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With so much potential for the future of downtown – stepped-up investment, a spectacular riverfront, smarter parking, and more – we were drawn back to Jeff Speck’s 12 Modest Suggestions for Making Memphis Great from May, 2008.

Twice, Mr. Speck has been called on for his recommendations for a more vibrant, walkable downtown.  Better known are his riverfront recommendations to former Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., which notably called for a two-lane Riverside Drive and a much improved Tom Lee Park, but years before, he was asked by a coalition of groups to apply his expertise and experience to suggest recommendations that could have a positive impact on Memphis.

Mr. Speck, a city planner and urban designer, wrote Suburban Nation, called the “urbanist’s bible,” with Andrew Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk in 2000, and in 2012, he wrote the best-selling Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time and last year followed it up with award-winning Walkable City Rules: 101 Steps to Making Better Places.  His TED talks and online videos have been viewed 3.5 million times.

We say all this to underscore the point that he knows what he’s talking about, and it’s remarkable that Memphis got two sets of recommendations at bargain basement prices because of his interest in our community.  That’s not to say that Memphis and Shelby County have a history of listening to experts, but Mr. Speck’s recommendations were pragmatic and practical and deserve more attention as downtown enters into a new era of ambition and progress.

Success: Citizens Taking Charge Of Their City’s Future

Largely because our community is isolated in the middle of the country without another major city nearby to challenge us to think more ambitiously or to force us into a more competitive frame of mind, Memphis and Shelby County have a habit of adopting the attitude that we are simply too different from other cities to imagine that we can apply some of the same innovations that are so common in other places and results in pushback from ideas that challenge our conventional thinking.

One of the experts who has given Memphis his advice, economist Joe Cortright of Portland, Oregon, once had someone here tell him that his insights didn’t apply to Memphis “because it’s not Portland.”  At that point, he recounted the history of that boomtown and how it transformed itself from a largely ignored and declining city to becoming one of the most envied ones today.

He explains it much better than that, but his response had everything to do with citizens taking charge of their city’s own future, aiming higher, and pursuing a clear vision.  His main point to the skeptical audience was that if Portland could turn itself around, Memphis surely could too.

We are also reminded that Richard Florida, the now celebrated author who introduced the term creative class to the world, once was involved in a project to apply his research for the first time to Memphis.  It even took place before publication of The Rise of the Creative Class in 2002, and included some specific recommendations for our community to implement if it wanted to attract creative workers.

His continuing research in this area showed last week that the Memphis metro’s creative workforce continues to languish at the bottom of the nation’s largest 50 MSAs.  For example, in 2005, the Memphis region was #47 (29.3%) in its creative class, and in 2017, although the metro’s percentage of creative class workers had grown to 32%, Memphis had fallen to #48.

Walking to a Better City

Hopefully, you get our point.  If we had only listened to the national experts that cares about a gritty Mid-Western city posing as a Southern one and followed their recommendations, perhaps we could have weathered the Great Recession better instead of being among the last cities a decade after it ended to return to our pre-Recession economic health.

It is ironic how often the public complains about all the plans that were never implemented and remain on government shelves when it is our own reluctance as a people to support smart risks on new policies and programs and our reflexive pushback to anything that sounds like change.

At any rate, with that context in mind, we revisited Mr. Speck’s “modest recommendations” which were laid out in 178 slides that began with this prescient introduction: “All of my work is based on the conviction that a successful city is one in which people choose to walk.  They will also drive and take transit (which supports walking).  But if people are not comfortable using Memphis as pedestrians, then it will never provide the high quality of life that is now demanded of our community, and those with a choice to locate elsewhere.”

So, how do you get people to walk?  By having

  • A reason to walk (balance of uses)
  • A safe walk (reality and perception)
  • A comfortable walk (space and orientation)
  • An interesting walk (signs of humanity)

Some highlights from the report:

–  “Downtown Memphis has made great strides in becoming more mixed-use but it contains some areas, such as your governmental campus, which would benefit from a greater integration of addition uses like dining, shopping, and housing.  Not all of your downtown will attract pedestrian life, nor does it all need to.  But areas that are hoped to contain pedestrian activity should be planned to acquire the fullest possible mix of uses.  For the largely single-use areas containing principally workplace, high-quality walkable corridors to mixed use must be created.”

– “Cars are not the problem.  Cars moving quickly near pedestrians are the problem.  The principal criteria of a safe and safe-feeling streetscape are small blocks; few, narrow driving lanes; two-way traffic; parallel parking; and street trees.”

–  “Many Memphis streets, like Peabody Place, have travel lanes of 14 feet or more.  These are highway lane widths, created for speeds of 70 MPH and higher.  Why are downtown streets designed for illegal speeds?  Whenever a street is rebuilt, it should be made with 10 feet travel lanes to encourage non-highway speeds.  In the meantime, this change can be accomplished through re-striping.”

–  “Downtown Memphis is lucky to have only one significant one-way pair: Second and Third Streets.  Most mid-sized cities are cursed by dozens and are reverting them back to two-way because they cause speeding…It is worth noting that this one-way pair, in combination with the I-40 ramp configurations, robs the Pinch District of vitality because all traffic exits the highway heading south.”

–  “Memphis has many streets that have lost their parallel parking in favor of increased traffic flow.  This lack of parking is one of the many reasons that these streets fail to attract pedestrians.  Street trees are also a key component of pedestrian safety, protecting the pedestrian from traffic as parked cars do.  They are especially necessary if parallel parking cannot be provided.”

–  “Many streets in downtown Memphis are utterly lacking in trees of any quality.  The goal – worth private funding – should be a continuous tree canopy throughout the city.”

–  “..major contributor to a lack of spatial definition is a preponderance of surface parking lots, each of which creates a tear in the traditional urban fabric.  Along important pedestrian routes, these street edges should be incentivized for development, with parking places in mid-block structures, located off-site, or in some cases, eliminated.”

–  To attract pedestrian life, the fronts of buildings must expose – or at least suggest – human activity.  Blank walls, parking structures, surface parking lots and even plant life are a poor substitute for windows and doors.  In Memphis, one can find blank walls and service doors along key pedestrian routes.  Many streets are lined by parking structures.  The message: people don’t live here, cars do.”

–  “Developments like South Bluffs put walls and gates against city streets rather than building fronts with doors and windows.  This is partially a response to high-speech street geometries but it is also an anti-urban impulse that privileges privacy over walkability.”

 Here are Mr. Speck’s 12 Modest Proposals:

General:

*  Building Memphis for humans, not just cars.  Don’t leave the design of your city to the highway engineers.

Most cities in America suffer from giving free rein to traffic engineers, who do their job well, constantly improving through-flow at the expense of pedestrian vitality.  In the absence of other leadership, these engineers effectively become city planners, determining the physical future of their communities more profoundly than any other single influence.  It must be admitted that Memphis suffers from this syndrome more extremely than most.  There are few American downtowns where traffic engineers have so consistently applied high-speed automotive geometries to the direct detriment of pedestrian activity and civic life.

*  Stop demolishing your economic advantage.

Memphis ranks sixth in the U.S. in its number of nationally registered historic buildings.  In addition to your musical heritage, you have an equally impressive and unique architectural heritage.  It is one of your key economic differentiators.  Yet historic teardowns are still occurring in Memphis, often without warning.”

*  Plant trees.

Even some of your better streets are entirely devoid of trees.  Imagine how nice South Main Street would be with a continuous canopy of trees.  The sidewalks are wide enough to hold them, but they have not been planted. 

*  Organize neighborhoods around schools around neighborhoods.

The walk to school is an important part of a child’s physical and intellectual development.  The child obesity and onset diabetes crises in this country are partially outcomes of the systematic elimination nationwide of the walk to school.  In the 1970s, more than 70% of American children walked to school.  The number is now 13%.

*  Fix downtown first.

Other neighborhoods may be in greater need of assistance, but it is important to remember that a city’s downtown is the one neighborhood that belongs to every resident, wherever they live.  In addition, the condition of a city’s downtown plays a disproportionate role in the city’s reputation and thus its future success.  Make a resident neighborhood better and its residents benefit.  Make the downtown better and the entire city benefits.

*  Practice urban triage.

By trying to be universally good, most cities end up universally mediocre.  Only certain areas of your city have the potential to attract and sustain pedestrian life.  Improvements intended to attract pedestrians to other areas will only succeed at great expense.  By studying existing conditions, we can see where limited investment can quickly produce significant improvements in pedestrian activity. 

Specific to the downtown core:

*  Fix the Third Street Promenot.

The first intervention is for the stretch of Third Street between AutoZone Park and Beale Street.  Here we find two spectacular anchors that both generate and attract pedestrian activity and demand to be well-connected.  Yet, as one walks past Gayoso Street, what does one find?  A surface parking lot and a structure parking lot to the east.  And to the west, a brick wall interrupted only by auto ramps, air vents, and a few blacked-out windows.  It’s hard to imagine an environment less interesting to walk in.  What should be a promenade is instead a promenot.

*  Heal the Main/South Main knuckle.

The same challenges posed by Third Street are presented at a larger scale by the stretch of Main Street from Peabody Place south to Pontotoc.  Here we have two separate pedestrian-viable areas which fail to achieve synergy because they are separated by empty buildings, parking lots, and a suburban office building…one of the largest planning errors in the history of Memphis.  Someone, mistaking downtown for an office park, has built a huge suburban office building, complete with deep setbacks and landscaped berms (Note: this is the MLGW headquarters building at Main and Beale.)

*  Build the missing monument.  (Note: Good news – the recommended monuments honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have been built.)

 * You deserve just a little urban waterfront.

Much of the riverfront looks temporary, industrial, and separated by a surface road that has been allowed to become a highway. 

*  Put cars back on Main.

Whether or not to return cars to Main Street is a subject of great debate.  To planners who work nationally and study the past for lessons, this debate in Memphis seems anachronistic and parochial.  The history of pedestrianized main streets in America is, simply put, a history of failure.  Of the approximately 135 Main Streets pedestrianized in the sixties and seventies, almost all of them failed almost instantly.  The facts on the ground in Memphis are plain enough.  What is less obvious is why pedestrian malls fail in America.  The first reason is that here retail needs cars.  Cars moving slowly support pedestrian life and are great for shops, especially if teaser parking is provided out front.  Indeed, cars now drive and park on Main Street as a matter of course.  They just do it illegally.

*  Stop the Outer Loop.

This recommendation dealt with I-269 and unfortunately, the special interests and moneyed influencers made sure this unnecessary incentive for sprawl was completed.  As Mr. Speck wrote: “From a planning perspective, there is no intelligent argument to be made for the construction of the other loop.  It is the exact opposite of smart growth.” Sadly, he has been proven right.

**

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We’ve heard a great deal in recent years about how population growth is a top priority for Memphis to the point that it spawned yet another reason to waive taxes, this time for apartments that were supposedly the magnet for in-migration.

Back on November 26, we blogged about how population growth is often used as a proxy for economic growth:

“Most U.S. cities have acted on the article of faith that population growth is in and of itself beneficial and that the faster the growth, the greater are the economic benefits, and larger population is hailed as the cure for cities’ ailments, particularly when it comes to the need for local jobs.

“And yet, when Eben Fodor, a consultant on land planning and growth management, looked at the 100 largest U.S. metros from 2000-2009, he used the annual population growth rate and compared it to the unemployment rate, per capita income, and poverty rate.  He concluded that the conventional wisdom that growth generates economic and employment benefits was not supported by these data.”

All of this is a discussion worth having in Memphis, because of our community’s habit of using an issue – think consolidation – that seems to paralyze us from taking the kind of bold actions that we need to address problems that are structural in nature. For many years, we said that the presence of both city and county governments was what prevented Memphis from taking its place among the country’s most successful cities, ignoring the fact that 99% of major cities had the same similar government structure as ours.

Well-known American urban studies theorist Richard Florida, whose books introduced the concept of the creative class (and whose first application of his research applied to Memphis), continues to suggest that population decline is not the kiss of death for cities.  Considering that our demographic trend lines suggest that it may be optimistic to assume Memphis’ population loss is going to turn around, it’s a position worth discussing….just in case.

How Some Shrinking Cities Are Still Prospering

The phrase “shrinking cities” conjures up images of economically ravaged places, defined by declining populations and massive job loss. A USA Today report earlier this year listed declining Rustbelt cities like Johnstown, Pennsylvania; Youngstown, Ohio; and Pine Bluff, Arkansas as among America’s 25 fastest-shrinking cities. These places not only suffered from massive population loss, but high rates of unemployment and violent crime.

But a new study suggests that shrinking population and economic decline don’t always come hand-in-hand: A striking subset of cities with declining populations are in fact economically prosperous. The report by Maxwell Hartt, my former University of Toronto colleague who is now at Cardiff University, examines the economic performance of American cities with shrinking populations, looking at their performance on indices of income, unemployment, job growth, and economic inequality from 1980 to 2010.

Other studies have found that more than 40 percent of U.S. cities (those with at least 10,000 residents) qualify as shrinking cities, having lost population between 1980 and 2010. But Hartt estimates the real number is closer to 35 percent, or 886 cities, because he disqualifies cities which saw their land areas or census boundaries redrawn and decrease.

The map below, from the study, charts all 886 shrinking cities. The Rustbelt has large numbers of them, along with the Sunbelt and the Northeast. Less than a fifth of shrinking cities are principal cities (cities that are the largest incorporated place in a core-based statistical area or meet a threshold both for population and working population). Eighty percent of them are suburbs or smaller communities.

(Annals of the American Association of Geographers)

In the next map, Hartt charts the location of prosperous shrinking cities. Overall, Hartt finds that more than a quarter of shrinking cities (27 percent) can be defined as prosperous, having economic indices—the four factors mentioned earlier—greater than their regional average. Just 4 percent of prosperous shrinking cities are principal cities; the vast majority are suburbs and smaller places. For example, the affluent suburb of Mountain Brook, Alabama, has faced population decrease while maintaining high income and talent levels.

(Annals of the American Association of Geographers)

Not surprisingly, a relatively large percentage of prosperous shrinking cities are clustered near large, successful metros like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Miami. Over 30 percent of the shrinking cities in the Pacific, Mountain, Middle Atlantic, and New England census divisions are prosperous, whereas those in the West North Central and West South Central divisions were least likely to be prosperous, only about 11 to 12 percent.

In Hartt’s words, “the absolute number of prosperous shrinking cities appears to be relatively proportional to the number of shrinking cities. The relative proportionality suggests that prosperous shrinking cities might be a consistent subset of shrinking cities, rather than a geographically distinct phenomenon.”

The study found no connection between the prosperity of cities and either the size of their population or the severity of population loss. “Remarkably, the severity of shrinkage was found to have no effect on income,” Harrt writes. “The lack of relationship between severity, persistence, and income demonstrates the diversity and complexity of urban shrinkage processes.”

The researchers find that the main thing that distinguishes prosperous shrinking cities from a solely shrinking city is a particular type of talent. The strongest factor is college grads: 97 percent of prosperous shrinking cities had a higher proportion of college-educated individuals than their regional average.

This reflects the ongoing march of what Bill Bishop long ago dubbed the “big sort.” It’s not just that places are losing or gaining people in general. They’re specifically losing less-educated people while gaining more-educated people, a sorting process often exacerbated by expensive housing. Population growth is a crude measure of prosperity: As long as a place attracts or retains specific talent, it can lose general population and still be prosperous.

As a result, prosperous shrinking cities are also more unequal. More prosperous cities, even when they are losing people, have both greater levels of education and greater levels of inequality.

Of course, population loss and economic decline do inherently affect each other. Population loss can result in decreased tax revenues from income tax or real estate. This reduced fiscal capacity may result in fewer or poorer social services, resulting in even more population loss, dubbed the “feedback cycle of shrinkage.” Cities can break the shrinkage cycle by “planning for less”—diminishing the supply of housing or municipal expenditures in order to match city infrastructure with its population without excess.

The fact of shrinking, or losing population, does not condemn cities to economic decline in and of itself. More than a third of America’s shrinking cities are still economically successful by acting as talent magnets. And like other winner cities, they too suffer from the same new urban crisis brought on by their success.

**

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Cities across the U.S. have been undergoing a parking revolution for years and it has finally reached downtown Memphis where it is receiving the careful analysis it deserves from the Downtown Memphis Commission.

The downtown development agency’s evaluation of parking needs, when combined with Memphis 3.0’s emphasis on smarter parking policy, density, and higher yielding real estate, makes the downtown analysis by Nelson-Nygaard and MKSK Studios especially promising.

After all, the 71,364 parking spaces in downtown and the Medical District are a major commitment of money and space that has to be smartly managed, particularly because like so much of Memphis’ infrastructure, it was built for a city that no longer exists.

There were 170,000 more people within the 1970 city limits of Memphis than there are within that area today.  As people were lured eastward by annexation and sprawl, it meant that many public facilities, like community centers, libraries, and parking were for a different city rather than one transformed by the historic population movement.

Car-centric Results

No part of Memphis was more transformed than downtown.  As a university student in the 1960s, I remember a downtown with several department stores, thriving retail, multiple movie theaters, and a bustling Main Street, and by 1971, when I was assigned downtown as a young reporter, there were throngs of people crowding the sidewalks and filling downtown parks eating lunch and people-watching.

It was of course a different time and place and in the intervening years, many of the downtown businesses and stores moved out, producing overabundant parking, under capacity streets, and too much land consumed for surface parking lots.

The traffic counts on downtown streets tell the story of how much downtown has changed.  Third Street/B.B. King, Second Street, and Front Street have capacities of 24,000 vehicles a day and today, their traffic counts are respectively 7,985; 5,807; and 7,494.  Meanwhile, Riverside Drive has an average of 13,000 vehicles a day on a road with a capacity of 20,000 vehicles for two lanes.  (In fact, Nelson-Nygaard drew up the plans for two-lane Riverside Drive as part of Jeff Speck’s study of the riverfront for city government in 2013.)

As for the surface parking lots, they consume acres of land that could be put to higher and better use as sites for development now that downtown is showing dramatic signs of new life, and the 20-year projections show that downtown and the Medical District have about 20,000 more parking spaces than are now needed, and if the 20-year growth of Memphis is consistent with Austin and Nashville, the demand in 2039 would be 65,100.

An Over Supply

Today, of the 71,364 parking spaces, 7,552 are on-street and 63,812 are off street (with 40,609 privately owned).  The breakdown of parking spaces (the number within the parenthesis is the 20-year need):

* 17,065 in downtown core (11,900);

* 6,249 in Uptown (7,200);

* 7,298 in Civic Center (8,900);

* 2,692 on South Main (2,300);

* 3,611 in South End (1,900);

* 5,422 in South City (5,300);

* 4,134 in Edge (2,100); and

* 24,835 in Medical District (25,500).

The numbers underscore the reason that when FedExForum was built, it was decided to limit the number of parking spaces in the garage to 1,500 for an arena that seats between 16,500 and 19,000, depending on the event.  The decision was based on the ample supply of parking spaces within walking distance of the building – 20,000, just in South Main and the downtown core.

Getting The Agenda Right

It’s pretty astounding when you think about it.  The total number of parking spaces means that there are 442 acres of parking spaces, both on-street and off-street.  And as the parking analysis points out, even at peak times, more than 20% of the spaces are not being used.

Downtown Memphis Commission’s study has also identified some other long overdue issues to be addressed: 1) the lack of a parking program for downtown residents; 2) the inconsistent enforcement of on-street parking; 3) the need for real-time technology to identify available spaces; 4) much better wayfinding signage; and 5) the poor conditions of sidewalks and missing lighting.

Michael Kodransky, global research manager for the Institute of Transportation and Development Policy, said: “As parking regulations were put into zoning codes, most of the downtowns in many cities were just completely decimated.  What the cities got in effect was great parking.  But nobody goes to a city because it has great parking.”

That’s why the DMC’s parking study has to be more than a report on a shelf.  All together, the results of its study have the power to improve the quality of life and livability, the walkability, and overall efficiency of downtown Memphis.  (Now if we could only improve the effectiveness of the street network and get rid of one-way Second and Third Streets, but we’ll save that for another day.)

Memphis is years behind other cities in parking apps that eliminate drivers’ search parking spaces by identifying empty ones.  Also, hopefully, as the DMC considers the impact of parking on downtown’s quality of life and character, there will also be a plan to rid the area of the public parking garages on the promenade that are now eyesores.  At a time when we have the opportunity to reimagine our riverfront into something more vibrant and beautiful, it’s also time to consider what can be done with these garages, and how new ones don’t have to even look like garages. With Memphis Brooks Museum of Art requiring the land now used for one of the garages, it’s the perfect time to take a look at all of them rather than just the one affected by the relocation of the museum from Overton Park to downtown.

Smarter Policy

At the same time, we hope Memphis 3.0 will bring more rationality to parking in Memphis at large.  If Memphis is like most cities – and there’s no reason to think it isn’t – it has more parking spaces than people.

Research demonstrates how much land and money are tied up in car storage.  There are four parking spaces per household in Philadelphia, five per household in Seattle, 19 per household in Des Moines, and 26 per household in Jackson, Wyoming.

Put simply, cities have more parking spaces than they need, and downtown is no anomaly.  As for the city as a whole, the suburban sensibility built around the expectations for free parking adjacent to a destination has resulted in the mushrooming of lots and the paving over of large parts of Memphis.

Things are starting to change in other cities.  Hartford, Connecticut, completely eliminated parking minimums that dictated a specific number of parking with any new building or development.  Cities like Nashville, Kansas City, Minneapolis, and many others are eliminating the minimums in some neighborhoods.  Seattle and Houston have reduced parking requirements for developers to build affordable housing.

As Eric Scharnhorst of Parkingmill told Fast Company: “Decoupling the cost is a really clean, market-driven, enlightened way to reduce the cost of all housing.  It’s no secret in the development world that parking lots are just land banks just waiting to be turned into something else.”

Cities for People

Donald Shoup is the guru of parking.  The UCLA distinguished professor of urban planning, he wrote in 2005 the landmark book, The High Cost of Free Parking, which laid out how public policies created cities better suited to cars than people, how the true costs of free parking are hidden, and how reform of parking requirements is crucial.

Two years ago, he wrote a follow-up, Parking and the City and in the introduction, he wrote: “Parking is the Cinderella of transportation…Parking is far too important not to study.  Parking is the single biggest land use in most cities; there’s more land devoted to parking than there is to housing or industry or commerce or offices.”

He encapsulated the message of his work into three parking reforms:

*  Remove off-street parking requirements

*  Charge the right prices for on-street parking

*  Spend the parking revenue to improve public services on the metered streets

He said that each of these recommendations supports the other two and responds to the three unwise policies made long ago to accommodate a car-centric city: separated land uses, low density, and ample free parking which created drivable cities at the expense of walkable ones.

Waking Up The Giant

Lewis Mumford, historian, philosopher, and critic, wrote about half a century ago: “The right to have access to every building in the city by private motorcar in an age when everyone possessed such a vehicle is the right to destroy the city.”

Unfortunately, he was prescient, and Mr. Kodransky describes the philosophy needed as we move ahead: “Ultimately, parking has to be tackled as part of a package of issues.  It’s been viewed in this super-narrow way. It’s been an afterthought, but increasingly cities are waking up to the fact that they have this sleeping giant, these land uses that are not being used in the most optimal way.”

Waking up this sleeping giant is part and parcel of Memphis 3.0, and armed with the Downtown Memphis Commission’s parking plan, there’s no better place for the movement toward smarter parking policies to start than downtown.  Much remains to be done, and to be successful, the plan has to aim high, capture the imagination of residents, workers, and visitors, and be comprehensive.  Hopefully, that’s where it is headed.

**

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County Migration Rates = The number of people moving into and out of counties

2018 Census Bureau estimates for 12-months ending July 2018

+ 9,136 – Wake County (Raleigh)
+ 4,915 – Travis County (Austin)
+ 3,999 – Duval County (Jacksonville)
+ 3,070 – Knox County (Knoxville)
+ 2,538 – Mecklenburg County (Charlotte)
+ 2,231 – Hamilton County (Chattanooga)
+ 2,202 – Fulton County (Atlanta)
+ 2,181 – DeSoto County Mississippi
+ 419 – Fayette County Tennessee
+ 316 – Richmond City Virginia
+ 156 – Tipton County Tennessee
– 134 – Marshall County Mississippi
– 541 – Crittenden County Arkansas
– 700 – Jackson County (Kansas City)
– 701 – Oklahoma County (Oklahoma City)
– 1,783 – Jefferson County (Birmingham)
– 1.913 – Orleans Parish (New Orleans)
– 2,620 – Hamilton County (Cincinnati)
– 2,974 – Marion County (Indianapolis)
– 4,044 – Jefferson County (Louisville)
– 4,121 – Davidson County (Nashville)
– 5,924 – Shelby County (Memphis)
– 6,701 – St. Louis County (St. Louis)
– 10,413 – Wayne County (Detroit)

*************************************

Metro Area Broadband
2015 American Community Survey of Census Bureua

Household income of less than $20K:

56.5 % – Austin MSA
55.0 % – Atlanta MSA
54.3 % – Jacksonville MSA
52.4 % – Cincinnati MSA
51.7 % – Raleigh MSA
51.7 % – Charlotte MSA
50.5 % – Kansas City MSA
50.1 % – Oklahoma City MSA
48.9 % – Indianapolis MSA
46.6 % – St. Louis MSA
45.9 % – Nashville MSA
45.5 % – Detroit MSA
44.8 % – Chattanooga MSA
42.4 % – Birmingham MSA
40.4 % – Knoxville MSA
39.9 % – New Orleans MSA
39.4 % – Louisville MSA
38.2 % – Memphis MSA

Household income of more than $20K:

88.1% – Raleigh MSA
86.4 % – Austin MSA
85.3 % – Cincinnati MSA
85.2 % – Atlanta MSA
85.1 % – Charlotte MSA
84.8 % – Kansas City MSA
84.5 % – Jacksonville MSA
82.6 % – Nashville MSA
82.3 % – Indianapolis MSA
82.2 % – St. Louis MSA
82.0 % – Detroit MSA
80.2 % – Chattanooga MSA
80.2 % – Oklahoma City MSA
80.0 % – Louisville MSA
79.1 % – Knoxville MSA
78.6 % – New Orleans MSA
78.3 % – Birmingham MSA
75.8 % – Memphis MSA

**

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September 6, 2011

Tom Lee Park

Portland

Detroit

Cincinnati

Pittsburgh

It seemed that even Google was trying to tell us something.

We’ve been intrigued by the idea that Memphis should consider a European-inspired park for the 30-acre field on our riverfront just south of Beale Street Landing.  Because of how Beale Street Landing will be a magnet for activity, there’s never been a better time to think about what Tom Lee Park should be if it were a real park.

One park we love is the park in the St. Germain-des-Pres section of Paris, Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris.  It’s one of the most successful parks we’ve ever seen, so we would put it on our list of the world’s best parks.  But we were curious to see if anyone agreed, so we Googled “great city parks” to see if it was included among obvious choices like Central Park.  It was.

Of course, Tom Lee Park wouldn’t make a list of even the South’s great parks and Google seemed to agree.  At the bottom of the great city parks results was this message: Memphis: Lawn Maintenance. It summed up for us the problem with Tom Lee Park.  It’s a field with a wonderful view, but it’s a park taken to its most minimalistic.

Great Parks

We were also thinking about Helsinki’s beautiful parks and other European parks that seem to capture the spirit of their cities, that offer options for activities, that have seductive landscaping that includes trees, flowers, and native grasses, and that are signatures for their downtowns and waterfronts.  And, even if the park is on the waterfront, it is common for them to have water features where kids can float rented boats and adults can simply relax.

If you’re like us, when you think of great parks in other cities, you don’t think of open, flat, unimproved land like Tom Lee Park.  Even in Paris facing the Seine and with an embarrassment of architectural riches, parks don’t acquiesce and take a passive approach.  Instead, they are characterized by a strong sense of place, by diverse uses by diverse people, and by elevating the city’s quality of life.

Luxembourg park features 2,000 elm trees, flower beds changed out three times a year, statues, a long carp-filled pool of water, children’s play area, classic puppet shows, a merry-go-round, chess games, and lawn bowling.

Europe aside, there’s new momentum in U.S. cities to revitalize and renew existing parks.  Chattanooga rediscovered the Tennessee River and created a destination waterfront; Portland’s Jamison Square is home to an interactive fountain that attracts kids and grandparents and offers free outdoor performances; Seattle created a sculpture park on the waterfront near Pike Place Market; Louisville reclaimed its riverfront with new parkland, fountains, and activities, and Providence created Waterplace Park whose activities center around the dazzling WaterFire public art installation.

Getting It Right

In waterfront parks that work, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.  This is the central failing of Tom Lee Park, where 1 plus 1 always equals 1.  For a city like ours that has to send a different message to the rest of the country, particularly to young workers, that math has to change.

We were excited way back when Tom Lee Park was doubled in size, because there was promising talk that it would be programmed with activities and it would be upgraded as prime greenspace.  It was not to be, and today, it’s sometimes difficult to understand why it was even worth increasing in size for the lack of vibrancy that exists there today.

Tom Lee Park should be model public realm for the rest of the country.  The drama of the river should be matched by the drama of the park setting.  New discussions about the riverfront should begin about what Tom Lee Park should and could be if it is to regularly attract families looking for special experiences in a special environment.

There are lessons to be learned from park reinventions taking place in cities around the world and in parks like Jardin de Luxembourg that got it right.  As we’ve said before, Memphis doesn’t have to tell its story better; it has to tell a different story.  A vibrant, exciting Tom Lee Park could be one of these different stories, building on the green ethos developing in Memphis and contributing to a new pride and self-worth that tell us that we deserve the best.

Improving Our Self-Image

It’s reminiscent of The Pyramid and FedExForum.  In the mid-1980s, in our desperation to act like a big-time city, we bought hook, line, and sinker the idea that a “state-of-the-art arena” could be built for $39 million.  With upgrades that included a steel clad exterior, upgrades to the seating to eliminate benches in many sections, and an increase in capacity, the final cost was just over $60 million.

Today, it’s hard to imagine how we were so gullible, but we didn’t know how badly we had taken the bait until FedExForum was built for about $215 million.  FedExForum had about as much in common with The Pyramid as Autozone Park had in common with McCarver Park at the Fairgrounds.

Our lack of self-worth has led us to accept mediocrity for decades, but there are signs that things are changing.  If The Pyramid were a park, it would be Tom Lee Park.  And yet, it can be the FedExForum of waterfront parks.  We need only to decide that we do in fact deserve the best and that our public realm can be competitive with any found in competing cities.

There are structural reasons that Memphis’ economy is lagging, but we have also lagged because unlike Nashville, we believe that we are undeserving and should accept whatever is offered to us, whether it is high quality or not.  What makes Nashville different is that it never assumes that it doesn’t deserve the best, and because of it, it goes out and gets it.

It’s time for us to do the same.

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The highest and best use of Memphis’s most visible acreage?

It’s no secret that I’ve been a fervent supporter for turning Tom Lee Park from a pasture into a signature park.  As the debate unfolded, we’ve received some comments and emails claiming that my support is the result of breathtaking conspiracies and that clearly my opinions are for sale.  I’ve chalked it up as signs of desperation by some people determined to kill off the possibility of the 30 acres being anything more than flatland for Memphis in May. 

There have been personal attacks online that would make fodder for a libel lawyer, but we’ve chalked that up to the overemotional advocacy of a few who actually believe that the flat field is the highest and best use of the city’s most visible acreage. 

We commend Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland for appointing the riverfront task force more than two years ago and charged it with developing the concept for a signature riverfront.  Without question, the task force delivered on that mandate and the Tom Lee Park design would deliver the best riverfront park on the Mississippi River while allowing Memphis in May to succeed.  That it can do it without any money from the City of Memphis operating budget is an unexpected bonus.

All this is preamble.  I received an email recently that said I was lying when I said I’ve supported a real park at Tom Lee Park for years.  In response to that email, I’m publishing a post from eight years ago:

The List of Great Parks

It seemed that even Google was trying to tell us something.

We’ve been intrigued by the idea that Memphis should consider a European-inspired park for the 30-acre field on our riverfront just south of Beale Street Landing.  Because of how Beale Street Landing will be a magnet for activity, there’s never been a better time to think about what Tom Lee Park should be if it were a real park.

One park we love is the park in the St. Germain-des-Pres section of Paris, Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris.  It’s one of the most successful parks we’ve ever seen, so we would put it on our list of world’s best parks.  But we were curious to see if anyone agreed, so we Googled “great city parks” to see if it was included among obvious choices like Central Park.  It was.

Of course, Tom Lee Park wouldn’t make a list of even the South’s great parks and Google seemed to agree.  At the bottom of the great city parks results was this message: Memphis: Lawn Maintenance. It summed up for us the problem with Tom Lee Park.  It’s a field with a wonderful view, but it’s a park taken to its most minimalistic.

Great Parks

We were also thinking about Helsinki’s beautiful parks and other European parks that seem to capture the spirit of their cities, that offer options for activities, that have seductive landscaping that includes trees, flowers, and native grasses, and that are signatures for their downtowns and waterfronts.  And, even if the park is on the waterfront, it is common for them to have water features where kids can float rented boats and adults can simply relax.

Portland

If you’re like us, when you think of great parks in other cities, you don’t think of open, flat, unimproved land like Tom Lee Park.  Even in Paris facing the Seine and with an embarrassment of architectural riches, parks don’t acquiesce and take a passive approach.  Instead, they are characterized by a strong sense of place, by diverse uses by diverse people, and by elevating the city’s quality of life.

Luxembourg Park features 2,000 elm trees, flower beds changed out three times a year, statues, a long carp-filled pool of water, children’s play area, classic puppet shows, a merry-go-round, chess games, and lawn bowling.

Europe aside, there’s new momentum in U.S. cities to revitalize and renew existing parks.  Chattanooga rediscovered the Tennessee River and created a destination waterfront; Portland’s Jamison Square is home to an interactive fountain that attracts kids and grandparents and offers free outdoor performances; Seattle created a sculpture park on the waterfront near Pike Place Market; Louisville reclaimed its riverfront with new parkland, fountains, and activities, and Providence created Waterplace Park whose activities center around the dazzling WaterFire public art installation.

Getting It Right

In waterfront parks that work, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.  This is the central failing of Tom Lee Park, where 1 plus 1 always equals 2.  For a city like ours that has to send a different message to the rest of the country, particularly to young workers, that math has to improve.

We were excited way back when Tom Lee Park was doubled in size, because there was promising talk that it would be programmed with activities and it would be upgraded as prime greenspace.  It was not to be, and today, it’s sometimes difficult to understand why it was even worth increasing in size for the lack of vibrancy that exists there today.

Tom Lee Park should be model public realm for the rest of the country.  The drama of the river should be matched by the drama of the park setting.  New discussions about the riverfront should begin about what Tom Lee Park should and could be if it is to regularly attract families looking for special experiences in a special environment.

There are lessons to be learned from park reinventions taking place in cities around the world and in parks like Jardin de Luxembourg that got it right.  As we’ve said before, Memphis doesn’t have to tell its story better; it has to tell a different story.  A vibrant, exciting Tom Lee Park could be one of these different stories, building on the green ethos developing in Memphis and contributing to a new pride and self-worth that tell us that we deserve the best.

Cincinnati riverfront park

mproving Our Self-Image

It’s reminiscent of The Pyramid and FedExForum.  In the mid-1980s, in our desperation to act like a big-time city, we bought hook, line, and sinker the idea that a “state-of-the-art arena” could be built for $39 million.  With upgrades that included a steel clad exterior, upgrades to the seating to eliminate benches in many sections, and an increase in capacity, the final cost was just over $60 million for The Pyramid.

Today, it’s hard to imagine how we were so gullible, but we didn’t know how badly we had taken the bait until FedExForum was built for about $215 million.  FedExForum had about as much in common with The Pyramid as AutoZone Park had in common with McCarver Park at the Fairgrounds.

Our lack of self-worth has led us to accept mediocrity for decades, but there are signs that things are changing.  If The Pyramid were a park, it would be Tom Lee Park.  And yet, Tom Lee Park can be the FedExForum of waterfront parks.  We need only to decide that we do in fact deserve the best and that our public realm can be competitive with any found in competing cities.

There are structural reasons that Memphis’ economy is lagging, but we have also lagged behind because unlike Nashville, we believe that we are undeserving and should accept whatever is offered to us, whether it is high quality or not.  What makes Nashville different is that it never assumes that it doesn’t deserve the best, and because of it, it goes out and gets it.

It’s time for us to do the same, and Tom Lee Park is a good place to begin.

***

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Unemployment Rate

2.1 % – Nashville metro
2.6 % – Oklahoma City metro
2.6 % – Richmond metro
2.8 % – Indianapolis metro
2.9 % – Cincinnati metro
3.0 % – Birmingham metro
3.0 % – Atlanta metro
3.1 % – Raleigh metro
3.2 % – St. Louis metro
3.3 % – Charlotte metro
3.5 % – Memphis metro
3.5 % – Louisville metro
3.9 % – Detroit metro

Employment Growth

0.3 % – Detroit metro
0.8 % – Louisville metro
1.0 % – Indianapolis metro
1.2 % – Raleigh metro
1.3 % – Memphis metro
1.5 % – Richmond metro
1.6 % – St. Louis metro
1.7 % – Oklahoma City metro
1.9 % – Birmingham metro
2.1 % – Cincinnati metro
2.5 % – Charlotte metro
2.8% – Nashville metro

Median Household Income

$50,194 – Memphis metro
$52,088 – Birmingham metro
$54,624 – Louisville metro
$54,946 – Oklahoma City metro
$56,339 – Detroit metro
$56,624 – Indianapolis metro
$57,871 – Charlotte metro
$59,046 – St. Louis metro
$59,365 – Nashville metro
$59,478 – Cincinnati metro
$61,733 – Atlanta metro
$63,599 – Richmond metro
$68,870 – Raleigh metro

Cost of living index:

64.29 – Oklahoma City
65.14 – Louisville
69.13 – Cincinnati
70.20 – Detroit
70.76 – St. Louis
70.98 – Richmond
71.40 – Raleigh
71.88 – Nashville
72.95 – Memphis
74.64 – Birmingham
74.72 – Indianapolis
74.97 – Atlanta
75.35 – Charlotte
97.85 – San Francisco
100.00 – New York City

**

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In light of the killing of Brandon Webber in Frayser, we reprise this post from November 9, 2015:

For as long as we can remember, our community has been having a conversation about the need to have a conversation about race.

And yet, we always seem to find reasons to put it off.

But finally, it seems like we’ve run out of excuses – and time – and if all the positive talk these days about Memphis’ future is to come true, it’s time to have the completely candid and honest discussion about race that is needed if we are to move ahead with the united sense of purpose and shared commitment that are ingredients for success.

There is so much that is moving in the right direction in our community these days, but a large portion of our people remain mere bystanders.  As long as our community is unable to uncouple race and poverty, there will be wide inequality and a tale of two cities that prevent our economy from running on all cylinders and our ambitions from being fully achieved.

So, like so many things in life and business, it begins with a conversation.

Black Lives Matter

It’s propelled by Darrius Stewart’s killing and the decision of the Shelby County Grand Jury to ignore the recommendation from the attorney general’s office for the white officer who shot the black teenager to be indicted for voluntary manslaughter and using a firearm during the commission of a dangerous felony.

The depth of outrage by African Americans about the decision is largely underestimated by white Memphians and Shelby Countians, and it’s the rare Caucasian who has had a serious, no holding back conversation with an African American about it.  It’s just easier to pretend that race doesn’t matter to avoid confronting the daily realities in the lives of black friends and neighbors.

That so many people who have the good fortune to be born into middle class families in middle class neighborhoods credit their success solely to their own ingenuity rather than to the head start in life that they received at birth complicates open conversations and often reduces African Americans to caricatures.

It’s seen too often in whites’ comments about the Black Lives Matter movement, which is often interpreted by African Americans as a verbal dodge to avoid acknowledging unpleasant truths about the community and the country in which we live.

Instead, too many whites cling to glib platitudes about “all lives matter” and elected officials in our majority African American county parrot similar banalities rather than display the brand of leadership that begins the kind of communitywide conversation about the unique barriers, many of them institutional and structural, faced by African Americans and the need to attack these obstacles with determined, broad-based plans of attack.

It’s Up To Us Now

Today, there is a discernable uneasiness among black citizens of Memphis and Shelby County.

More than two dozen African Americans have been killed by police since 2009 and no charges have ever been placed.   There is lip service about the need to reduce poverty but there’s not been the comprehensive, coordinated program to do anything substantive about it.  There is exciting energy building in Memphis that has the potential to turn into real momentum for progress, but they come largely from big projects while urban neighborhoods go wanting.

Meanwhile, so much hope has been placed on millennials, but polling shows that they have the same racial bias as the generations ahead of them.  And the willingness by some to use racist pejoratives like Memfrica is demoralizing and dumbfounding.

Add to that the fact that other research conducted by a research team headed by University of Chicago psychologist Jean Decety concluded that children raised in religious homes are less altruistic and more judgmental than children in less religious homes, and it says to us that the widely held opinion that enlightenment will come with new generations may be misplaced,.

In the end, we can’t bequeath it to future generations to do what we should already have done – to become a caring and equitable community – and we have to do that ourselves, and we can’t put it off any longer.

Focus on Neighborhoods

It is often said that Memphis talks too much about race, but the fact that this is true is often misunderstood.  In a community with deep poverty and deprivation, it is the only way that the voiceless can try to be heard.  It is not lost on them, however, that their comments, regardless of the volume, rarely result in real change.

It’s why so many African Americans in Memphis and Shelby County have become a people of low expectations.  They hear about all the good things going on in Memphis, they hear about all the wonderful things being done by young people, they hear about all the major investments in big projects, and they hear about the way that some neighborhoods are considered trendy and trending and attract attention and money as a result.

But in their own neighborhoods, where the need is dire, they see face to face the consequences of poverty that has been rising for 15 years, and they wonder when it is their time.  After all, for decades, their neighborhoods’ declines have failed to produce plans by city and county governments to turn them around.

While downtown and the riverfront have generated at least 100 plans over the past 20 years, there has been little action to produce targeted plans of action for city neighborhoods.  Over that same period of time, there are numerous similarly sized cities, including Nashville, that have produced individualized plans for each of their neighborhoods.

Neighborhoods Matter

Black lives do matter, and black neighborhoods matter too.  We mention neighborhoods because the single greatest determinant for a person’s future is the neighborhood where they are born.

In large measure, geography is destiny, and for too many Memphians, it is a destiny of limited opportunity and dashed hopes.  That’s because the research shows that for children born into neighborhoods of concentrated poverty – between 1970 and 2010, the number of high poverty census tracts in Memphis climbed from 42 to 78 – the odds are stacked against them.

The majority of people born into the bottom stay there.  The coincidence of their places of birth limits their options and throws up formidable barriers, which means that even when they show heroic determination, they are climbing a steep hill where the top is persistently out of reach.

That’s why one of the most difficult experiences in Memphis today is facing young men and women aching for something better and knowing that the structural problems facing this community place it out of reach for most of them.  All the motivational speeches, inspirational speakers, and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” rhetoric are mere distractions, essentially overlaying middle class attitudes on lives in poverty and increasing the disconnect between who we say we are and who we want to be while spending too little time making sure that everyone can be part of the journey.

Touching the Future

The Memphis system was designed long ago to perpetuate low incomes and cheap labor, and as a result, it created multi-generational poverty and deep inequality.  For example, the Memphis metro economy is the 42nd largest in the U.S. at $70 billion and the per capita slice of that GDP is about $50,000, and yet, 20% of Memphians subsist today on less than $13,000 a year.

When concentrated poverty is amplified by challenges like economic segregation, sprawl, and a languishing economy, there is no city in America with greater motivation than Memphis to create a culture of opportunity for every citizen.

Memphis is four years away from celebrating the bicentennial of its founding.  The unanswered question is what kind of community Memphis will be as it enters its third century – one where we are still talking about the problems of race or one where we have begun to take dramatic action to change the city’s trajectory…and its narrative…and its future.

There is the point at which race and poverty can no longer be explained away by any of us as a coincidence, and we have reached it.  While we have all the data we need to frame up today’s problems and challenges for tomorrow, it’s the human face of it all that should shame us into action.

Because of it, Memphis can have no conversations more important than the ones about the link between race and poverty, family distress, early childhood interventions, declining neighborhoods, urban education, minority-owned businesses, seedbeds of crime, low graduation rates, and more.

But the truth is they are all the same discussion.  We owe it to ourselves to get it under way now.

***

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When 20-year-old Brandon Webber was killed by U.S. Marshals June 11, the emotional aftermath tapped into so many lingering concerns – the regularity of fatal shootings by law enforcement with the predictable absolution by prosecutors, the uneven treatment of minorities in the school to jail pipeline, the militarization of law enforcement, and most of all, the many trip wires lay in front of too many young African Americans’ lives.

That’s why the daunting challenge at this point is to identify anyone who could be accepted as an honest broker whose investigation of the shooting would be objective and authoritative, including  circumstances leading up to it – from Hernando to Frayser; whether the Wild West reputation of the U.S. Marshal’s Office factored into a shooting in which the young man’s body was riddled with bullets; a review of the on-the-ground decisions by law enforcement in Frayser and the neighborhood’s reaction in its aftermath; and an examination of the a life that in only two decades took a promising youth from the honor roll to lying dead in the street.

While many facts are being argued, one thing is inarguable: there is widespread mistrust of officialdom that prevents the normal official channels from being able to reassure minority neighborhoods in the fairness of the existing system. 

That said, the importance of this moment in time extends far beyond the tragic ending of this young man’s life and the spontaneous outrage directed at law enforcement.  In a minority majority city and metro with one of the highest rates of child poverty in the U.S, it is in our self-interest to improve and increase the options for the life of every child in this community.

Sadly, Brandon Webber’s story is anything but uncommon and as long as that remains the case, the story of Memphis can never have the happy ending that we all want.   

We wrote about all this on September 17, 2014, and we republish it here:

The young man – African American, 23 years old – sat at a picnic table behind a Germantown assisted living facility with his head in his hands.

He was exhausted and lost.  He is working two jobs to support his new baby, and his schedule and the pressures of a growing family were catching up with him.  He wanted to see a time when things would be better, a time when he could find one job that would support his young family.

There are tens of thousands of young African-Americans like him in Memphis, doing the best that they can under difficult circumstances to do what is right and play by the rules.  All they want is the opportunity to have the money to provide their families with the basics and hope that if given a chance, they can move to the middle class.

He believes that with hard work, he can find a way for a better life for his baby.  But it is getting harder and harder to convince himself that there is a way.  As this young man fought with the reality that he might have limited options for the future, it was painful to talk with him about his hopes for a better time.

That’s because we now know that the research shows that at only 23 years old, his future is likely written.  The odds are stacked against him, because the majority of people born into the bottom stay there.  The coincidence of their births limits their options and throws up formidable barriers.  It means that even when they show heroic determination, they are climbing a steep hill where the top is persistently out of reach.

The Forgotten Memphians

It’s a hard thing.  To look into the eyes of a young man looking for some hopeful words that will encourage him that he’s dealing with a temporary hardship, it was impossible to deliver up  bromides about the American Dream and that anyone can get ahead with hard work and an fierce work ethic.  All that was possible was for me to express my admiration to him for his courage in fighting hard to provide for his family.

It’s one of the hardest parts of living in Memphis, facing young men and women aching for something better and knowing that the structural problems facing this community place it out of reach for too many of them.  All the motivational speeches, inspirational speakers, and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” rhetoric are mere distractions, essentially overlaying middle class attitudes on lives in poverty and increasing the disconnect between who we say we are and who we want to be while spending too little time making sure that everyone can be part of the journey.

Memphians like the young man working at the assisted living facility are largely forgotten and ignored.   Many of them are like him, working two jobs and still not earning a living wage for the basics of life.  They don’t make it into the headlines. They are merely the faces of the inequality that defines and divides Memphians into the haves and the have-nots, those with options for the future and those trapped into lives centered on picking the best option from a list of bad ones.

The assault by some teenagers of three people at the Kroger at Poplar Plaza continues to dominate the headlines, particularly as television news broadcasts enflame their viewers with stories notable for playing to stereotypes, oversimplifications, and overstatements.

No one condones the attack by one person on another, but the emotional barrage connected to the outrage about the assault continues to the point that there is no opportunity to pivot to a constructive conversation that might serve the better interests of the entire city.

Coincidences of Birth

But, talking to the young man outside the Germantown assisted living facility, it was impossible to wonder where the outrage is for lives like his, journeys largely defined by dead-ends and blind alleys.  Where is the outrage for 150,000 people who live in concentrated poverty without the means to provide the basics for their families?  Where is the outrage for the 65,000 children whose birthright is abject poverty?  Where is the outrage about policy decisions that regularly choose to pay $30,000 a year for a jail cell rather than $2,500 for a family intervention that has been proven to turn around the lives of children?

It all speaks to one of the most uncomfortable facts of life in Memphis: where someone is born largely sets out their options for the futures.

That so many people who have the good fortune to be born into middle class families in middle class neighborhoods credit their success solely to their own ingenuity rather than to the head start in life that they received at birth is one of the most disingenuous attitudes expressed in public debate.

The fact that it is often espoused by people who also see no reason for programs to fight poverty, to fund proven interventions, or to pay for the meager safety net programs that are the threads holding together the fabric of so many of our people’s lives make it even more disturbing, because there is no duplicity more obvious than when the attacks on the poor are wrapped in the flag of faith and patriotism.

It’s The System

Why there should be any moral or personal superiority associated with a coincidence of birth is a mystery to us, but suffice it to say that every system is perfectly designed to achieve exactly the results it achieves.

The Memphis system is designed to create low incomes, perpetual poverty, and deep inequality.  Here’s the thing: The Memphis metro economy is the 42nd largest in the U.S. at $68 billion and the per capita slice of that GDP is $49,604 for every person in the region.  And yet, 20 percent of Memphians subsist on less than $13,000 a year.

There is a point at which the low incomes and the families in poverty can no longer be explained away as a coincidence.  It is the result of economic policies built on cheap labor and on political policies based on low investments in the triggers for change.  It is after all what the system is perfectly designed to achieve.

While we have all the data we need to frame up today’s problems and challenges for tomorrow, it’s the human face of it all that should shame us into action.

Discussions About Discussions

Memphis seems to have numerous discussions about the need for candid discussions – on the link between race and poverty, family distress, early childhood interventions, declining neighborhoods, urban education, minority-owned businesses, roots of crime, low graduation rates, and low birth weight babies.

But the truth is they are all the same discussion.  The bigger truth is that we know what works.

Many of the answers are already underway, but most are underfunded and largely unknown to mainstream Memphis.  Most of them need opportunities to plug into a larger plan in which connections between initiatives can yield greater returns.  Some of them are producing impressive results, but need to be brought to scale so they touch more of the families who need them, particularly those that have been shown to increase the high school graduation rates.

We have said before that Memphis has no margin for error, and that is because too many of its people have no margin for error.  That’s why it is in the enlightened self-interest of every person in this metro to insist on an agenda of opportunity that attacks poverty and increases opportunity for every citizen of Memphis, and that is the rich promise of the Blueprint for Prosperity, Mayor Wharton’s innovative program to reduce poverty by 10 points in 10 years.

Preparing for 2019

When concentrated poverty is amplified by challenges like economic segregation, sprawl, and a languishing economy, there is no city in America with greater motivation than Memphis to create a culture of opportunity for every citizen.

Memphis is five years away from celebrating the bicentennial of its founding.  The unanswered question is what kind of community will Memphis be as it enters its third century – one where we are still talking about the problems or one where we have begun to take dramatic action to change the city’s trajectory…and its narrative…and its future.

There’s no argument that the choice is ours.  Sixty-five thousand children living in poverty await the answer.

 

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Renthop has analyzed metro occupational data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to help answer the questions: where should recent graduates go to make the most money?

The study used 12 major occupation categories that most likely require a bachelor’s degree or higher and ranked them by the average annual income across the top 50 U.S. metro areas. The two categories that interested us most were the top occupation and its average salary.

Unsurprisingly, in our region, Transportation and Material Moving was the #1 occupation type, and as a result, it’s also unsurprising that the average salary in that field is a disappointing $34,830.  All in all, our big bet on transportation, logistics, and distribution has become a drag on our economy at a time when we need to be transitioning to higher valued, higher skilled jobs.

To put this into context, the following are profiles of selected metros, listing the top occupation in the area for each and the average salary in that field.  To compare metros, use the interactive map here.

Nashville Metro:
#1 Occupation: Management
Average salary $106,560

Raleigh Metro:
#1 Occupation: Computer and Mathematical
Average salary: $91,680

Atlanta Metro:
#1 Occupation: Computer and Mathematical
Average salary: $91,220

Charlotte Metro:
#1 Occupation: Computer and Mathematical
Average salary: $91,200

Oklahoma City Metro:
#1 Occupation: Legal
Average salary: $88,700

Detroit Metro:
#1 Occupation: Architecture and Engineering
Average salary: $88,140

Cleveland Metro:
#1 Occupation: Healthcare Practitioners and Technical
Average salary: $84,330

St. Louis Metro:
#1 Occupation: Computer and Mathematical
Average salary: $84,140

Richmond Metro:
#1 Occupation: Business and Financial Operations
Average salary: $76,290

Cincinnati Metro:
#1 Occupation: Business and Financial Services
Average salary: $71,340

Birmingham Metro:
#1 Occupation: Health care Practitioners and Technical
Average salary: $69,490

Milwaukee Metro:
#1 Occupation: Production
Average salary: $39,120

Louisville Metro:
#1 Occupation: Production
Average salary: $38,860

Indianapolis Metro:
#1 Occupation: Transportation and Material Moving
Average salary: $35,410

Memphis Metro:
#1 Occupation: Transportation and Material Moving
Average salary: $34,830

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