The most exciting things happening in Memphis these days are found at the grassroots level.
There’s no lack of new ideas, new programs and new vision that are springing from the imagination and creativity that we find when we get off the Memphis grid that too often turns to local government for the answer anytime a need is identified and a new idea is discussed.
These days, as a result of the vacuum created by the public sector – largely because of budgetary limitations that will become even more of a straight jacket in coming months – but even more so, as a result of an increasing “can do” attitude, there are new faces and new energy being put to bear on some overdue priorities.
The Power Of One
Rather than ask for a meeting with a mayor or government officials, this breed of Memphian simply operate on a simple premise – that they can make a difference – and they follow their own inspiration, take on the cause and set out to make things happen. It’s a far cry from a civic tendency rooted in the Crump culture that too often sees the public sector as the answer to every problem.
In other words, these new leaders and their movements – in everything from sustainability to the arts to downtown revitalization – are encouraging developments in an age when “do it yourself” cities seem to be prospering. It’s hard to understand why Memphis isn’t one of them.
After all, Portland, Oregon, wasn’t always the Portland we see today, a city at the top of most livable cities list, greenest cities list, most bikable cities and more. In the 1960s, nothing was working in Portland’s favor. There was no great research university, there were a couple of Fortune 500 companies and there were no natural assets to brag about.
In the word of one longtime Portland resident, the city was nothing short of a dump. These days, whenever Portland is cited as an example of success for metro areas in a Memphis meeting, someone invariably will say that Portland is different because it had so much going for it.
Since just the opposite is true, the real question is if Portland could transform its national image, reputation and reality in about 25 years, why can’t Memphis?
We recently asked two experts on Portland’s transformation to tell us what triggered its turnaround and its rebirth. Both of them said the same thing. The change sprung from a “do it yourself” attitude among the people of Portland who simply set out to make things better in their city. In fact, the presence of a weak city government (a commission form which still exists today, puncturing the notion that only a strong mayor can turn around a city) spurred grassroots solutions even more.
Hopefully, we are now seeing the strong stirrings of that same kind of attitude, because if Portland offers a lesson, it is about the importance – and the ability – of citizens standing up and taking risks to improve their city.
We think of the creativity of John Kirkscey and his idea for the Memphis Art Park, an exciting concept that has sprung from the creative cauldron for which our city is famous. His plan is for a moribund part of downtown, trapped between a forlorn parking garage and a decrepit downtown library, to become a lively, colorful place where the talents Memphis’ artists, musicians and other creatives converge to create place-based vibrancy that is too absent in most parts of downtown.
We think of Margot McNeely, whose passion for a better Memphis and her energy as an agent for change, led her to start Project Green Fork. Her program to bring restaurant recycling to Memphis has national implications, and her work with the equally talented Ben Smith of Tsunami can become the model for other local restaurants. She needs some support from city government to test her plans, and Councilman Bill Morrison is looking into ways to do it. Hopefully, he can, because restaurants can be seedbeds for recycling, composting, non-toxic cleaning products and energy and water conservation.
We think of the inspiration that we continue to draw from Aaron Shafer, the creative energy and the driving force behind the great idea of building the country’s largest skatepark on Mud Island, where it would be a magnet for families and activity downtown. Despite predictions to the contrary, he has proven in a series of imaginative events and projects that Memphis is hungry for a first-class skatepark. More to the point, we are impressed by the underlying philosophy for his work, a compassion for needy families that spurs him to pursue other ideas that can improve their lives where they live and work.
We think of the ongoing work of the UrbanArt Commission, which is a symbol of and the catalyst for the artistic talent that exists in our city and an investment in better neighborhoods and public space. In particular, we like the imagination of its idea for its UrbanArt Show and Tell program in early November. At the show and tell, anyone who is “a little bit obsessed with creative culture” should ask for the chance to show 20 slides in just under seven minutes that demonstrate a passion of yours. It’s the kind of event that mixes the fun, the imagination and the conversation that we need to have more of, because it’s an activity that connects diverse and disparate people and who knows what good can come from these relationships?
These are just a handful of the things in Memphis that makes us excited about the future and hopeful in particular about the new thinking that is coming from a new generation.
It’s Creativity, Stupid
All of these things speak to the creativity that is our birthright as Memphians. The challenge now is to do everything possible to foster it and to provide the support and the money that usher it into the mainstream of our city where it is rewarded and revered.
That’s why the discussion at 6 p.m., October 22, at Memphis College of Art is so timely. In a panel discussion sponsored by the College and MPACT Memphis, six creative entrepreneurs will talk about the role of creativity in their lives and in the life of the city. It’s one of the most important conversations that should be taking place all over Memphis.