Sunday, November 30, 2008

Mayors' Old Consolidation Tapes Defy New Realities For Future

We get frustrated at times by the inescapable feeling that our city is trapped in a time warp. We are recycling old conversations, old charges and old complaints.

But whenever we need perspective, we can simply say consolidation in front of the small town mayors of Shelby County and watch them respond in ways that would have made Ivan Pavlov proud.

Decade after decade, the mayors of the towns whose life and health depend solely on the life and health of Memphis have absolutely gagged over the notion that consolidation could be a better, more efficient form of government for Memphis and Shelby County.

The Me Generation

In the “what’s in it for me” world that we now live in, they predictably deliver a kneejerk reaction against a government structure that a majority of Shelby Countians support. Most incredibly of all, they launch into these attacks even though there’s no real plan for consolidation on the table. There just was a mention of it.

Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton merely advanced it as an issue worth examining and the small town mayors came out with their guns blazing. One said: “We are unequivocally opposed and that's based on a long history of research and understanding of the implications for our communities,"

It’s a fairly typical response, given repeatedly over the years. It’s as if the talking points are the same ones parroted 40 years ago.

Give It Up

First, we think that the small town mayors should deliver up this “long history of research” that forms the basis of their opposition. At the same time, if they have an “understanding of the implications” for their towns, they should share that, too.

As far as we can tell, it’s more rhetoric than reason, more reaction than research. We are hard-pressed to recall a lot of negative research about consolidation or any negative implications for small towns like those outside Memphis.

In Davidson County, for example, we can’t remember any “understanding” in the small towns there about the negative impact of the consolidation of city and county governments there. To the contrary, the more efficient, more effective government has often been credited with keeping its tax rate down and revving the economy up.

Just The Facts And Nothing But

In the handful of years since Louisville and Jefferson County consolidated their governments, we haven’t read any revelations about negative implications for the smaller towns in the county.

Supporters of consolidation have laid out the benefits of consolidation – a shared vision, streamlined government, more business-friendly structure, economies of scale and more – but to date, the opponents have only said they are opposed to consolidation to their deaths but they come up short in offering any specifics or reasons why.

The mayors have suggested that consolidation would reduce services to their cities. That seems a strange concern, since there’s no logical justification for why they should be receiving more services from Shelby County Government than the citizens of Memphis in the first place. Of course, Shelby County has a long history of doing just that, and if Mayor Wharton can point to one accomplishment, it is that he has made great strides in eliminating the imbalance between Memphians and other Shelby Countians and the preferential treatment that these town mayors seem to think they deserve.

Majority Non-rule

Second, we think the mayors should explain why they think that their minority of voters should be able to block the will of the majority of citizens in Shelby County. In political circles in some of these towns, minority preferences for government business are downplayed, but when it comes to their minority blocking the majority’s will, that’s altogether different.

The truth is that if the citizens of the towns went to sleep tonight and woke up tomorrow with a consolidated government in place, they’d never know the difference. After all, the new metropolitan government would bear much more reflection to the present county government than to the present Memphis city government.

Third, the mayors seem to have a fatal case of political myopia. They can decry “big government,” but the future promises one whether consolidation is approved or not. And if consolidation is not in place, there most sinister nightmares will have taken place.

It’s About Choices

That’s because Shelby County government will have withered away, delivering nothing more than state-mandated services and bearing little resemblance to what it is today. Meanwhile, Memphis will continue to annex in keeping with the annexation reserve agreements signed by the small towns. At that point, there will be a city government in control of two-thirds of the land area of our county.

In other words, if there is no consolidation, there will be a big government – the City of Memphis government with 489 miles square miles. If there is consolidation, there will be a big county-oriented government that will have only 49 more square miles than the non-consolidated city government.

As a result, the real choice for the town mayors isn’t to try to stonewall consolidation yet again. It is to choose to be part of eliminating an unnecessary layer of government or to stand idly by as Memphis surrounds them and eventually dominates them. Based on their politics and turf, it seems like it would be an easy choice to make, but still, these mayors – who signed the agreements giving Memphis dominance in the future – think they can somehow avoid their aversion to a big metro government by opting instead for a massive City of Memphis government.

Discussion Is Not A Sign Of Weakness

Fourth, the town mayors’ apparent strategy of killing off any discussion about a more efficient government is more than disappointing, because any elected official who fears discussion and debate is more ideologue than public leader. At this point, we may all have our opinions, but all of us need more and more facts, and this is precisely true for the anti-consolidation people who react emotionally instead of inviting a discussion on the merits.

Perhaps, if they were willing participants of a process to do this, they might even find that they have the leverage to obtain some specific assurances and long-sought goals that have remained elusive for decades.

In that way, consolidation perhaps could do more than usher in a new structure of government, but actually, usher in the real regional partnership that is yet to be forged in Shelby County.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Economic Benefits Of Small Changes

Our colleague Carol Coletta is once again plowing new ground in exploring ways that cities can be more competitive and can fulfill their roles as engines for the national economy.

To get an intriguing view of the profound impact that can come from incremental improvements in talent, green behavior and poverty, go to the CEOs for Cities' website and watch the video at the bottom of a page about the release of the City Dividends

Here's the set-up:

Despite tough economic times, America’s 51 largest cities have the opportunity to collectively realize $166 billion in much-needed new wealth by focusing on performance improvements in three key areas: increasing the educational attainment of their citizens, reducing the number of vehicle miles traveled per person each day and reducing the number of people living in poverty, according to a new analysis, City Dividends, released by CEOs for Cities.

City Dividends, which was developed by Portland, Ore., economist Joe Cortright and presented to members of CEOs for Cities at its National Meeting in Chicago, calculates the monetary gains the top 51 metros could realize if they increase their college attainment by one percentage point (The Talent Dividend), reduce VMT by 1 mile per person per day (The Green Dividend) and reduce the number of people in poverty (The Opportunity Dividend) by one percentage point.

City Dividends
is designed to help urban leaders make the case for pubic policies that will help raise incomes, encourage citizens to drive less and increase opportunities for bringing people out of poverty. City Dividends establishes a framework for examining the policies, actions and conditions that are needed for cities to actually realize these gains in practice.

“In an era of fiscal constraint at every level of government, leaders must innovate new ways for producing wealth and opportunity,” said Carol Coletta, president and CEO of CEOs for Cities. “Representing the nation’s primary source of wealth, employment and global competitiveness, cities are where the strategies to keep America moving forward must be developed and launched.”

Read more here.

Greener, Smarter And Healthier Cities

This week's guests offer advice on making your city greener, healthier and smarter. Lawrence Katz is the co-author of the book, The Race between Education and Technology. In it, he describes how the 20th century American education system made this nation the richest in the world. He'll tell us why the third great education transformation, mass universal access to college, is still ahead of us.

We'll also speak with Mitchell Joachim,an architect and thinker who wants to redesign cities from the ground up. He'll tell us about stackable cars, living walls and houses that grow themselves.

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, president and CEO of CEOs for Cities, 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.

Smart City is broadcast at 6 a.m. Saturday and Sundays on WKNO-FM, but it is also webcast and podcast so you can listen to it anytime you like. For the webcast, times for the broadcast in other cities and to sign up for the podcast, visit our website.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Department Of Justice Indicted For Political Profiling

To follow up yesterday’s post, we wanted to put the issue of possible politicized indictments into context.

Two professors – Dr. Donald C. Shields of University of Missouri in St. Louis and Professor John F. Cragan of Illinois State University – have been engaged in an ongoing study of investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice during the Bush presidency as they wrap up a book planned for next year.

In their review of more than 800 investigations and indictments between January, 2001, and September, 2007, they concluded that U.S. Attorneys across the country have investigated Democrats four and a half times more than Republicans. In fact, they conclude that it’s a number that exceeds even the racial profiling of African-Americans at traffic stops.

They concluded that 77% of investigations/indictments have been for Democrats, 17% for Republicans and 6% for independents. As a frame of reference, the percentages of party affiliation are 50% Democratic, 41% Republican and 9% independent. In the words of the professors, “the current Bush Republican Administration appears to be the first to have engaged in political profiling.” (It’s worth noting that local grand juries have shown no political imbalance.)

The results of this disparity in investigations produce a number of obvious results, according to Dr. Shields and Professor Cragan:

• Democratic elected officials are made to look like they are more corrupt, just as racial profiling by law enforcement agencies skews perceptions.

• Investigations result in the political party being attacked “as the grassroots essence of its personality.”

• Investigations discredit people as viable leaders or spokespersons

• Officials’ ability to raise money for re-election and eliminates their ability to raise money for other candidates.

• Keeping the profiling at the local level keeps it below the national radar of the media, who are less likely to connect dots that stretch from Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago and Las Vegas, and as a result, they appear to be isolated incidents rather than a broader pattern by the Bush Administration.

As a result of their study, the authors advocate laws to create a national registry of federal investigations of both candidates and elected officials by the Justice Department and U.S. Attorneys’ offices across the U.S. The registry would list names, party affiliation and outcomes of the investigations. In the event of acquittals, they believe that the government should pay legal expenses to prevent the kind of investigations that took place in Baltimore.

The “longitudinal study” was begun by the professors to “explain the confluence of unique aspects of the religious-conservative and neo-conservation rhetorical vision, which were held by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft” and which influences his direction of the 93 U.S. Attorneys that reported to him.

“Ashcroft and Gonzales elevated many non-corruption transgressions to federal crimes by usurping cases like campaign ethics issues that traditionally would have been handled as state cases,” the authors wrote. “With the new anti-corruption rhetorical vision, the investigation and prosecution of actual crimes was replaced by ferreting out of potential new crimes.”

As we said yesterday, if the lame duck U.S. Attorney’s Office is inclined to take action against Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton, there’s little question that it would be put into the political lens through which we now view much of the Department of Justice’s decisions. That’s why the investigative file about the mayor should be put in the inbox on the desk of the next federal prosecutor.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Current Federal Prosecutors Should Pass On Marquee Investigation

Here’s our early Christmas wish: that the lame duck U.S. Attorney’s office leave its investigative file involving Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton for its successor.

We hear that there are some spirited discussions taking place in the federal prosecutor’s office about the timing and extend of any action. While some zealous career attorneys feel that action should be taken now, they are simply wrong. Hopefully, they can do what is not only in the best interests of justice, but in the best interests of Memphis.

With the indictment of former MLGW president Joseph Lee, the U.S. Attorney’s office proved the truth in the old adage about its ability to indict a ham sandwich. And while Mr. Lee was hardly a ham sandwich, the entire case seemed to be nothing less than bologna.

That’s strike one against action by a U.S. Attorney that is not only a lame duck but an interim lame duck at that. The Lee debacle tainted the office’s reputation with political overtones, and as a result, any grand jury action taken as a result of this U.S. Attorney would immediately be suspect.

Strike Two

Then, there’s strike two – the national image-bruising taken by the revelations of how much politics has in fact played in the decisions of the Department of Justice – from who to indict to the removal of U.S. Attorneys who didn’t move aggressively to indict Democrats.

In injecting a Karl Rove view of justice into the decision-making of federal prosecutions, the Bush Department of Justice calls into question any actions that it would now take. New claims continue to surface, such as recent disclosures in the politically-tinged bribery case brought against former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, a Democrat.

Already, he was appealing his conviction on the basis of political motivations in his indictment, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit seemed to agree. It ordered him released after nine months in federal prison because of “substantial questions” about his trial. That was before the recent report that the U.S. Attorney in the case, who had recused herself under pressure because of her marriage to an adviser to Mr. Siegelman’s Republican opponent; however, it is now clear that she remained involved in the case, emailing directives to her staff members.

At any rate, the politicization of the justice system raises questions on all kinds of fronts, including some about whether the investigations of a number of prominent African-American big city mayors were tied to a Republican political agenda.

Strike Three

Then, there’s strike three – the volatile divisiveness that would be created by action by a U.S Attorney on his way out (an interim one to boot), and it should call on the lawyers in the office to act with an abundance of caution. The truth is that most of the attorneys in the office will remain there when the new U.S. Attorney appointed by the Obama Administration takes the oath of office, not to mention that the FBI agents handling the investigation will remain as well.

In other words, the investigative file should be left for the new U.S. Attorney’s action. These allegedly non-partisan members of the system will be there to advocate their positions and present their cases.

To do otherwise opens up controversy and throws gas on a simmering fire in many parts of the city that stems from the widespread belief at the grassroots that the “Tennessee Waltz” was aimed at decimating the African-American leadership that Memphis had in Nashville.

Here, rumors move through the black community that the federal government is out to destroy any powerful African-American politician. Meanwhile, whites repeat rumors that all Democratic elected officials (translation: black elected officials) are on the take.

Too Many Questions

Why does all of this matter? Unless lines of trust are stronger and there is a belief in the innate fairness of justice, Memphis will be a wounded city limping into a global economy in which its divisiveness prevents any hope of success. But, more fundamentally, until lines of trust are stronger, we fail at the basics of American democracy.

As long as African-Americans see racism in events like the Tennessee Waltz and white people complain that the African-American community is paranoid, we create a civic brand of quicksand that slowly pulls all of Memphis under, and at precisely the time that together, we need to be staking out a strong competitive place in the global economy.

Here’s the thing: Prosecutors are the most powerful officials in the criminal justice system – even more than judges. “The charging and plea bargaining power they exercise almost predetermines the outcome of most criminal cases. Over 95 percent of all criminal cases are resolved by a guilty plea,” according to American University professor Angela Davis.

Consider a person arrested for having a quantity of drugs on them. Depending on the amount, the prosecutor can charge simple possession (a misdemeanor), or possession with intent to distribute (a felony which in most jurisdictions means a mandatory prison sentence). So it’s the prosecutor, through his charge and plea bargaining powers, who really decides prison time for the defendant.


The most serious system-wide issue, argues Davis in her book, “Arbitrary Justice: The Power of the American Prosecutor,” isn’t the isolated, fairly rare case of a prosecutor coercing witnesses, fabricating evidence, or consciously targeting racial minorities. Rather, it’s the lack of controls on, or accountability for, the every-day decisions of prosecutors. Their legal responsibility isn’t just to represent the state in seeking convictions; it’s to pursue justice. But too often, Davis asserts, prosecutors exercise their discretion “haphazardly at worst and arbitrarily at best, resulting in inequitable treatment of both victims and defendants.”

There’s the “win-win-win” ethos in many prosecutors’ offices -- elected prosecutors and their staffs out to show how tough they are on crime, or how eager to impose harsh penalties in heinous cases (especially when there’s strong media interest, or photogenic victims). Sometimes prosecutors overcharge grossly so they can wring heavier plea bargains out of defendants.

Views on class and race, even unconsciously, lead prosecutors to make shoot-from-the-hip decisions easily at odds with true justice, Davis asserts. She also pinpoints how appointed U.S. Attorneys, pursuing the country’s “war on drugs,” have focused relentlessly on convicting and incarcerating even small-time neighborhood drug dealers and their girlfriends and family members, especially from inner-city neighborhoods, even on the scantiest of evidence. Federal drug prosecutions tripled between 1981 and 1990.


Under our system, all officials wielding government power should be and are subject to checks -- but we’ve ended up, Davis asserts, “giving prosecutors a pass” -- no effective control by voters, legislatures, or the judiciary itself. Voters have little idea of how prosecutors are actually handling cases. Legislatures (and Congress) pay scant attention beyond frequently bolstering prosecution powers.

In a government structure where “checks and balances” is the watchword, there is none on prosecutors, and it’s why Professor Davis proposes outside review processes for prosecutorial decisions. The idea is that an outside eye could discourage arbitrary, hard-to-justify choices by prosecutors without chilling the essential, fair law enforcement we all depend on prosecutors to perform.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Job Opening: City Hall Statesman

OK, now that we’ve all vented, what can we do to solve the divisive problem of police recruiting?

Our problem has been that the vote was like many taken in legislative bodies from Memphis to Washington, D.C. It was cast with tunnel vision and without an understanding of its symbolic importance or its actual importance within the context of what is making cities successful.

Another problem is the deep-rooted suspicions about racially-biased hiring of police officers. While Memphis Police Department officials point proudly to the fact that 51% of the force is African-American, it is valid to remember that Memphis is 64% African-American so there is still a 25% disparity gap that the police force has to close to be totally representative of the city that it serves.

Problems Abound

There’s the problem that loosening the requirements is seem as another example of greasing the skids for the people who are abandoning our city, but if that were the ultimate motivation, it would seem that the recruiting limits for policemen shouldn’t even be extended to the Shelby County line (after all, most of the people who left Memphis did stay inside the county). But in the end, the crux of this concern is that most people are incredulous that Memphis cannot find 200 of its own citizens to hire.

The problem for some is racial. There are white people who think that a majority black city is somehow inherently more dangerous, and there are black people who think that whites complaining about property crime in their neighborhoods are whiners since they weren’t concerned for years that African-American neighborhoods are the scene of most violent crime.

The problem for others is that they think the real purpose of broadening the recruiting area is to take in all those lily-white suburban counties, although Fayette County is 36% African American, Hardeman County 41%, Tipton County 20%, Haywood County 51% and DeSoto County 25% (twice the percentage of 2000). However, the underlying sentiment is that people should not be rewarded for moving outside of Memphis, and that if people are going to get a paycheck from Memphis, they should at least live in Shelby County (and in truth, it’s hard to see that as unreasonable).

Wanted: Empathy

The problem for a smaller group is that they fear that non-Memphians will have less personal investment in our city, and as a result, they might be more inclined toward abuse and brutality, but the same could be said for police officers living in Shelby County outside Memphis. However, the reality is that for a large segment of our city, the police are as menacing as crime.

The problem for a growing number of people is that if Memphis isn’t capable of finding 200 people who can quality to be a police officer – even with the dumbed down requirements calling only for a high school diploma – how are we ever expected to compete in today’s economy for jobs that require a more highly trained workforce?

The problem for major employers is that perception is reality, and their employees see Memphis as crime-ridden and dysfunctional, hampering their success in recruiting workers to our city, particularly 25-34 year-old college-educated talent. Whether they are right or not hardly matters; they think they are right and that makes it a problem for all of us.

The Memphis Messiah

In other words, we have good people on all sides of this issue and their positions are rational from their perspective. It’s like the truth: it all depends on personal perspective. What is the truth to you may be anything but true to me, not because of anything other than the fact that we see the truth from substantially different angles.

There are times when it seems like we need a Memphis Messiah if we are to find unity, a unifying vision for the future and a mutual commitment to rolling up our sleeves and making this the best city that we can.

But it’s not a Messiah that we seek right now. It’s simply a statesman.

That should be dramatically easier to find than 200 police officers. We only need one.

Two Prospects

Truth be told, this statesman probably needs to emerge from the African-American City Council members who voted against the recruiting expansion. They have the majority vote, but they also care about living in a city where the division is lessened and divisiveness is eliminated.

There’s Council Chair Myron Lowery, the most experienced member of the city legislative body, and his ability to reach across the racial chasm has been demonstrated before and his ability to find the middle ground has been displayed before. Perhaps he will step forward.

There’s Council member Harold Collins, whose college degree is in criminal justice and who every day deals with the results of crime, particularly violent juvenile crime, in his job with the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office. Perhaps he will step forward.

While they are the most likely statesmen to emerge, there could be others. In the words of the old Southern Baptist evangelist, “it just takes one step, but the first step is the hardest, but Lord, oh, Lord, the rewards…”

Stronger Policy, Stronger City

Whoever is willing to step forward is someone who remembers that compromise is the currency of the best legislative decisions. It now takes someone to prove that we have moved beyond the days when we divided into race if we were talking about the weather. The voters in Memphis have placed a great deal of good will and confidence in this Council, and if it could find a way to come together on this issue, it would be a profound signal that our city has entered a new era.

While 7-6 votes can be politically satisfying to the winning side because they are usually the most hard-fought, they are ultimately like one-vote majority decisions in the U.S. Supreme Court. They are in the end hollow victories. They are less satisfying, they ensure opposition by about half the people and they create weaker policy.

We don’t need to tell the winning Council members this. They know it, and we suspect they are weighing these issues right now in hopes of finding common ground that unites a Council that had inspired so much hope for a different tone.
So, what could be done?

Finding The Middle Ground

For one thing, the hiring of police officers should be treated like the hiring of all city employees. It should be conducted and directed by City of Memphis Human Resources Division like all other divisions. To do otherwise and continue to allow MPD to handle its own hiring inspires doubts and suspicions about insider dealing, special agendas and preferential hiring. There’s one sure way to change it, and that’s by changing the way hiring is done.

Then, perhaps, there should be a temporary, limited use of a wider recruiting area to see if it really does produce results. Once upon a time, Shelby County Government had a policy – and it may still – that it could go outside of the county borders if it become obvious that it could not attract qualified applicants for key jobs. While the impetus for the policy was to recruit qualified physicians to work at the Health Department clinics, it would seem to be practical for police officers. For example, if county government were unable to find physicians in Shelby County, it would open the process to people in other counties. It was not a blanket policy (and perhaps in city government, it should be triggered with a resolution by Council). It was limited to the needs at hand. More to the point, there had to be a clear, proven and documented case for expanding the area for recruitment.

At this point, there seems to be a lot more opinions and fewer facts about police recruiting even after the months of discussing it. Skepticism and mistrust run deep, and Council members need better statistics and data that paint an accurate portrait about the seriousness of the problem. Perhaps, it’s time to appoint a special committee on law enforcement to delve into all aspects of this issue, including repeated general accusations about unfair practices and discriminatory hiring.

New Ways

While some may dismiss them as political posturing, the fact remains that these are extremely serious charges and the public deserves to be reassured that there has been a thorough airing of the issue and a equally thorough investigation of the charges. This too is an issue that should transcend the day-to-day politics of City Hall and should be resolved once and for all.

In other words, there is nothing so important right now as to find some safety valve actions that bring everybody back to the table and into the conversation, that strip the discussion down to its facts and that proves that there is a new way of doing business on City Council.

In the end, the most damaging aspect of the 7-6 vote was that it became yet the latest symbol of a city divided against itself. Lincoln was right: a house divided against itself cannot stand. Somehow, we’ve managed to stand divided for decades, but the foundation is finally crumbling.

Without sounding too Pollyannish, perhaps this is the issue that proves that the times have changed. If America can be said to be entering a post-racial era, it would sure be worth the try for Memphis to be part of it.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Voting To Make Memphis A City Of Choice

Memphis is not a city that is retaining and attracting young people with choices.

That’s a critical problem, because if there is a mantra for cities today, it’s this: It’s the talent, stupid.

Because there are several million fewer 25-34 year-olds – the fuel for the knowledge economy – these highly coveted workers have never been more selective. It’s a buyer’s market, and city after city is courting them, and the competitive edge for the winners in this contest is a high quality of life.

It Shouldn’t Be This Hard

Today, talented, college-educated, young people are looking for cities that are clean, green, safe and is a place where they can live the life they want to live. In other words, these young professionals have clear expectations for a city where they decide to live and work, and most fundamental of all is that they expect the city governments where they live to get the basics right.

We mention all this because of the emotional emails and calls – on both sides of the debate - that we received following yesterday’s post about the refusal of the Memphis City Council to expand the area for the recruitment of city police officers.

We want to make sure there’s no misunderstanding about our point of view. We were disturbed by the vote by Memphis City Council because it’s fighting the wrong battle in the wrong war, and the vote suggests to young college-educated talent that we are incapable of getting the priorities right – safety first, politics second.

Choice Opportunity

Today, 25-34 year-old college-educated professionals are voting with their feet, and Memphis is the destination of way too few of them.

There’s really no secret why we are not attracting these talented workers to Memphis or keeping those that are born here. These young professionals have choices – all kinds of them – choices about where they can live and choices about their style of living.

If Memphis is to improve its lagging economic position among the 50 largest U.S. metros, it has to do everything it can to become a magnet for them. We are not now.

Real Big League Cities

That’s because these talented, young professionals are looking for the “markers” for big-league cities. Some of them are recreational, some are retail and others are social.

For example, they expect “real” cities to have a variety of retail experiences, they expect to have a highly efficient public transit system, they expect miles and miles of bike paths and running trails, they expect a green ethos, they expect a beautiful public realm, they expect effective public services, they expect high-quality universities, they expect a vibrant downtown, they expect walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods and many of them, and they expect a culture that inspires creativity.

So, what precisely is Memphis selling these talented workers?

The Wrong Message

Our city is in effect telling them that while our crime rate is year after year one of the highest in the country, we are unprepared to take the kind of bold actions that addresses first things first – and the first thing is public safety.

Then, when we get public safety restored, then we can debate the lengths and to which we should go and the limitations that we should add to recruit new police officers.

To us, the vote by the Memphis City Council was tantamount to spraying water on the driveway while the house is on fire. It’s doing nothing to deal with the real problem.

That Sucking Sound

Most of all, Memphis frequently acts on a brand of parochialism that threatens our city’s economic future. It is emblematic of our fatal inward-looking attitude that seems to think we are the center of the universe and immune to the realities of the global economy.

The world has changed. Memphis, as a product, is not competitive.

If Memphis should be one thing, it is that we should be a magnet for young, college-educated African-American talent. But we’re not. Instead, that giant sucking sound we hear is the movement of these talented workers to places like Atlanta, Washington and Chicago. Too often, they leave Memphis first to be educated, and they never come back.

When we read an obituary or a biography of a prominent African-American professional in Memphis, we inevitably read the last couple of paragraphs that list the names of their children and where they are living. Memphis is a frequent omission from the list.

A City Of Choice

Failing to take strong action against the malignant crime rate makes us even less competitive. Ironically, the reason cited by some of those who voted down the resolution to extend the recruiting area outside of Shelby County was that they wanted to prevent flight from Memphis.

Besides being 20 years too late, the real fight is about building the kind of city that people want to stay in and the kind that people want to move back into. We won’t turn Memphis around by force and wishful thinking. We will turn it around by making it the kind of place where families, particularly young families, want to live because it has a high quality of life, good public services and a creative ethos that sparks new thinking and new ideas.

In some ways, we are too often like the Big Three automakers. We think we are not affected by world trends. We think we really don’t have to change our product. We think people will just continue to seek out our product because they once did. But things have changed, and we cling to narrow political agendas at our own peril.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

City Council Vote Is About More Than Police Recruiting

What a difference 24 hours can make.

We were actually planning to write today about the positive impact and leadership that the new, improved version of the Memphis City Council is providing. Traditionally, the elected officials with the lowest public approval rating, we have been impressed by the new sense of purpose and fresh thinking in Council meetings.

Unfortunately, the vote by Memphis City Council against broadening Memphis Police Department’s recruiting territory undercuts everything good we had planned on saying.

It wasn’t just that it split strictly down racial lines, although that’s always a glimpse into the debilitating and different world views that make Memphis a tale of two cities. More to the point, it was the complete lack of civility shown to people who dared have a different opinion and the racial overtones that characterized so many of the comments aimed at business leaders in particular.

Civic Involvement Is A Good Thing

In a city where civic participation in the public process is about as scarce as Elvis impersonators in December, the City Council meeting last night featured an outpouring of business leaders and average citizens united by the idea that more must be done to reduce a crime rate that remains the Memphis public’s #1 issue – #1 across all racial, income, and age lines – and to send an unmistakable message that our city leaders “get it,” understanding fully the risk that Memphis has for being forever branded as a city out of control.

Ironically, just a couple of days ago, we wrote this:

“But, the problem in Memphis is intensified by the fact that our city is more and more being defined (in national media) as a place that’s out of control, and the most frequent evidence for that conclusion is crime. It’s a rare city actually that finds itself in a position where it is so defined by crime that it affects all that it does, particularly economic development.

“After all, for years, Atlanta has enjoyed an economic boom, while all the while, its crime rate was one of the highest in the nation. Closer to home, Nashville – with a crime rate comparable to ours and sometimes higher – never had its economy jolted by a national perception of a crime-ridden city. Conversely, there was Detroit or Newark, cities that ultimately were written off in large measure because their crime problems became the symbol for a city that was failing.

“Memphis now runs the same risk…”

Risky Business

That risk went up with last night’s 7-6 vote against a resolution to allow police applicants to come from within 20 miles of the Shelby County line, rather than requiring them to live in the county borders.

Crime was already on our minds last night before the Council vote. We were catching up on a couple of days of unread New York Times, and we read the article about the murder of a transgendered citizen of our city, the same person previously beaten up in the Shelby County Jail by an alleged law officer, a fact also mentioned in the coverage.

The article made us reflect on the newspaper’s coverage of our city. We are hard-pressed to remember a hard news story in the past 18 months that has dealt with anything other than crime and investigations. Like it or not, Memphis is more and more being defined and identified nationally by its inability to curb its crisis level crime rates. More to the point, more and more, the lack of progress on this front means that the future of our city is being defined as well.

The Council’s vote was a wake-up call for greater citizen activism. It’s no longer enough for us to say that every big city has crime. It’s no longer acceptable for us to justify or explain it away. It’s no longer palatable that our elected leaders won’t do everything within their realm of authority to do something – anything.

Killing The Messengers

With their votes against the resolution, seven Council members told the Memphis public that politics trumps safety, political advantage is more important than public service. More frightening is that they sent the message to a crowded room of influential Memphians – leaders of our largest employers and victims of crime who want to stay in the city they love so much – that they simply don’t matter.

Even given the promise of an immediate investigation of the hiring practices of Memphis Police Department – and some concerns by Council members are not without merit – it was not enough to broker an agreement that gives our city the police officers that it needs.

Perhaps, Councilman Jim Strickland’s comment was best: “If you don’t want officers in your district who live outside Memphis, send them to my district.” That’s a sentiment felt by most Memphians, and we hope that someone will forward poll results to the entire Council that spells out just how upset citizens are about crime.

Besides being the #1 thing on the minds of Memphians, it is also the top reason that Memphians become former Memphians. Nothing has more impact in convincing families to abandon our city than crime, and the peril of that movement is seen in overtaxed citizens and overtaxed public services as Memphis hollows out even more (we’re already in the top 10).

Moving On Out

And let’s make this clear. If you look at the numbers of people moving out of Memphis, this isn’t about white flight. It’s about flight, period. The middle class – regardless of race – is moving out of the city limits. The largest influx of new residents to DeSoto County is African-Americans and a troubling percentage of those who remain in Memphis say they are thinking about leaving.

Most disturbingly, this vote was the hot topic today for young professionals in Memphis – the people that we need most if we are to succeed in today’s economy. Unfortunately, many of them were talking today about leaving Memphis. As one young father told us - with his voice breaking because he felt like he is abandoning the city he loves most - he could no longer convince his wife – who was from the Northeast – that Memphis was worth the fight. More to the point, he could no longer convince himself that his wife and infant daughter were safe in their Memphis neighborhood, and they began today to take steps to move.

That’s why the City Council’s vote is so suicidal. This isn’t just about police applicants. It’s about the future of the city and proving that our leaders are dead serious about changing things. Otherwise, the only people left in Memphis – a schizophrenic demographic profile already materializing – are the poor who can’t afford to move and the rich who can live anywhere, complete with security systems and neighborhood patrols.

If you think that opposing coaches use newspaper coverage as bulletin board motivation, they’re nothing compared to Chamber and economic development executives. If you don’t believe that the cities we compete against aren’t sending around stories portraying Memphis as akin to the “Old West,” you don’t understand the highly competitive nature of economic development.

Some Council members said that they opposed the resolution because of its negative economic impact. Then, they cast no votes that fundamentally did more damage to Memphis’ competitive position than any negative impacts that they were citing in connection with the recruiting policy change.

The Consensus

The vote by the Council raised these questions by some of the people who attended the Council meeting: “What’s the equation: how many murders are acceptable in return for political power? What’s the number of people who can be shot so politicians and feed their egos? How many people are to be wounded because we don’t have adequate policemen in Memphis?”

Their cynicism is forgivable. After all, they attended a meeting in which the Memphis mayor, the Shelby County mayor, the Shelby County district attorney, the sheriff, the director of the Memphis Police Department, Memphis Police Association, the Crime Commission, representatives of Memphis Tomorrow and Memphis’ largest employers and a special task force endorsed the change in policy. And yet, this rare unanimity of opinion by the people closest to the crime problem and unbiased in their analysis was dismissed (along with some tactless comments made to several speakers).

Perhaps, it’s possible that all of these people are wrong. But faced with our top ranking in the U.S. for our crime rates, it would just seem logical that if there’s ever been a time when it’s worth a gamble to do something different, surely this would be it. Doing the same and expecting different results is not only the definition of insanity; it’s the definition of insane public policy.

We are not saying that the Council members who voted against the change in recruiting policy are bad people. They are not. Their opinions are sincere and deeply felt. The wrongs of this city run deep and the fruits of institutional racism are obvious. They hear about it frequently from their constituents. That said, this is not the issue to use as a way to stick their fingers in the eyes of the power structure.

On A Bubble

While there does at time seem to be more emotion invested in victims of crime who are white or outrage in crimes in “white neighborhoods,” it’s worth remembering that the ultimate victims of crime are African-Americans, particularly those who feel like captives in their own homes and who feel at constant risk.

Here’s the thing, and none of us should make a mistake about this: It will take all of us to reverse the current trends and turn around our city. We have no margin for error.

Memphis is on a bubble. We just hope that we’re not the ones who puncture it and send our city down a road from which it cannot return.

Hopefully, in the coming weeks, the City Council will revisit this issue and that our Council members place their emphasis more on statesmanship than politic. If they do, Memphis City Council will deserve all the accolades that we had intended to write about it today.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Schools Have Nowhere To Go But Up (We Hope)

Two-thirds of the schools in the Memphis district do not meet state benchmarks.

That’s some of the worst news Memphians have ever received from the recent state report card on schools; however, it sets up new Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash to appear to be a miracle worker in the next couple of years.

In this way, he is the envy of every elected official in this community. In that political world, success and failure often hinges on expectations, and that’s why low expectations are often the keys to the kingdom.

In other words, no one begins his work with lower expectations held by the public than the superintendent. The recent results by Memphis City Schools on the recent state report card were, in a word, dismal, and it’s hard to imagine that there’s anywhere to go but up.

Party On

Then again, we hasten to add that we thought the same thing when former superintendent Carol Johnson was at the school district, and that was only a couple of years ago. If her tenure proved anything, it is that we wouldn’t accept positive public relations for positive student improvement. (Footnote: in her Boston district, 100 of 143 schools failed to meet state standards under No Child Left Behind.)

We’ve written before about Supt. Johnson’s masterful manipulation of the “safe harbor” provisions of No Child Left Behind and how it masked the fact that about 105 schools were not meeting state benchmarks. Safe harbor allowed Memphis City Schools to proclaim in its press release at the time that "128 Schools (in good standing)… Most in NCLB History!"

The fiction that Memphis City Schools was making progress was aided and abetted by Tennessee Department of Education, because upon release of the state report card, celebrations and parties were held for the benefit of the news media in Memphis and Nashville to announce results. What wasn’t announced was that there were 60 city schools listed in “good standing” that actually weren’t meeting state benchmarks at all, because they were docked in safe harbor.

Defrauding The Public

Back then, the state Department of Education even breathlessly told us that our students were in the top 5 of the 50 states in eighth grade math and reading, fourth grade reading and math, and high school reading. What they didn’t tell us was that they had dumbed down the test so much that for a student to be considered “proficient,” he could essentially make a “D” on the state test.

Of course, the claim that Tennessee was in the Top 5 was made even more incredible, because it was made in the face of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results that ranked Tennessee #40 and put its percentage of proficient students in the range of about 25 per cent (compared to about 90% according to state education officials).

We say all that to say this: Supt. Cash gets points for not encouraging Memphians to misunderstand the depths of the problems in our schools and the depths of the challenges to his success. He did not over-inflate the results or engage in the hyperbole that routinely has accompanied them. Most of all, he rightly suggested that the state tests were an incomplete measure of student performance.

Law And Order

Of course, it’s not particularly encouraging that there are daily reports of emails being sent by Deputy Superintendent Irving Hamer, the latter half of the “good cop-bad cop” team at Memphis City Schools, telling principals to warn their teachers to reduce the numbers of “D’s” and “F’s” being given.

Mr. Hamer is no stranger to controversy, particularly during his time as a member of the New York City Board of Education, a time when New York Magazine wrote: “Hamer calls himself a deeply private man, but since then, Manhattan's representative to the Board of Education has been the subject of steady scrutiny, most of it unflattering.” From being called “crazy” and accused of Anti-Semitism to being investigated for a conflict of interest, he cast a controversial shadow across the New York district during his term there.

But, we hasten to add that it is too easy to pigeon-hole people on the basis of a few years in their lives, but clearly, he is the most controversial figure in Memphis City Schools these days. From stories of berating principals to threatening to fire people who disagree with him, he is a lighting rod for negative reports on the district grapevine, including the “midnight marauding” of schools that include visits to administrators’ offices without them being present or being notified. The fact that these reports grow by the day is nothing so much as an indication of Dr. Hamer’s imposing, dominating management style.

100 Days

As for Superintendent Cash, he made an interesting observation in assessing his 100 days. He commented that he was not prepared for the extent of poverty in Memphis. While we are more interested in what Dr. Cash can point to as progress after 100 weeks, rather than 100 days, his comment was a commentary in only a few words. As former administrator in the Miami school system, he was no stranger to urban poverty.

And yet, we hear that he is stunned by the “third world” poverty that exists in Memphis and makes all of his priorities even more difficult to attain. It’s because of the dimensions of this problem that the Cash Administration should be reaching outside of the district for help; however, reports persist that there is the chance that some of the much-lauded programs recruited to Memphis in the pre-Cash years – such as New Leaders for New Schools and The New Teacher Project (and even Teach For America is mentioned at times) – are seen with disfavor. These reports are strikingly dissimilar to reports coming out of Nashville where new mayor, Karl Dean, is intently recruiting all of the reform programs in Memphis to join him in his campaign to reform the 75,000-student district there.

The on-again, off-again attitude toward these programs is emblematic of the need to more effectively engage parents and the community behind clear guiding principles and specific key strategies. In The Commercial Appeal article about Dr. Cash’s 100 days, one of us was quoted as giving him a “B” for his work in this time, and said his expressed priorities of transparency and accountability up to now has seen more attention to the latter than the former.

Double Standard

No place needs disruptive innovation more than the culture of Memphis City Schools, and nothing would shake things up more than transparency, so we hope all the talk about it is not merely talk. Then again, if Dr. Cash is right – and it sure sounds right – that there are many people who have not been evaluated in two decades, just insisting on annual evaluations alone could be enough to shake up things at Memphis City Schools.

It’s as if we’re still trying to teach people to use memory typewriters while the world is using computers. The systems and operations of the district are that dysfunctional, but with the passing parade of new superintendents, the first instinct of a bureaucracy is to co-opt the language of change and simply wait out the new guy.

In other words, school reform is hard work, and it requires all of us to get into the game. Most of all, it requires Tennessee Department of Education to do so, rather than to continue its “separate but equal” attitude toward the Nashville and Memphis districts. There’s no more pressing reason than the fact that it’s likely that despite the Nashville school district being on the state’s high-priority list, its students still out-perform ours.

A Special District

But because Nashville is the center of the universe, DOE rushed to the aid of the capital’s schools, flooding in help from the leaders of the state education department and resources to support fundamental change there. Meanwhile, Memphis was a pariah when our district was on the state’s list, and DOE showed as much interest in Memphis City Schools as it did in toughening up its own tests.

While we are not drawn to the paranoia regarding Nashville, it’s clear that even paranoics have reasons to be paranoid at times. This is one of those times. The dichotomy between the way that DOE responded to the Memphis educational crisis and how it is responding to the Nashville educational climate is stark and disturbing.

And with the Memphis delegation losing its impact in Nashville, it’s likely to get worse before it gets better. Getting worse is likely to include passage of the Shelby County Schools’ pet legislation to make it a special school district. Despite compelling reasons against it, the new Republican majorities in both halls of the Tennessee Legislature could be Santa Claus for the local Republican-controlled district.

Just Say No

While prospects for the special district are improving, the same can’t be said for the proposal to give taxing authority to our local school boards. The majority in Nashville may have changed, but one thing never does: Republicans are loathe to do anything that makes them vote for a tax.

Then again, the taxing authority proposal for the local boards of education just makes no sense on its face. Superintendent Cash and Shelby County Schools Superintendent Bobby Webb – continuing to play Charlie McCarthy to David Picker’s Edgar Bergen – have suggested that it’s just untenable for Shelby County’s legislative body – the Board of Commissioners – to be involved in school funding levels.

But then, in the next breath, they propose that increases in taxes by the local school board members would require approval by the Tennessee Legislature, which immediately begs the question of why, if the schools are willing to have their budgets approved by a legislative body, it’s not the one closest to home and the taxpayers footing the school bills in the first place.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Worrying About Source Of Blog Instead Of Source Of Crime

It’s not just that Memphis Police Director Larry Godwin wasted $88,000 in scarce city money pursuing an obsession worthy of Moby Dick.

It’s that with looming layoffs in City Hall, that money could have kept two rank-and-file city employees on the job and of the unemployment rolls in some tough economic times.

We’ve been giving Memphis Police Director Larry Godwin the benefit of a doubt with his preoccupation about an anonymous blogger who bedeviled him with critiques of his management style and decisions.

Perhaps, we thought, Director Godwin was concerned that investigations were being derailed by the unauthorized release of investigative files. Perhaps, we thought, Director Godwin could articulate in the trial on his lawsuit about risks created by the commentary of MPD Enforcer 2.0.

The White Whale

And yet, all we have at this point is an $88,000 legal bill for what now seems to be an inane, ill-considered lawsuit only aimed at ferreting out the identity of the blogger who torments him.

All of this was going on at the time the FBI was telling the nation that Memphis is the second most violent city in the U.S., challenging Detroit for the top spot. In other words, more than the money, it took MPD’s eyes off the ball and fed the department’s grapevine with even more rumors about who was feeding information to the blog.

It seems at times that the director’s own actions have done more to fuel the charges against him than the critics themselves. At a time when he needed to demonstrate the kind of mature, thoughtful leadership that would undercut the criticisms of arrogance and egoism, his actions only provided more ammunition for the charges lobbed against him.

Cultural Revolution

Somehow, the culture of Memphis Police Department has always been insular and inward-looking and a succession of police directors has done little to improve its operations or its reputation. It has been involved, sometimes grudgingly, in anti-crime plans like Operation Safe Community, and while there are high expectations for Blue C.R.U.S.H., and while it’s data-driven approach to attacking crime hotspots is meeting growing community approval, according to the Memphis Poll, the verdict is still out on whether it will reduce the overall crime rate in a meaningful way

Speaking of Operation Safe Community, it’s encouraging that a variety of agencies and organizations – whether through coercion or conscience – are now cooperating in executing a plan of action to attack Memphis’ crime rate, routinely the most serious problem identified by citizens of Shelby County.

But, the problem in Memphis is intensified by the fact that our city is more and more being defined as a place that’s out of control, and the most frequent evidence for that conclusion is crime. It’s a rare city actually that finds itself in a position where it is so defined by crime that it affects all that it does, particularly economic development.

Pay Now Or Pay Later

After all, for years, Atlanta has enjoyed an economic boom, and all the while, its crime rate was one of the highest in the nation. Closer to home, Nashville – with a crime rate comparable to ours and sometimes higher – never had its economy jolted by a national perception of a crime-ridden city.

Conversely, there was Detroit, or Newark, cities that ultimately were written off in large measure because their crime problems became the symbol for a city that was failing.

Memphis now runs the same risk, and while Operation Safe Community is a noble effort, there’s really no way to add enough jail cells to build our way out of the crime epidemic. It’s disturbing – albeit fiscally suicidal – that politicians, reflecting the will of the people, are always willing to pay $25,000 a year to keep someone in jail, but generally oppose spending a few thousand dollars to pay for interventions that can turn their lives around.

Getting To Root Causes

That’s why strategies that suggest that the magic answers lie in more prosecutors (always the DA’s default recommendation), “do the crime, do the time” marketing campaigns and more and more mandatory sentencing laws are not merely short-sighted, but in the long run, they do nothing to deal with the seedbeds for crime in the first place.

As long as an African-American boy in Memphis City Schools has a greater likelihood of standing in line in prison than standing in line to get a diploma at University of Memphis and as long as 80-100 children are delivered to Shelby County Juvenile Court every month by parents who say they cannot manage them, the indicators for progress are troublesome and the prospects for the future are dire.

In other words, if there’s a city in the United States that should be dealing with the root causes of crime, it’s ours. With our current demographics, Memphis is destined to be gripped with crime problems for decades. When we refer to demographics, we refer to the present link between race and poverty that exists in Memphis. The only serious hope for breaking that link is a historic, citywide program to once and for all deal with the causes of poverty, rather than the symptoms of it.

Paying Attention

Today, the cost of our crime problem is more than $500 million a year. In other words, just as the inattention to sprawl in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s led to the near financial collapse of Shelby County Government, lack of attention now to the web of problems that connect directly to our intractable poverty will lead to the collapse of our entire city and its economy.

A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Today, Memphis is in the midst of a crisis and so is the nation. The truth is, however, that Memphis has been in crisis for years, and the impact of the meltdown of our national economy could push us over a cliff.

It’s a grim prospect, but it is not our destiny. That ultimately lies in our own hands.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

In Memory Of Dr. Walter Walker

Walter Walker’s name hadn’t appeared in The Commercial Appeal in a long time - so long that it’s hard to remember that he was once one of the people whose presence gave us so much hope for Memphis’ future.

His obituary was in today’s editions.

Those who met him in the past couple of decades knew him as an inspirational figure who always found a broader purpose for his life and worked for full rights and better services for the disabled. Even after his life was turned upside down by a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis only three years after he moved to Memphis to take up the presidency of Lemoyne-Owen College in 1974, he soldiered on – with the help of his equally impressive wife, Sonia.

In a reversal of the great migration that took so many African-Americans of the South to Chicago, Dr. Walker left Chicago to move to Memphis. There, he was a vice-president of the University of Chicago, a position that was regularly the launching pad for academicians who could name their position and their price.

For Dr. Walker, however, that position was in Memphis, where his brand of leadership resulted in positive national publicity for the small, historically black college. Such was Dr. Walker’s success that it seems that the college has been looking for a leader of that caliber ever since.

After arriving in Memphis, Dr. Walker became an immediate impact player, leading so many efforts to end racial division, to address institutional racism and to prepare his new hometown for the future.

Still reeling from the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. six years earlier, Memphis was mortally wounded. Downtown was boarded up, businesses were fleeing eastward and the national media considered the decline of Memphis as a foregone conclusion.

Immediately upon his arrival, it became clear that he was exactly the kind of leader that Memphis needed at that exact moment in its history. Over the next decade, it was hard to find any progressive project and any program that unified people of good will that did not have Dr. Walker as a key force in its work.

When he took the reins in Lemoyne-Owen College, it was widely expected that he would remain in Memphis for only a short time, such was the trajectory predicted for his career. And yet, his personal style and philosophy seemed to find its perfect home in Memphis, and for a dozen years, he would lead Lemoyne-Owen College in impressive directions, using the school as a vehicle for moving our city ahead and motivate the birth of a new generation of leaders.

It would have been understandable if Dr. Walker had been bitter and if he had looked back upon his life largely in terms of missed opportunities and detoured by his disease. But this was not his style, nor his belief.

Whatever life threw at him, Walter Walker found a way to serve others – whether in a board chair or in a wheelchair - and he leaves a better world than he found. It’s hard to imagine a legacy more profound.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Crossing Boundaries: In The Region And In The World

Sometimes a city's influence goes beyond its borders well into the region. Our guests this week both work with this idea of the global influence of cities. Saskia Sassen is professor of sociology and a member of the Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University. Her work focuses on globalization and global cities. We'll speak with Saskia about the idea of denationalization, and how it applies to urban spaces.

We'll also speak with Richard Longworth, author of a new book called "Caught in the Middle, America's Heartland in the Age of Globalism." Richard will talk with us about globalization's impact on the American Midwest.

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, president and CEO of CEOs for Cities, 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.

Smart City is broadcast at 6 a.m. Saturday and Sundays on WKNO-FM, but it is also webcast and podcast so you can listen to it anytime you like. For the webcast, times for the broadcast in other cities and to sign up for the podcast, visit our website.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Wanted: Creative City Agenda For Memphis

Someone emailed to ask what we would do to set a “creativity movement” in motion in Memphis.

The answer came quickly: “Appoint Jeff Nesin the Memphis czar of creativity.”

That’s because we don’t know anyone who understands the importance of creatives and the creative economy more than the gifted president of the Memphis College of Art; however, we also know that Mr. Nesin would immediately demur, suggesting that the movement would be best led by the people it seeks to serve – the creative members of our city themselves.


That being the case, we return to our recommendation for creation of the Memphis Creative Coalition, a bottom-up organization that analyzes the dimensions of Memphis’ creativity in terms of economic impact (that trusty, yet incomplete, justification for the importance of the arts and creativity), the potential for future jobs of the innovation economy and the debt that our city owes to the creative forces that lie at our core.

In other words, the Creative Coalition would look at the past, the present and the future to mobilize people who are too often marginalized and whose importance is diminished in a city whose economic development is too often focused on smokestack chasing and giving away tax freezes.

So, we think that a fledgling Creative Coalition, if formed, should turn its attention to the development of a Creative City report with specific recommendations setting out ways to increase understanding of the importance of the so-called creative class, to identify the essential parts of a creative ecosystem and the investments needed for them, and ways to make Memphis clean, green, safe and tolerant – which are what young creative workers are looking for in cities where they live.

Partial Check List

Some broad headings for the Coalition to address:

• To spotlight, attract and retain immigrants

• To strengthen and celebrate Memphis’ heritage, arts and culture

• To make Memphis better designed

• To celebrate Memphis heroes of creativity

• To seed creative ventures

• To value an economy build on connections between creativity and entrepeneurship

• To create walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods that attract creative workers

• To retain and attract 25-34 year-old colleged-educated workers who fuel today’s economy

Bringing Outsiders In

It seems to us that convening a group of creative Memphians into a process like this could be one of the most interesting – not to mention the most productive – developments in recent history. And unleashing this group’s talents to develop a provocative way that presents the plan to their fellow citizens should be memorable in spotlighting what Memphis could be.

Today, creatives in Memphis remain largely outsiders, and it’s worth remembering that most of our city’s proudest exports – music and business breakthroughs – have come from outsiders.

That should be no surprise. As John Seely Brown said to us a couple of years ago, if you want to find innovation, if you want to find creativity, look to the edge. That’s where you will find it.

Myths And Music

The outsiders who gave us our greatest music lived on the edge, and despite the mythology that we have created, they were largely ignored and unappreciated. Then, there were the people who were called crazy by mainstream business leaders and yet one of them mad men invented modern global commerce.

In other words, it’s creativity that should be a theme for economic growth in Memphis, even more than industry-specific objectives. As the ever-wise Kip Bergstrom of the Rhode Island Economic Policy Council has told us, success in the future is about cities that concentrate on competencies rather than merely on industries.

Perhaps, if we are successful, we could even be the first place that figures out how to give its citizens the ability to “co-create” their communities. As Charles Leadbeater, European innovative consultant, has said to us, “The city that develops this new platform for civic collaborative innovation first is the city that invents the recipe for future success.”

The Main Thing

Finally, to underscore the imperative for the Memphis Creative Coalition, we quote our own Carol Coletta:

“The point is, though, unless we are intentional about using creativity to affect conditions vital to the success of cities, it won’t necessarily happen on its own. And that’s why I push back on so many of the arguments used to advocate for the arts. Especially in the U.S., we are overrun with inane economic impact studies on behalf of the arts. They measure how much arts patrons spent on babysitting and parking when they go out to the ballet and call that the economic impact of the arts.

“That’s ridiculous. It’s flaccid. It’s fuzzy thinking. OK, it can be politically persuasive, but that only tells you something about politicians. If we are content to stop with these silly justifications, we are missing the real potential for arts and creativity to affect the success of our cities.

“Another problem I see is when we talk creativity but only means the arts. Or talk about creative industries but only mean the arts. Or we talk about the power of culture without talking about the power of place.”

Start Here

The questions that she holds out for us to ask ourselves are:

• How creative am I? Can I re-conceive what is there and imagine new solutions to new problems?

• How courageous am I? Am I willing to stand up and start something and experiment, and does my community encourage that?

• How connected am I? Am I well-grounded in the marketplace? Am I connected to talented people? Can I build a coalition? Can I get resources?

We believe we should focus on the question about whether we can build a coalition. There’s no time like the present.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Creative Inspiration For Memphis

To continue the creativity theme for the week, we have a few things that we think will interest you.

First, CEOs for Cities, headed up by our good friend and colleague Carol Coletta, continues to see cities through its decidedly unique and provocative lens, and its new video makes a compelling case for the huge economic impact that can come with small increases in incomes, with fewer miles driven and with fewer people living in poverty. These should be three key priorities for the Memphis agenda, so it's intriguing to consider what profound change can come from small improvements, specifically an increase of only 1% in people over 25 years of age with college degrees.

Moving the needle from 23.7% to 24.7% would inject $1 billion into the Memphis economy, or as the video puts it, enough to buy two Formula 1 racers for our city, tickets for every person in Memphis to the Graceland Elvis Presley Entourage Tour and season tickets for every person in Memphis to the Memphis Grizzlies. And if the 51 largest cities in the U.S. did the same while reducing average miles driven by 1 mile a day and reducing poverty by 1%, it would inject $166 billion into the U.S. economy.

As Carol explained, "In an era of fiscal constraint at every level of government, leaders must innovate new ways for producing wealth and opportunity. Representing the nation's primary source of wealth, employment and global competitiveness, cities are where the strategies to keep America moving forward must be developed and launched."

Meanwhile, a New York Times headline caught our eye: It's No Time To Forget About Innovation.

It said: "There are important things managers can do to ensure that creative forward-thinking doesn't go out the door with each round of layoffs. Fostering a companywide atmosphere of innovation — encouraging everyone to take risks and to think about novel solutions, from receptionists to corner-suite executives — helps ensure that the loss of any particular set of minds needn't spell trouble for the entire company. She suggests instilling five core values to entrench innovation in the corporate mind-set: questioning, risk-taking, openness, patience and trust. All five must be used together — risk-taking without questioning leads to recklessness, she says, while patience without trust sets up an every-man-for-himself mentality."

Here's the kicker: "Creativity doesn't care about economic downturns," Mr. (Howard) Lieberman says. "In the middle of the 1970s, when we were having a big economic downturn, both Apple and Microsoft were founded. Creative people don't care about the time or the season or the state of the economy; they just go out and do their thing."

Then, Gates of Memphis, in his indispensable blog, has posted the audio of the "Conversations in Creativity" panel discussion at Memphis College of Art that inspired this week of posts about creativity. It can be found as Gates' October 26 post.

Finally, Elizabeth Eggleston, development coordinator at UrbanArt Commission, serves notice of good things to come: Memphis has been chosen by Creative TIme as a place to bring a mobile exhibit by Jeremy Deller in the spring. The exhibit is a conversation on war and equality that includes an actual tank that was blown up in Iraq, and it will be accompanied by veterans and Iraqis engaging Memphians in a dialogue that reflects the power of art at its best – the power to open up communications, to provoke critical thinking and to call for new insights.

Creative Time is a 24-year-old, New York-based group that presents some of the most provocatively innovative art in the public realm. In its own words: "We work with artists who ignite the imagination and explore ideas that shape society. We initiate a dynamic conversation among artists, sites, and audiences, in projects that enliven public spaces with free and powerful expression." This video gives you a taste of what we have to look forward to. Ms. Eggleston said that the exhibit will only make two stops south of the Mason-Dixon line, so it's an important opportunity to drive a stake into the ground about the importance of creativity and to serve notice that a new current of creative change is flowing in Memphis.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Celebrating Memphis Creativity In Living Color

William Eggleston is the Elvis Presley of American photography. A rock star.

Because of it, it's turned out to be the perfect week for us here to concentrate on creativity and the creative sparks that are as much a part of our city as the Mississippi River.

Ever iconoclastic and ever talented, Mr. Eggleston was honored earlier this week to open an exhibition of his work – Democratic Camera Photographs and Video: 1961-2008 - at the Whitney Museum of American Art that will run until January 25, 2009. The New York retrospective has already garnered rave reviews, and if you ever doubt the creative impact of this river town on the world, just consider that in the past two weeks, Mr. Eggleston has been featured in 15 major publications, including New Yorker, WWD, New York, Style, The New York Observer, The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, W, Artforum, Time and more.

Not bad for a Southern boy who just happened to revolutionize the world of photography.

Don't Take Our Word For It

And if you suspect that we are doing little more than engaging in boosterism, consider the way that the prestigious Whitney Museum described our fellow Memphian:

"One of the most influential photographers of the last half-century, William Eggleston has defined the history of color photography. This exhibition is the artist's first retrospective in the United States and includes both his color and black-and-white photographs as well as Stranded in Canton, the artist's video work from the early 1970s. The exhibition will travel throughout the United States as well as to the Haus der Kunst in Munich following its New York presentation."

In other words, if there is a week to turn up the volume on a creative movement for our city, this is it. With Mr. Eggleston as the North Star, surely we can show enough courage for the creative sparks that inspire this city to join together and start a fire that torches the old ways of thinking, the comfortable mediocrity and the unimaginative approach to our challenges.

Yes, We Can

Of course, Memphis can't do such things, we always tell ourselves. Our problems are too deep, our city too divided, our governments two deep, our poverty too grinding and our dreams just out of reach. We've been saying it for 40 years, and in that time, cities that had no more compelling reasons than we did have turned their urban areas around, attracting talent, rewarding creativity, honoring innovation and transforming the status quo. In the four decades that we have given ourselves excuses for inaction, we could have done the same. But rather than be frustrated over the wasted time, let's admit that things have to change and that change can come from no better place than from the change agents – our creatives.

In fact, Mr. Eggleston reminds us how. In the same 40 years that we ran in place, he changed the world of contemporary photography. He experimented, he didn't always succeed but he never lost faith. It's a great example for our entire city, because we need to experiment, we need to be willing to fail but we need to remain faithful to the cause of a creating a competitive city.

If we need inspiration, we should just remember Mr. Eggleston. One of his photographs was on the front page of Friday's New York Time, something normally a sign of an obituary inside. But the best thing about all this major media coverage is that Memphis and William Eggleston are synonymous in every article, adding another layer to Mythic Memphis and enriching the allure that continues to intrigue so many people around the world who have never set foot in our city.

Mythic Memphis

Upon the return of the Eggleston family to Memphis, the photographer's proud daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Eggleston of the UrbanArt Commission said: "In New York last week, we were around so many influential people in the art world and they had so many questions about Memphis. People around the country are fascinated with the Memphis mystique. They kept saying they want to experience it."

Of course, they'll come because they want to see where Mr. Eggleston took his photographs. Ironically, too few people in our city even know who he is, and it seems to us that if we can annually get excited and devote resources to Conservation Through Art, surely we can take the time to pay tribute to a creative giant in our midst. We have such a sad habit in Memphis of allowing people to live their whole lives without expressing in a civic way what they mean to us – musicians and artists in particular – and it would be such a welcome change if we could change our ways.

That's one of the things that we think our pet cause, the Memphis Creative Coalition should do – an Honor Roll of Memphis Giants of Creativity. It could have annual inductions, a citywide celebration of the importance of creative people and a reminder that there are young creatives who need our support and help as they begin their careers.

A few years ago, someone asked us what the motivation for our blog was, and we quoted Mr. Eggleston. It's one of our favorite quotes: "I am at war on the obvious." That should be our city's motto.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Creativity As An Economic Force For Memphis

There are times when a conversation becomes a cause, and a meeting becomes a movement.

Hopefully, that will be the case as a result of the “Creative Conversation” that took place a couple of weeks ago at Memphis College of Art, which sponsored the discussion along with MPACT Memphis.

It was a bracing evening. Most of all, it was a convincing reminder of the depths of creative talent and spirit that exist in Memphis and a clear demonstration of their willingness to become a positive force for change.

Coalition For Change

More precisely, we’re hoping that ultimately the conversation will give birth to The Memphis Creative Coalition, a new, organized effort to elevate attention to creativity as a competitive force in Memphis, as a competitive advantage for Memphis and as the driving force in our city brand.

There were six panelists engaged in the Memphis conversation - Gary Backaus, Principal and Chief Creative Officer at archer>malmo advertising; Karen Blockman Carrier, Founder of local restaurants Automatic Slim’s, Beauty Shop, Do and Molly Fontaine’s Lounge; Eric Matthews, co-founder of Mercury Technology Labs; Pat Mitchell Worley, Director of Development and Communications at Memphis Music Foundation; Chris Reyes, Founder, Creative Director at Ninjacat; and Joann Self Selvidge, founder and executive director of True Story Pictures. Tom Jones from Smart City Consulting and Smart City Memphis moderated the discussion.

They were provocative guides in the discussion, but equally important, approximately 150-200 people in the audience agreed with them on a central point – it’s time for creative workers to stake out their own claim to a city where creativity has inspired everything from wide-ranging musical breakthroughs to entrepreneurial innovations that fundamentally changed the social and economic fabric in the entire world.

The Right Plan

If Memphis can develop a plan for logistics, a plan for tourism, a plan for biotech, a plan for an aerotropolis and a Fast Forward plan, it can surely develop a plan for creativity, one that addresses the creative economy, creative workers and the so-called creative class. While these are fundamentally different concepts, they are interconnected and they will in real ways determine whether Memphis succeeds or stumbles in the next decade.

More to the point, we need the Memphis Creative Coalition to develop a “Creative City Plan of Action” that mobilizes support for creativity to become a force that’s not just reserved for artist studios, recording studios, design studios, restaurant kitchens and creative companies. Rather, we need a plan that makes creativity such a central part of our city that it is found in public decision-making, private and public investments and the social fabric of Memphis.

As our colleague Carol Coletta points out, there are more people in the U.S. today who are working in the creative economy than in manufacturing, and because design especially adds value to products, services and experiences, the real impact of creative industries far outstrips the impact of the immediate jobs they generate.

Just The Facts

Creative workers are good for cities like ours. Of the creative workers in the U.S., 91 percent live in metro areas, and they are 53% more likely than other workers to choose to live in close-in neighborhoods. In the top 50 metros, 41% of all creative jobs are within three miles of the central business district, which compares to 17% of all jobs.

Overall, creative jobs are only one-third as likely to be as sprawling as other jobs. In 49 of the 50 largest metros, they are more centralized than other jobs, and 26% work for themselves, five times the rate of other industry sectors.

The importance of these creative workers is seen in the aggressive recruiting that’s being done to attract them to the most dynamic cities in the U.S. And yet, the answer to being a magnet for these workers is not simply a big project. Memphis has embarked on several of these, notably Shelby Farms Park, Beale Street Landing and Wolf River Greenway, and all of these are crucial, but they are elements in a broader plan for a city whose distinctiveness, innovation and culture are defined by a creative ethos that infuses all aspects of the city.

The Other Ecosystem

That’s why the Conversation in Creativity was so important. If Memphis wants to be successful as a creative city in the knowledge economy, we need to talk to our best experts – the creative people who are part of our city. They, more than any expert, can tell us what our city should do.

That was in fact the purpose of the session at Memphis College of Art, and the overriding question was: What are the elements of a Memphis creative ecosystem?

Creating Momentum

Here’s some of the ideas:

• Creative economy venture capital fund

• Workforce development plan for creatives

• Micro-lending system

• Downtown parking stickers for creative workers, particularly musicians

• A wireless city, beginning with downtown

• Vibrant public realm that connects creatives

• Tax incentives for the creative economy

• Exploration of creative ways to animate downtown and to use empty storefronts

• Recognition that creativity can be an answer to poverty

• Celebration of our own best practices instead of copying other cities’ programs

Soldiers For Cities

The 90-minute conversation was just the beginning of discussions that need to continue throughout Memphis. That’s because creatives are instrumental to developing the kind of Memphis that can compete in the increasingly complex innovation economy.

Here’s why: creatives are soldiers for urban redevelopment. They are sparks for the vibrancy that lies at the heart of successful cities. They are the sources of new thinking and new ideas that challenge conventional thinking and traditional answers. They are boundary-crossers who connect different parts of our city to create a collective sense of community.

Creative Fundamentals

To do this, we must change the fundamental way we approach our culture. It’s not just about bringing good arts events to the people and funding arts organizations. More to the point, it’s about enabling the creative capacity of all Memphians.

The good news is that there has never been a more creative time than this. People want to be participants and not spectators, and as a result, they are making their own films in record numbers, they are making their own music in thousands of home studios, they are writing their own blogs and books and they are looking for ways to engage with other creative people to reconnect with the deep reservoir of creativity that has made us who we are in the first place.

In the end, Memphis’ challenge is to make its mark in a century where cities are increasingly divided into the haves and the have-nots as a result of their ability to activate its own creative economy and mobilize its creative workers to be more directly involved in the economic development of their cities.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

This Week On Smart City: City Quality - Public Spaces And Design

Public space is important in both cities and in buildings. We'll talk to two people who are attempting to re-imagine those public spaces both inside and out. Antony Wood is the Executive Director of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. He studies and reports on all aspects of the planning, design and construction of tall buildings. He'll tell us about the revolution that is needed in tall buildings to transform them into livable structures for the 21st century.

And we'll speak with David Dixon. David is the principal of Planning and Urban Design with Goody Clancy and Associates and we'll talk about his amazing urban design work in Miami, and what he learned about Muslim principles of design when he took his ideas to Pakistan for a project in Karachi.

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, president and CEO of CEOs for Cities, 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.

Smart City is broadcast at 6 a.m. Saturday and Sundays on WKNO-FM, but it is also webcast and podcast so you can listen to it anytime you like. For the webcast, times for the broadcast in other cities and to sign up for the podcast, visit our website.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Wrists Slapped In Campaign Law Violation

It’s probably just us, but it’s hard for us to imagine that if it had been urban Memphis rather than Germantown that Attorney General Bill Gibbons would have been as cavalier about enforcing campaign laws.

Mix in a name like Ford, and it seems unfathomable that the culprits would essentially be told to say they’re sorry and behave.

And yet, that’s essentially what was done for three Germantown aldermanic candidates, Gary Pruitt, Frank Uhlhorn and Mike Palazzolo who mailed out a ballot resembling the official Shelby County Republican Party ballot, which was not making endorsements in the races. The problem is that contrary to state law, the brochure did not bear the names of its sponsors.

The violation carried with it a misdemeanor conviction and a $50 fine, and while the prosecutor said it would be a lot of work for such a meager result, we thought it was the principle of the thing that mattered.

As we said, we just have trouble seeing that it would have been treated the same if the cast of characters and the area were different. Punishment for the Germantown 3 was that they acknowledge publicly the error of their ways and their responsibilities for the fraudulent ballot.

Local Republican Party Chairman Bill Giannini, in a burst of cynical circular logic, said: “I can tell you plenty of candidates, if they thought the only thing that stood between them and victory, was a class B misdemeanor and a $50 fine, they’d sign up all day long. That is not discouragement.”

Apparently, we’re supposed to believe that a public apology will make them tow the line.

Flyer Focuses On Foreclosures

We picked up our Memphis Flyer tonight, and to follow up today's post about foreclosures, we recommend this week's cover story by the always insightful Mary Cashiola, Home Economics.

Foreclosures Epidemic Calls For Dramatic Interventions

President-elect Barack Obama, as part of the urban agenda that he proposed during his campaign, promises to create a White House Office of Urban Policy, and it can't come too soon.

We have written often about the neglect, no longer benign, that has characterized the federal governments' relationship with American cities. Routinely ignored although they remain the engine for the U.S. economy, there's hope that cities will return prominently to the agenda of this nation, and that new federal policies will be defined by seeing cities as places of opportunities rather than problems. More importantly, we hope that there is a greater understanding of the realities of our national economy - so goes our cities, so goes our country.

We were reminded again of the need for more leadership by the federal government - in areas like land banking - about three weeks ago in a briefing about foreclosures in City Hall. It was sobering. From 2000 until now, there were 58,000 foreclosures in Memphis.

The Main Points

The first point: we were already in trouble before the Wall Street meltdown so unless something fundamental is done, things could get even worse.

The second point to keep in mind: national data indicate that the public cost of each foreclosure is $20,000. In other words, the cost of the foreclosure crisis in Memphis has been about a $1.2 billion problem since 2000.

Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton said that Memphis is in the top 10 of U.S. cities in foreclosures, and Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton described the situation as the “perfect storm” and said if there is an issue that should unite city, county and state governments, it should be attacking the sources of predatory lending.

A Biblical Struggle

“It’s a David and Goliath struggle,” the county mayor added, calling strongly for a class action lawsuit against the most egregious subprime lenders. “It’s about making a social statement, not just a legal statement.”

Mayor Herenton called for actions to “freeze” foreclosure actions until homeowners are given more time to work out the financial problems caused by the “current un-level playing field.”

The “to do list” developed by local government and housing organizations as a result of this crisis includes the coordination of databases that are now disparate, development of a response team that targets geographic areas, recycling foreclosed properties, stronger code enforcement for vacant properties, counseling and foreclosure mitigation, mortgage assistance and developing a model intervention program with the $12-14 million received by city and county governments from the federal government.

Public Impact

The epidemic of foreclosures could not have come at a worse time for local governments. Already faced with predictions of a reduction in the assessed value of property, the local tax base is further eroded by the lost property tax revenues from the foreclosures.

Government public services are also affected, because foreclosures tend to cluster, and high subprime lending in a neighborhood predicts high foreclosure in about eight out of 10 neighborhoods. We’ve mentioned previously that in more than a dozen Memphis city schools, 50% of the students move during the year, yet another effect of the foreclosures.

In Shelby County, one-third of all zip codes had subprime lending rates of at least 50% in 2006, and for zip codes within Memphis, it was one out of two.

Trouble Signs

And if you think things are improving, in the past two weeks, The Daily News reported that there have been 542 foreclosure notices.

Since 2000, Frayser has led Memphis in the number of foreclosures - 5,743, followed by Westwood with 5,107 and Parkway Village with 4,305. However, no area of Memphis is immune although downtown was at the bottom of the list with 179 foreclosures.

Foreclosures By Zip Code

Here’s the zip codes and the number of foreclosures:

Zip code 38127 – 5,743 foreclosures

38109 – 5,107

38118 – 4,305

38128 – 4,209

38141 – 3,560

38111 – 3,367

38106 – 3,282

38116 – 3,281

38115 – 3,239

38114 – 2,753


38125 – 2,514

38108 – 2,097

38122 – 2,031

38107 – 1,883

38134 – 1,674

38018 – 1,394

38112 – 1,373

38016 – 1,361

38133 – 1,034

38135 – 1,001


38117 – 998

38104 – 928

38119 – 683

38126 – 295

38105 – 284

38120 – 253

38103 – 179

38131 – 1

The Deadly Count

As for the trend line, it's moving up. With a bullet.

In 2000, there were 4,425 foreclosures. In 2001, 4,753 foreclosures. In 2002, 6,272 foreclosures.

In 2003, 6,854 foreclosures. In 2004, 7,115 foreclosures. In 2005, 7,746 foreclosures. In 2006, 9,837 foreclosures

In 2007, there have been 8,046 foreclosures; and this year, more than 4,000 foreclosures so far.