Sometimes we don’t need expensive consultants or years of study or the latest technology. Sometimes we may need to try to get more out of the resources we have. Sometimes all we need are good leaders to set some enthusiastic beginners off down a path.
In the summer of 1994, Robert Lipscomb and Don Campbell in the City’s Department of Housing & Community Development set into motion a radically simple project. They sent three interns out into the field armed only with photocopied parcel maps and a box of highlighters. Over the next few weeks, these three drove every street within the I-240 loop.
They marked City-owned property yellow and County property pink. They marked vacant land green, vacant buildings orange and underutilized property blue. Each afternoon they’d return to an empty conference room in the back of a building on the northern most end of Main Street. Sometimes with pride and other times with confusion, the interns would tape sheet after sheet onto a growing mosaic taking shape on an old paneled wall.
When they finished, they could see it plain as day. North of downtown was a huge blob of color. South of the Medical District was another and yet another south of that. Six years before they had been taking their drivers license test, today they were running a magic marker along wide roads, utility easements and railroad tracks noting anything that could be a barrier to development. They were trying to define whether or not any of these blobs were true zones of opportunity in these long ignored, forgotten or intentionally cast aside neighborhoods.
Alignment of resources
This community has at least six mayors, dozens of councilmen and commissioners, countless boards and a very limited supply of resources. These resources tend to be doled out a little here and a little there. Some people want a new sewer here and a workforce training program there. Next thing you know, several others want something too. This is understandable. Our system has told politicians that delivering anything to the home district is better than delivering the right thing to another. So we usually end up with a bunch of things that really aren’t very good.
Targeted funding in the era of regionalism is even tougher. A unified front to deal with a problem only comes when we vote for a Band-Aid. An inclusive plan to deal with issues facing our future only comes when everyone gets their little piece first. But regionalism only works in communities that accept appropriate growth that is targeted in areas that can support it without damaging other places in the process. Likewise, revitalization projects only work when funds are targeted and all resources are aligned toward accomplishing a serious goal.
Targeting efforts builds success
Through the mid 1980s, the Memphis Zoo developed a 20-year plan. That probably sounded crazy in 1988. But year after year, they worked the plan, raised money, built new habitats and periodically adjusted the plan due to changing conditions (not due to the fact that they never started working on it and needed to look like they were doing something). Now, 21 years later, they are completing one of the final phases of the original plan. And, I think most people will agree that this is an astounding asset… not without some controversy… but for the most part a glorious success story.
We should attack community revitalization like China built for the Olympics. In less than seven years, they were able to house 11,000 athletes in the Olympic Village, seat 6.5 million spectators in 31 new arenas, build seven new subway lines with 80 stops and make an attempt to control the weather… all with a specifically defined deadline!
The least we can do is identify an area that is deserving of a better position in our city’s pecking order. Then set our minds to honestly accomplishing something meaningful.
We already know what to do
Sometimes maybe all of us smart, experienced people should get out of the way. Maybe we should do what Lipscomb and Campbell did and just hand some maps and a box of markers to some guys that want to help and don’t know any better than to try.
The maps on the wall back in the summer of 1994 led to the identification of opportunity zones. They also led to a City Council presentation promoting targeted funding. If the federal dollars we were receiving could be focused on a few of these colorful blobs instead of nickel & dimed out around town, then we could honestly achieve something everyone could be proud of and possibly change some lives.
If civic clubs and churches, private investors and businesses, government departments and neighbors offered their talent and treasure to a single cause, what could we accomplish?
That blob north of Downtown became a neighborhood with mixed income apartments, new homes and a new park. The area once known for Hurt Village is now the front door to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The negative connotations associated with a decaying Greenlaw district have been replaced now as the proud home of the citizens of Uptown.
These maps, this method of targeted funding and a system of aligning resources that were once kooky ideas have now been used a few other times in other neighborhoods. This just shows what can be done.
I don’t know if aligning resources will ever become the rule instead of the exception. I don’t even know what happened to two of those three interns. I do know that they each set an example and left an important mark on our city’s history.