Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Question Of The Week: Memphis' Small Advantages

Little more than a week ago, we submitted a “question of the week” based on Harvard University economist Edward L. Glaeser’s 43-page paper, “Urban Colossus: Why Is New York America’s Largest City.”

In it, he made a seminal point about the economy of cities -- urban economies are shaped by small advantages that over time become huge advantages.

So the question that we asked was:

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

We got the kind of insights and comments that we always get here - the kinds that make us hopeful about the future of our city. (By the way, Santo, we're still waiting for your students' answers, which we're sure we'd find instructive.)

Here’s what you said --

Anonymous said...

* clean up Wolf River and make it usable -- boating, swimming, fishing, and plain old watching.

* expand and emphasize 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 a good nursing program (make it better). We have St. Jude & Lebonheur.

* More magnet city schools like White Station.

* Put term limits on political seats.

* Don' t annex areas the city can’t support.

Anonymous said...

Is it just me or does it seem like the state of Tennessee 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.

Anonymous said...

You wrote, "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 White Station High School? 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.

gates of Memphis 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.

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.

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.

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 others 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:

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.”


Jon said...

Memphis also has a great radio station

Gregg said...

I meant to post this and time got away. I agree with all that's been mentioned about the arts and the parks. That's what makes people happy once they get to Memphis.

Clearly from a purely economic standpoint (i.e. GETTING people to Memphis), our location is a huge advantage for logistics and distribution. FedEx knows this. All the rail companies know this. We HAVE to leverage that by thinking long-term about making it easy to ship goods to and from Memphis.

Heavy freight is boring, the pay scales are relatively poor and you don't need a "creative class" type of employee. However, the speed at which we can get lighter goods to global destinations is a huge advantage with FedEx. The head of the regional chamber touched on this today as it relates to medical devices . The fact we can get a replacement knee to Mumbai in under 24 hours is a huge competitve advantage.

Obvious initiatives would be to get a 2nd rail line into Pidgeon Industrial Park to break the CN monopoly on rail there. Another would be the super terminal to get the BN out of the Poplar corridor (and move people on that...not freight).

Anonymous said...

If anything, our location, which is an advantage for logistics businesses, is a decided DISADVANTAGE in another way; to wit, we are isolated from the synergies that being close to other cities would bring.

2 hours from Little Rock
3 hours from Nashville
3 hours from Jackson, MS
5 hours from St. Louis
4 hours from Birmingham

We're kind of stuck out here in a Delta sea of cotton fields with every other city of consequence half a days drive away.

As an example of synergies, Atlanta is planning for high speed rail to Chattanooga. Now if I'm recruiting for Chattanooga, I'm pushing that concept mightily and telling everyone who'll listen that they can live in Chattannoga or that area and be in Atlanta in 1 hour to work. That's just an example.

Santo said...


Your blog is required reading for my students, so hopefully they’ll see and respond to the gentle prod. (Or maybe I’ll just make your question of the week an essay on the midterm!) We did have one nod toward the Aerotropolis idea, and a bit of discussion about music and art. By the way, the CA had a similar question for readers in the Sep. 16 viewpoints section: What is Memphis’ single greatest asset? 15 of the 17 responses printed on Sep. 23 mentioned arts and/or music. Does that mean it’s true? (I’m considering exploring the potential relationship between art/music and neighborhood level revitalization in a course this spring. Stay tuned.)


Smart City Consulting said...

Dr. Santo: Thanks for the high compliment. We look forward to any insights from your students, and in line with the arts/music/creativity, we think our next question will be about whether readers believe that Memphis is more innately creative than other places. In the wake of the many comments about creativity, we had one person suggest that all of our talk about creativity is an exercise in myth-making. It raises an interesting question, particularly if we want to make sure that great music isn't just in our rear view window (although it's hard to think that with folks like Amy LaVere around).

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