Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Question Of The Week: Finding Memphis' Key Advantages

It’s been awhile since we’ve had a “question of the week,” and since it’s been awhile, we apologize for giving this exercise such an inaccurate name. Nevertheless, we have enjoyed the conversations and insights that have come from these questions, so we’ve got another one for you.

Recently, Memphis Fast Forward unveiled the latest economic development plan for our city, naming its priorities as logistics, music/film, biomedical and tourism.

The brilliant Harvard economist Edward L. Glaeser, in a 43-page paper, “Urban Colossus: Why Is New York America’s Largest City,” made a seminal point about the economy of cities -- urban economies are shaped by small advantages that over time become huge advantages.

For example, New York’s advantage in the early 1800’s was its port, which was better situated than other East Coast ports for trade with Europe. It was closer to the ocean than Philadelphia and more centrally located than Boston, and the small time that New York’s port saved became tremendous economic gain.

This small advantage ended up making New York the center for industries from sugar refining to garment manufacturing. Mr. Glaeser’s most interesting example is publishing.

In the early 19th century, the fledgling United States didn’t recognize foreign copyrights, and as a result, New York became a hotbed for pirated English novels. Again, the advantage of quicker ocean travel made it even more advantageous as the latest novels could be transported to New York for copying. From those humble beginnings grew New York’s dominance in the publishing industry.

Today, the city’s dominance in finance comes from a density that contributes to “chance meetings, regular exchanges of new ideas and the general flow of information.” And on Wall Street, as in many part of the global economy, information is power – and profit.

So the question for you this week is this:

Knowing that small advantages can become huge economic advantage, what should Memphis be keying on?

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

clean up wolf river and make it usable. Boating, swimming, fishing, and plain old watching.

expand and emphasise Shelby farms, and shelby forest.

Another Musicfest in the Fall.

Turn memphis into the medical capital of the South. You already have UT MED, U of M has good nursing program (make it better). We have St. Jude & Lebonheur.

More magnet etc. city schools like White Station.

Put term limits on political seats.
(Herrenton has got to go)

Dont annex areas the city cant support.

Anonymous said...

Is it just me or does it seem like the state of Tn doesn't care much about investing in UTCHS? I mean, go to other cities and look at state med schools and associated hospital/research areas. Ours doesn't seem to measure up. Perhaps I'm off base here...

Anonymous said...

"Recently, Memphis Fast Forward unveiled the latest economic development plan for our city, naming its priorities as logistics, music/film, biomedical and tourism."

Is that a plan? Or merely a recognition of facts? And if we are in sorry shape in spite of those facts, what's the plan to bring new industry?

Or maybe you're talking about a new shuffling of existing priorities. I don't know.

Anonymous said...

Or shuffling of the deck chairs?

Anonymous said...

Can we leverage our trees? They are one, uncomplicated-ly good thing about the city. I'd like to see new vitality to City Beautiful.

Are there enough qualified students to fill another school like WSHS? And whose parents are broad minded enough to send them to public school? The multicultural education I got there was certainly a small, wonderful thing about the city for me.

gatesofmemphis said...

Perhaps a key advantage is Memphis' special combination of low-cost of living, and creativity.

We could use this combination to develop a major creative subculture based on personal dreams rather than personal wealth. So many other creative cities, due to their high costs of living, end up pushing out the artists and dreamers. Memphis could encourage them to live here.

Requirements: 1. creating place and density to help foster creative energy. 2. cultural institutions that promote creation rather than consumption. 3. economic and social system which supports artists and dreamers, either directly through their earning a living through their art and creativity, or indirectly through free health care and access to jobs.

Obstacles: 1. Memphis' monied, institutional and political classes' general lack of curiosity about anything outside their class and social circles. 2. our absolute reliance on for profit developers to create/shape/destroy our urban landscape and its energy and beauty; 3. economic system that punishes creative risk with poverty and health care loss.

sherman said...

Gates of Memphis for Mayor. Will he show up for debates?

Anonymous said...

We're always bragging about the city's history of entrepreneurs. We need to invest in that ability rather than concentrating on industries. It's about aptitudes, not industry sectors.

Anonymous said...

You're always talking on this blog about the future being determined by innovation and entrepreneurship. It's hard to see how logistics and tourism got on that list.

I think that Memphis needs to concentrate on seeding creativity with a special venture fund. If the Arts Council really wants to do something - besides just change its name and little else - it would put up the money for a fund that treats our musicians, our filmmakers, and our artists as worthy of investment.

That's where the greatest progress can come, particularly if the Arts Council and otherse would set up a way that business and the arts collide and produce new ideas and innovation.

It's the silo thinking that's killing Memphis, and there's no bigger silo than the Arts Council and the private sector, who can't figure out that all these quirky, strange people aren't pains in the butt but people who can help create Memphis, not just their art.

Santo said...

One of my classes just read Glaeser’s “Urban Colossus” last week. I’ll see if they come up with any ideas. As for me, I think there’s reason to believe that we must have some small advantage in some subcategory of the broad term “music.” Maybe it’s a combination of musical heritage, music industry infrastructure, musically inspiring urban decay (in a good way?), and general affordability. (That would make a great Chamber of Commerce Slogan.) I’m not sure what the exact advantage is, or how Memphis might capitalize on it, but consider this piece about how Portland has become America’s Indie rock Mecca:
http://www.slate.com/id/2173729/fr/flyout

Portlander Taylor Clark shares his thoughts on why a growing number of successful musicians who got their start in other places have chosen to settle in the Rose City. Read it if you have the time, but I’ve tried to distill his theories to four mains reasons here:

1.Indie rockers come to Portland because they want “to live in a place where they could walk like gods among mortals.”

2.For Indie rockers, Portland is a comfortable place to live. It has “laid-back weirdness,” which, in part means “you can venture into public dressed like a convicted sex offender or a homeless person, and no one looks at you askew.” Other related reason include “the people are nice,” “the food is good,” and “creativity is the highest law.”

3.“Housing is affordable, especially compared with Seattle or San Francisco.”

4.Indie rockers love Portland because “the city produces very enthusiastic rock crowds.”

Nothing earth shattering there. Maybe this kind of success needs to happen “organically,” but if it is possible to create it, why not here? Laid back weirdness? Well, we’ve got laid back, and we’ve got weirdness, so why not “laid back weirdness?” Housing is affordable in Portland? No, it’s not. I spent four years there not too long ago. Housing is affordable in Memphis. And we’ve got plenty of mortals for gods to walk among. Better still, here they can walk among mortals along streets that some of their gods walked back in the day. As for the enthusiastic rock crowds, I haven’t been in a real rock crowd since my daughter was born 4 years ago, but I’d imagine Memphis could muster up a mosh pit with the best of them, right?

Going back to my earlier point about the musical inspiration of life in a gritty city, consider this comment on Taylor piece by Slate reader “Anse”:

“I remember Tom Waits once said the reason he preferred to stay in cheap hotels when he was on tour wasn't just because he could save money; lower-class neighborhoods had more stories. Luxury was an obstacle to getting to the root of things.”

Smart City Consulting said...

Santo:

Can we get you to throw your hat in the ring for the Music Commission job?

Brilliant observations about what's lacking here. Music innovation here has come from the outsiders, and there's a good reason for it: we treat musicians like outsiders. There such an important opportunity to embrace musicians and support them instead of chasing the big score. Music here is organic and indigenous. We can't replicate it with a business plan or an economic development, but we can create the environment and the culture for it to flourish.

Thanks for reminding us that it's all within our grasp.

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