Thursday, January 24, 2008

Indicators Of Success: Kids In Cities

“You can’t have a city without middle-class families and kids,” our colleague Carol Coletta said in a USA Today article about her CEOs for Cities’ study about what cities can do to retain families. “You can’t have a childless city.”

We’ve written about the importance of this issue before, and the dimensions of the problem in Memphis, so let’s summarize it briefly:

* As a result of the “hollowing out” of Memphis, less than 20 percent of families are now middle-income and less than 30 percent of neighborhoods are middle-income.

* Memphis is 88th among the U.S.’s largest 100 cities in the share of middle-income families and 98th in middle-income neighborhoods.

Gotta Move

In a city with formidable challenges, this is one of the toughest. To succeed, Memphis must change the thinking of young people who prefer city living, but assume that once their children are born, they will need to move to the suburbs for 18 years as they rear their children. Memphis must improve its schools to the point that they send the unmistakable message that parents don’t have to pay the hidden costs of city living by paying for their children to attend private schools.

There are some positive signs in Memphis – a county office of children and youth, an award presented to the Memphis library system and a new kids-oriented website, Memphis Loves Kids.

First, the Office of Children and Youth. It’s a promising idea, although the devil is in the details. Local government has plenty of such high-sounding offices that are little more than names on doors in public buildings. There is no real agenda and no real staff to carry one out if there was one.

We’re hoping things will be different in this office. In fact, we think it could be the catalyst to a new look at the functions of Juvenile Court, which is now a confusing mix of judicial, social service and administrative functions.

A Modest Proposal

How about a modest proposal?

Remove every program at Juvenile Court that’s not related to juvenile justice and move all the rest to the new Office of Children and Youth. After all, the judicial function is but the tip of the iceberg, and there’s logic in separating the other functions and incorporating them into an office where all children’s services and programs can be coordinated and overseen.

Now, these programs rarely intersect with each other, and as a result, the opportunity for a cohesive, comprehensive strategy for improving the lives of at-risk children is squandered. Also, because of the fragmentation, there’s no overriding sense of accountability that monitors the performance of each and reports to taxpayers about the return on their investments.

Most of all, there’s no centralized place in county government where the tough questions are asked about city schools, there’s no place where policy analysis is conducted to show which interventions return the biggest dividends and there’s no place where new innovations are encouraged to leverage county investments.


In the absence of an office that performs this function, various services never undergo the kind of rigorous evaluation that can give birth to better ways of doing business.

Hopefully, the office of children and youth will get the chance to fill this gap. The office was supposed to be a joint city-county office, but unfortunately, the city administration refused to participate.

Then, there’s the library system, an often underappreciated asset in Memphis. We have long admired the leadership and commitment of Judith Drescher, the library director who was deposed in December by Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton in another of his inexplicable personnel decisions.

While we are confident that Keenon McCloy, who was the capable director of another city division until being drafted for the library job, will do a fine job as head of the library, we’re hard-pressed to understand the rationale for this management change.


Of course, the greatest irony about the mayor’s “disappointment” (the local government name for people who aren’t reappointed) is that about the same time that he was ushering Ms. Drescher to the door, the Memphis library system was announced as recipient of the highest honor bestowed on library sytems – the National Medal of Museum and Library Service.

Memphis was one of only 10 systems that have received it, and one of the reasons our libraries were honored was the special contributions that they make to the lives of children in Memphis.

In an awards ceremony at the White House, Ms. Drescher was noticeably absent, and we can only hope that City Hall showed enough class to invite her to attend. After all, there would have been no award without her.

Loving Kids

Finally, a promising sign for families with children is seen in the initiative shown by two sisters in setting up the family-oriented website,

It appears to be the only website of its kind in Memphis, and Deirdre Oglesby and Aisling Cordon Maki set it up to give Memphis parents a centralized place to find anything you would ever want to know - information about events, educational resources, shopping sales, “kids eat free” restaurants and ways to get families more involved in the community.

The sisters stated purpose is simple: to make Memphis a better place for kids and families. Apparently, they are not alone, because there are thousands of subscribers who’ve signed up on the site.

While we have a tendency in Memphis to look to government for the answers to our problems, it’s actually these kinds of projects that bring smiles to our faces. At the end of the day, it’s citizens like these – passionate about their city, self-reliant and determined to make life here better – that have the greatest impact, because their influence ripples far beyond the prescribed boundaries of a government service area.

Best of all, the sisters send the message that Memphis is kid-friendly and family-supportive. It’s not the answer to our “kids in cities” challenge, but it’s a start.


gatesofmemphis said...

McCloy managed 2 areas, the Memphis Music Commission and the Animal Shelter, that attracted lots and lots of attention for their problems. In fact, you wrote about the Music Commission's problems last week. From the perspective of outsider or dog, it's hard to understand your confidence.

Mayor Herenton probably wanted a loyalist in place (and the fact that Drescher wasn't even mentioned by McCloy at the White House ceremony speaks to the loyalty). The efficiency study the Mayor had commissioned last year recommended closing several library branches. A loyalist might be willing to do this.

Anyway, I think Memphis is an easy and fun place to raise kids. I wouldn't want to pay the high boredom tax you're assessed in the suburbs.

Anonymous said...

and theres the added excitement of stealing the crime scene tape from next door to use at the halloween hip hop party-since that will be an abandoned crack house by then.

Midtown "iz" memfis.

Santo said...

For another useful web resource compiled by a Memphis mom check out:

Right on, SC. Glad to see you boosting the cause of keeping families in the city. I've often thought of it as the flip-side of the "creative class" issue. (Once we attract the young creatives, can we keep them here after they have kids? And what can we do to strengthen the kids and families that already call Memmphis home?)

I recognize that it can be a tough sell for a variety of reasons, but Memphis has some great family-friendly neigborhoods and a lot of dedicated and civic-minded parents. For example, ride through High Point Terrace where you're likely to see more baby stroller than cars. Or take in some authentic local music with the kids at a Memphis Rock and Romp (


Smart City Consulting said...


To turn your argument on its head, if Ms. McCloy was chosen as a loyalist, perhaps she can finally get the level of funding that libraries deserve in the city budget.

Back to our main point, if Ms. Drescher paid the ultimate price, it was only because she was a unstinting advocate for the people of Memphis to have a quality library system. This didn't always create fans in City Hall, but that too is to her credit. She is passionate about libraries and learning and that compelled her to fight the good fight, but it's often easier to remove the advocate than fix the problem.

As for the efficiency study, it contained a lot of comparisons that were apples and oranges at best. Arguing that Memphis should close libraries, parks, schools or fire stations solely on comparisons with other major cities is specious at best.

Smart City Consulting said...


Thanks for the comments and the helpful links. We appreciate it, but more to the point, we appreciate what you are doing in this regard.

Funny, we were driving through High Point Terrace recently for the first time in years and years, and we were reminded of what a special place it is and why we all should be committed to preserving our special neighborhoods.

Anonymous said...

There's more at play than just preserving "special" neighborhoods. Actually, I don't know anyone who considers themselves middle class that can afford to buy in High Point Terrace! I think money might be a factor, especially when it comes to cost per square foot. I've got Midtown friends who want to buy a home and continue raising their child there, but can't afford to buy in the neighborhood where they rent. They've now started looking for homes outside of Memphis that meet their needs and are affordable.

I think we need to face the fact that not everyone who moves to one of the outlying communities does it because of schools or crime. Sometimes the cost of living in one of the "special" neighborhoods is what sends them packing...especially when the next set of housing options down is like falling off a cliff!

embarrassed citizen said...

W. Herenton's 'deposing' of a proven, professional librarian and director of Ms. Dresher's experience and reputation is nothing less than another example of his playing politics with a public agency that should be placed above 'personal or party loyalty.' The shame of his treatment of a professionally recognized leader of a large city library system that was just honored with a national prestigious award is so unexplainable as to be one of his most asinine decisions. Placing our library system under the direction of a manager with no professional library degree or library experience is a slap in the face to the citizens of Memphis and all employees in the library system. I see no reason to be 'confident' about the future of public library service in our city. In the national forum of library literature this will certainly not be viewed in any positive way. In fact, Memphis will again be regarded as a backwater town mired in political mud as bad as any during the Crump era. Herenton and his stunts like this is an embarrassment to Memphis. It is time to state clearly that regardless of his PhD it is clear Herenton's tenures at the Board of Education and as Mayor public school education in Memphis has done nothing but deteriorate. It is time people put a large part of the blame on his management in both positions.

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