Thursday, February 12, 2009

Gritty Cities Like Ours Demand Strong Action

While Memphis has never been categorized as an old industrial city, it's always had similarities – deep urban challenges, grittiness and demographics – that give us more in common with these cities than Sunbelt cities.

We thought this again as we were re-reading a report by The Brookings Institution about the revitalization of older industrial cities, especially those in the Rust Belt. Truth be told, Memphis has always gotten a pass - and even favorable commentary - in these studies from Brookings because of its misunderstanding of the dynamics of our city’s population growth.

Most large urban cities like ours are landlocked, surrounded by suburban cities and bedroom towns, and as a result, their borders are fixed and permanent. While Mayor Willie W. Herenton seems to be attacked from all sides these days, he deserves credit for defeating the “tiny towns” movement that would have produced even great divisions here.

Down and Down

As a result of being surrounded, many cities spiral downward. Declining population leads to a weakened tax base that leads to deterioration of city services that leads to declining population. St. Louis, for example, once had a population within its city limits 500,000 larger than today, and Cleveland was once larger by 420,000 people.

Often, in looking at the raw population numbers, researchers are inclined to see Memphis as being in a positive growth cycle, but they assume that we are like other cities and our borders are also fixed. As a result of Tennessee’s liberal annexation laws, however, Memphis is able to maintain and increase its populations by taking in new land and new residents.

As a result, The Brookings Institution doesn’t include Memphis in many of its studies about cities in trouble, because, as we wrote in posts lately, our annexations masquerade as progress and mask what's really going on in our core city and the problems that are deepenening there. Nevertheless, we think the recommendations apply directly to our city.

On The Rebound

The report examined 302 U.S. cities and found that 65 are lagging behind their peers on eight indicators of well-being, notably Providence, Richmond, Shreveport, Rochester, Birmingham, St. Louis, Buffalo, Newark, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Miami, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Baltimore, Detroit, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

Much of the problems in these cities stem from economies dominated by low-wage employment; entrenched, multi-generational poverty; high unemployment and unemployables, and low incomes and diminishing tax income. If these cities are to rebound, they have to keep their eye on the ball. They have lost the high-paying jobs of an industrial economy that has long since vanished, replaced by lower-wage jobs. Most damaging of all, the dominance of older established industries actually thwarts entrepreneurialism and new business creation.

Accompanying the heavy reliance on these industries are lower educational levels. In these 65 cities, less than 17 percent of their residents over 25 years of age have bachelor’s degrees. (In Memphis, it’s 21 percent.) These lower educational levels in turn contribute to lower per capita income levels, creating a cycle that can be devastating in its self-reinforcing nature.


With problems compounded by white flight and a declining industrial base, cities find themselves hyper-segregated, increasingly poor and fiscally in crisis. In words that sound especially compelling for modern Memphis, the report quotes William Frey:

“City residents…are being asked to pay higher taxes…than their contemporaries in the suburbs. In return, they are not likely to receive proportionally better services and, in fact, can be virtually assured of lower quality schools and higher rates of crime…It is likely, therefore, that the increased out-of-pocket costs and deteriorating environmental conditions associated with residence in financially plagued cities will provide additional impetus for suburbanward movement.”

What To Do

So, what should cities like ours do to revitalize themselves?

* Fix the basics. It sounds simple and it will take decades, because it includes fixing broken educational systems, making cities safe and making cities cost-effective for companies. Lack of safety in a city is proof positive that a city government is failing, because it’s unable to deliver on its most fundamental obligation – to protect its citizens.

* Build on economic strengths. Cities need to identify and nurture their own unique economic assets, and in support of this, they need to invest in downtown revitalization. “While a strong downtown doesn’t necessarily assure a strong citywide economy, it’s certainly a prerequisite for success.”

* Transform the physical landscape. Cities need to pay attention to crumbling infrastructure, particularly those that connect them to the global economy. These catalytic development projects include waterfront development and public parks.

* Grow the middle class. Progress for these challenges will not come without paying particular attention to reducing poverty and increasing the middle class. In particular, cities and states need programs that give residents the skills – including soft skills like problem-solving and customer service and hard skills for jobs in growing sectors - to compete in today’s economy.

* Create neighborhoods of choice. To succeed, cities need neighborhoods where strong families with a range of incomes want to live. Neighborhoods of concentrated poverty are isolated, children perform worse in school and families have more health problems. In other words, these neighborhoods cost government a lot, and in turn, government should encourage mixed-income housing, grow inner-city markets, invest in preservation and rehabilitation.

All in all, it made again provocative reading, because if Memphis is to succeed, we have to first recognize that we have no margin for error, and then second, we have to focus on the levers for change that can make a real difference in our future.



Now THAT is one awesome post!
SCM, back on track!
I think we could even one up the Brookings Institute by investing some educational capitol in building some infrastructure that is not reliant on anything more than the sun, wind, and water for electricity to power the place and programs to build a better educated employee base. No more petroleum! Yeah us!

Iran is already doing this.
They will be able to wait us out if we don't begin somewhere.

Maybe we could use some reports by Harvard Business Schools professors and maybe something more timely, an update in reports to reflect where we truly are by an impartial group ( not saying Brookings is biased).

Anonymous said...

It's time for a comprehensive plan:
oh, yeah, we did that. Called it Memphis 2000. Saw a copy once.

Then maybe it's time for a comprehensive economic development plan. oh, yeah, we did that too.We dated it 5 years later, to show it was New and Improved. Called it the Memphis 2005 Economic Development Plan.

We need another Plan! that's it!
Somebody call a planning charette!!
quickly, before the entire middle class splits for the suburbs!

Anonymous said...

Our problem is in one sense worse than many others because we are not surrounded by suburban communities that might at least bring economic strength to the region. Our downtown is not the center of the city, but the end. To our west is fllod zone and West Memphis some 6 or 8 miles inland. There is also no way for the city to grow to the west or south. I believe this has an economic impact, but I have no ability to quantify that effect.
More importantly, we have to face the racism prevalent in our community and the black backlash to that. We won't get anywhere until both communities can talk openly about the impact of racism on any problem & then move on & decide to find solutions together. In the last year we have seen concern by Black members of the City Council to potential promotion of White officers on the Fire and Police Departments prevent other needs from being addressed. History certainly supports the concern of the Black members of the council. But at some point we have to continue to learn from history while being able to move to the future. We are not there yet in Memphis and Shelby County. Maybe a concerted & sustained public education program on the terrible impact of slavery and subsequent Jim Crow policies would allow both communities to talk to each other. The White community is trying very hard to be tone deaf on this issue, expecting the Black community to write off hundreds of years of horrific treatment. NOt so easy to do.


We have that education in action and growing exponentially. It's called "Common Ground", the de-speller of myths. Education of the facts on the ground of what happened during slavery is only so good and also amounts to so much more talk. It doesn't equate to action, it doesn't equate to planning and it doesn't equate to the future.
It is descriptive language about the past, not generative language about the future.
We will have to see less value in talks and more value in Listening.
For what, you may ask?
We need to be listening to the concerns for the future that the citizens and businesses have.
Citizens are concerned that our corporate culture looks like a collection of sociopaths, externalizing the costs onto the government and citizens. They don't like that. If your company were a person he'd be in prison for life with no possibility of parole.
"Black backlash"?
There is no black backlash, just a symposium of dullards and nincompoops that se their "sphere of influence" as larger than life, willing to victimize other ignorant people with their story to get their personal revenge. Nothing to do with any "black backlash". It says more about them than anyone living today. So let's leave that kind of talk OFF the table for now since it has no place in generating a future we can all live in together, the point of the whole post, the point of the whole struggle which is now a "together" struggle and it doesn't have to be such a struggle at all if we design carefully.
Now here's the main thing:
When we start speaking generatively about our common future, the past has no power over anyone involved, AND, it happens in an instant. But if you see more value in wallowing in the past and talking about solutions rather than designing and implementing them, well, you will lose, by your own design, and racism or the past or whatever handy scapegoat will not really make it any better.
So let's generate that new future.

Tom Guleff said...

Mr J,

Nice post. I'll remember these basics when I run for mayor. :)

Anonymous said...

"These catalytic development projects include waterfront development and public parks."

It just so how happens that our cities that rank #1 in these categories also have either the largest skate parks in the nation or the most or both.

Seems like a no brainer for a " catalytic" Mud Island
project. Let's see what the experts say 100K and 3 years later.

Anonymous said...


-family friendly.

Anonymous said...

Correction on my stats:
The greenest city (Boulder) has two skate parks but it's neither the largest or hosts the most parks. Boulder is called a city but it's also closer in population to being a town.


It baffles me that no one seems to get exactly how deep this depression is going to get and how little 800 billion bucks can do. It's $2471.20/each (last census).
It's about 2 weeks worth of "bailout" and it will have very little effect for anyone but a few company people whining about their salary decreases.
If it went to the current crop of leaders to get them to bailout "of" the country, forever, it would be the cheapest price we could pay. They plan on sucking every red cent before they go. This is the first of a few bailouts till the USA is T-O-A-S-T.
So, what plan do you have that will impact that?

It's like I said, everything we need is already here.

Just have to learn ho to see it.

Anonymous said...

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