Friday, May 29, 2009

This Week On Smart City: City Dividends On Every Block

Change is in the air and we've got the numbers to prove it on Smart City.

At a time when tax revenues are declining and city budgets are strained, our first guest has a modest proposal that could produce big dividends for cities. Joe Cortright is an economist for Impresa Consulting in Portland, Ore., and his latest work shows how profitable it can be for a city to be greener, smarter, and with fewer people living in poverty. The full report for CEOs for Cities is available here.

Want to find out what's happening in your neighborhood? Adrian Holovaty knows. He's the creator of, a website that provides hyper-local news tailored to your street address. We'll give the site a test run and see what's happening on our block.

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, May 28, 2009

Answering A Question About Guard Rails

A week ago, we wrote a post about the new, improved bridge design created by Shelby County Government, and some of you suggested a better relationship between the bridge and the guard rails.

To follow up, we asked County Engineer Mike Oakes about the guard rails, and here's what he said:

"The guardrails are a big problem. We have to comply with regulations on them and there is little leeway. On the signature steel bridge we were able to paint the bridge and guardrails the same Forest Green color but in the case of concrete, we don’t have that option.

"We are planning to paint these a tan-brown to get some compatible earth tones going."

In addition, he said the guard rail issue is requiring extra creativity for the planned Fite Road "Zephyr" bridge. It's hard to figure out how the guard rails will tie into the front of an Art Deco locomotive, he said.

If you've got any suggestions, we know he'd appreciate it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Ruminations From A Fallen Southern Baptist

No religious denomination acted more often as apologists for segregationists during the civil rights movement than preachers in the Southern Baptist Convention.

It was of course a time of all-white churches but none was more devoted to white pride. Sermons across the South used the analogy that God did not allow a beautiful songbird and the conniving crow to intermingle, but instead, He established a natural order where some creations were simply on a higher plane than others, such as the difference between the white man and the black man.

It was such a popular sermon that it was printed on brochures and handed out in numerous church vestibules.

Today, the denomination likes to say that it has apologized to the race which was so often the object of its disaffection, but it still manages to mangle its theology with an anti-intellectualism that has been the subject of research and books.

Yeah, Right

Logic is as scarce as African-American ministers in its pulpits.

And yet, ministers like Bellevue Baptist Church’s Steve Gaines would have black Memphians believe that he and his colleagues best understand the reality of their fight for equal rights and against bigotry. They have adopted the vocabulary of the civil rights movement and offer up pandering statements as if listeners suffer from historical amnesia.

It all seems so convenient and politically calculated. After a church history anchored in racial separation and unequal rights, they truly expect and believe that African-American ministers will accept the premise that Southern Baptist ministers feel their pain.

We believe that while a handful of African-American preachers will be seduced by this newfound concern about racial equality, most black Memphians will see through the political expediency of this unholy alliance.

Talking The Talk But What About The Walk

If politics makes strange bedfellows, there’s little question that this one will involve twin beds. And yet, we don’t want to be too hard on churches like Bellevue Baptist Church, which proudly points out its smattering of African-American members. Meanwhile, its 60-member administrative/program staff is all-white 100 percent.

To its credit, Bellevue Baptist does have a person assigned to Hispanic outreach, but in light of its recent rhetoric, it’s certainly a surprise that it doesn’t have anyone on its staff reaching out to the majority race in our region.

It’s the sort of curious contradiction that is so often a regular part of the denomination. They now offer lip service to the importance of women in church leadership – just as long as this doesn’t involve putting them behind the pulpit. The Southern Baptist Convention still requires that all ministers are men.

“Homosexuality is not a valid alternative lifestyle,” the denomination says, raising the question of what alternative lifestyles would it find acceptable – perhaps referring to don’t ask, don’t tell lesbians who tell ministers at Bellevue Baptist that they are simply friends living together.

Bible Beating

We received emails yesterday asking how we could ignore the Bible’s admonitions against homosexuality. But the problem for us is that most of the people who claim to know the meaning of the verses have never traced the translations back to their original Greek or Hebrew. When you do this and factor in the historical realities of the Jewish experience of the time, there are alternative explanations that illuminate the verses’ true meanings.

For example, these Christian fundamentalists have no quotations from Jesus about homosexuality or from any Jewish prophet. They don’t exist.

But here’s the thing: even if people oppose legal protection for gays on their interpretation of the Bible, they are still conveniently selective about which verses they choose to emphasize, because there’s no similar orthodoxy about verses dealing with usury, obligations to the poor, stoning disobedient children and no divorces. In addition, there are verses about when husbands can use prostitutes and verses against masturbation and coitus interruptus.

Golden Oldies

Here’s a few of our favorite verses that never get mentioned by people who argue that the Bible is inerrant and must be literally followed:

Deuteronomy 22:13-20:
If a man takes a wife and, after lying with her, dislikes her and slanders her and gives her a bad name, saying, "I married this woman, but when I approached her, I did not find proof of her virginity," then the girl's father and mother shall bring proof that she was a virgin to the town elders at the gate…If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the girl's virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father's house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death.

Leviticus warns heterosexuals that having sex during a woman’s period can lead to execution.

Another Deuteronomy favorite:
If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity.

Mark 12 talks about a widow having sex with each of her husband’s brothers in turn until she bears a son:
Then the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. 19"Teacher," they said, "Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and have children for his brother.

Quoting Scripture

We don’t want to belabor this point any longer, except to say that it’s been said that even the devil can quote Scripture in support of his own purposes, and there’s little question that the Southern Baptist Convention is not alone is using Biblical verses as justification for its bigotry. There have been the crusades, the Inquisition, murder of Jews in the Holocaust, suicide in Guyana by Jim Jones followers, and opposition to inter-racial marriage and equal rights for African-Americans, and that’s for starters.

More pertinent to our current debate in Memphis is the fact that a number of gays have been killed in recent years by people who considered it the natural extension of their obeying of God’s will. In fact, they even quoted Bible verses as their justification

That’s the pitfall of fundamentalism. Even if you believe that the Bible is inerrant, that doesn’t mean that your interpretations are. In fact, the history of religion in Western civilization shows that interpretations change and doctrine shifts.


But we really didn’t mean to get this deep into the debate about Bible verses, and the decision on the anti-discrimination ordinance shouldn’t be about the Bible either. It’s about making sure that all Americans have equal protection under the law, the fundamental principle of our democracy.

Contrary to Rev. Gaines’ clever rhetoric, this vote isn’t about special privileges for gays. It’s about ensuring that they receive the same rights as the rest of us and providing a workplace that does not require Memphis gays and lesbians to live two lives as has been the case for way too long.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

WWJD? Surely Not Discriminate Or Hate

It’s tempting to dismiss Shelby County Commissioner Wyatt Bunker and his fundamentalist preacher friends as merely the latest incarnation of the flat earth society.

Surely, it’s hard to identify a group in recent memory that has so cavalierly dismissed scientific evidence, that has so conveniently picked and chosen selective Bible verses, that has calculatedly misstated our national history and that has so graphically missed the lessons of the civil rights movement.

What would Jesus do?

What would Dr. King do?

Standing Up For Prejudice

We imagine that they both would have stayed as far away from today’s pro-discrimination demonstration by Mr. Bunker and his colleagues outside the Shelby County Administration Building, where our community’s first anti-discrimination resolution protecting gays, lesbians and transgendered persons will be voted on in coming days.

In fact, if an unmarried man in his early 30’s who spent most of his time living and traveling with 12 other men talking about love had shown up outside the county building, he probably would have been condemned rather than worshiped by the gaggle of religious demagogues purporting to represent the essence of his gospel.

Here, we believe that when these anti-gay people arrive at the Pearly Gates, God will be there with two questions: “What were you thinking? How in my name did you get what you thought out of anything I said?”

Of course, Commissioner Bunker and the others would immediately say that we have no idea what God is thinking and that we are misrepresenting His teachings. That too is our response to them.

No Joking Matter

There’s nothing quite as disconcerting as the spectacle of Christians when they are so defiantly and proudly unChristlike. If those without sin should cast the first stone, we seem blessed in Memphis with an awful lot of people with a firm sense of their own perfection.

In Shelby County Government, there’s a popular joke punctuated with a punch line featuring a closet, Commissioner Bunker and former evangelical leader Ted Haggard. But in truth, this isn’t funny. It isn’t entertaining. It’s simply appalling, especially when members of the majority race of the majority religion should have so little regard for the foundational principles of our society – fair play, equality, brotherhood and tolerance.

In a way, however, we owe these misguided African-American ministers our thanks for their honesty about their gay bigotry (which isn't unlike the anti-Semitic bigotry shown to Congressman Steve Cohen), because for just a few minutes listening to them all of us got a sense of why most African-American gays and lesbians live their lives deeply in the recesses of the closet.

It’s absolutely impossible to imagine a scenario where Dr. King would have stood with his fellow Baptists on this issue. We can only imagine that he would have updated one of his many statements about the cancer of prejudice to include gays, lesbians and transgendered people. “Discrimination is a hellhound that gnaws at (gays) in every waking moment of their lives to remind them that the lie of their inferiority is accepted as truth in the society dominating them. Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.”

God Told Us Something Totally Different

Just as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson mistakenly believed that God takes sides in presidential elections, many fundamentalist ministers of both races mistakenly believe that He takes sides in the political wars. To most of us who become spectators to these kinds of events and the regular pronouncements about “family values,” we end up feeling like our faith is being stolen and it’s time to reclaim it.

As a result of the kind of behavior that took place outside the county building downtown and the anti-gay vitriol spewed by these Christian leaders, there is a misperception by the news media that somehow these views represent Christianity and that these people are typical of our faith. The truth is they are uniformly 180 degrees from what our faith means to us.

That’s the striking irony of this discussion. Commissioner Bunker says he opposes the anti-discrimination ordinance because of his religious beliefs, because of his sense of morality and because of his commitment to a life of faith.

Funny, those are the same reasons that lead us to support the ordinance.

What Gives Him The Right?

That in a nutshell sums up the danger of injecting private religious viewpoints into public policies that govern all of us. After all, why should Commissioner Bunker’s definition of sin trump ours? To him, homosexuality is a sin. To us, intolerance and sanctimony are. Why does he think his version of Christianity trumps those of us whose Christianity leads us to a totally different destination in our lives, most notably away from those who see their religion as a hammer to bludgeon anyone who is different?

As a school board member, Mr. Bunker thought that stickers should be put on biology books saying that evolution is only a theory and creationism deserves equal stature. That lack of respect for science and lack of basic understanding of scientific theory surfaces yet again in the midst of this debate as he picks up the fundamentalist refrain that homosexuality is a choice.

We won’t even dignify it with the obvious answer, but here’s the question: even if it is a choice, why does Commissioner Bunker believe that it gives him the right to discriminate against other Americans?

We’d like to think that the essence of Christianity (not to mention our common humanity) calls on us to support equal treatment and love for all of God’s children, regardless of their private lives and the legal options they choose for themselves.

Power Politics And Rules As Religion

As George Lakoff points out in his book, Moral Politics, the Religious Right is based on a “strict father” metaphor of morality, in which a wise father (whether church or political leader) sets the rules and the children (the people) do what they are told. These black-and-white moral values exist, in the father’s view, not just to help people behave morally but to maintain social order and discipline.

Adherence to these rules implies the legitimacy of the “father,” who often is treated or sees himself as speaking for God. As a result, the people who move away from that established order are doing much more than misbehaving or acting immorally. More to the point, they are threatening the rules by showing that other paths are possible and calling into question the “father’s” authority.

We don’t do the theory justice here, but clearly, Commissioner Bunker and his preacher supporters are so invested in this father-child view of the world that even an ordinance outlawing discrimination becomes a threat. It’s too bad, because in the end, anytime we strengthen the rights of every one in society, we strengthen our own. In fact, there’s no greater lesson from the civil rights movement than that.

Monday, May 25, 2009

County Deseg Order Based On What's Legal, Not What's Right

There’s an old Courthouse adage: It may be legal, but it still isn’t right.

It’s a sentiment shared by federal court observers – and some say by Judge Bernice Donald herself – in the wake of the appellate court ruling that removed Shelby County Schools from a 46-year-old desegregation order.

Judge Donald had rightfully stated her strong misgivings about the candor and motivations of the county school system’s all-white school board. The relevance of this in Shelby County Schools is profound, since the elected board, especially its chairman David Pickler, has a relationship with its superintendent not unlike Edgar Bergen’s relationship with Charlie McCarthy.

Persons close to the county schools board have for years sotto voce told about decision-making equations that are rife with racial overtones and driven by regular political homage to the town mayors in Shelby County.

No Time To Celebrate

In other words, even though the NAACP Legal Defense lawyer agrees that the system is a unitary district, it’s not the same as saying that it’s race neutral in its decisions. According to federal court sources, that distinction wasn’t lost on the local judge, who, in accordance with precedents and binding court rulings, has little choice now but to accept the ruling. But we hear that while she's convinced by the higher court that it's legal, she's still not convinced that it’s doing what’s right.

In the Southern baroque world that is Shelby County Schools, they see all of this at the least as reason for celebration and as most as validation. It’s yet the latest indication of how out of touch are the seven white people governing a district with a climbing percentage of African-American students.

But we don’t want to be too hard on the Shelby County School Board. After all, despite about 60,000 African-Americans now living in Shelby County outside Memphis – a number that is trending higher – of the 48 elected officials who represent the suburbs - school board members, the three county commissioners, state legislators, and town mayors and boards of aldermen – all are white.

All of this is destined to change dramatically in the next decade, but in the interim, nobody seems as oblivious to the changing tide and the need for fair-handed decisions as Shelby County Schools. In its curious world, the school board genuflects to the town mayors although unlike Memphis, none of these cities appropriates any of its property taxes to the public education that they tout as a main reason that Memphians should leave the urban core.

Vehicle Of Sprawl

This misplaced loyalty is a foundational reason for the tense relationship that the county school district has with the county government that’s the major source of its funding. At the same time that it confers with the town mayors, the county school board generally thumbs its nose at Mayor A C Wharton and the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, becoming indignant as more and more questions are asked about its financial stewardship and its political gamesmanship.

Here’s the thing: Shelby County Schools has been the vehicle for sprawl for 25 years and its fuel was its unholy alliance with the developers. After all, there was a time in the salad days of county development that of 15 school sites, the same developer picked them 12 times. If the county school district had consulted with the Office of Planning and Development instead of the development industry, it would have been confronted with statistics, demographic trends and building permit numbers that showed that it has routinely put its schools in the wrong places. In fact, they were put in the very places that fueled sprawl the most – and more egregiously, enriching the very developers who made school site selections.

Most of all, the county school district’s unilateral process means that decisions are never placed in a broader perspective. They are not dovetailed with public service demands, which means that county government has never been able to prepare financially and programmatically for the future, but, instead, has to react to forces set in motion by its own board of education.

The inevitability built into the system is startling, especially considering that decisions made by the Shelby County Board of Education are responsible for at least half of the county’s suffocating debt. The spectacle of the county school system making its decisions in isolation seems especially incredulous in hindsight, as the Wharton Administration tries to pay down the county’s $1.8 billion debt.

Separate But Equal Schools

Sadly, given the chance to influence a chance in the process with a joint decision for the massive southeastern county high schools, Memphis City Schools seemed to go along to get along. After intensive lobbying by developers and the same people in county government who also brought us the fiscally unwise Arlington High School (known as the white high school), the city board members unanimously voted to accept the southeast high school site (known as the black high school) picked by its county counterparts.

It’s too bad, because if there’s ever been a school site that so egregiously exemplifies the stranglehold that development interests have on the county board, it is the high school site at Hacks Cross Road and Shelby Drive.

In a sentence, it’s the wrong place, it’s the wrong size, it’s the wrong price and it’s for the wrong reasons.

It’s no wonder that some members of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners have expressed misgivings about the official reasons given for new schools. Despite all the protestations by county school officials to the contrary, it’s hard to get around the feeling that the southeastern Shelby County site was picked to get the large number of African-American students out of Germantown schools.

Special Favors For Special People

Then, there remains the question of why the county school board was determined to buy a site 50 percent larger than the standard for the nation. Rather than buy only what they needed – about 40 acres – county schools officials wanted 60 acres and were willing to pay $84,000 an acre although other possible sites carried a price tag of $40,000 - $50,000 an acre. Most amazingly of all, the county school board added 10 acres to its original site recommendation, and paid the premium price although those acres sold for $20,000 an acre a year ago. (It meant a $640,000 windfall for the developer who owned the site.)

In the wake of the Judge Donald’s ruling two years ago that the county district still had not corrected its behavior, the district mounted a disinformation campaign, saying that 95 percent of the people in the southeast area are African-Americans, so of course the high schools would be overwhelming black.

It was spin at best and a lie at worst. In the world of county schools, southeast Shelby County mysteriously stops when it reached Hacks Cross Road, which formed the easternmost border for the attendance zone for the high school. What is clear that if the district had taken off its blinders, it could have located the new high school a couple of miles to the east, and voila, southeast Shelby County isn’t 95 percent African-American any more.

But there was no way that the county district was going to move the school east of Hacks Cross Road. If they had done that, they could move some white kids attending school in Collierville to the new high school. Shelby County school systems. And that was just beyond the realm of possibility for the district.

Friday, May 22, 2009

THis Week On Smart City: Arts, Culture And Buzz

This week on Smart City: arts, culture and buzz. Does your city have it? How can you tell? And if you don't have it, where do you get it?

First we'll speak with Rick DeVos of ArtPrize - an "open art" contest in Grand Rapids that will offer the world's largest prize ever: $250,000. The contest, which will transform the city's downtown into a virtual art gallery, is open to any artist, established or emerging, and will be voted on by ArtPrize audiences via the web and text messaging. We'll talk to Rick about what kind of mark he expects ArtPrize to make on his hometown and the world.

And we'll explore the nature of that elusive thing called buzz.

We'll speak with Elizabeth Currid and Sarah Williams, two researchers who have studied buzz and identified the hottest spots in L.A. and New York. They'll join us to explain their unusual approach, and they'll tell us how to quantify cool and understand how a creative cultural scene really works.

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, May 21, 2009

County Engineer's Office Bridges To Better Design

Shelby County Engineer Mike Oakes had no trouble over bridging waters when it came to an opportunity to show how an inspired engineer can contribute directly to a better quality of life.

Here’s the set-up: Shelby County Government needed to build a new Kerrville-Rosemark Bridge over Big Creek. No one driving over the bridge would have thought anything of it if the new bridge had been a concrete monolith built with little regard for anything but our car-centric community. After all, that’s been a tradition in our region.

But Mr. Oakes had a better idea, and because of it, North Shelby County – an area whose residents justifiably often feel overlooked and underappreciated – has a bridge that contributes to an improved image and attitude.

Smarter Infrastucture

The bridge symbolizes the journey that the county’s chief engineer has taken in the past seven years. Freed from the traditional public sector way of thinking about infrastructure, he’s become a leading proponent of smart growth and context sensitive design in our community. This bridge in particular speaks to the latter, since it’s a radical departure from the run-of-the-mill ones designed and built in the past 25 years by local government.

We wrote a couple of days ago about his role in county government’s first “smart street” where a new section of Houston Levee built by Shelby County Government is more pedestrian and bike-friendly and just plain more attractive.

As for the Kerrville-Rosemark Bridge over Big Creek, the enhancements to make it more attractive and to make it sit more comfortably in its surroundings cost an additional $48,000; however, the bridge was built for $875,000, which was less than the contractor’s bid of $946,000, so in the end, it was a victory for the budget as well as for a better way of building bridges.

The public gets it. Even when it was thought that the bridge would cost more, they liked the idea, and now seeing the results, reviews have been overwhelmingly positive.

Looking Differently At Opportunities

When we asked Mr. Oakes what the “tipping point” was that led him to his new philosophy on these public infrastructure projects, he said: “First, I’m not sure I can say what the tipping point was. I have had a lifetime love for beautiful public works and facilities. When I was very small, I was fascinated by the souvenir book my grandmother had of the Chicago World’s Fair which was filled with beautiful public buildings, parks, etc. I loved our Cossitt Library and the Overton Park Zoo facilities like the Cat House.

“I was particularly impressed by my first visit to New York when I was 21 and saw the beautiful stone bridges on the Long Island Expressway. In my travels, I’ve wondered how San Francisco, San Diego, New York City, Chicago, etc., had managed to create so many great buildings, bridges, traffic circles, statues and parks that really set them apart as great, swaggering, successful cities.”

His simmering interest in these kinds of place-making investments flourished when Mayor A C Wharton took office, he said, citing the mayor’s commitment to context sensitive design (that led to a totally new approach to the highway through Shelby Farms) and to smart growth (that led to Sustainable Shelby and the new Unified Development Code).

“This opened doors that had been closed for decades in our community,” Mr. Oakes said. “We started looking for opportunities to apply (better design) about the time we were bidding the construction of the Houston Levee Road Bridge over the Wolf River. Shortly after award (of the contract), the contractor suggested some value engineering cost reductions which we could share. This additional funding source and the time needed to prepare and gain approval from state government on the changes presented the opportunity to try some architectural enhancements.

Good Design Is Everybody’s

“It turned out that we got the approval, built and enhanced the bridge and still saved money. At about that time, we also began to envision a steel bridge with dyed concrete and asphalt ‘pavers’ that could be repeated around the rural areas as our ‘signature bridge.’

“We are completing the new Mary’s Creek Bridge which will mimic the Wolf River Bridge about a mile away on Houston Levee Road. The design of the Macon Road Bridge is almost complete and will comprise two bridges with a more urban and historical look. The two bridges are more efficient and cost effective way of building this two-lane structure. It will also afford the motorists a view of both the bridge they are on and the adjacent one.“

Proving that good design is not just meant for everyone, Mr. Oakes is also considering a distinctive bridge for an industrial area. “While an industrial area offers less inducement in terms of context, we are considering some fairly inexpensive art deco enhancements on the new Fite Road Bridge,” he said. “We plan to have the parapet walls of this railroad crossing suggest the 1930’s Burlington ‘Zephyr’ train.”

When we brought Jeff Speck, former director of design for the National Endowment for the Arts, to Memphis last year, one of his “modest suggestions” for our city was that we not allow our engineers to be in charge of our quality of life. The design ethos at the Shelby County Engineer’s Office proves the exception to the rule, and we can only hope that it proves to be a virus that infects its peers in City Hall.

Best of all, Mr. Oakes understands that he is doing more than building bridges and roads. “We hope all of these, in their combination, may be the beginning of a new ‘swagger’ for our metro area.”

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Skating Toward A More Vibrant Downtown

Eight years ago, we were in Louisville and the mayor wanted to show off the things that showed how serious his city was about its future.

He took us to two places that he considered proof positive – the new, improved riverfront and the new skate park within a stone’s throw of the riverfront.

It was middle of a weekday and the place was alive with activity. The mayor said that it was open around the clock, and it was never empty. Most of all, it sent the message, he said, that Louisville was serious about attracting young talented workers and in creating a new, more progressive brand for itself (shortly thereafter, his fellow citizens approved the first large city-county consolidation in 40 years to punctuate his point).

The skate park had just served as the site for a nationally televised X-games competition, and the mayor was still basking in the glow of this validation of his leadership to get the facility built.

Getting A Decade Jump

A friend of ours says that Memphis is always on the cutting edge. Unfortunately, it’s 20 years later than every one else.

Well, in this case, we have a chance to get it right within a decade if we can come to grips with the wisdom of the proposed skate park on Mud Island. Clearly, in the public process run by the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC), no group has been more passionate or armed with more facts about the impact of its project.

And yet, the interim report about the process quoted the Greater Memphis Chamber as suggesting that Mud Island wasn’t an appropriate place for the skate park. And this comes from an organization that looks out over the moribund Mud Island park and that sets talent recruitment and retention as a major priority.

In other words, from where we sit, the business community ought to be leading the fight for the skate park – and the vision of the tip of Mud Island teeming with the kind of activity that we saw in Louisville. In the great scheme of things, we suggest that the presence of the skate park could pay bigger dividends than all of the big projects that we pursue in the name of “talent attraction.”

Talent, Talent, Talent

These days, any Chamber that isn’t anchoring its work in the creation, attraction and retention of talent isn’t really working on economic development. That’s why we’ve seen so many cities invest in skate parks as a convincing way to send new messages to today’s highly coveted 25-34 year-olds.

Hopefully, we won’t do what we often have done – add it after everyone else has one. It’s sort of the outdoor recreation version of Hard Rock Café. By the time one located here, it seemed that everyone had one, but still, we acted like we had just landed an NFL team. We did, however, get an NBA team, but, come to think of it, it was after there were about three dozen of them by then.

At any rate, the skate park is a relatively low-cost way to do something before it’s old hat. But we need to do it now, and we need to do it in a high-profile place like Mud Island, where it sends an unequivocable message about our city, where it animates a downtown that critically needs it and where it becomes a hub of vibrancy 24/7.

We are confident that our Chamber will come to recognize the value of creating new energy downtown and in creating a more successful future. In truth, that’s what the Chamber’s mission is every day.

Not Either Or

In addition, we hope that the Memphis Division of Park Services will come to realize that this is not a question of either a large-scale, prominent skate park downtown or a number of smaller skate parks throughout the city. Actually, we need to be doing both. And soon.

We confidently predict that there are more skaters than golfers and tennis players, and city government provides courses and courts for both of those devotees.

Here, we often seem so obsessed with studying and planning and less committed to implementing and executing. And an idea like the skate park on the south tip of Mud Island – a source of animation, a magnet for families, a repositioning of the park as a vibrant, dynamic hub of activity and a use that can bring all sides of the controversy over the future of our riverfront together – just seems too good to pass up.

If other cities can do it, we just don’t know why we can’t. In many other cities, there’s just a stronger predilection for action. They are simply hard-wired to take action and to do something.

Just Do It

We think that Memphis may save a great deal of time by emphasizing data-driven decisions more and master plans less, because they consume so much of our time. And in today’s highly competitive global economy and with our dire economic indicators, time is the only thing we don’t have enough of.

Let’s decide on three things we need to do and go do them. When we’re done, we’ll pick three more and work on them. We put the Mud Island Skate Park in our list of the top three.

Skateboarding is among the top four outdoor activities of Americans with 64 outings per participant, according to information gathered by Skatelife Memphis. Meanwhile, skaters are willing to travel 10 or more miles to their favorite skate parks, and it’s hard to imagine one destined to be more special than one on the banks of America’s greatest river.

In number of participants, skateboarding has now passed baseball, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers, and Sports Illustrated has called it “the great influence on American youth culture in the 20th century.”

The tip of Mud Island – the physical equivalent of the city’s toe in the water – should be dedicated to a special public purpose, and it’s hard for us to think of a better one than the skate park.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Shelby County Builds Its First Smart Road

Shelby County’s model “smart growth” road – Houston Levee between Wolf River and Macon Road – lives up to its advanced billing.

The $7 million experiment sparked by Shelby County Engineer Mike Oakes’ commitment to smarter road design stands in stark contrast to county government’s long-time tendency to build too many lanes to fuel too much sprawl at too much cost to the urban core.

Criticism by Conn Canale – owner of the four-decades-old and always enjoyable Canale Grocery – showed just how badly we have been brainwashed by the roadbuilding industry. In The Commercial Appeal, Mr. Canale said: “I think we need a couple of more lanes, because the traffic backs up.”

It’s this preoccupation of building roads on the basis of its busiest 10 hours each week – rush hour - that led to the six-lane monstrosities marring what used to be context sensitive roadways and enjoyable pastoral drives. In addition, as sprawl has pulled population and businesses eastward, these six lane roads often now divide quiet, vacant buildings in areas that the economy has abandoned.

Complete Streets

That’s why Mr. Oakes, in his wisdom, chose a road less traveled.

Instead of building lanes that would only be used in rush hour, he designed and constructed an almost four mile segment that is a tip of the hat to the “complete streets” movement. The two 35 miles per hour lanes can be expanded to four lanes later (if needed) and a landscaped median can be added, but now, the road’s gentle curves leave room for walkers, bicyclists, skaters and joggers.

The design of the roadway harkens back 40 years ago when the undulating roads outside Memphis cut through pastures and hamlets, making Sunday drives a popular pastime. When asked why he didn’t design the roads to cut straight across the county, the county engineer of the time said: “I think these softly curving roads are more attractive and fun to drive.”

He was right then, and Mr. Oakes is right now. He said that “context sensitive design and Mayor Wharton’s ‘smart growth’ initiatives opened doors that had been closed for decades in our community.” “I have found an appreciation for better design whenever it is tried. We began to realize the quality of life aspect to projects that we had been ignoring in the past.” As a result, he said that he began to look for opportunities to change the county’s traditional engineering on its roads, and that when he presented this new concept for Houston Levee Road, Mayor Wharton said yes.

It’s A Start

It’s a modest project, but it’s a start, especially to county to taxpayers who’ve been paying a premium for suburban sprawl.

Few subjects have been as endlessly discussed in this community as smart growth, and at times, we seemed at risk of co-opting the language while doing nothing to change our behavior. However, finally, we’re seeing the first signs of meaningful change in the way that the county engineer’s office designs roads. Now, if only this attitude could reach across Main Street to City Hall where the city engineer’s office often sends the message that it’s his way or the highway (excuse the pun) and that the public is nothing so much as a nuisance in the design process.

In fact, nothing symbolizes the difference in attitude and tone between the county engineer’s office and the city engineer’s office more than the difference between City of Memphis’ Walnut Grove Road into Shelby Farms Park and Shelby County’s Houston Levee Road between Wolf River and Macon Road.

At Shelby Farms Park, the city engineer’s office seemed determined to fight any suggestion that Walnut Grove Road should accommodate bicyclists and walkers. Incredibly, it essentially is a barrier to bicyclists interested in actually crossing from one side of the park to the other. As the city engineer’s office seems to be saying, its loyalty is to asphalt and cars, and sensitivity to the natural setting or other modes of transportation is someone else’s job.

Smart Planning

Houston Levee Road may be a modest first step, but Mr. Oakes suggests that county government is going to raise its aim beyond this 3.7 miles experiment, and hopefully, usher in a better way of building roads and highways in this community.

We know it is too early to get overly excited about the prospects. After all, there was a time when Germantown Parkway – now a concrete tribute to the county’s lack of commitment to sound planning – was heralded as an important opportunity to emphasize some of the same issues now being applied to Houston Levee Road.

Back then, before the ink on the Germantown Parkway Plan had dried, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners was making amendments that reversed the plan’s fundamental policies and produced the endless succession of strip malls across the landscape.

Mr. Oakes pointedly rejected the massive design used for Germantown Parkway in favor of his two-lane road, and to underscore that a new day may be dawning, his plan actually includes bike paths and the planting of trees. He promises that the road will be no wider than two lanes until about 2016 at the earliest and even afterwards, it will be widened to four lanes designed as a boulevard.

McMassive Roads

The county engineer’s thinking about this road corresponds with a growing belief that supersizing highways actually ends up making them more dangerous. The expansive roadways that exist throughout suburban Shelby County are bleak testament to the “bigger is better” attitude so often adopted by highway engineers.

Thankfully, a change is taking root around the country with a new breed of engineers who design roads that take into consideration once unheard of ideas – slowing down the traffic to move fewer cars and sharing the road with pedestrians and bike riders.

The Memphis city engineer’s office reminds us of how hard it will be for the profession to adapt to this new approach. Strangely, many traffic engineers in the public sector seem blind to the fact that this different philosophy can prevent the fault lines that so often open up between government, neighborhoods and environmentalists. That’s why flexibility and listening are two skills that are becoming as important to highway engineers as skills at the drafting table.

After all, transportation in Shelby County does much more than just move people from place to place. It also shapes the innate character of the community at its most basic. Recent studies show that people with access to sidewalks walk more, people with access to trails jog and walk more, and that walking increases with well-connected streets that are calm, appealing and narrow.

Getting Out Of Cars

Residents of walkable neighborhoods engage in about 70 more minutes a week of physical activity than people living in less walkable neighborhoods. Between 1977 and 1995, trips made by walking have declined by 40 percent for children and adults while driving trips have almost doubled. It’s no wonder that the percentage of young people who are overweight also doubled when compared to 20 years ago.

Some suggested changes to road design include adding more roadways with bike lanes and trails; damping speeds on arterials and collectors to about 35 miles per hour; offering networks for pedestrians and bike riders that are as accessible as those for cars; bulbing out curbs, improving crosswalks, and installing landscaped medians to slow down traffic and adding to the safety of pedestrians; adding landscaping, especially trees, and installing public art.

With the new thinking displayed by the county engineer’s office, it’s easier to imagine a community focused on highways that create higher quality of life and reduce the cost of construction as well as public health costs. Once, it was a pipe dream, but Houston Levee shows that it can become reality.

This Week On Smart City: Cities - Global And Green

Smart City takes global perspective on the secrets of successful cities and a peek at the truth about green jobs in America.

Christopher Choa is an architect and urban designer and a principal at EDAW, a design firm that values the relationship between people and their environment. Chris joins us from London to talk about the design of a successful city and what we can learn from the construction boom happening in cities in the Middle East.

And we'll speak with Joan Fitzgerald, Director of the Law, Policy, and Society Program at Northeastern University in Boston. She's studied how U.S. and Western European cities are addressing the interrelated issues of global warming, energy dependence and opportunities for green economic development. Joan is challenging the enthusiasm about green jobs and says there will be fewer than we expect if we don't recapture the manufacturing side of renewables. She's also the author of the forthcoming book, "Emerald Cities: Linking Sustainability and Climate Change."

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, May 14, 2009

Clash Of The Dailies Elevates The Little Guy

Memphis Daily News reporter Bill Dries is like the NFL player who scores the winning touchdown as the clock runs out.

There are high fives all around.

It’s been that kind of week for the intrepid and highly-regarded reporter, who’s as much a fixture on the Memphis journalistic scene as murder coverage.

After all, not only did he tweak the nose of his former employer, The Commercial Appeal, with his exhaustive cover story about the decline of the newspaper in the Memphis News, the weekly version of the Memphis Daily News, his article was given greater readership when the thin skin of Chris Peck, editor of our city’s dominant media outlet, led him to write the kind of defensive explanations that greet a Marc Perrusquia expose.

Out Of Proportion

It is hard to imagine an editor in the modern era of “Old Reliable” doing the same. Angus McEachran, the gruff, old style newsman, had it right. As editor, he never acknowledged that other media existed, and any way, he knew that beating up a reporter at some much smaller outlet was the equivalent of taking a nuclear warhead to a gnat.

And yet, that’s exactly what Mr. Peck did. And in pretty unconvincing fashion.

As one reporter at 495 Union put it: “It makes the Loeffel columns look good.” The Sunday series of editor’s columns have long been the target for derision within the newspaper, but never before has it proved to be such an easy target.

In a popular refrain at the paper, others suggested that it proved once again why Otis Sanford should be holding the reins for the entire paper rather than just the editorial pages.

Amping It Up

For those of us who love newspapers and try to support our major daily, it just all felt sad. It also felt like Sunday may be the day that we look back to as the day that we knew that there was no pulling The Commercial Appeal out of its death spiral.

But back to Mr. Dries, he’s the man of the hour. If the badge of honor for a reporter is to be called out by Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton, to be called out by editor of The Commercial Appeal is the equivalent of the Medal of Honor.

But what made it particularly ironic is that probably more people read Mr. Dries’ article after Mr. Peck’s column than had read it before the editor's screed. After all, the circulation of The Commercial Appeal is only about 100 times larger than The Daily News.

In politics, there’s the adage that the leading candidate never acknowledges the lesser ones because it simply amplifies them. Mr. Peck handed the Daily News a veritable megaphone.

A Fixture

Here’s the thing about Mr. Dries. Few people have the breadth of understanding and institutional knowledge that he does, and in working as part of a staff whose number is surpassed by the number of Commercial Appeal reporters in just DeSoto County, he’s undoubtedly the hardest-working man in show business.

No one in this city turns out more copy week after week. With such a small staff, speed is always of the essence and there’s never enough time, and while editing may be a virtue that sometimes gets less attention as a result, we find ourselves tearing out a lot of Mr. Dries’ articles because of their details and background information.

The other thing that Mr. Dries always reminds us is that a reporter doesn’t have to be hated to do his job well. Widely respected by the people he covers (which accounts for the lengthy interviews that he frequently gets), he calls it down the middle and his fairness is never in question.

Thin Skin

For as long as most people in the halls of government can remember, Mr. Dries has been a fixture on the local scene, beginning as a young radio reporter sticking a microphone in the faces of city and county officials at all hours of the day or night. At one point, one public official even suggested that he must be a vampire, because there was no escaping him.

Mr. Dries needs no defense, but the editor’s ill-named Inside The Newsroom column, which rarely is about inside the newsroom, proved the old adage that no one has thinner skins than the reporters who spend their lives asking everyone else tough questions and writing hard-hitting articles.

Undoubtedly, the plot at 495 Union will shift with this week’s column by Mr. Peck, but for a few days this week, Mr. Dries has been man of the hour. It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Confessions Of A City Schools Tutor

This spring, I worked as a tutor for the Memphis Literacy Corps.

I signed up not really knowing what to expect, just thinking that it would be a good experience and a good part-time job for a full-time student such as myself. I had no previous experience tutoring and little experience working with kids, but I figured we would be well-prepared for the job.

After all, they were sending out mass emails to college kids of all majors, and surely they wouldn’t send us in there unprepared, right? And surely there would be adequate supervision and assistance throughout the program, right? Well…

Our training consisted of a three-hour orientation. Although there was a lot of information presented, it was a lot to take in at once. Especially since I had no experience, I felt pretty overwhelmed.

Tutoring During Non-Fun Classes

But it seemed that the people running the show would be supportive and there was a forum set up for us to ask questions, so I figured it would be fine. We were given information on how to contact our site coordinator and then we were wished luck and set on our way.

As I understand it, the program had been advertised as being an after-school program, and it had been said that the tutoring would not affect kids going to their regular classes. When I contacted my site coordinator, I found that this was inaccurate.

I was told that I had to be finished with my tutoring by 3 p.m., because that’s when the school let out. The tutors were told to go get the children they were tutoring out of their regular classes for an hour when they came to tutor. The site coordinator at the school where I tutored specifically worked the schedule so that the kids would not be taken out of their more fun classes, like art; this seems like a good idea, because that way the kids wouldn’t mind so much being pulled out of class, but it meant that we were pulling them out of their more important classes, like English and math.

I don’t blame the site coordinator for this, as she was trying to make it easier on us tutors. The fundamental problem with this is that the program was during school hours, so kids had to be pulled out of one of their classes.


The curriculum we were given, which grouped kids into one of three categories based on their reading abilities, consisted of specific “scripts” to follow so we would know what to do each day. One of the many problems with these is that they were very sparse on examples and often used the exact same examples for different concepts.

The word “communication” must have come up a dozen times to teach different things, and some of the examples were simply incorrect; for instance, one of them was focusing on working with prefixes, and it said to tell the children that the “comm” in communication and community is a prefix meaning “together” (or something to that effect).

That’s not true at all. I was really surprised to find something like that in the materials.

I opted to skip a large part of that section, simply because it was teaching things that were not true and would just end up being confusing. Also, the scripts often did not fill up the entire time we were supposed to work, so we ended up reading more to fill up the time – this would have been perfectly fine, as practice reading was good for them, but then we ran out of the books that were provided for the program near the end, and I had to bring books from home and make up other activities.

Invisible Oversight

If it had been explained that this would be the case, that would have been one thing, but the scripts implied that they would last the entire time. Interestingly, after the program ended, we were sent a survey to fill out about our experiences in the program, and it specifically asked where we got books to use after we finished the ones provided by the program. Again, I had no problem with reading that many books with them, or the fact that I had to bring them, but the fact that they could not have made any of this clear in our instructions seems a bit ridiculous.

I cannot speak about how it was for all tutors, but while I was at the school, I had very little contact with any of the teachers. The teachers did not seem to have been told very much about the tutoring program, so there was little coordination or support between tutors and teachers. There was virtually no supervision of tutors while we were working – I honestly could have been teaching them anything, or playing games with them, or just making them stare at the wall for an hour, and no one would have known.

Of course, I didn’t. I stayed to the scripts as well as I could and I tried to keep them focused on reading as much as I could, but it is entirely possible that some tutors did very little actual tutoring.

C’mon, you hire college kids, and you don’t supervise them? I know plenty of college kids who can’t even be trusted to do their own school work and show up to their own classes, so how are they going to be motivated enough to show up every day and help a kid with theirs?

The Round-Up

Possibly the most concerning aspect of this program, at least from my perspective, is that they did a poor job of assessing the subjects in which children needed help.

Based on the three children I tutored, it seemed as if they simply rounded up all 3rd to 5th graders who had been held back at least one year, tested them in reading to see which of the three categories they fit in, and stuck them in this tutoring program only for reading.

I think that the fact that it was only for reading is fine – that’s a good place to start. But I tutored one child who had absolutely no problems with reading and told me that she had only been held back because of her math scores.

So why was she in this program? Because no one figured out if she should be in or not. They just saw that she’d been held back and tossed her in with the rest of them.

Although I did have an overall good experience working with the kids I tutored, there were far too many problems with this program. That forum they set up for us to ask questions? I was never able to access it. Luckily I have friends in the education field, so I was able to go to them with questions I had. But the lack of training and support for the tutors was a huge problem.

I’d love to help more kids with reading, but there is no way I would sign up for this program again, assuming it continues. Wonderful concept, horrible execution.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Good News Would Be More Gays And Lesbians

Clearly, what Memphis and Shelby County need are more gays and lesbians.

After all, reports put Memphis near the bottom of the nation’s largest 50 cities in same sex couples and gay, lesbian and bisexual population. Meanwhile, Memphis is at the bottom in major economic indicators.

With only 3.5 percent of its MSA population, Memphis ranked #46 in gay and lesbian population, with only Buffalo, Detroit, Richmond and Riverside ranking lower.

Meanwhile, heading up the list were San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, Portland, Tampa, Austin, Denver and Minneapolis. The cities topping this list also happen to be the cities that are proving the most successful in today’s economy and in attracting the highly-coveted 25-34 year-old college-educated workers (see Sunday’s post about the connection between this demographic and tolerant cities).

Dots Connect

Factoid: 11 of the top 15 leading high-tech metros are on the list of the cities with the largest gay, lesbian and bisexual population. Comparing the cities with large gay populations with the cities that are most successfully competing in today’s economy, it suggests that when Memphis rolls out its economic development plans for the future, we need to have attracting more gays at the top of our list.

Census Bureau data suggests that we are losing 25-34 year-old gays as fast, or faster, than straights of the same age. It appears that Nashville is a frequent destination (another booming economy by the way) where there is a more active gay community, more tolerance and a lower “redneck factor.”

To reprise our theme from Sunday’s post, tolerance as a selling point is vastly underrated and misunderstood in Memphis. But more and more, it is a priority for cities that understand how to attract and retain knowledge economy workers.

It is uppermost in the minds of this critical portion of the workforce as they make decisions on where they will work and live. It’s not that they are asking if cities have gays and a vibrant gay culture. Rather, they ask about how the city is open to them, how it welcomes their opinions and accepts their choices. There is no more telling indicator that the presence and acceptance of gays and lesbians.

Nothing Gay About Our Index

Statistics about same-sex couples and the gay, lesbian and bisexual population are contained in a recent report of the Williams Institute and is reminiscent of the widely misunderstood “Gay Index” made famous by Richard Florida in his book, The Rise of the Creative Class.

In his book, Mr. Florida pointed out that Memphis ranked #43 on the 1990 Gay Index and #41 on the 2000 Gay Index. At the same time, Memphis ranked #48 on the High-Tech Index. While those taking shots at his premise mischaracterized it to say that he was suggesting a direct correlation between gays and high-tech jobs, Mr. Florida actually made the point that gays concentrate in open, tolerant cities, and it is these kinds of cities that have a competitive advantage in attracting creative workers generally.

It’s our suspicion that the percentage of gays in Memphis is underreported. After all, the statistics are based on same sex couples, gays and lesbians identifying themselves. In a city with a historic problem with intolerance, it’s not surprising that there is a reluctance to respond openly, and there’s no question that African-American gays tend to stay deep in the closet.

In Memphis, 1,821 couples identified themselves as same sex couples, but the percentage of same sex couples here is about 20% lower than Nashville. In fact, the number of same sex couples was down 936 since 2000, suggesting an out-migration to friendlier environments, taking with them the higher percentage of college degrees when compared to straight couples.

Decent And Intelligent

In Tennessee, there are 148,868 gays, lesbians and bisexuals, and they are equally divided between males and females. Fourteen percent work for government.

In 2000, the gay and lesbian population of Memphis was listed at 30,531. If Memphis could record a sudden uptick in the number of same sex couples and gays and lesbians (or even in an increase based on feelings that things here are safe enough to identify yourselves), it’s a positive sign that things are getting better.

That’s why as Memphis follows key indicators and trends to chart its progress, chief among them should be a trend line for gays and lesbians.

Tolerance is now more than simple decency. Today, it’s a competitive necessity, the reflection of a community that is open and inclusive at a time when these qualities are vital if we are to compete for the kinds of jobs that matter most in a knowledge-based economy.

10 Things We Love About Memphis: From EcoMemphis

Continuing our intermittent feature, 10 Things We Love About Memphis," here's a great list from EcoMemphis. We continue to welcome your list which we'll post at this address:

1. I love Memphis for it's (nearly subversive) determination to make this a great place to live - nay-sayers be damned.

2. I love the suburbs. There's a lot of cool stuff happening out there even hip midtowners would envy.

3. I love that Memphis is understanding that we don't have to seek permission from our political leaders to have the communities we want.

4. I love that Memphis has tremendous appreciation for beauty - in our art, in our yards, in our performers.

5. I love there's still a sense of 'new-ness' here. That we can make Memphis what we want it to be.

6. I love that we have strong multi-cultural communities.

7. I love that we have a strong, positive history/identity - we know it, we own it, and we don't apologize for it.

8. I love that we are Southerners, and will be pushed, but only so far. There are many times, when what we care about is put on the line. Then, we stand strong and take care of business.

9. I love that we love our babies. Memphis has a tremendous culture of parenthood and trying our damnedest to be the best we can be.

10. I love our parks - Riverside Park, Shelby Farms, Shelby Forest, Peabody Park, Cancer Survivers Park - with lots of activities like golf, frisby golf, tracks, hiking, boating, fishing, etc. I feel lucky to have these available.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

County Ordinance Vote Is A Vote For The Future

Memphis is like the actor looking for the chance to take a role against type.

We need something dramatic to send the message that we’re not your grandfather’s Memphis, that we’re not stuck in time and that we’re not a group of Bible-thumping, intolerant bigots.

That’s why the vote by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners on an ordinance promising non-discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgendered persons is a crucible for our community.

It’s not often that a legislative body has a chance to do something so right. Or so smart.

Starring In A New Role

That’s because the ordinance gives us a powerful opportunity to act against type and send the message that this old river city is shedding a reputation that we’ve had too long and that we now find repugnant.

In a city that has suffered from the bitter fruit of bigotry and discrimination, it would seem self-evident that we should jump at the opportunity to be on the side of fairness and equality. But despite the lessons that we should have learned, we remain a place where intolerance flourishes on occasion.

As a result, the new ordinance – which only applies to county employees and companies working for county government – is a welcome development, and Commissioner Steve Mulroy deserves a commendation for the political courage to advance it to a board of commissioners’ agenda, but we’re sure that some commissioners will instead opt to vote for discrimination, but such is the lingering brand of prejudice cloaked in the flag and Scripture verses to hide its ugliness.

Despite this, we’re hopeful that a majority of our county commissioners will understand the importance of this moment in history for our community. You see, while voting for this ordinance is morally right, it is also economically wise.

That’s because tolerance is no longer a virtue. It’s essential to compete in the knowledge economy.

Prima Facie Case

Here’s how the dots connect: the presence of talent in a city today determines its economic success, the percentage of 25-34 year-olds in a city is the key determinant and these crucial members of the workforce are looking to work and live in cities that are clean, green and safe and that are places where they can live the life they want to live.

In other words, they want a city open enough to accept them as they are, welcoming enough to offer ways to plug in with others like themselves and accepting enough to reserve their judgments.

In this way, gays are the canaries in the coal mine. It’s been said that cities with significant gay populations are more successful, but it’s not just because gays have been key to neighborhood revitalization, development of the cultural and arts scene and to a city’s vibrancy.

More to the point, if a city is welcoming to gays, it is prima facie evidence that it is diverse and welcoming to everyone, and it is the presence of that level of tolerance and acceptance of others that is a magnet for talented young people looking for place where they can live the life they want to live.

Undervalued Tolerance

Tolerance as a selling point is vastly underrated and misunderstood in Memphis. But more and more, it is becoming a priority for cities that understand how it helps to attract and retain knowledge economy workers.

In our work in developing talent strategies for a half dozen large cities, it’s a common and compelling theme. It’s not simply something that comes up as a footnote in interviews, focus groups and research. To the contrary, it is uppermost in the minds of the young, college-educated people as they decide where they will work and live. It’s not that they are asking if cities have a vibrant gay culture. Rather, they ask about ways in which the city welcomes their opinions and accepts their choices, and there is no more telling indicator that the presence and acceptance of gays and lesbians.

It is in this way that the gay population is an indicator of the fundamental character of a city and serves as a foreshadowing to other indicators of economic success. To prove the point, Memphis’ rank at the bottom of the list of cities with gay populations is also where it is ranked on variety of other economic measurements.

The need for the ordinance is a sad commentary on the discrimination and bigotry still directed at gays, lesbians and transgendered people in our nation, but already, cities that are seen as open-minded are on the right side of the great national migration of young, talented workers.

A Better Image

Memphis and Shelby County are way on the wrong side of this migration. Since 1990, Shelby County has lost 33,300 25-34 year-olds, and we’ve already lost more of this group in the first six years of this century than in all of the 1990s. We’re in the process of determining how many of these had college degrees, but based on the preliminary numbers, it’s doesn’t look promising.

It’s worth remembering that two out of three of these people – the gold standard for the knowledge-based economy – pick where they live before they pick where they work, and they say that they want to live in a city where each can “live the life that I want to lead.”

Here’s the thing about the Board of Commissioners’ vote. If it fails, it’s a devastating blow to our already faltering national image through a toxic display of intolerance that will undoubtedly garner national media coverage. The good news is that if it passes, it will garner even more.

Maybe, before it’s over, we can actually attract some national attention for our ability to transcend our differences and abandon the bomb-throwing judgmental behavior that defines us too much nationally.

Setting The Future Context

As we said, voting for the county ordinance is much more than simple decency (although that would be reason enough). Rather, it’s an exercise in economic necessity.

In a world of multitudinous ethnic groups, an assortment of religions, different sexual orientations and collections of cultures, a city that can’t respect its own differences can never connect - or compete - in a world whose overwhelming characteristic is its diversity.

Or put another way, a city that is open, inclusive and tolerant has the best chance of competing for the kinds of jobs – and workers - that matter most in a knowledge-based economy.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

It's Time To Be Able To Carry Guns To Visit Legislators

We’re assuming that it’s now O.K. to carry our guns into the Tennessee Capitol.

After all, if, in the opinions of our legislators, that we're not at risk from the their law allowing guns to be carried into restaurants and parks, it only makes sense that they’d allow us to also carry them into the halls of our legislature.

In the interest of consistency, surely gun-happy state legislators like Curry Todd, Brian Kelsey and Paul Stanley have no problem in removing the security guards checking for guns at the entrances to the Legislature.

In their blind devotion to the Second Amendment, it only makes sense that they wouldn’t want to prevent us from carrying our guns into Legislative Plaza when we visit them.

If it’s good enough for restaurants and parks, it should be good enough for them.

This Week On Smart City: Seeding Entrepreneurship And Featuring Our Own Eric Mathews

How do you reinvigorate the economy of a rust belt city? Our guests on this week's show are working both at the grass roots and civic levels to rebuild the economies of their mid-sized cities.

Ron Kitchens is the CEO of Southwest Michigan First, a nonprofit organization dedicated to being a catalyst for success in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Ron joins us to tell us about incubating new companies in this economy and how smaller businesses can thrive when large corporations fail.

Eric Mathews is the founder of Launch Memphis, an organization that nurtures technology startups in Memphis. We'll talk to Eric about how technology can help seed an entrepreneurial community and be used to bring entrepreneurs together.
Also, Thomas Sevcik discusses how much work it can take to change the way the world views a city. Thomas is the founder of the internationally acclaimed creative studio Arthesia and he'll tell us about the complicated issue of a city's identity and how to find what he calls "the city's drama."

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, May 07, 2009

Maybe Bigger Isn't Necessarily Better

If Memphis was a real estate business, we would say that it suffers from a low occupancy rate.

If we ran a shopping center with this problem, we could spend some money making it more attractive and offering special leases, we could lose money and suck it up, or we could raise rents, but if we did, it could lead to our tenants leaving.

The same goes for Memphis. We can spend a lot of money on big-time projects like an NBA arena, Beale Street Landing and Shelby Farms Park in hopes of keeping our taxpayers in the city and attracting more. We can respond to a decrease in people by an increase in revenues in the form of property taxes, but it results in an exodus of families.

A friend of ours offered a lesson for us. Faced with similar scenarios, he made his shopping center smaller. He consolidated the stores that are still successful and ran a smaller, more efficient and more profitable operation.

Tough Times

So, here’s the question: if businesses can downsize, if nonprofit agencies and private institutions can downsize, if the military can downsize, why can’t cities like ours?

We’ve written about Memphis as a shrinking city twice in the past week, and to summarize, here’s the premise: we delude ourselves into thinking that annexation is the answer to all that ails us when in fact it simply masks the 28% drop in population in the central city in the past 35 years and we deliver the same services over a larger area and with roughly the same budgets and personnel.

Back behind the annexation in the central city, there’s the same number of water lines, sewers and streets to be repaired and policed, the same number of neighborhoods but even more serious problems to confront. Meanwhile, despite the annexation, more people leave and the downward spiral continues on.

Aggravating the problem is a simple fact of life: the decline across Memphis is not equally distributed. There are census tracts with less than 50% of the population who lived there in 1970. With the expansion of area and concentrated poverty left in its wake, urban life itself deteriorates. There aren’t enough people to keep the grocery store in the neighborhood open, vacant lots become havens for criminal activity, and the neighborhood feels less safe and becomes less livable and inviting.

Misery Loves Company

It’s a self-reenforcing cycle. The problems become more than symptoms of serious challenges. They actually become the source for them.

We have plenty of company. During the 20 years between 1970 and 1990, one third of all U.S. cities lost population (the number we used in last week’s post was for world cities). And yet, what is strange about our shrinking city is its location.

Most cities undergoing these changes are Midwestern industrial cities, notably Detroit, St. Louis, and Cleveland. And while Memphis has propped up its population through annexation, like these Midwestern cities, our density has been cut in half.

Cleveland has 3,300 acres of vacant land within its city limits and 12,000-15,000 vacant buildings. That’s why city government there is demolishing up to 2,000 houses a year.

Breaking The Cycle

According to Terry Schwartz, senior planner at the Kent State Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, said recently on Smart City: “Our goal is to find productive uses for managing, for holding, and for extracting value out of this growing portfolio of vacancy that’s within the city. The rhetoric of shrinking cities is that there is nothing to say that Cleveland or Toledo or Pittsburgh or St. Louis can’t be a good city with a smaller population.

“But the challenge we face is that the vitality, the vibrancy, the density of the city is really scattered, and also in some ways a phrase might be ‘like perforated.’ You have these pockets of strength and growth and what we think of as a convention city, but in between, there are these vast and growing voids where it’s harder and harder to get conventional real estate development to take root.”

Shrinking cities are faced with hard choices. Like Youngstown, they may decide which neighborhood are abandoned because it’s simply too costly to deliver services to them. To accelerate the abandonment already under way, there would need to be incentives to relocate people to neighborhoods that can still be saved.

There’s even discussion of special land-use policies and zero occupancy zoning, which would lead to the elimination of city services. It might sound insensitive, but it’s no less insensitive than the conditions in which our cities in these neighborhoods live now and the pretense of providing public services to neighborhoods which are only glimmers of their former selves.

Bigger May Not Be Better

In Cleveland, they are creating a citywide plan of core investment areas where real estate development and economic development, population growth and stabilization are most likely to occur. Based on market typologies, they are the places of the greatest strength within the city.

We’re not suggesting that Memphis has reached such a crisis point, but we ought to start planning for it. If trends continue and nothing happens to change the trajectory of our region, conditions in these neighborhoods will only get harsher and more untenable, not to mention, unaffordable, and the population of the traditional city will continue to fall.

But there’s another option: deannexation. Some economists suggest that large tracts of land that no longer have to pay city taxes could attract development that would otherwise avoid them like the plague. Perhaps, it could result in decreased costs to the city and increased revenues. Best of all, it might attract people back into the urban area, and perhaps, lured by lower taxes, some of them would be the middle income families we are hemorrhaging.

We know all this runs counter to Americans’ obsession with bigger and bigger as the definition of success. Perhaps, just perhaps, success isn’t measured in larger and larger population. Absent a tax-sharing arrangement or a major overhaul of our tax system, it’s hard to see a way that the population of the “old” city of Memphis will stabilize anytime soon.

Getting The Focus Right

Most of all, we’re not saying that shrinking Memphis would be the magic answer to solving our city’s problems, but it would allow us to target our energy, our efforts and our resources to an area that allows for more efficient deployment of city services.

It’s unlikely that Memphis will ever see a return to the population within the beltway that it once had, but it just may be our best chance of stabilizing things long enough to triage our problems.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Getting The State Out Of Downtown Decisions

What do you call a bill in the Legislature that would cut the number of state legislators on the Center City Commission in half?

A start.

Reducing the number from four to two legislators would take place with passage of a bill introduced in the Tennessee Legislature to reverse a 10-year amendment that required twice as many members from the legislature here as any other downtown development agency in Tennessee.(Kudos to Councilman Bill Boyd for his behind-the-scenes work to reduce the politicians on the downtown redevelopment agency.)

Senator Paul Stanley – under the heading of “even a blind hog finds an acorn once in awhile” – submitted his own bill calling for the removal of all legislators. It’s a sensible change, because it’s just plain hard to figure out why these state politicians bring any value to the work of the Memphis and Shelby County Center City Commission.


But we’ll take half a loaf any day, and we can only hope that the logic spreads to Memphis City Council and Shelby County Board of Commissioners who also have two members each on the downtown agency. Then there are two members appointed by the city and county mayors, bringing the number of public employees to 10.

At the point that the state legislature doubled its members, an arms race with city and county began, capsizing the founding philosophy of the Center City Commission and running counter to the examples of successful downtown redevelopment agencies across the U.S.

Those that work best are business-driven and have a strong private sector majority. That was once the case for the Center City Commission when it was created 30 years ago.

As its success grew, there grew the sense by some politicians that there was a pot of gold hidden at the Center City Commission and they just had to get closer to it. As a result, the number of elected officials swelled, and they tried to use the programs of the agency to reward their friends, to hire supporters and to get special perks for themselves.

Politicized Policy

The swelling number of politicians did nothing so much as to undermine any vestiges of entrepreneurship that were crucial to the success of the agency. In time, the politicizing of the Center City Commission created a high hurdle that it had to clear every time that it wanted to adopt a priority, make a business incentive and close a deal.

In other words, Center City Commission became the antithesis of the kind of agency that downtown needed, one that is decisive, bold and innovative. More and more, the 10 brave souls who represented the private sector were shouted down or forced to play uncomfortably in a political world as foreign to them as the Alba Patera Quadrangle of Mars.

In the end, the overbearing influence of political interests dumbed down the work of the Center City Commission as well as limited its ambitions in the interest of being politically palatable. As a result, downtown Memphis is a decade behind most cities in design standards, vibrant public realm, and quality of life improvements.

While we engage in regular hyperbole when we talk about downtown with words like “renaissance” and “transformation,” the truth is that we are adept at defining success by comparing our present to our past rather than to other cities. The truth is that we have lagged behind our peer cities.

Getting The Sector Right

It didn’t have to be this way if only city and county mayors had listened to downtown developer Henry Turley about 20 years ago.

Thirty years ago, when the Center City Commission was being created, the concept was that the public sector would create the agency in concert with the private sector, because it was wisely thought that for it to be successful, it needed to have the entrepreneurial culture more in keeping with business.

Unfortunately, the Memphis Chamber of Commerce, which spawned the downtown redevelopment idea, closed its doors and was essentially bankrupt. Shelby County Government then was reluctant to support the agency, and in the end, only Memphis City Government moved ahead with its creation.

Later, county government joined in, but it would take time before the Chamber was reinvented, and by then, the moment for real change had passed. Ever since, hopes that the agency would reflect a business orientation have been, well, hopes.

Just Do It

Enter Mr. Turley, who inspired a new discussion about returning to the founding vision of the Center City Commission, but the effort faltered for lack of political will to get it done. Sadly, the current of change ran in precisely the opposite direction.

The private sector orientation almost disappeared as more and more politicians added themselves to the group. It was difficult enough to act entrepreneurially before, but with the addition of state senators and representative, and more local politicians, entrepreneurship has become the exception, not the rule.

There’s no question that members of the Center City Commission are good people. It’s just that the public sector doesn’t possess the skills most needed for the agency to be most successful in its work.

Often, when the conversation turns to downtown development, we think of the words of Mr. Turley: “We need to quit planning and do something. Let’s pick two or three things and go do them, and when we’re done, we’ll pick two or three more, and we’ll do them too.”

It sounded like wise advice back then, and it seems absolutely prescient now.

Tickets To Ride

The political machination to add more elected officials to the Center City Commission was reminiscent of the way former Senator John Ford ended up with free tickets in a private suite at The Pyramid for all University of Memphis events.

During construction of The Pyramid, University of Memphis needed state approval to execute the provisions of its agreement with city and county governments. When they went to Nashville to get legislative approval, they ran head-long into Mr. Ford, the most effective operative for this city in Nashville, and he said that in return for passage, he would have to be given free tickets to all events and assigned one of the private suites.

Memphis and Shelby County Governments refused, but as a state institution, U of M had little choice, and Mr. Ford did in fact get the use of the private suite and 24 free tickets for all basketball games. He wielded the tickets as rewards to friends and left the suite dark rather than give tickets to colleagues who had earned his disfavor.

The same happened when contracts were being negotiated with the Memphis Grizzlies. Again, legislative approval was needed for city and county governments to have the power they needed to consummate the agreement. The price: Mr. Ford wanted a place on the Public Building Authority headed up by Arnold Perl.


In addition, he wanted to be vice-chairman of the building authority. City and county negotiators were adamantly against giving in to the senator, but eventually, the mayors did, and the rest is history.

However, when it came time to name Mr. Ford as vice-chair, he was chagrined to know learn that he’d been outsmarted, because the PBA would have multiple vice-chairmen; however, as vice-chairman in charge of minority business development, he wielded considerable power and influenced a portion of the construction budget. His role and the process for selecting minority businesses continue to be a focus of the investigation into the FedEx Forum.

Meanwhile, back at the Center City Commission, there are signs of progress in the reduction in politicians. Perhaps, it’s even possible to create something downtown that is often the hardest thing of all – momentum.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Vote Early And Often For Our City

Earlier this year, we posted lists of the “10 Things We Love About Memphis” by a number of our fellow citizens. Now, we’ve got a chance to show just how much we meant it.

Last year at this time, we were complaining and urging you to fire off an email to Travel and Leisure magazine about our omission from its list of “America’s Favorite Cities.” This year, we can vote our city into the list if we finish in the top five of the 10 contenders.

Our competition is St. Louis, Kansas City, Houston, Baltimore, Cleveland, Providence, Anchorage, Detroit and Salt Lake City. Reports have it that we are within striking distance of grabbing a spot on the list.

So, cast your vote by May 15 and help us get Memphis the attention it deserves as one of this nation’s favorite cities.

Problems Respect No Borders

Things are just too scary outside Memphis.

In Bartlett, another missing person ended up being murder. It comes at the same time that many residents of the town wring their hands because they think a proposed government merger is sure to bring in more crime.

For the record, no citizen of Memphis was involved in any of the Bartlett murders.

Mapped Out

How often have all of us heard some person outside Memphis tell the media that they don’t want to be annexed by Memphis and they don’t want to unify the governments because they don’t want the increase in crime?

Apparently, a large part of these folks believe that criminals are issued maps of Memphis and until an area is annexed, criminals aren’t authorized to go into outside Memphis.

As for Bartlett, the truth is that the three recent murders shouldn’t really create any deep concern in the city because they were personal crimes and put no one except the victim at risk.

Life Support

Meanwhile, Collierville was the site of our region’s first swine flu case. That too had its element of irony since it was one of the towns arguing that there’s no reason that its citizens shouldn’t help fund the Memphis and Shelby County Health Department. After all, it’s Memphis that has the health issues, they say.

Of course, ignored in the rhetoric was the simple fact that the Health Department does more than operate health clinics. It also protects our water and our air, it registers vital statistics, and contrary to myth, citizens of these towns – especially Collierville and Bartlett – do in fact use the health services of the department.

As part of the Memphis City Council’s crusade for fair taxes for Memphians, city funding for the Health Department has been threatened and is likely to be eliminated over time. Shelby County Government’s plan was to meet with the town mayors to request financial help with the operations of the department so that Memphis taxpayers aren’t the only ones paying twice of health services.

E Pluribus Unum

So, we wonder if Collierville’s attitude toward the health department has changed in light of the crucial role that its professionals played in the wake of the swine flu case.

For us, it just underscores the reason that all of us should reject parochial, “us versus them” thinking. The high-profile crimes may have happened in Bartlett (once again reminding us how much media attention white victims get) and the swine flu may have shown up in Collierville, but all of us should care about our neighbors in the ‘burbs.

We are totally willing to help Bartlett and Collierville whenever we can, and maybe, just maybe, they see that they really aren’t all that different than the rest of us. Our strength is in working together and nothing less should be tolerated.

No Question About #1

Finally, what is it with private schools? None of the swine flu cases in Tennessee have been found in public schools, contrary to the conventional wisdom of the news media. All three were in private schools.

As for crime, there’s no question it remains the #1 problem for our region. Everyone from FexEx founder Fred Smith to the owner of the corner grocery knows it.

About a century ago, Memphis was named “Murder Capital” of the U.S., and somehow, we’ve never shaken that culture of violence. Recently, Memphis was named America’s second most dangerous city.

The Alarm Is Sounding

It’s not like we need a wake-up call, because we’ve already had dozens. But here’s what gets our attention. Most of the problems ascribed to Memphis are actually regional in nature. It’s not just Memphis heading up the city lists of troubling civic indicators. It’s the entire region.

So, it’s not only short-sighted, divisiveness is actually self-defeating because we’re at the point where it’s going to take all of us working together to say enough is enough and it’s going to take all of our law enforcement agencies coordinating their work to have maximum impact on crime.

Our city’s second place ranking did almost as much damage to our reputation as it did to Attorney General Bill Gibbons’ law-and-order gubernatorial bid. There are some encouraging signs that our crime rate has topped out and that we are finally making a dent in the number of crimes in the key categories.

A few law officers have suggested that the statistics showing major reductions in crime are a generous look at trends, so we’re certainly hoping that the numbers are the numbers. All of us want to know exactly how we’re doing. The only thing worse than our crime numbers is spinning them.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Democrats Contribute To Worst Legislature

We know we’ve given Republicans a hard time because of their insipid law-making during this session of the Tennessee Legislature, but in the interest of fairness, we note that the inane behavior on Capitol Hill is hardly the province of one party

Democrats, notably those from Shelby County, continue to build the case for this legislature to be called the worst in modern history. Both political parties have proven just how out of touch they are and how easy it is to place your political ambitions over the public good.

If, as some people say, gun obsession for many is an extension of a castration anxiety, Republican legislators must have nightmares of becoming eunuchs.

It’s only a matter of time before someone is killed in a park or restaurant by a quick trigger finger. When it does, the bumper sticker will be proven right. Guns don’t kill people, people do – and those people are the state legislators passing these laws.

Sacrificing Kids For Political Ambition

But not to be outdone, Democratic legislators used kids rather than guns for their political pandering, relying on one of their favorite bogeymen - charter schools – as they opposed an amendment that would give more Memphis parents choices for their children’s education.

The Democrats used their same old time-worn red herrings:

* Charter schools undermine public schools (even though charter schools are public schools)

* Charter schools “cherry pick” students (even though state law requires them to educate failing students or students from failing schools)

* Charter schools take money from public schools (even though they are supposed to be funded at the same level as public schools, Memphis City Schools shortchanges them)

* Our state doesn’t need more charter schools because we are doing so well on our state assessment tests (even though repeated research has shown that our TCAP and Gateway tests are a farce)

100% College-bound

While all of this political theater was taking place in Nashville, the drama here was in the fact that every one of the 70 students in the first senior class of the first charter school in Tennessee has been accepted to college. Despite taking some of the lowest-performing students in Memphis City Schools, Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering’s (MASE) senior class was 100% college-bound.

In other words, MASE took Memphis City Schools’ slogan seriously – Every Child. Every Day. College Bound – but instead of a thank you card from the city district, our city officials took to the halls of the legislature to lobby against giving more students the same kind of opportunity.

We’re not suggesting that charter schools are the panacea. The problems of Memphis City Schools are too deep and wide for a single magic answer, but it’s hard to argue that we shouldn’t be trying as many innovations as possible to improve the disappointing performance of our district.

And yet, the teachers unions, the educational bureaucrats, aided and abetted by our local Democratic legislators, treat the children in our classrooms as props in an annual political theater aimed at protecting teachers from more accountability, fighting any innovations that aren’t invented by them and rejecting any solutions that come from nontraditional sources.

Charter Schools As Civil Rights

This has been peculiar behavior, but it’s even stranger these days, now that President Barack Obama and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have called for less restrictive charter laws so that more children are given this opportunity. In fact, almost in the same breath, Secretary Duncan rightly calls quality education the “civil rights issue of our generation.”

But year after year, whenever a charter law comes before the Tennessee Legislature, the emphasis is less on the civil rights of the next generation as the fund-raising ability of the politicians in the room. Sadly, there’s really no one in Nashville lobbying for students themselves. Instead, districts like ours lobby for protection of the status quo.

In previous years, opponents have suggested that charter schools were some insidious invention of white conservative businessmen. The backdrop this year was radically changed because President Obama, in a March 10 speech, called for states to lift arbitrary caps on the growth of public charter schools in the interest of “promoting innovation and excellence.” He said the 26 states, including Tennessee, that have caps on charter schools should remove them.

“Right now, there are caps on how many charter schools are allowed in some states, no matter how well they are preparing our students,” President Obama said. “This isn’t good for our children, our economy, or our country. I call on states to reform their charter rules and lift caps on the number of allowable charter schools, wherever such caps are in place.”

Wanted: Focus And Logic

Then, in an op-ed column in the Nashville Tennesseean about five weeks later, Secretary Duncan, along with Tennessee Senator and former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, wrote: “We have seen the potential that charter schools can have in getting results for American students. As the debate over public charter schools moves forward across the country and in Tennessee, we must stay focused on the core issue, which is educational quality, not government.”

Unfortunately, focus is not something that raised its head in the legislative hearings on removing Tennessee’s restrictive charter school caps. Logic was in even shorter supply. To his credit, Tennessee's most persuasive advocate for school reform, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean asked the legislature to make Tennessee friendlier for charter schools, rightly observing that it's not a partisan issue.

Meanwhile, desks in charter school classrooms go empty, and Tennessee can only have 50 total charter schools in the entire state. Memphis can have no more than 20, and only failing students and students from failing schools can attend them. All that’s been asked of the legislature is to expand the pool of potential charter school students so that more parents have choices for their children’s education.

It would seem that legislators might want to get an independent reading of the situation. There is such a report written for the Tennessee Comptroller by principal legislative research assistant Erin Do with the help of researchers at University of Memphis’ Center for Research in Educational Policy. It points to the charter schools’ autonomy to select teachers and the additional flexibility given to teachers in return for more responsibility.

Everyone Else Is Out Of Step

While charters tend to use traditional methods of instruction and may appear on first look to be similar to regular schools, they have longer school days and additional school days which allow enrichment and remediation classes for students. “The established culture in each charter school allows for a higher level of student engagement,” the report said, noting that the charter schools have internships, field trips, guest speakers, small class size, additional teacher assistants, site-based decision-making and character education.

According to the report, the elements of successful charter schools include:

• They are driven by mission and positive school culture

• They teach for mastery and focus on college preparation

• They innovate across the program

• They engage families as partners

• They value professional learning

• They hold themselves accountable

I guess it’s asking too much that our legislators actually get the facts before they vote. This time around, they’re not only ignoring the results of the schools and the recommendations of the state’s own report, but the president and secretary of education for good measure.