While Memphis has never been categorized as an old industrial city, it’s always had similarities – deep urban challenges, grittiness and demographics – that give us more in common with these cities than Sunbelt cities.
We thought this again as we were re-reading a report byThe Brookings Institution about the revitalization of older industrial cities, especially those in the Rust Belt. Truth be told, Memphis has always gotten a pass – and even favorable commentary – in these studies from Brookings because of its misunderstanding of the dynamics of our city’s population growth.
Most large urban cities like ours are landlocked, surrounded by suburban cities and bedroom towns, and as a result, their borders are fixed and permanent. While Mayor Willie W. Herenton gets little credit for anything these days, he deserves credit for defeating the “tiny towns” movement that would have produced even greater divisions here.
Down and Down
As a result of being surrounded, many cities spiral downward. Declining population leads to a weakened tax base that leads to deterioration of city services that leads to declining population. St. Louis, for example, once had a population within its city limits 500,000 larger than today, and Cleveland was once larger by 420,000 people.
Often, in looking at the raw population numbers, researchers are inclined to see Memphis as being in a positive growth cycle, but they assume that we are like other cities and our borders are also fixed. As a result of Tennessee’s liberal annexation laws, however, Memphis is able to maintain and increase its populations by taking in new land and new residents.
As a result, The Brookings Institution doesn’t include Memphis in many of its studies about cities in trouble, because, as we wrote in posts lately, our annexations masquerade as progress and mask what’s really going on in our core city and the problems that are deepenening there. Nevertheless, we think the recommendations apply directly to our city.
On The Rebound
The report examined 302 U.S. cities and found that 65 are lagging behind their peers on eight indicators of well-being, notably Providence, Richmond, Shreveport, Rochester, Birmingham, St. Louis, Buffalo, Newark, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Miami, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Baltimore, Detroit, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.
Much of the problems in these cities stem from economies dominated by low-wage employment; entrenched, multi-generational poverty; high unemployment and unemployables, and low incomes and diminishing tax income. If these cities are to rebound, they have to keep their eye on the ball. They have lost the high-paying jobs of an industrial economy that has long since vanished, replaced by lower-wage jobs. Most damaging of all, the dominance of older established industries actually thwarts entrepreneurialism and new business creation.
Accompanying the heavy reliance on these industries are lower educational levels. In these 65 cities, less than 17 percent of their residents over 25 years of age have bachelor’s degrees. (In Memphis, it’s 21 percent.) These lower educational levels in turn contribute to lower per capita income levels, creating a cycle that can be devastating in its self-reinforcing nature.
With problems compounded by white flight and a declining industrial base, cities find themselves hyper-segregated, increasingly poor and fiscally in crisis. In words that sound especially compelling for modern Memphis, the report quotes William Frey:
“City residents…are being asked to pay higher taxes…than their contemporaries in the suburbs. In return, they are not likely to receive proportionally better services and, in fact, can be virtually assured of lower quality schools and higher rates of crime…It is likely, therefore, that the increased out-of-pocket costs and deteriorating environmental conditions associated with residence in financially plagued cities will provide additional impetus for suburbanward movement.”
What To Do
So, what should cities like ours do to revitalize themselves?
- Fix the basics. It sounds simple and it will take decades, because it includes fixing broken educational systems, making cities safe and making cities cost-effective for companies. Lack of safety in a city is proof positive that a city government is failing, because it’s unable to deliver on its most fundamental obligation – to protect its citizens.
- Build on economic strengths. Cities need to identify and nurture their own unique economic assets, and in support of this, they need to invest in downtown revitalization. “While a strong downtown doesn’t necessarily assure a strong citywide economy, it’s certainly a prerequisite for success.”
- Transform the physical landscape. Cities need to pay attention to crumbling infrastructure, particularly those that connect them to the global economy. These catalytic development projects include waterfront development and public parks.
- Grow the middle class. Progress for these challenges will not come without paying particular attention to reducing poverty and increasing the middle class. In particular, cities and states need programs that give residents the skills – including soft skills like problem-solving and customer service and hard skills for jobs in growing sectors – to compete in today’s economy.
- Create neighborhoods of choice. To succeed, cities need neighborhoods where strong families with a range of incomes want to live. Neighborhoods of concentrated poverty are isolated, children perform worse in school and families have more health problems. In other words, these neighborhoods cost government a lot, and in turn, government should encourage mixed-income housing, grow inner-city markets, invest in preservation and rehabilitation.
All in all, it made again provocative reading, because if Memphis is to succeed, we have to first recognize that we have no margin for error, and then second, we have to focus on the levers for change that can have the most impact on our future.