Sunday, October 19, 2008

Booking A Different Future For Memphis

We asked recently how deep the hole can get before Memphis can't climb out of it, and we thought of this seminal question again this week when the electrifying young mayor of Newark, Cory Booker, came to town.

Newark is one of those cities that can't climb out of the hole that it's in. It can create programs that improve things on the margins, it can build some major new buildings, as it did with its performing arts center a decade ago, that helped improve the city’s image. It can see some encouraging changes – new, funky and bohemian restaurants and businesses – and it can shake off the fatalism of the old days and adopt a new hopeful vocabulary.

But, in the end, there is little chance that Newark will turn around. It just allowed the hole to get too deep.

The Renaissance Word

Mayor Booker reminds us of how a dynamic mayor can improve a city’s image and the impact that can come from installing a modern management philosophy. But in the end, Newark will need sustained, neighborhood-by-neighborhood programs to lift up its poverty-laden public, and it will need this sustained attention for decades.

Two decades ago, Newark began calling itself Renaissance City, but if any city has represented the entrenched, cancerous problems of urban areas, it’s still Newark, often paired in this category with Detroit. It has shown signs of progress, but it remains one of America’s most violent cities, has the lowest-performing schools in New Jersey and a high school graduation rate of about 55% and the deep housing problems that result from a city that’s about half of its largest population (although city officials are ecstatic that population has grown 10,000 in recent years).

Newark problems are amplified and intensified from the fact that its 280,000 people – about a third fewer people than its historic high, with a high poverty rate and low educational attainment – live in 23 square miles. Memphis, on the other hand has about two and a half times more people in about 15 times more land area.

Higher Office

That's why some political friends of Mayor Booker - who moved from an affluent New Jersey suburb to run for mayor of the dysfunctional city – suggest that he’s established his bona fides and has captured national attention, but he should enthusiastically accept a major appointment if Barack Obama is elected as U.S. president. The ties between the two post-racial politicians are close, and it’s no secret that Mayor Booker would be on the short list for a couple of appointments. Some of his friends don’t see much future to being the person whose political potential is shaped by whatever progress Newark makes.

What we like about Cory Booker is the intellect, the themes and philosophy, and the motivation that he brings to his work. The next few mayors will need all of these - and more - because as economic and demographic trends prove in Newark, even the most motivational speaker can't transform the city.

That's why Mayor Booker's appearance in Memphis is rich with lessons for Memphis.

Causes Rather Than Symptoms

If we don't start now working on the root causes of Memphis' problems, the hole in fact can simply become too deep. After all, it's pay now or pay later, and the costs of personal interventions now are in thousands of dollars but to pay later costs millions of dollars.

We write often about the economic measurements of the largest 50 metros that routinely find Memphis in the bottom 10, and too often, in the bottom five. The fact that Newark ranks worst than Memphis is no source of pride, because over the years, Memphis has unfortunately drifted closer to Newark in key ratings.

As a result, it cries out for a sense of urgency. It is within the realm of possibilities that our city might join Newark and Detroit.

A City Of Possibilities

It is also within the realm of possibilities that we can stem the tide. We can come to grips with the fact that we are the first metropolitan area with more than one million people in history that will shortly be majority African-American and find ways to prove that it is a competitive advantage in a world known for its diversity and in a nation that will be minority majority in 35 years.

We can identify and relentlessly pursue leap frog strategies that move us to the middle of U.S. metros in measurements that matter, and chief among them is the indicator that matters most in deciding which cities are successful and which are not - the percentage of college graduates in Memphis.

We can develop interventions that take our city’s bulge of students that is an anomaly among the largest metros and find ways to get them through high school and college. Ultimately, they are the keys to unlocking Memphis’ future – one way or another.

Celebrating The Creatives

We can celebrate the creative workers in our city, because they are the heart and soul of Memphis. But more to the point, innovation comes from the edge, and no city has proven this truer than our own. We need to nurture, finance and expand our creative workforce, and more to the point, we need creativity to be infused in everything we do – from breakthroughs in the private sector to creative solutions in the public sector. If we want to find a brand that speaks to who we are and who we need to be, we vote for Memphis: Creative City.

Successful cities generally do have great mayors, but more to the point, they have great non-public leaders. That's one of the most encouraging things about Memphis these days - the caliber of ideas, energy and imagination coming from the grassroots - in culture and arts, in neighborhood development, in community development organizations, in neighborhood groups, and in young leaders groups from MPACT to Urban Land Institute.

All of this is building a current for a young, nontraditional person to run for city mayor. At this point, the prohibitive favorite to take the oath of office as the city mayor in 2012 is Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton. It's just a political reality - it's hard to beat someone with an approval rating in the 80 percentile and with a campaign fund that is likely to be in the middle six digits in 18 months.

The Next Mayor

In other words, the Booker biography may have another lesson for those seeking someone with his profile - young, well-educated, smart and motivational. They, like him, may also have to experience a losing mayoral campaign before they are successful.

There’s no question that Mayor Wharton will be on the ballot. He has been expected to file the paperwork to create a political organization for mayor for weeks, and it is said to be imminent. It will be followed closely by a campaign fund-raiser designed to send a clear message that anyone interested in running against him faces formidable odds.

Meanwhile, there was another speech being given Friday that was probably even more relevant to Memphis' future than Mayor Booker's. At the Economic Club, nationally respected political observer Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report talked about the presidential election and the increasing inevitability of an Obama victory.

New Federalism

Absent something historic to capsize current trends, he said the country’s first African-American president will take office. But here’s the more important message that he delivered: regardless of who wins this election, taxes will rise.

Economic turmoil, international challenges, foreign policy crises, and the cost of war demand it. With a stalled economy come stalled revenues. Or put another way, Memphis – and other cities – are about to witness a major period of federal retrenchment. The reality of this is there will be even less money for the problems of cities.

In other words, cities, including ours, need to fight the temptation to see Washington as the center of the university. We need to fight the notion that we should craft policies that treat Washington as the solution.

The experts on Memphis are on our own Main Street today. That's why we need them to develop plans and programs that address and solve our own problems and to create the "do it yourself" attitude that not only characterizes successful cities but could be absolutely essential in the coming years.


Anonymous said...

How is it that Willie Herenton says "No Mayor can do anything about crime" and then you have people such as Cory Booker and Rudy Gulliani that can ?
this speaks volumes about memphis' leadership.

Smart City Consulting said...

We wrote a post about that back when he said it, so we won't belabor it again. But it's too early to say that the Newark crime rate is going down. Murders are down, but other crimes are up.

Kerry said...

Those who might interested in discussing who "our" Cory Booker might be are invited to submit their ideas at

Anonymous said...

How will you quantify whether it is already too late or "too deep of a hole to get out of" for Memphis?
Are there any specific measures that you can mention and where does Memphis sit within real numbers on that?

Anonymous said...

During Booker's administration, Newark has invested in crime fighting wireless technology and has deployed dozens of new officers. Booker's dedication has led him to live in a trailer on a dangerous street corner, to patrol the streets at 3am, and to mentor youth who spraypainted death threats against him. Since these strategies have been employed, Newark's murders and shootings have decreased by 40%.

Yes, that statistic reflects specifically violent crime, yet I find it remarkable that Newark actually leads the nation among other large cities for violent crime reduction. There may be battles yet to fight (as there are in all cities), but I am hugely inspired by Booker's perspective and by Newark's positive trends.

JerseyJoe said...

What is not said here is where Newark came from. I grew up in Newark in the 1950s & 1960s. It was the center of a thriving, successful Northern New Jersey economic complex. Growing up in the 50s, I had the advantage of one of the best school systems in the state. As a 10 year old, I would think nothing of hopping a bus from my South Ward home to downtown. The main library downtown was tremendous. Civic organizations abounded.
Politics was controlled by an entrenched Irish/Italian/Jewish political machine under Dennis Carey- a much more effective boss than the more famous Frank Hague in Hudson County. The town was pretty much balkanized. Jews lived in the South Ward, Italians in the North, Blacks in the Central, Portuguese Down Neck. Unlike New York & Boston, Newark did not, as I recall, benefit from the richness of ethnic diversity and culture. Groups pretty much kept to themselves.
I experienced its decline, including the 1967 riots. Newark always suffered from its proximity to New York City (9 miles). But that also provided a base of NYC commuters. Unlike Memphis, Newark is in NJ, one of the nation's most affluent states. It is surrounded by some of the wealthiest bedroom communities in the country, rivaling the Gold Coast of Connecticut, Westchester County and Long Island. The resources around Newark are astounding. They just aren't used to help Newark.
Newark also suffers not only from a very small land mass, but a large part of it is swamp land and the very large port area. Giants stadium is in the Meadowlands. Those aren't meadows. That's a big swamp. A good part of the port of New York is in New Jersey and Port Newark is a major part of that. Indeed, the Elizabeth-Newark-New York industrial complex used to be (and may still be-I don't know) the largest industrial complex in the world. (When we used to have atomic bomb drills in school, it was accepted gospel that the first Russian rocket was not aimed at Washington, D.C. but was aimed at us).
So what happened? I can think of a few salient points.
1) Newark was locked into its small land mass with nowhere to go. It is surrounded by a bevy of little suburban towns that merge one into another. It was extraordinarily easy for anyone to leave the problems of Newark behind, but never leave your job, friends and social institutions.
2) Government was duplicated all over the place & expensive. Each town & Newark had its own government. Then there was a county government on top of that. I don't know how effectively services were parsed out and duplication avoided.
3) White flight hit with a vengeance and the upper and middle class fled to the suburbs. A lot of this may have had to do with the large Puerto Rican in-migration in the late 1950s. But the rise of Black nationalism and Black-white violence certainly played a major role. We had race riots on a routine basis at my junior high school which was about 60-70% African-American. By the time I graduated junior high school in 1962, the South & East Ward structures had collapsed.
4) At some point in there, the city- under employee pressure- rescinded its rule that city employees had to live in the city. The entire civil service left en-masse.
5) New Jersey's legislature was dominated by sparsely populated rural counties in the South. The state Senate was often 11 Republicans-10 Democrats. The Republicans operated on a strict caucus voting bloc system. So 6 rural Republican senators controlled the Republican caucus & the state. They were very hostile to urban problems and thus the state did almost nothing to help its cities. Newark, Camden, Patterson, etc all deteriorated dramatically.
Ultimately, the problems of urban poverty and violence catch up to the fleeing population. Original migration was to suburban Essex County (Newark's equivalent of Shelby County). But the large costs of supporting social services in Newark caused property taxes to rise dramatically in Essex and so people started moving farther out. Today adjacent Morris County is full of very affluent towns and Essex suburbs are in decline. But the costs have spread all over the state and NJ has enormous budget problems. Failure to address its rising crime and poverty problems has allowed those problems to affect the whole state.
New Jersey's towns all depend on the property tax. The income tax was passed to try to relieve that and significant state tax dollars did flow to the counties. The result was that when Christie Whitman passed her much ballyhooed income tax reduction, state aid to counties dropped precipitously and property taxes rose dramatically. She wound up issuing bonds to cover the state operating deficit- equivalent to taking out a second mortgage to buy groceries and lottery tickets. She was fortunate to get out of the state to join the Bush administration. The following Democratic administration raised the income tax to close the deficit and that governor lost re-election because he raised taxes. The expenses didn't go away in either administration.