One of the best, most insightful commentators about Memphis, in our opinion, is John Lawrence, and we are fortunate that he shares his opinions and insights with us on this blog on occasion.  John is an Executive Management Consultant for Economic, Community & Downtown Development Agencies and has the experience in city-building to go with his professional training.

Here is his latest:

Yes, I am a conservative in the city.

Hello.  My name is John Lawrence and I am a conservative in the city.

I am not sure how it happened.  My family, while personally disciplined, appropriately demanding and extraordinarily charitable, they almost always tried to convey the importance of pulling the lever left instead of right.  My friends tend to be artsy, free-wheeling types as opposed to stuffed shirts.  My wife is still so infatuated with Bill Clinton it is uncomfortable at best and occasionally disturbing.

All of my adult life I have lived in the city and tried to dedicate myself to causes related to urban life.  I don’t know where exactly to start other than to just admit it.

Of course I have always been a little different.  Even as a child I dreamed of building a business empire.  With the exception of about five years when I couldn’t decide if I’d rather be rock-star or a pro-surfer, I have never considered spending an extended period of time around dirty people or natural bodies of water.  A hike through the woods can do to me what a stroll through the butcher shop does to PETA.

But I have gotten by all of these years admitting this to few people.

Three things are driving me to come clean.  First, it is time to admit precisely why I have chosen a career in Economic and Community Development focusing almost exclusively on inner city revitalization and growth management issues.  Next, I think Shelby County could very well be on the cusp of doing some things that will either elevate its people to extraordinary heights or doom them to the lower rung.  Finally, I am no longer alone and have discovered there are other capitalist, even Republican inner city dwellers lurking in the shadows.

Conservative: A person who follows or promotes the philosophies of lower taxes, limited government influence and personal responsibility for individual needs.

I want to be J.R. Ewing or Donald Trump.  My vision of success is sitting atop a monumental building looking out into the city.  I don’t want to do what we do in southern cities and drive to a squatty box in the middle of a parking lot.

I want my kids and grandkids to live like Opie, The Beaver and the Cosby Kids.  They walked to school and the park, to the ice-cream shop, to get haircuts and they dropped in on dad at work.  I don’t want them to have to wait for someone to pick them up at this and be taken to that.

I want to live in a place that is efficient, productive and, frankly, has low taxes.  In Memphis, I’d settle for fair taxes.

I realized long ago that there was no reason for me to be in the real estate business if I was going to be doing deals with no consideration of their long-term effect.  I also realized that there was no reason to be a city-planner if I was not going to be encouraged or empowered to actually accomplish any of the plans.  None the less, city building is what I wanted to do and I have been lucky to spend a significant part of my life helping people figure out ways to make money doing what is right for the community.

But why?

Partly because I am sentimental and love that traditional town square feel.  Partly because I have ambitious visions of grandeur.  Mostly, because I am selfish and greedy.

Until we cure some major structural ills, Shelby County will never function as a true community and will never offer enough economic opportunities to enough people to make any of my dreams come true.

I strongly believe that investment dollars coming into town instead of the suburbs mean far more to the fiscal stability of the state, county and city because not one dime of tax money has to be spent on sprawl related issues.  Not a dime has to be spent on new police officers or fire stations, the roads and utilities are in town already, traffic and congestion problems are reduced.  The benefits of inner city revitalization touch every single tax payer’s pocketbook and that should get some people’s attention.

I am angry that America has spent almost a century systematically destroying our ability to act independently, productively and conservatively.  The Federal Highway Administration divided us, urban renewal relocated us, Federal home loan policies enticed us into artificial wealth.

Today we depend on corporate welfare to support companies detached from the poor, social welfare to support the poor that are detached from jobs and public welfare to build infrastructure trying to keep us connected.

We are economically segregated, deprived of quality education and still utterly dependant upon the government.  A good conservative would have never planned it this way.  But perhaps there are a few things on the horizon that could reverse the trend or at least force some valuable conversation.

Conservation: The act of preserving natural resources for future generations, protecting existing assets from neglect and preventing the destruction of otherwise valuable things.

I like watching area School reform.  Alignment of resources, streamlining of curriculum and focused teaching models makes sense in a troubled system with a highly mobile student body.  Outside funding from the private Gates Foundation for teacher training is another step in a positive direction.  Conservative.

I was excited about the Sustainable Shelby process.  Mayor Wharton summed it up, “the present course is unsustainable on the basis of public finances, environment and land use, disposable neighborhoods, deteriorating health, and declining quality of life.”  Sustainable Shelby is a plan to reverse the trends that have stymied our region’s growth, drained our resources and destroyed our environment.  Pretty conservative.

I was very interested in the new Metropolitan Government Charter and now the School Merger issue.  The commitment to efficiently deliver quality services and accountability with at least the hope of lower future taxes is exciting.  Extremely conservative.

And, there may be more of us than you think.

I know there are Midtown Republicans and right-leaning Sierra Club members who could change this community in monumentally positive ways if they’d get together more often.  But why did I pick today to come out of the closet as a conservative in the city?  I have been talking about cost-benefit analysis and economic development and expense reduction and resource conservation for years without having to admit that I might vote for other people who believe in the same things.

By chance, I ran across a website called www.MarketUrbanism.comUrbanism for Capitalists/Capitalism for Urbanists.

The site focuses on things like the benefits of density, the detriments of minimum parking requirements and demand curves for neighborhood building types.  It explored the history of trolley systems as private, profitable endeavors during a time when societies where arranged differently.  It released me to say aloud that perhaps Market Urbanist describes me and if it does then maybe it is okay to admit my conservativism.

But I still was not sure if it was okay.  I am so often at odds with both my liberal cohorts and my other conservative colleagues.  How could I find out if it was okay to come out?

I consulted the most stereotypically conservative text (other than the Bible) I could find: The Boy Scout Handbook.

I flipped to the index and found that while seven pages referenced conservation, only four referenced religious beliefs.  One page mentioned firearms in the context of a rifle-range, while 11 pages discussed firewood.  Not one single page mentioned hunting, while 14 pages focused on caring for the environment.

If the Boy Scouts of America can find balance then why can’t I?  If an anti-sprawl New Yorker can openly link to other urban economists, free market advocates and urban planners then why can’t I work to bring all of the sides together in Shelby County?

I am a conservative in the city and I have never felt so liberated… oh, wait.