Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Ill of Memphis

This is the first part of a list I've been trying to put together that to list the pros and cons, ups and downs, bad and good, ill and weal of Memphis.  It is a personal, emotional list and I provide no empirical evidence for anything I write.  Also, it is about Memphis as a whole, as a complete platform for destruction, decay, change and creativity, and not about any one detail.  Memphis is a city of a bazillion great and some horrible details, but I will anoint none as the ill or the weal of Memphis.

Preface:  Modern Memphis started in a hole and now we're filling it slow.  Officially slow.

The Ill

Low density and physical sprawl. Memphis' biggest meta-problem, (compounded by near zero civic awareness of this as a problem -- see below), makes so many other solutions difficult. For instance the economic dynamism of entrepeneurship is so much harder to bootstrap in neighborhoods of few.

Prescott Memorial church demolished for a university surface parking lot.

Official neglect of Memphis as a city of place and form. There's been much work in changing this but it's my belief that the leaders of Memphis still overwhelmingly think the city can succeed in an underpopulated landscape defined by brownfields and parking lots, an atopia strung together by asphalt, long car trips and marketing.

Big Memphis, the powerful keiretsu of corporate, political and cultural leaders, that slowly push the big and the usual, and neglect the small and unusual. Its inability to see the small and different makes it all the more likely that the newborn sprouts of creativity and enterprise will wither not from malice but ignorance.

Leadership that is socially, economically, geographically cutoff from creative grassroots culture. The small, the funky, the casual, the natural, the random don't fit the hygenicized corporate model.

Steep hierarchies. The slow and privileged movement and blocking of information, action and people up and down our steep pyramids zaps Memphis' entrepeneurial dynamism and grassroot energy. Ideas become stale, creation is marginalized, people leave. We dissipate and lose civic energy on the incredibly inefficient ascent.  So unnecessary in a city of Memphis' size.

Hugh McLeod, Gaping Void

Creaky hierarchies, or the slow turnover of leadership.  Big names in Memphis in the 1980s are still the Big names in 2010s -- Smith, Hyde, Herenton, Ford, Wharton.  Even poor dead Elvis still lords it over Memphis.

Our heavy-rotation legends.  We're just another consumer of our biggest legends.  Creatively sterile and boring.

Cult of personality approach to problem-solving makes solutions unsustainable. Rather than looking for the replicable how-tos and lessons of successes and failures, Memphis lionizes or demonizes the person who did it.  The person will leave, die or just fade away, but systems (good or bad) they build can endure.

Social density and the the zero-sum mentaility.  The creatively destructive "I win, you lose, I'm in, you're out, you're up, I'm down" mindset is easy into lapse into in our dense thickets of off-line, non-serendipitous relationships.  Plus bad stories and ideas get stuck in the thickets.

Fear of failure and forgotten beginnings.  Forget the heroic stories of the cherry-picked best, and anything else that demoralizes the start.  Begin.  Every Memphian a Creator.

Lack and/or exclusion of capital. Without its flow, the ill-heeled, smart and ambitious will leave Memphis, if they ever arrive.

A history of violence. Memphis' levels of violence have been high throughout its life. In fact, it's possible that we're moving past that history with recent drops that have set 40 year lows for violent crime. But this reputation precedes us and it shapes both the global and more importantly local vision of Memphis as a dangerous place. It may take many years or decades of lower levels to move past it.

Poverty. The chicken and egg of many of Memphis' greatest ills (like racism, sprawl, etc.)

Racism. Beyond the fear and spite that splits Memphis from its suburbs, race remains a excellent tool for unimaginative politicians of all stripes to game for their own personal ambitions while neglecting real problem-solving.