $70 million project was nothing short of risky. As a Brookings researcher said, it was precisely the kind of mixed-use project that’s the most risky real estate development in cities like Louisville – whose similarities to Memphis in geographical setting, demographics and challenges are striking.

After about two years of construction, the reborn Galleria project was completed October 30, 2004. The Louisville project – now dubbed Fourth Street Live (photos above) – is not without its critics, particularly for the public subsidies it received, but it’s hard to argue with the results -- it now draws more than four million people a year, making it the most visited site in the State of Kentucky.

Powering Activity

As part of Fourth Street Live, the Cordish Co. asked for the re-opening of Fourth Avenue, but asked and received permission to close it Wednesday through Saturday nights for the 150 special outdoor special events – particularly free concerts by national acts - that enliven the area.

Today, reminders of the old walled-in mall are gone, and because the new development plugs organically into the urban landscape, it actually is a catalyst to the overall vibrancy of downtown, rather than a cloistered center where people parked, shopped, got back in their cars and drove back home.

The Cordish Co. has worked similar magic in other cities, and it is regarded as the best in the business. In its hometown of Baltimore, it’s given a new burst of life to the Harbor with its Power Plant project. In Kansas City, it’s developing a $850 million, nine-square block redevelopment in the Power & Light District, long known for its dilapidation and neglect.

But as impressed as we are with so much of the company’s work, it’s the Fourth Street Live project in Louisville that have always captured our imagination. Hopefully, Peabody Place can sidestep the hard lessons of Louisville.

Downtown Math 101

Of course, we’re not telling Mr. Belz anything he doesn’t already know. There’s little about downtown development like the one in Louisville that he’s not familiar with, so perhaps, with his experience, he can determine if there are any lessons that could help to turn around Peabody Place.

The stakes for Memphis are much too high for Peabody Place to be a failure and go dark. That’s exactly what happened in Louisville before officials there got serious about doing something with the Galleria. Come to think of it, it’s also exactly what happened here with the Peabody Hotel itself.

If there’s one overriding moral of the Louisville story, it was in turning the mall outward to the street and to the people on it that it was resuscitated and become a node of vibrancy that in the end delivered the best measurement of a successful project - two plus two equals more than four.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

This Week On Smart City: Australia's Smart Cities

Who doesn't appreciate a vibrant, exciting city?

On Smart City, we especially appreciate the people who make them. Our guests this week are two such people, both from Australia.

Rob Adams is Director of Design and Culture for the City of Melbourne where he has built a remarkable track record for reanimating the city and making it sustainable. A native of Zimbabwe, Rob has more than 30 years experience as a practicing architect and urban designer. Now with the City of Melbourne he is producing design-research based urban projects and strategies, and has won more than 65 state and national awards for excellence.

Brian Newman is chief executive of the Sydney Olympic Authority. It's his job to create a new precinct at the site of the 2000 Summer Olympics with its own energy and its own economic momentum.

Smart City is a syndicated, weekly hour-long public radio talk show that takes an in-depth look at urban life: the people, places, ideas and trends that affect us all. Host Carol Coletta talks with national and international public policy experts, economists, business leaders, artists, developers, planners and others on the pulse of city life for a penetrating discussion on urban issues.

In Memphis, Smart City is broadcast on WKNO FM, 91.1, at 9 a.m. Sundays. It is also webcast and podcast at the Smart City website, which also has a listing of broadcast times in other cities and the sign up for a weekly newsletter.

Friday, August 17, 2007

In A Thomas Kinkade World, Memphis Music Is Vincent Van Gogh

We got this comment from someone in the local music scene, Matt Timberlake, and because we liked it so much, we're posting it here too:

Just read your blog about Live From Memphis.

You touched on what I've always found so damned dissappointing about the consumers of music in Memphis; they don't want our richly talented hidden gems, they want something amazing that amazes the world. It seems like a self-esteem thing, like we as a city are pissed off and sad that we aren't London, or New York or the Seattle of ten years ago.

But it's just us, here, with this attitude.

Read It And Weep

Open any Mojo Magazine (UK's Rolling Stone) and it's packed with Memphis. One tiny example: a recent issue, discussing Jack White of the 'Stripes, tossed Jeff Evans' name into the article as a buddy and adviser. This is the same Jeff who fronts our great '68 Comeback and bought books from me at a yard sale. You've seen him around. Jack O's recent fire-hot disc was reviewed in the same issue. It had at least two stars on the new one from Paul McCartney.

My buddy Chip Galloway, who owns and runs In Tha Vault Entertainment, produces DVD's documenting the local hip-hop scene, on stage and in the hazy rooms behind it. Groups and rappers none of us have ever heard of, but who you've waited in line for one of those strange blue margaritas with at Music Fest. These films, Memphis Underground: Raw and Uncut, are distributed at, among other retailers, Best Buy. They fly off the shelves in the Mid-West.

Go figure.

Promising Signs

A drift in the right direction can be seen in local radio, one element of our city's music community that actually impresses me.

WEVL has always been a wonderful way for people to hear their freinds and neighbors on the radio, but their audience is a knowledgeable group finding what they are seeking. Recently though, Rock 103 and 93x have hugely expanded their local programming, not just with segments of air time devoted to Memphis Music, like 93x's Locals Only, but actually integrating our music into their daily playlists. Big thanks to Dennis, Ric and Luca at Rock 103 and Syd and Crate at 93x.

This is major. Damn right a Rind Stars' song deserves as much attention as Nickelback. Damn right Chess Club can hold their own with the Cars. Damn right Vending Machine is as ecstatically weird as Ween.

It's Not Local Music

We just have to begin to take our music (and all art) seriously.

We don't make local music, we make music. And it's great.

Or maybe we just take comfort in this: Thomas Kinkade is a rich, rich man, while one-eared Vincent Van Gogh never moved out of his brother's basement until he shot himself in the stomach and died poor.

But it sure would be nice to see you all at the show, having a good time. I'm sure you would, if you came.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Creating The "On Your Side" University of Memphis

We’ve been dealing with some heavy duty issues lately, so how about we lighten up as the week comes to an end?

Next week, the guy who brought us the glories of “On Your Side” news at Channel 3 takes over the communications reins at University of Memphis.

So, what do you think this could mean for our university?

Can Provost Ralph Faudree add about about 80 pounds, throw his jacket over his shoulder and become a watchdog for higher education? Or can he rise to the challenge of saying “I” every other sentence.

Can the university’s objective researchers work their own religious beliefs into their reports so they can be "Wisely" on our side?

Can more sensational verbiage replace the academic language of President Shirley Raines? After all, those publish or perish threats sound gang-related.

You can do better than we can. What will be your tip-off that the University of Memphis is now on your side?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Memphis City Schools Needs Board At Its Best

OK, let’s all take a couple steps back and take a deep breath.

As we do it, we’re especially hoping that the Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners will join us.

For all of our sakes, we need the board to move beyond its embattled view of the world, which transforms public discussions about important issues into “we against them” confrontations and which produces decisions that seem so logical within the cocoon of chaos.

In The Foxhole

It’s a dramatic reminder that the worst thing about a siege mentality is that you don’t even know you have it. It’s death by a thousand pinpricks, as action after action and issue after issue puncture the public confidence on which you depend for your effectiveness. Trapped within the bunker, the decisions seem so reasonable, but the problem is that the rest of us aren’t in the bunker.

Despite what some school board members may think, most of us who have criticized them lately aren’t at war with them. We’re at war with the status quo at Memphis City Schools, and they are victims as much as the 115,000 students in its classrooms.

The board also proves the axiom that everyone’s strength is also their weakness. That’s been the case with our school board.

New Faces

If they are the target for much criticism these days, it’s not because we don’t like them or respect them. It’s because we expect so much more from them.

Memphis breathed a collective sigh of relief when the board of commissioners was transformed, ushering in a host of new faces and new approaches. It was just what Memphis City Schools needed, something to threaten the bureaucratic culture and to bring fresh ideas to the district.

We also like the fact that so many of them were young and novices to the political system. After all, political life in Memphis needs nothing so much as more newcomers.

Skin Problems

Back to strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, because of their youth and their lack of experience, too many of the school board members lapse into an attitude that any criticism is cause for all-out war. And because their skin has not been thickened by experience in the political wars, they often are seen as prickly and obsessed with their own opinions.

This is not to say that they don’t deserve to be sensitive. As one of them pointed out in a comment to this blog, any time anything good happened at Memphis City Schools, it was because of Carol Johnson. Any time anything bad happened, it was because of the school board.

Such was the charisma and persuasive abilities of the former superintendent. Of course, it’s easier for someone in that kind of titular position to create that kind of impression, whether it’s the superintendent, the mayor or the governor. That’s because that person becomes the “face” for that agency or government and has the power to stick to the message. It’s just not possible for this to happen with public bodies like the board of commissioners - whether it’s the one for city schools or county government - because there are multiple faces sending multiple messages to the public.

Breaks In The Chain

If things aren’t pressurized enough for the board in the wake of the exit of the wildly popular former superintendent, it becomes even worse as more and more information about operational decisions and appointments seeps to the board for the first time. Already, Interim Superintendent Dan Ward is troubled by operational systems that almost seem more designed to prevent a smooth flow of information to the school board than to expedite it. As a result, board members are kept off balance as they learn information about their own school operations from constituents and bloggers.

It’s not a comfortable position to be in, and they have every right to demand better communications and more structured reporting on key issues. As one says, “What we are told one night can be contradicted completely the next night, and we never quite know what the facts are. Then, of course, there are the hundreds of things that we are never told, but when they blow up, all of a sudden, it’s our problem and our fault.”

It’s an uncomfortable position to be in at any time, but as the school board members consider the most decision they will make – who the next superintendent will be – we need them to be more clear-eyed and clear-headed than any time in their lives. They can easily reassure us if they adopted some guiding principles as they set out to hire a new superintendent, and come to think of it, it would also help if they would pledge to hire the absolutely best possible person in the country to head up Memphis City Schools.

Bureaucratic Thinking

Sometimes, in government, the atmosphere is so politically-charged and change so unbearably slow that it’s easy to forget that decisions are shaping the entire lives of people. It’s not that the people in these public positions are callous. It’s just that they are overwhelmed by the agendas and the games being played, and there’s a constant barrage of reasons to take your eye off the ball.

As a result, at Memphis City Schools, there are times when it’s almost as if we forget that ultimately, we are dealing with the lives and futures of students – as well as city itself. The children are rarely mentioned, and frequently seem to be treated as objects like the raw materials that keep the factory going.

As we think about these issues, we are reminded of something we read almost a decade ago. It’s called the “Components of Effective Governance” and was written by the California School Board Association.

Effective Districts

Here’s what it said is required for effective governance of a school district:

* The board and superintendent collectively understand and operate with implicit and explicit norms and values such as trust, honest and openness.

* The entire governance team understands, respects and adheres to ground rules that govern the internal operation of the governance team.

* All members of the governance team are perceived to be equally legitimate, no matter how different or difficult an individual may be.

* The governance team is known for its total commitment to the highest standard of student learning and achievement for all students in the district.

* The board exhibits creative thinking, knows how to handle failure as well as success, encourages risk-taking and creates a climate of support for excellence.

* The board treats all staff with dignity and respect.

* The board is respectful of all community members, even when faced with criticism and opposition.

* The board recognizes and accepts that conflicts and differences are inevitable, not necessarily “bad,” and must be faced, analyzed and managed.

* The board strives to maintain a “no secrets, no surprises” operating norm.

* The board tends to immediately turn to solutions rather than playing the “gotcha” game.

* The board assumes collective responsibility for the conduct, behavior and effectiveness of the board.

Trust And Trustees

Finally, according to the California school boards organization, the effectiveness of board members stems from their commitment to acting as trustees acting on behalf of the children in the city where they are elected.

That approach results in a board operating with a unity of purpose and within a culture of accountability and competency shared by the superintendent. And yet, “Not every one who serves on a board assumes the trustee role. Many never make the transition from being an individual with narrow interests or agendas serving on a board to being a trustee member of a governance team.”

All of us know that there is no tougher job in public life than serving on a school board. Issues are more complex, media scrutiny is more intense and criticism is never-ending.

That’s why if anything is needed right now, it is for every one to take a couple of steps back and take a deep breath. Then, let’s all figure out a way to find the next Carol Johnson, because Memphis City Schools should settle for nothing less.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Regaining Lost Ground Will Require Time And Right Focus For Memphis Music

It’s incontestable that Memphis has an awful lot of ground to cover if we want to convert our rhetoric about supporting our legendary music into the reality of supporting our musicians.

So, continuing our post from yesterday, how much ground do we need to cover?

According to a report by the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago, about the 10 other “music cities” in the U.S. besides Chicago, Memphis is last in almost every measurement, including revenue generated by the music industry - $77.07 million.

Everything Looks Up To Us

For our purposes, we’re eliminating New Orleans for obvious reasons, and so, the next city that Memphis has to pass to move up the ladder of success is Austin. Its music industry revenue is more than twice Memphis - $192.17 million.

Then the leap is really challenging. Next on the list are Seattle with $309.23 million, Las Vegas with $350.58 million and Atlanta with $360.4 million. In other words, to move up to sixth place, Memphis needs to increase music revenue about fivefold.

To break into the top five is a challenge altogether tougher - #5 Nashville has $469.64 million in revenue; #4 Boston has $506.6 million; #3 Chicago has $818.91 million; #2 Los Angeles has $3.24 billion; and #1 New York City at $3.4 billion.


We point this out because in Memphis, we are often hypnotized by our own hyperbole. That certainly is frequently the case when we talk about music, and while we have unquestionably squandered our music traditions, we need to be coldly realistic about the challenge as we begin to revive our music business.

It’s a journey that will take a long time, and it will not come chasing magic answers or simple solutions. Back in the day, our daily newspaper boasted that Memphis had the fourth largest music business in the U.S. To get back to that position, we will need to grow our music revenues by $429 million.

And while that of course only gets us back to the same relative position, right now, it looks awfully good.

Memphis As Mausoleum

When you look back to why we jumped the track, people cite lack of civic support for music, lack of acceptance for musicians who were outsiders to the core, lack of venture capital or financial backing and too many musicians who saw their futures in other places.

But to us, one of the major mistakes that we made as a city was treating our music as if it’s all in the rearview mirror. It’s part of what we’ve called the “Memphis as mausoleum” marketing attitude, sending the message that everything exciting took place here between 1950 and 1975.

We’ve been so successful at selling our heritage, it shifted our focus away from the talent that is still here and the opportunities to reinvent the music industry from a Memphis platform. As a result, we find ourselves languishing in the lowest rung on the music city ladder.

Tough Times Demand Smart People

There are some awfully smart people in Memphis about music, and we’re not among them. We quoted one of them yesterday – Tonya Butler, University of Memphis music business professor – and we need to get her and other new thinkers into a new conversation about our music future.

In that way, perhaps, we can move toward the future with less emphasis on the “all or nothing” big ideas that haven’t panned out in the past, and with greater attention to our raw materials for this industry – the creativity of our musicians.

“After the vision, you need a support structure,” Dr. Butler said in an interview in last month’s Memphis magazine. “There’s lots of music in Memphis, but there’s no industry. When I came to Memphis in 2004, it was my understanding that we were courting MTV for the music video awards. I literally thought it was a joke. No one I knew outside of Memphis thought that was remotely possible. The Justin Timberlake renewal of Stax didn’t even make sense. When he ended up starting his label in L.A., that made sense.

Boosting Off

“The entities that have sought to bring industry to Memphis have been way off base. If you’re going to bring an awards show to Memphis, go court a smaller independent music awards show. I understand shooting for the moon, but this rocket ship’s only got so much gas.”

And if we’re looking for a foundation to build on, she suggests Craig Brewer’s films, Kurt Clayton, Al Kapone, Carlos Brody, Ardent, Young Avenue Sound, Studio D, Select-O-Hits, Audio Graphic Master Work, and great vocalists and musicians. Building on these strengths, Memphis can create a vision that makes the most of our music heritage right now, in the present.

Memphis has the talent. What it doesn’t have it time.

Learning From History

More and more, successful economic development today is about talent – how to attract it, how to retain it and how to unleash it. That’s particularly true with music. So, looking back at the history of Memphis music, what lessons should we learn:

1) Memphis’ music came directly from the city’s success as a magnet for talent

2) Memphis’ distinctiveness was a midwife to this burst of creativity

3) The creativity was rooted in the values and sensibilities of a new generation

4) The creative breakthroughs happened far outside the mainstream and were created bottom-up and organically

5) The revolution unleashed in Memphis resulted from a historic fusion of new music and new technology

If Memphis could lead the world into a new era of music then, who is willing to say we can’t do it now?

Inventing The New Music Business

The digital age is transforming the industry, and while those at the top of the food chain try to deny it and stick their fingers in the dike, musicians now have the power to create their own success, build their own value, maintain control of their own careers and follow their own artistic muse.

In the truest sense, when the changes in the music business are complete, it won’t even be the music business anymore. It will be the musician business.

In a world driven by personal customization and musician self-determination, the independence that has always been the creative spark in Memphis should position us to be a leader in the new frontier for the music industry if it is nurtured and strengthened. The digital wave will inevitably wash over the suits and wash away the vestiges of the music industry as we’ve known it, and there’s no reason that our city shouldn’t be on its crest.

But to do it, we need to make three promises to ourselves: One, we will invest in talent; two, we will empower bottom-up solutions; and three, we will create musician-centric strategies.

It’s a long road back to the top, but these would be the best first steps we could make.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Report Hits Off Notes About Memphis Music

In a Memphis magazine interview, Tonya Butler, three-year resident who’s teaching music business at University of Memphis, made this prescient statement: “There’s lots of music in Memphis, but there’s no industry.”

Her point is made powerfully clear in a recent report for the Chicago Music Commission on the state of the music industry in the Windy City. In graph after graph, Chicago measures its performance and compares it to America’s other famous music cities. Sadly, Memphis is essentially a footnote.

For the report, the Chicago Music Commission developed a set of indicators, and then compared itself to nine other music cities – New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Las Vegas, Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans and Seattle.

On The Last Rung

Chicago ranked third in most measurements, but that’s not the reason we were interested. In indicator after indicator, Memphis ranked in the bottom two in every measurement, suggesting the grim reality facing the Memphis Fast Forward alliance which has set music/film as one of the four main areas of emphasis for economic growth in the coming years.

Here are some telling details from the report:

* Musicians – In the category which the report rightly calls the “Core of the Core: Employed Musicians,” Memphis finished last in the number of groups and artists who make their living in music. We have 202 people who make their living in music, compared to Nashville’s 2,761; Seattle’s 828; Atlanta’s 530, and Austin’s 362.

* Grassroots musicians and bands – This is the measurement of the grassroots music scene, and Memphis actually beats out Nashville – 1,122 to 1,103. Atlanta has 4,061 and Seattle has 5,744.

* In total music employment, Memphis finished in last place with 4,762 total employees. Atlanta has 16,940 working in its music industry and Seattle has 22,908 people.

Live In Memphis

* Tickets sold for live performances – Memphis finished in last place with 146,000 tickets, compared to 483,000 in Nashville, 501,000 in Austin and 1,087,000 in Seattle. It’s stark evidence to the validity of the complaints of countless music promoters who have lost their shirt in Memphis. Receipts from live performances was $6.5 million, about half of the next lowest city.

* Music firms – Memphis finished last in the number of music businesses (recording studios, stores selling instruments, radio stations, instrument manufacturers, etc) with 283. That compares to 623 in Austin; 1,662 in Atlanta; and 1,943 in Seattle.

* Music payroll – Memphis finished last with $73.32 millions, compared to $119.85 million in Austin; $403.58 million in Seattle and $422.96 million in Nashville.

* Music industry revenue – Memphis finished last with $77.07 million, compared to $192.17 million in Austin; $360.40 million in Atlanta; and $309.23 million in Seattle.


* Total records sales – Memphis finished last with 3.27 million units, compared to 5.49 million in Nashville, 13.51 million in Seattle and 13.55 million in Atlanta.

* Venue capacity – Memphis finished last with 81,609 seats, compared to Austin’s 108,812, Seattle’s 234,005 and Seattle’s 234,005. There is a little bit of a bright light here: when venues are measured per thousand people: Memphis is tied for fifth.

* Median venue capacity – Attesting to Memphis’ vibrant club scene, the average venue has capacity of 700, compared to 699 in Nashville, 750 in Seattle and 950 in Austin. Unfortunately, Memphis is last in the amount of gross receipts generated by each seat - $80 – but just barely behind Nashville at $90.

* Musical format – Memphis is second behind Las Vegas in the lack of clubs and small venues devoted to a discernible genre. While country music holds the largest shares in Austin, Nashville, and even Atlanta, 86 percent of Memphis clubs have no specific kind of music, meaning that if you’re looking for a diversified music scene, we’ve got it. One proviso from the report: “the lack of specialization also reflects the basic economic principle that larger markets can support more niches than smaller ones.”

Get Real

Conducted by the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago, the report is one of the most thorough that we’ve ever seen on the strength of the music industry in various cities, and it goes the extra mile to make sure measurements are comparable.

All in all, it paints a disturbing picture of how difficult it will be to catapult Memphis into the top tier of cities with vibrant, healthy music industries. If nothing else, it suggests that if Memphis Fast Forward is to build music into a dominant growth industry for Memphis, it will be brick by brick over many years.

If there’s any encouragement to come from the report, perhaps it’s the fact that in the past 15 years or so, Atlanta has come from nowhere to become one of the top music cities in the U.S. That fact alone salves our bruised pride, but we just have to remember that whatever we do here will take more than a decade.

Climbing The Ladder

Another interesting aspect of the report is that the city just ahead of us in most of the rankings is Austin, which calls itself “Live Music Capital” and with little to back it up, staked out that brand for itself. A number of Memphis business leaders have looked admiringly at Austin for inspiration for our strategies for Memphis music, but as the report shows, Austin is barely a rung above Memphis and is itself a distance from breaking into the top five cities.

Then again, perhaps the Austin model is more relevant than we would like to admit. Without a traditional infrastructure for the music industry, it’s carved out its niche in live music, a funky music scene, a reputation for weirdness that inspires the musicians there and industry showcases.

Memphis has the same strengths, plus we have a music heritage that can’t be duplicated by any city on the globe. In other words, without too much effort, we should be able to push past Austin on the top 10 list, but the real test is moving up to the levels of Seattle and Atlanta.

Price Of Neglect

It’s hard to imagine that we have fallen so far from our glory years, but eventually, we have to pay the price for neglecting our music assets, giving up Stax without even a fight and failing to support the other studios that gave Memphis its distinctive sound. The price for the neglect is clear: it’s seen in our last place finish on the list.

But it also suggests that we need to be more realistic about our expectations, and as we proceed, we need to tattoo one sentence from the Chicago report on our arms. It said: “What (we) become in the future depends on the genius of our music makers…”

It sounds basic, but it’s a fundamental fact of life that we tend to overlook here. If we’re really serious about reviving our music industry and becoming known once again as a hub of music creativity, it’s the musicians, stupid.

Tomorrow: A Few Ideas

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Live From Memphis Faces Another Memphis Music Tradition: Lack Of Support

The track record of the Memphis Music Foundation has been one of false starts and misplaced priorities, but it’s on the verge of falling convincingly on its face.

That’s because Memphis Music’s pioneering digital outpost – – will in all likelihood close up shop at the end of the year.

And if there’s anything that will speak volumes about the philosophy and approach of the Foundation – and the Memphis and Shelby County Music Commission, for that matter – it will be the failure of our most innovative music initiative. It will also come at the time when Memphis Fast Forward claims that music is a major priority in the much-ballyhooed economic growth plan.


Worst of all, it will be an indictment of a foundation has too often in the past unveiled music strategies as something to be thrust upon Memphis musicians rather than as something to be built on the organic creativity that has always been at the heart of the Memphis Music.

Live From Memphis
is just such an exercise in creativity. Long before it became clear that the traditional music business models – something akin to the company store for musicians – were collapsing, Christopher Reyes, the founder of Live From Memphis, understood that a change is gonna come.

As a result, years ago, he eliminated the cumbersome business model and connected Memphis bands directly with their customers. In the emerging world of customer customization, he founds ways to get on the leading edge of the change.

Bottom Up Works Best

He did it in a uniquely Memphis way, characterized by an unwavering attention to the interests of musicians and to getting to the grassroots of creativity, where the greatest Memphis music has always been found, away from the city’s mainstream and in musical cauldrons where originality and authenticity are their own rewards.

That much has never changed in Memphis, because the unique musical styles of our city are just as alive today as when they burst forth from Sun Records and other studios. And just as it was then, it happens largely unnoticed by the private sector, because it has no experience with the kind of independent, free spirits who are heirs to our music tradition and the exact kind of people whose talents must lie at the heart of our music strategies.

Looking back at our history, the burst of genius that produced rock and roll came from the convergence of the musical talents of outsiders and advances in technology. The same could happen today, but it would require us to turn our attention from pipe dreams like the MTV Awards, ill-conceived ideas like relocating the Voodoo Festival, and other big ideas that never quite seem to live up to what was promised – Justin Timberlake’s Memphis operations.

It’s About Money

Bold ambitions are always welcome in Memphis, but perhaps, what we need now is some incremental progress that is built steadfastly on local musicians. The measure of whether a new idea is a good one should be simple: If it’s not putting money into the pockets of our own musicians, it’s not a priority for now.

In other words, music can benefit our economic growth, but not by treating it as an industry cluster or in traditional economic development thinking. Perhaps, if we treated music as a creative force that could have economic benefits and we aligned our incentives and our investments to build our unique talent, we’d have greater chances for success in the long-term.

There’s a feeling among some musicians that the work of the Music Foundation doesn’t really affect them, and it’s a hurdle that’s at the top of the to-do list for its new president. He also moves in the right direction by opening up the work of the organization, by listening to musicians’ opinions and by exploiting the national connections of all Memphis musicians, not just concentrating on the one who thinks it’s all him being sexy.

Taking Action

Memphis musicians are a creative bunch, and many show the same kind of futuristic thinking as Mr. Reyes. After all, everything that he said eight years ago has come to pass. The traditional music business model is in melt-down, and while we seem intent on chasing grand plans and throwing millions of dollars at them, Live From Memphis is likely to shut down for want of thousands of dollars.

If it happens, we need to come to grips with a reality about our city. We’re all talk when it comes to Memphis Music. When it comes to actually doing something to prove that our music isn’t just about the past and that great music is being played and recorded in this city, we’re awful slow to take action.

If Live From Memphis shuts down, we all need to quit bragging about our music legacy and we need to throw away all the brochures about our proud heritage. If we can’t figure out how to continue the website that links current musicians and bands to the world, our failure becomes a stark demonstration of the attitude that confronted so many music innovators throughout our history.

Respect Yourself

There’s the mythology that somehow, these musical innovators were recognized for their genius and were strongly supported by the mainstream of Memphis. Nothing is farther from the truth. If we can do anything to prove that we’ve learned the lessons from our history, it would be to show that we are tapping into the kinds of organic creativity that lies at the heart of our music in the first place.

If the Memphis Music Foundation and all the rest of us want to show that we “gets” it, the perfect place to start is in saving Live From Memphis. If we allow Live From Memphis to go dark because Mr. Reyes can’t continue to finance it himself, it will be the kind of failure that will come to define our city. Again.

We thought of this recently when we watched PBS’s Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story. It was troubling to contemplate whether we’d learned anything from the painful collapse of that legendary Memphis label. Watching the documentary, it was striking how cavalier most Memphians were about whether Stax lived or died and how much the top-down thinking doomed the label.

So far, we haven’t shown conclusively that we learned anything from that tragic experience. Live From Memphis gives us our chance.

Tomorrow: The State of Memphis Music

Thursday, August 09, 2007

This Week On Smart City: The Greening Of San Francisco

Future Farmers may be the least likely name for an artists collaborative. But it does, indeed, describe the work of artist Amy Franceschini, now, quite literally. As winner of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's recent commission, Amy is using an inspiration from World War II-era America to spark a citizen movement to make San Francisco the garden city. In 1995, she co-founded Atlas, an online magazine. Amy has taught at art and design schools in San Francisco and currently teaches as a lecturer at Stanford University in the Art Department.

Also with us from San Francisco is Dr. Isabel Wade, founder of the Neighborhood Parks Council. It's an open source network of citizen volunteers using technology and political pressure to keep the city's parks maintained. In March 2000, Dr. Wade and the NPC spearheaded a coalition of other non-profits to pass two ballot initiatives that would begin and continue the restoration of city parks and the acquisition of open space.

Smart City is a syndicated, weekly hour-long public radio talk show that takes an in-depth look at urban life: the people, places, ideas and trends that affect us all. Host Carol Coletta talks with national and international public policy experts, economists, business leaders, artists, developers, planners and others on the pulse of city life for a penetrating discussion on urban issues.In Memphis,

Smart City is broadcast on WKNO FM, 91.1, at 9 a.m. Sundays. It is also webcast and podcast at the Smart City website, which also has a listing of broadcast times in other cities and the sign up for a weekly newsletter.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Another Interesting Week In Memphis City Schools

When it comes to interpreting the political tea leaves, Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners is about as good as Mid-South Fair carnies.

Repeatedly, state government tried to send nuanced messages that should have alerted the school board members that Governor Phil Bredesen was closely watching their decision on the interim superintendent’s position as an indication of whether they understand how serious things are for the 17 city schools facing state action - which can range from more teacher training to state takeover with new principals, new teachers and new autonomy - and would rise to the challenge.

Instead, it sounds like many of the board members latched on to an unconfirmed (not to mention, inaccurate) rumor that the governor had already decided that he will not take over the 17 high-priority schools that have failed to make any progress for six years. With tireless lobbying by the union, academic directors and others concerned about their jobs, the board appointed someone who all but promised that he'd do nothing important while he's on the job.

Calling Jimmy Carter

If the board is thinking that Governor Phil Bredesen has made a decision against taking over the 17 schools, nothing could be farther from the truth. The governor has been diplomatic in saying that all options remain on the table, but moving up on that list with a bullet is the possible state takeover of the schools.

As a result of the school board’s vote for a perceived caretaker in the interim superintendent’s job, early indications from state officials are that they see it as a symptom of an inabilityby the board to provide the kind of leadership capable of dealing with the entrenched problems of these 17 schools and the thousands of city school students whose interests, they say, rarely seem to get mentioned.

From the vantagepoint of the state, it’s wasn’t just the final vote on the interim superintendent. It’s the road that the school board took to get there – missteps, overpoliticized process and lack of a businesslike approach to attracting and evaluating the best candidates for the job.

Mystery Train

Today in Nashville, officials revisited the options for Memphis, ranging from actions that nibble around the edges of the problem to the state taking over full management of the 17 schools. The discussion was marked by gnashing of teeth and deepening frustration, all of which reminds us how much Memphis remains a mystery to state government.

It almost doesn’t matter who’s serving as governor, there’s the feeling that Memphis is a third world political environment where nothing is as it appears and that regardless of the choice that they make in Nashville, it’s destined to blow up.

In its own strange way, that last notion actually encourages bolder action by the state. The logic goes like this: If things are going to blow up any way, let’s just go ahead and do whatever we think is best.

A $1 Billion Business

The renewed momentum for the governor to do something dramatic in Memphis may dissipate in the coming days, but there’s one overriding attitude in Nashville today: the Memphis School Board blew a great opportunity to prove that the state should have confidence that its members can provide the kind of leadership needed by the $1 billion public behemoth with 16,500 employees supposedly focused on the needs of 119,000 students.

Meanwhile, the district this week released the annual scorecard from No Child Left Behind, and as someone who has criticized the district’s inability to communicate its own progress, we were impressed by the energetic “spin” put on the state’s data by the communications department.

However, if you’re statistically inclined, the percentage increase of schools in good standing was 12 percent. The percentage increase of schools in high-priority status – which begins the process that can end up with state action - went up 11 percent.


But we don’t want to be a wet blanket. The greatest satisfaction is that Memphis City Schools outperformed Nashville-Davidson County Schools. Nashville’s performance as a district landed it on the “corrective action.” That didn’t happen here.

Meanwhile, the Nashville district of 75,000 students had 34 of its schools in the high-priority category, compared to 41 Memphis City Schools in a district of 120,000.

One final note to the MCS communications department. If you are serious about our accessing a complete list of schools and their status, as your news release stated, don't put the home page for all of state government on your release. Please give us the direct link to the No Child Left Behind data.

It's hard enough for the public - especially parents - to get good information about their schools, so help them out when you can.