We all know about mythic Memphis. Our most famous export is mythic music that changed the world, and our most famous entrepreneurial breakthroughs have attained mythological status, changing the way the way the world works and plays and one even defined modern global commerce.
And yet, there are other myths that dominate thinking in the Memphis region, and here are just a few of them:
City of Memphis is too wasteful and corrupt.
City government delivers its services on a per capita basis cheaper than Shelby County, Collierville, Millington, and Germantown governments. And it’s done it despite increasing its land area and reducing its densities. Most of all, City of Memphis has done it while continuing to pay legacy costs incurred for the infrastructure for people who have moved outside Memphis.
Memphis is dangerous and crime-ridden.
Memphis has seen dramatic decreases in crime, but here’s the truth: all of us know which parts of Memphis are risky and if we don’t go there, our risks as a victim of violence are minimal. The high crime areas unsurprisingly coincide with maps of Memphis poverty, and if suburbanites want to attack crime, they should roll up their sleeves to improve neighborhoods where kids are taught the places to hide when gunfire breaks out and demand change from local elected officials.
Memphis teachers are no good.
The top schools in the former city school district are a match for the top schools in Shelby County Schools, but here’s the big difference: city school teachers are teaching moving targets. Each year, roughly 15 percent of city students moved, disrupting learning and creating toxic stress that has a negative impact on brain development. The majority of Memphis students are dealing with a web of issues that teachers are addressing every day while suburban schools prove conclusively that socio-economic status is the greatest single determinant on student achievement.
Memphians are poor and uneducated.
The number of people living in poverty in Memphis has been about the same since 1980 (a fact which does not diminish the need to address the city’s most malignant problem), but for every person living under the poverty line, there are three who are not. In terms of educational attainment, Memphis’s numbers are better than the MSA’s. As for the poverty rate, it’s the high rate outside Memphis that forces the Memphis MSA into the top five. Memphis on its own is not in the top 10 for highest poverty rate.
Memphis doesn’t really matter.
Memphis remains the economic and job center for the entire region, and with more than 75% of the people in the suburban towns commuting to jobs outside their borders, the health of Memphis should be uppermost in their minds, because so goes Memphis, so goes their paychecks.
Memphis is the next Detroit.
We have no patience with this oft-made derogatory(not to mention racially-charged) comment. Memphis’ percentage of people with college degrees is two times Detroit, Memphis has 40% more people in the labor force, the poverty rate in Memphis is 30% lower and household income is about 25% higher, the number of vacant housing in Memphis is about half of Detroit’s (although Memphis is almost three times larger in land area), Detroit’s city budget is three times bigger than Memphis, and its debt is 20 times bigger than Memphis.
Memphis is a backwater city.
We are home to FedEx, one of the top 10 most respected companies in the world and global commerce was invented by it. In Sir Peter Hall’s Cities in Civilization, he cites 16 cities that shaped the world. Memphis is on the list, along with Athens, Vienna, Tokyo, Paris, Florence, Berlin, Rome, New York, London, San Francisco, and Stockholm. It’s easier to say we have backwater suburbs than to say we are a backwater city.
Hall writes: “a remarkable event in human history took place: cultural creativity and technological innovation were massively fused…The special reputation of the place, free and wide open, helped it all to happen…the music of an underclass could literally become the music of the world…This was a revolution in attitudes and behavior, as profound as anything that has happened in the last 200 years.”
We hear myths about Memphis every day. There’s the myth that new suburban highways create new economic growth. There’s the myth that our African-American majority is an economic drag. There’s the myth that all Memphis neighborhoods are in chaos and in deep despair. There’s the myth that success in economic development is measured by the number of tax freezes we hand out. And, the most dangerous myth of all is that we can nothing do to change things.
All of us hear these myths, and it’s time to quit being polite and tell people they don’t know what they’re talking about. There is much that we need to get right in Memphis, both the city and the region, but we need to build that future on the facts rather than fictions about the city.
My goodness. The suburbanites are very sensitive about reality when it creates dissonance for them.
Anonymous 10:06 am – LOL. Was thinking the same thing. Readers seem very hostile and defensive today. Sounds like some of these commenters need to put in all the long hours and hard work and start their own blogs.
Tom and Smart City Team,
Great article. Having recently moved home, I’m surprised at the level of vitriol out there in the surrounding areas of our great community. People live in suburbs and ruthlessly criticize our city while they enjoy the economic benefits and consume our city services when they come to work. How realistic is it that we implement a payroll tax with an exemption for city residents? I know this has been successful in cities like Cincinnati where a large part of the working population lives outside the city limits. Its fine for people to live in their suburban communities but they should contribute, like everyone else, to the maintenance of our city infrastructure and services. Once again, thanks for the great article.
To be honest, no, I can’t blame people for being afraid. We all have a survival instinct, and while it’s great to talk about the great collective efforts that are on-going and/or planned, that are intended to turn things around in this city, many people are more apt to “look out for #1”. I get that. I think deep down, people who run for the hills know they’re caving in to fear, and are making themselves part of the problem rather than the solution. But when crime, much less violent crime, comes to your front door, it’s hard to blame someone for trying to get away from it. So while I wish more people would stay, stand up to our problems and help the collective efforts to solve them, I understand why so many don’t.
The entire school merger was handled very poorly by everyone involved on both sides, not just the city…and both the kids and the teachers will be the ones who end up paying the price for those who were more concerned about money and politics. And now, it truly is a debacle.
It would have taken someone, a real leader, to say “we have an opportunity here, despite the fear mongering, to really do something great for an entire generation of kids, and we should all be on board with that”. There was an opportunity there, and no one in that arena stepped up. That’s the disappointing part of it all.
So yes, we have problems, and we all know many of them so well. What we need are more people willing to stick around and help us solve them. I know that’s a “tough ask” for some, but I hope that blogs like this, which help promote all the great things that we DO have going for us, will help convince more people that it’s worth staying and fighting for the city that we all want.
It’s easy to craft this kind of artcle and put memphis in either a good or bad light, but the reality is, Memhis has grown, but nothing has really changed since I was a kid, and I am pushing 50. There’s still quite a rift between the haves and have nots…an angry rift. There’s really not a true upward moving class by the nature of the quantity and quantity of employers. What good jobs we have do not pay as well as they should to be competeive in other markets. The airport fiasco has taken the city a step backwards, and if not resolved soon, we will lose more jobs. If you’re fortunate enough to have financial security in Memphis, “It’s A GREAT PLACE TO LIVE.” But for the majority of folks, it’s not the experience a city this size should be (unless you like the small town mentality). There are wonderful things about Memphis, but the ugly side rears it’s head daily. The dual government needs to come to an end, and only then can we begin to truly build a great city…together (operative word).
Thanks for the comment, but if it is so easy to put Memphis in a good light, it sort of suggests that things have indeed changed. We have worked in a number of cities the same size as Memphis and what is taking place is very characteristic of what is happening in mid-sized, mid-American cities. The trick is for those of us who care about them to do something to make things better. As we often say, the most exciting things happening in Memphis are happening below the official power structure. They are happening in the neighborhoods where some incredible things are under way.
Also, one other myth (although we favor consolidated government) is that all successful cities have consolidated governments. Less than 1% of the total counties in the U.S. are consolidated and very few of them are major cities. Think of many of the cities that are succeeding and almost every one has city and county governments like us. We’ve used this lack of consolidation as an excuse for inaction for too long.
We are frequent critics of our local economic development policies, but that wasn’t the point of this post. The point is that much of the conventional wisdom that we hear about Memphis is simply not based in fact.
Thanks again for the comment.
Most unconsolidated cities don’t go as far with their dual government as to have a county mayor and a city mayor, nor do they have dual commissions.
Crime has gone down, but, now we have those billboards, you know, those billboards that state that it’s unsupported.
Is there some new area that must be devalued so a crony can sweep it up for pennies and redevelop it?
I think Memphis is definitely improving it’s infrastructure, but, as my dear mother pointed out to me, any society that devalues it’s kids and elderly is doomed to collapse, because that is an early sign of collapsing.
So, Get rid of the county commission and extra mayor, improve the schools further, learn how to properly make a pension plan. so that the investment is small but grows and self funds once mature.
Get rid of MLGW. It is no longer a public service but a corrupt entity taxing the poor to death.
You can’t EVEN say Memphis isn’t corrupt until you deal with “that thing”.
Don’t tell me MLGW is not corrupt until they send you a bill for $3988/month for a small house with an energy star fridge and a window unit and you try to deal with it and get 4 years of bills that were guesstimated from Bill #1 to the end, 4 meter readers, one writes an affidavit that he read the meter and another was a manager, manager threatens the meter readers while you’re there, and the next bill is still……. guesstimated.
That thing should be torn down and the administration/management should be put in federal prison.
You guys are saying much of what I said in “The Memphis Book” when a published over six months ago. I don’t totally agree with the last analysis because of the faulty logic somehow linking our musical and entrepreneurial contributions internationally and making it the same as 21st century progressiveness and modernity. We are just not Tokyo or NYC. If yoi travel you quickly discover how far behind we are, backwards if you will. I am white, my wife is black, when we come back from overseas or out west we are quickly reminded how socially backwards we are. Then we drive from the airport and see under utilization, 20th century infrastructure and hear politicians on TV embarras us with rural nomenclature and non progressive plans for our city. If you compare stale meat to shit (Detroit) then yes, we are not that bad. Slippery verbiage here and there which the locals ate up, but I like the spirit of optimism. Nevertheless, good stuff!!
It’s just semantics. Most county governments have a chief executive officer, often called the county executive or the county judge. As for Tennessee, every county now has a county mayor. But in the end, 99% of the major cities in the U.S. operate with two levels of local government just like us. As for infrastructure, Memphis has a long way to go but when about $45 milion in taxes are taken off the table with PILOTs, city government will always play catch up until there more funding for infrastructure, public transit, etc.
If New York City and Tokyo are the standards, only a handful of cities measure up. And of course there are people in both cities in political office castigating the progress there. As for the rural nomenclature, no doubt about it, but it’s more of a Southern thing than merely a Memphis thing. Recently, while in Nashville, I heard a City Councilperson being interviewed and it certainly didn’t measure up to all the praise for that city. Thanks for the comments.
While we have a dialogue, can you urge Mayor Wharton who I have openly supported but am becoming tired of his damage control tactics, urge him to create a website or forum that clearly states a comprehensive (education, transportation, commerce etc) and transparent plan for our city. I have yet to see one and this lack of clear direction loses support and possible momentum to recruit talent and mobile families who would be interested if they would see a glimpse of order and concise (find it in one place online, it takes no more than 10 minutes to read a summary and click on keywords for suplemental and exhaustive info) vision. He also does not support rail, even a one or two rail plan, studies have shown it could work though not draw in wealth it would be less wasteful in the long term than our busses. I have a lot more to say, but you guys have a myriad of info and people to retort. By the way, it’s not just comparing to NYC and Tokyo, in the south alone we are behind 7 or 8 other cities above 750,000 in quality of life, business and transportation infrastructure. I just picked two, once again faulty logic linking our contributions to actual quality as a city.
Wesley: Have you emailed Mayor Wharton directly? He is generally pretty responsive. That said, we’ve not seen a city with our densities where rail is financially sustainable, and in a recent conversation with an expert on transit, he was saying the same thing. But if you have some information, we’d love to see it. Thanks for commenting.
Yes, the overall density is not enough per square mile, thus I have talked to experts who contend a rail between the airport and downtown is viable as well as a possible central line. That’s all, Dallas and ATL barely justify theirs because people in this region of the nation love their cars and yes, density is key. Wharton has not answered my Tweets, phone calls or other serenades. Even after I was on TV in March with a fairly positive take on how Memphis and it’s potential. Thanks
Plan? see “Memphis 2000”.
We wrote about the Memphis Regional Sourcebook produced by the Governors’ Alliance on Regional Excellence just last week and how much of it remains to be implemented.
I live outside Detroit now but lived in Memphis for 3 years. Trust me- Memphis is NOWHERE near as bad as Detroit is.
Regarding rail transit,
Although it is very much off topic, our population densities are a far cry from that needed to legitimately support any form of rail transit. Dallas has far greater population densities and raw numbers within its urbanized area. In fact, their population density is roughly twice that found here and even then DART rail ridership is heavily reliant on its bus feeder system and extensive (and expensive!) park and ride infrastructure. Within 2-3 miles of Atlanta’s CBD, the population density is also roughly twice that found in Memphis, but from 3-15 miles it is very similar. However, due to a more directionally balanced development pattern, the sheer number of people living in Atlanta’s urbanized area far exceed that of Memphis. For example, around 50,000 people live along a radius roughly 10 miles from the Memphis CBD while at 25 miles, one finds a population of around 10,000. Compare that to Atlanta where 150,000 live at the 10 mile marker and 150,000 live at the 25 mile marker with higher numbers in between. In both Dallas and Atlanta, that equates to an enormous sprawl footprint which also directly results in levels of congestion that Memphis only experiences when one of the city’s freeways shuts down. That congestion, when combined with very high density employment centers, in turn drives much of the rail transit ridership found in those cities.
Memphis lacks BOTH the density and the level of traffic congestion that would result in higher demand and reliance on public transportation. Meanwhile, while the Downtown-Airport route would serve an area that does have greater reliance on existing public transit and physically is more inclined to support said transit (thanks to a still largely intact network of interconnected and walkable blocks), it would still only serve to connect a CBD that is becoming less relevant as a regional employment center and the Airport area where employment densities are very low thanks to the land use patterns associated with logistics.
As much as it pains me to make such a summation (I will forever miss the subway in NYC), Memphis would reap far greater benefit from investing in a bus based transit system. The fact that so many of our major streets were built for traffic volumes that no longer exist (or never materialized) lends them to designate excess lanes for bus use only. Increasing frequencies on heavily used bus routes from today’s 20-30 min interval at rush hour to 10 min would eliminate the need for anyone to memorize a schedule or time their arrival at a stop because another bus would always be less than 10 minutes away. Decentralization of today’s downtown focused system in favor of numerous hubs located at or near major destinations would greatly simplify the network and reduce average travel distances and times. Express busses along heavily used routes and between hubs would provide the capacity, speed and reliability that would be enough to develop a rider-by-choice base that is critical if MATA is ever to evolve beyond its social service status and if Memphis is ever to begin to create the type of urban environment that is both economically and environmentally self-sustaining.
Sorry for the novel- but that is my 10 cents.
Please give us a novel at any time. This is beautifully said and logically thought out.
Fascinating that many of your ‘facts’ are simply strongly stated conclusions that reflect your own bias against the suburbs.
These ‘myths’ are presented as if they are the beliefs of the suburbs – as if no one in the City believes them – and as if the hundreds of thousands of people who live outside of Memphis all think the exact same. Mistaken on all counts.
Your flexible logic is commendable. When ‘debunking’ a myth about the high rate of crime in Memphis, you argue there is little crime if we stay out of all of the places where there is crime – and then blame those who live outside of Memphis for not reducing the City’s crime rate by rolling up their sleeves. Fascinating.
Why not the same hatred (and racist accusations) toward the thousands and thousands of City residents who enroll their children in private schools because they want a better education for their students than the City Schools provide on average? Why not the same blame and disgust with those parents? Why not the same passive aggressive blame of City residents for not rolling up their sleeves and working in the crime areas? Why not the same vilification of City Residents who moved to safer areas with better schools – but stayed inside the City limits.
It is unfortunate you would label your views as those of the entire City by claiming the name of Smart City Memphis. I do not share your bias or divisive beliefs – neither do my friends in the City nor my friends who live outside the City.
Memphis is a great city. Celebrate the good – not drive the divide.
Thanks for the comment although we’ve pretty much beaten this silly city vs. suburbs issue to death. You can see our opinions in the previous comments. Like others, you simply default to your own preconceived notion. Also our facts are based on data, not opinions, and we have stated them and shown the analysis over previous months and years. If you want to debate, the data, please provide some that refutes what we said.
As for the name of the company, we are named for a syndicated radio program that we had for 10 years. We talked with the smartest people on urban issues and it led us to our business niche of public policy analysis, communications/messaging, etc.
heather – glad you and your friends don’t spread these myths. neither do I, but I do know them to be alive and well since I continue to hear these myths propagated on a weekly basis – by residents, by realtors, members of the media…
smart city isn’t being divisive so not sure why you sound so defensive – this blog regularly lifts up the city and all that is going well, and offers insight and suggestions for the things that still need work in the city.
no one loves memphis more than the people at smart city which is why they spend countless hours giving back and working hard to constantly promote all of the goodness that is our city.
p.s. – just because you disagree with something, doesn’t mean its not true. i’ve seen a ton of data in my own work that supports the facts listed above and have read hundreds of data-filled postings on this site over the years that back up every point being made. if you feel like digging a little, you’ll easily find the same data out there and can see where the bloggers got their info.
Hey anonymous Memphis 2000 what? Where, is it accessible to all via a website and not hidden in a matrix ? It is big picture comprehensive and does it have out Mayor at the helm, otherwise it’s banter
Urbanut thanks, I have heard the same, my logic is since the trolley and MATA lose money, consolidate some of those lines and use an Airport line and central. Not that it will make money, but that it provides a service and makes a statement that we are trying to be modem. DART and ATLs line lose money too, my PhD economics friends remind me all the time. It’s more image than practicality.
Hey anonymous, this is neither easily accessible, nor all ecompassing, nor concise for everyday readers, nor used by the mayor in 2013. Read my description before saying problem solved