We know the primary job description for a Chamber of Commerce is to be a reliable cheerleader for Memphis, but there are times when we just crave someone to tell us the truth.
While we admire the dependable hyperbole that’s attached to all things Memphis, we are concerned that our leadership – not just at the Chamber -seems hesitant to tell us the unvarnished facts about our city. Here it is: Memphis’ trajectory is headed treacherously in the wrong direction, and because of it, we absolutely have no margin for error.
That’s why what we need most from our leaders is for them to shoot straight with us, to acknowledge that we are now setting the course of the city for the next 25-50 years and that all of us need to be mobilized to tackle the challenges that confront us.
Instead, when asked months ago about the report by the highly-regarded Brookings Institution that showed that the Memphis metro is in the bottom of metros in the rate of jobs growth nearest to the downtown core, a Chamber official responded: “We are probably among the leaders (nationwide) of bringing growth back to the core.”
How Many Warning Shots Are Enough?
Optimism is one thing, but the notion that we are among the nation’s leaders in urban revitalization is simply the stuff of myth-making, and unfortunately, it comes at a time when we need to hear the honest facts and a call to arms about the price that our urban core is paying for our willingness to subsidize suburban lifestyles.
If current statistics represent success in revitalizing our urban core, we hope we never see what failure looks like. For 30 years, our government, our business community and our economic development officials have conspired to fuel sprawl in the form of more and more lanes of traffic and car-centric transportation systems. They have done it in recommendations and justifications that obfuscated the negative impacts that sprawl was enacting on our city.
Because of it, Memphians have been required to subsidize the deterioration and abandonment of their own neighborhoods, and all the while, our leaders kept telling us that this suburban relocation of our population was “growth” and “economic development.”
The Brookings report was just the latest warning shot for our city. We’ve had plenty, as we’ve written lately, about lost income, lost talent, lost people, lost middle-income families, lost jobs and rising poverty all over Shelby County. A number of your emailed to ask us why you haven’t read these trouble signs anywhere else, and it’s a good question. Our economic development officials and our elected officials owe us the facts, unvarnished and as brutal as they are.
More Of The Same
The Brookings Institution’s report said in Memphis that the share of jobs created within three miles of downtown Memphis declined from 14.4 percent to 12 percent in 2006, while the share of jobs created beyond 10 miles of downtown climbed from 40.9 percent to 49.3 percent.
Perhaps, it’s no wonder that the exodus of 25-34 year-old college-educated workers has quickened in this decade from the already troubling rate of the 1990s. These workers are about 60 percent more likely to seek work within five miles of downtown.
Meanwhile, Memphis is one of the most hollowed-out cities in the U.S., and is #1 of the 50 largest metros in economic segregation. Put plainly, public policies have promoted the flight of middle-income families and left concentrated poverty that sprawns our city’s most serious problems and challenges our best efforts to address them.
A briefing paper by CEOs for Cities summed it up well in three key points: 1) When metropolitan areas are economically segregated, every problem becomes harder to address; 2) suburban sprawl has been an engine of economic segregation; and 3) infill development increases the possibilities for stable integrated neighborhoods.
It’s A Choice
In an especially ominous statement for Memphis, the researchers wrote: “Suburban sprawl becomes especially damaging in metropolitan areas with weak job and population growth…the outward movement of middle and affluent households and rising concentrated poverty creates a reinforcing cycle of decline.
These facts are why we get so exorcised by the continued investments in wider lanes and more roads. These are not just curious decisions. They are in fact attacks on our city’s future.
Worst of all, they are made as if we are not making choices, serious choices about the future of our city.
Jared Diamond wrote in his book, Collapse, about how “societies choose to fail or succeed.” In other words, sprawl did not just happen in Shelby County. It was a choice. The suffocating county government debt did not just happen. It was a choice. The hollowing out of the urban core did not just happen. It was a choice. The dependence on low-wage, low-skill jobs did not just happen. It was a choice.
Rubber Stamping Sprawl
Diamond describes in his best-seller how civilizations that formerly flourished made choices that doomed them to catastrophe, and many of these bad decisions were tied to the squandering of resources, to ignoring trouble signs that the environment emits and to the cutting down of too many trees.
It sounds familiar. For more than 20 years, when Memphis City Council routinely approved any development within the 3-5 mile extraterritorial area outside of the city limits, there seemed to be no sense that it was making a choice.
Developers wanted more development, and these areas were outside of the city limits, so there was no perceived cost in giving them what they asked for. Actually, every vote on one of the developments was as a choice — to shift public investments to the suburban fringe rather than spend them on strengthening the urban core and capitalizing on the public infrastructure already paid for there.
For more than two decades, when the Shelby County Board of Commissioners voted time after time to approve every development placed on their agendas, they never had a sense that they were making a choice that was fueling sprawl and setting in motion their own march to the brink of bankruptcy, cuts in services and erosion of their ability to take a leadership role in the community.
Ignoring The Signs
Like many of the societies described in Diamond’s book, our community made the choice to ignore the warning signs, always believing that the flow of money was endless, short-term benefits were as good as long-term ones and the political power structure was unshakeable. In the end, the seminal question of Collapse is: How can society best avoid destroying itself? It’s a question that should be applied to every project, program or policy of local government for the near future.
If, as the Chamber official suggested, our community is ready to be a national leader for urban rejuvenation, our leaders should begin by applying Diamond’s question to the proposed I-269, a pork project with no economic or social benefit to Memphis.
Don’t believe the propaganda or media headlines. Even The Commercial Appeal editorialized: “Chances are good that speeding up the completion of Tenn. 385 and I-269 will have the desired effect, creating more jobs and circulating more money in the local economy.”
Should we really be building an interstate if the best we can say is “chances are good” it will create new jobs and economic growth? There is no research to back up that conclusion, and more to the point, I-269 is just another giant magnet pulling jobs and people out of the urban core.
Asking The Right Question
We need to connect the dots – these massive sprawl-inducing, car-dependent investments are not only gifts to developers, but they are killing off the city whose health will determine whether the region survives.
If nothing else, it’s time to connect the dots – cause and effect – and to ask the paraphrased question from Collapse: How can Memphis best avoid destroying itself?
I find myself in complete agreement with this missive. I for one spoke out as loudly as allowed AGAINST the I-69/385/269 debacle back in 1995–a highway that will be useless even as it’s completed with the end of the petroleum age.
When I ran for County Commission, the top of my platform was an end to the subsidization of economic flight, resulting, somewhat tangibly, in my opponent’s sponsorship of an all too brief moratorium on new development in the County.
Thank God we’ve received some respite with the recession (despite the bottom falling out on my architectural jobs). We should, as advocated here recently, take better advantage of the recession to re-prioritize our public investments. We need REAL reinvestment in our aging inside-the-loop infrastructure, reinvestment in our already existing industrial corridors and re-creation of jobs within the neighborhoods surrounding those abandoned enterprise zones.
I love your fusing of the words sprawl and spawn in your 11th paragraph–“sprawn” says it all.
Lets make the developers agree to build one new house inside the parkways for every house they build in collierville!
and no more commercial development!! especially the double-dammed pharmacy-convenience stores with their doouble-dammed policy of no refills without a doctors prescription-and no more free samples of anti-anxiety drugs!
I’m so depressed over the chick felay on union that I’m knawing my left birkenstock right now!!!!!!!!!!!
Um, interested observer, I have some anti-anxiety drugs that you might like that you can’t get/don’t need a prescription for and much better than birkenstocks.
You were right then and you’re right now, Scott.
SCM, do you not see the a danger of sprawl inherent in combining governments and, more particularly, sharing interests in MLGW?
After one does follow through with the simple exercise of connecting the local dots the resulting message is both clear and predictable: CLOSED
Scott: City of Memphis was such a willing co-conspirator in creating sprawl with sewer extensions and approval of projects within the five-mile limit outside Memphis that it’s hard so see how anything can make it worse.
Scott, it’s like this:
You can’t use corrupt structure to get a good result in this atmosphere. It would be stupid to think you could.
All over the country, there is a recurring phenomenon of long term mayorship.
The longer you leave them in, if they do take the bait of corruption, and most do, the inner city begins to depopulate. Businesses leave, property values plummet, all precipitated and exacerbated by high crime, directly under mayoral control, subsidized by money garnered from criminals funneled and laundered in campaign contributions. The evidence is usually in the local prosecuting attorney’s inability to get appropriate sentencing for known criminals connected to the mayor (cooperation) and appointment of criminals to high paying low key (usually) positions for criminal cronies.
The goal is to drive down prices so that the mayor’s cronies can scoop up a ton of real estate at bargain basement prices, each picking an area to buy and then control, the the mayor pushes for the redevelopment and his friends get rich. He gets a kickback.
None of it is legal and it’s all federal statutes that are being broken (because this is a lawless place), but, you don’t have anyone investigating that here, yet, maybe.
Since nothing is what it seems, maybe the past mayoral animosity is feigned and so the cycle continues, so, the conditions must be kept right to keep the profit train on track for this type of corruption (which is why the old mayor is still around pretending to be Vincent “the chin” Gigante). So, the city must be kept in a “state of non-desirability” and rhetoric to the tune of “we don’t need any outsiders telling Memphis ..blah blah blah (insert stupid nonviable idea that will be no help here)” to keep the “rope-a-dope” going.
If we want a better Memphis, we need to force the hand by showing up in numbers at City hall, numbers that will show with absolute certainty that we will physically throw the bums out of office.
These guys are wiling to go to any lengths to keep their power, which is an illusion, and it’s time to remind them. Look at the last vote on that ordinance, it didn’t pass? And who was the best devil’s advocate?
Look at the election commission, they did it again. Boldface quote before the election by the commissioner”I’m not afraid of any investigation by anybody”. Really?
The desperation of their decision making is very very disappointing.
You can’t use corrupt structure to get a good result in this atmosphere. It would be stupid to think you could.
Sometimes you really do have to do a very thorough job of cleaning house.
Brian, it may be I’m obtuse, but can you whittle that down to what you are actually addressing to me. Thanks.