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It’s hard to imagine that other cities get as worked up as Memphis does when it ends up on one of the endless stream of cities’ lists that include words like “worst” or “most miserable.”

Then again, maybe that’s a sign of progress.

It wasn’t too long ago that if something critical was said about Memphis, there was always a chorus of people here willing to join in in a game of dozens with the city as a target; however, these days, people get outraged and push back hard on any criticisms.  The Greater Memphis Chamber in particular has done a good job of challenging the measurements and the methodology to the point that some of the sources of the negative rankings have rethought their processes.

But that didn’t keep a list of the “50 worst cities to live” from being shared widely a few months ago.  In fact, the outrage probably led it to be circulated and seen by more people than it would have otherwise.  This latest list was compiled by 24/7 Wall Street, which bills itself as a news site but posts provocative and superficial rankings to attract readers to its website.  In other words, the more we clicked on the story, the happier they were.

Lazy Journalism

Here’s the thing: while Memphis has some indicators and trend lines that concern all of us, no city – including this one – is merely the sum of its data points, and because of it, these lists purporting to determine the best or worst cities are one-dimensional at best.  The major flaw is that the lists cherry pick statistics, and the outcomes change based on which ones are chosen.  For example, some include per capita income – which is low here – but not cost of living, which is also low and makes a dollar go farther.

More to the point, best and worst are of course value judgments, and values can’t be determined with raw numbers alone, because livability is about intangibles like affordability, friendliness, accessibility, creativity, and authenticity.  In other words, how do you rank whether a city is the best or worst place to live without knowing the attitudes of its residents?  After all, they are the ultimate experts.

That’s not to say that we don’t have to come face-to-face to problem metrics like concentrated poverty and violent crime that regularly drag down Memphis on these lists.  Meanwhile, the lists never measure the number of grassroots groups and civic organizations working to solve these challenging problems, because that’s a metric that Memphis excels in.

Put it as simply as we can, these lists are simplistic and misleading, but some in the news media (think: lazy journalism of USA Today) repeat them but do not no independent assessment of their own into the methodology.

Turning Things Around

As for the “worst cities” list, Memphis is in good company.  The list includes the usual suspects, but also, Miami, San Francisco, New York City, Boston, Washington D.C., and Houston, which more than anything, underscores the fact that all cities have problems.  Yesterday, Travel and Leisure magazine reported that its readers ranked Memphis as the ninth least attractive city and others on the list included Atlanta, Cleveland, Tampa, Milwaukee, Charlotte, and Baltimore (which was ranked #1 least attractive).

In most of Memphis these days, there is a palpable sense of optimism as new momentum and high-profile projects prove that the city is finally returning to its pre-Great Recession economic levels.  Memphis, one of the cities taking the longest to recover, is projected to get there late next year.  With $5 billion projects recently completed or under way, there is new vigor in the economy and indications that the optimism, energy, and money generated by these projects will be leveraged to tackle the revitalization and repopulation of inner city neighborhoods.

Here, we think everyone knows that Memphis has a unique vibe and that it punches way beyond its size in music and business, but we are mistaken.  These days, the curse of cities in the middle of America is that they only make the national news when something goes wrong, so it’s no wonder that we are often thin-skinned to critical rankings.  With all that’s going on right in this community, we are indeed in the process of  shaping Memphis’ modern reputation, and best of all, it’s sparked by a deepening pride in our hometown as evidenced by our willingness to fight for it.

All that said, none of these rankings are as ridiculous as one a few months ago in The Tennessean (Nashville) under the headline, “Nashville vs. Memphis? We win!”  The reporter chose three categories, evaluated them with snark, and declared that Nashville is finally cooler than Memphis.

Of course, just the fact that the article was written underscores the real answer: anytime you’re willing to spend so much time obsessing about Memphis, you already know you’re not the coolest.


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