Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Job 1 For New Mayor: Blowing Up Old Myths

Memphis is a mythic city.

There are of course the mythic musicians and entrepreneurs who created our greatest exports to the world – from B.B. to Elvis to Chilton and from Kemmons Wilson to Pitt Hyde to Fred Smith.

And yet, there are mythologies of a different kind. They limit Memphis’ options for progress, trap us in the same old conversations, and create conventional wisdom treated as facts.

That’s the most intriguing promise of a new Memphis mayor: the chance to think anew about old problems and to begin by blowing up old myths.


There’s the myth that we talk too much about race. Actually, we don’t; it’s just that we talk about the wrong things. The verbal blasts out of the Herenton City Hall were a lot about race, but never about discussions concerning the consequences of Memphis’ economic segregation, the worst among the top 50 metros, or about breaking the inextricable link between race and poverty.

There’s the myth that new suburban highways create new economic growth. More to the point, they fueled the greatest relocation in history of people to outside Memphis, cannibalizing existing businesses, driving up county government’s debt to bankruptcy level, and forcing Memphians to pay the lion’s share of infrastructure they didn’t need.

There’s the myth our African-American majority is an economic drag. Because distinctiveness is the basis for competitive advantage, Memphis needs to be a hub of black talent. If that isn’t at the top of our economic development agenda, we’re not really in the economic development business.

There’s the myth that the 103,000 students in Memphis City Schools are problems. Instead, our anomalous bulge in students is a strategic opportunity. As the U.S. workforce contracts and cities fight for fewer workers, we already have ours. But we’ve got to train them for jobs of the new economy.

Acting On Myths Instead Of Facts

There’s the myth that all Memphis neighborhoods are in chaos and in deep despair. And yet, for every neighborhood in crisis, there is a place like Prospect Park – proud, well-kept, and attractive. While we deal with the neighborhoods swamped by problems, we need also to shore up the islands of great neighborhoods.

There’s the myth that success in economic development is measured by the number of tax freezes we hand out. Rather, they reflect the need to create a more competitive city, because prosperous cities aren’t selling themselves on cheapness, but quality.

There’s the myth that downtown is booming. Despite the frequent use of the word, renaissance, to describe downtown, we still tend to define success by comparing Memphis against itself rather than against other cities. Our downtown still misses the vibrancy and activity that are so evident in other cities’ downtowns that have been reborn in the past 20 years. That’s why ideas like Memphis Art Park and the skate park on Mud Island are so important.

There’s the myth that annexation is always good. Memphis is now larger in area than New York City and eventually, it will be bigger than Los Angeles. Already, annexations have driven up the costs of public services and contributed to a deterioration of services in the pre-annexation area. The city government analysis needs to measure the impact of more land on the existing city and not assume that the neighborhoods and tax revenues will not decline.

Getting It Right

There’s the myth that consolidating city and county governments is bad for the county’s smaller cities. A large government lies in the future for them – either a new one or a Memphis government that expands by almost 50 percent and surrounds them without them having a voice in it. It all makes the town mayor’s mantra all the more ironic: “We hate Memphis City Hall and don’t trust Memphis politicians. Memphis is full of problems. So we want to leave everything just like it is.”

There’s the myth that Memphis and Shelby County Governments are wasteful while the smaller towns are efficient and economical. Actually, both city and county governments spend less on services per citizen than Collierville, Bartlett, and Germantown – from 32 to 48 percent.

There’s the myth that all we need to do is to tell our story better. More importantly, we need to create a city that gives us a different story to tell.

That’s why the most dangerous myth of all is the hoariest of all: there’s nothing we can do to change things. Meanwhile, in the 20 years that we’ve wrung our hands and complained, China has turned its whole economy around.

That’s why it’s time for a mayor – and for the rest of us – to take a “no excuses” approach to our own city’s future. Memphis is a mythic place, but to become great, it means that we have to some of the most stubborn myths of all.

This post was previously published as Memphis magazine's monthly City Journal column.


Michael said...

Good article, but you missed one myth: "Build it and they will come."

This town is still under the spell of the developer heroes of the 1990 renaissance, believing they can do no wrong, that unfettered development will save the city, and that it will cost the taxpayers next to nothing.

Anonymous said...

Job One (maybe 1-10) for the new Mayor is to reduce crime and improve schools. Make Memphis a place people want to go to rather than leave.

Anonymous said...

One myth not addressed is the Memphis habit of looking for the magic bullet. It ranges from "Let's put a mall on Main Street to solve all our problems," to the more recent "Let's allow cars on that mall to solve all our problems." We see the magic bullet concept over and over: Chips Moman's presence will re-create a thriving music industry here and lead us to the promised land. An on-campus football stadium at the U of M will change everything. A river landing at the foot of Beale Street will be the answer.
What these and many other "solutions" have in common is that they invariably are the hobby-horse of an individual or two who are never held accountable down the road, and they all involve a hobby horse that is funded by the public. Smart City Memphis urges us to look at the larger picture, but until we put names with follies and stop listening to those named, we will just continue to look for the magic bullet to slay our problems.

Aaron said...

Anon: 8:24

I agree that we do have a propensity to look for the next magic bullet and I will be the first to say that the skate park project will not be a "cure-all" for downtown's ailments. I hope people don't see it as the magic bullet because it is not but it will provide a much needed recreational venue that we can add to our list of vibrant family friendly places to visit and hang out. Especially for our older children and active adults.

Taken together with many existing and ongoing efforts in our community to improve the quality of life of our citizens, perhaps small businesses will again see downtown as an opportunity to thrive. An issue, aside from population densities, that I have heard from a number of small business owners, will be for the mayor to kindly coax landlords to provide more flexible rental rates for new businesses. No more "take it or leave it" approach.

The biggest opportunity with a new administration coming in is for Memphians to dig in and get involved and make sure that developers no longer continue to capitalize on our apathy and cynicism.

For example, had there been little to no public support at the Mud Island Public Meetings I suspect the future of the River park would be following a far different trajectory.

Midtowner said...

There is also the myth that consolidation will be a panacea for Memphis.

Anon. 0723 ... The mayor is not in charge of the schools. There is a school board and a superintendent who are responsible.

Anonymous said...

I think if you build sustainable developments and connect it with passenger rail they will come.

Anonymous said...

I think the school board should be exclusive to educators and strong business professionals, not pastor and politicians.

Anonymous said...

There is a school board and a superintendent who are responsible.

'culpable', is the word you were looking for here, you mean?

Midtowner said...

Anon 3:08 ... Light rail (the Trolley) has failed to spur development along Main Street ... even to the point that they are considering letting cars back on the street.

So, let's put another myth to rest ... Light rail does not spur development.

I do like a lot of the ideas in the Broad Street Corridor project.

Zippy the giver said...

There's a myth that rehabbing inmates and ex-inmates and building a wind turbine manufacturing business here is a stupid idea because MITSUBISHI is putting A PLANT in FORT SMITH AR, RIGHT NOW.
So stupid that the Japanese had to come over to do it.
Here's a myth, that you are smart.
You're not. You just have a pulpit.
Yes, smart is a put-on to convince people you are intelligent.
Here's another myth, Memphians have a low tax rate and that we will pay higher taxes.
I would incite a riot before that happens.
MLGW is doing a good business.
No it's a corrupt organization.
A perfect storm of stupidity matured can bring down any city or country.
Something is ripe.

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