I know this couple. So do you. Let's call them Mr. Memphis and Ms. Shelby.
They've lived together a long time, but they never got married.
Like all couples, they fight sometimes, and they worry about making ends meet. In hard times, they love to say that they have no options but to increase their expenses and borrow money from their children and grandparents. Like most couples, they also have some assets. A long time ago, their grandparents gave them 5,000 acres, which they called Shelby Farms.
About 40 years ago, Mr. Memphis and Ms. Shelby decided to keep half their land for parks and sell the other half to build houses for their children and make some money for current and future needs. They hired the best bankers, developers, and park planners that money could buy, and they thought it through for at least five years.
By 1973, they were ready to do the deal. The master developer would be the Rouse Company, a developer of planned communities. The local developer would be Boyle Investment, developers of River Oaks and Ridgeway Center. The banker would be First Tennessee National Corporation.
The planned community would be inside the city limits of Memphis, which would get the sale price plus an estimated $11 million a year in tax revenue. The community would include housing for 25,000 people and offices on some of the prettiest rolling country in West Tennessee. The park would be more than twice the size of Central Park in New York City, plus there would be five more regional parks throughout the city and county as part of the deal. The two local newspapers thought this was a swell idea.
The Memphis Press-Scimitar said, "The idea of a model community has many appealing features. It has been described as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. ... Development would produce tax revenues which could be diverted to the establishment of the 2,100-acre regional park. Using the entire acreage for a 'total recreational complex' would entail an expenditure which we don't believe the taxpaying public is ready to accept."
The Commercial Appeal said, "We favor the proposal to sell 2,900 acres of the total 5,000 acres for a model community development and retain the remainder for public use. ... The remaining 2,100 acres are ample for all manner of recreational facilities."
Of course, not all of Mr. Memphis and Ms. Shelby's children agreed, because some of them were going to make out better than others. And a grandpa named Abe Plough, who ran one of the biggest companies in town and had a lot of influence, said it should all remain a park, even though he hardly ever went to one himself. But some other grandpas with big companies, like Kemmons Wilson and Wallace Johnson of Holiday Inns, thought it was such a good idea that they bid against Boyle before dropping out.
By 1974, the deal had soured. There was a bad recession, sort of like today, with trouble in the Middle East, gas rising to the awful price of 55 cents a gallon, and the price of groceries up and the stock market down. And it turned out that some of the children of Mr. Memphis and Ms. Shelby had larceny in their hearts and went to jail.
The plan died, but the Memphis/Shelby family kept growing. Instead of moving to Shelby Farms, the children moved to Cordova and Hickory Hill and Germantown and Collierville. Getting them there cost a lot in new roads, sewers, schools, debt, and trees.
Meanwhile, Mr. Memphis and Ms. Shelby still had their 5,000-acre inheritance. They decided to "invest" in a prison, some buffalo, a landfill, Agricenter International, Ducks Unlimited (a nonprofit which pays no taxes), and — most recently — a conservancy.
When the recession ended and the economy got better in the 1980s and 1990s and this decade, and the Dow went from 700 to 14,000, and the price of a nice house went from $25,000 to $250,000, and companies like FedEx built big offices in the suburbs, Mr. Memphis and Ms. Shelby didn't make a dime off their inheritance. They told their children that developing part of Shelby Farms was a crackpot idea by a wayward son named Joe Cooper, which was a lie, but you know how parents can be. The graybeards and big dogs at Boyle, First Horizon, the country clubs, and The Commercial Appeal knew better but remained silent.
So today Mr. Memphis and Ms. Shelby are hurting, and they don't have many options. But they sure had opportunities.
So how are we doing, individually and collectively?
According to the Memphis Flyer's first-ever Memphis Index of food, finance, fuel, and fun, not too bad, not too good ...
Read the rest of John Branston's City Beat.
This is the week that individuals have to finish their income taxes and city government presents its budget for next year.
So how are we doing, individually and collectively?
According to the Memphis Flyer's first-ever Memphis Index of food, finance, fuel, and fun, not too bad, not too good.
An index should be simple, local, and useful. The ones produced by economists and academics tend to be national, overly complicated, or focused on a single industry such as housing. The Flyer's Memphis Index has a little something for everyone.
The Gallon Index. A gallon of milk ($4.40) plus a gallon of gas ($3.22) costs $7.62 today compared to $6.15 a year ago, when gas was $2.82 and milk was $3.33. Needless to say, it costs more just to get by every week. Net indicator: negative.
The Memphis Skyline Index. The combined stock price of two big downtown financial firms, First Horizon ($12) and Regions Morgan Keegan ($19), is $31 compared to $74 a year ago, when First Horizon was $40 and Regions was $34. Two good corporate citizens in the dumps is bad news for sponsorships, employment, retailers, and the housing market. Net indicator: negative.
The Government Index. The city of Memphis budget surplus, according to Division of Finance Director Roland McElrath, should be $79 million at the end of the fiscal year in June, up $2.5 million in the last year and up $47 million in the last two years. Still, Mayor Willie Herenton asked for a property-tax increase this week and wants to cut libraries and community centers. Net indicator: neutral.
The Memphis Fortune 500 Index. The combined stock price of the three Fortune 500 companies with headquarters in Memphis, namely FedEx ($93), International Paper ($27), and AutoZone ($118), is $238 this week compared to $277 a year ago. All three stocks are down at least 10 percent. Corporate stock-market wealth impacts executive bonuses, housing, philanthropy, business expansion, and civic involvement. Net indicator: negative.
The Mortgage/Savings Index. The average interest rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage from loan brokers and financial institutions in Memphis is 6 percent this week (you can do better or worse if you shop around), compared to 6.4 percent a year ago. Lower interest rates mean lower monthly payments. But they also mean lower returns on savings accounts and certificates of deposit, now mostly under 4 percent, whereas they were above 4 percent a year ago. Net indicator: neutral.
The Small Business Index. The number of pages in this newspaper last week was 64, compared to 72 pages a year ago. Like most newspapers, the Flyer sets the number of news pages in each issue based on the amount of display and classified advertising. Local businesses are the backbone of our business. Net indicator: negative.
The Music Index. The 2008 Beale Street Music Festival offers a three-day pass for $63.50, the same price as last year. Net indicator: positive.
The Fan Index. The Memphis Grizzlies average attendance for 41 home games this season was 12,770, compared to 14,654 a year ago. The Grizzlies were second-to-last in attendance this year and last in 2006-2007, indicating that overall NBA attendance is down. A disgruntled owner, a bad team, another Calipari powerhouse, and a bad economy could mean even lower attendance next year. Net indicator: negative.
The Cheap Thrills Index. The cheapest ticket to a Memphis Redbirds game inside AutoZone Park is $7, or $5 on the bluff — same as last year. A movie ticket for an adult at Malco's Paradiso is $9, compared to $8.50 a year ago. Net indicator: negative.
The Civic Wellness Index. Memphis gets a point for the University of Memphis Tigers' run to the NCAA Final Four, another point for the upcoming Memphis in May celebration, including the Beale Street Music Festival, and another point for the end of Operation Tennessee Waltz. Memphis loses a point for the tornado that severely damaged Hickory Ridge Mall and left its future in doubt. The mergers this year of Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines with Northwest Airlines (based in Minnesota but with a hub in Memphis) and International Paper with Weyerhaeuser's packaging business cancel each other out. Net indicator: positive.
Grand tally of 10 indicators: six negative, two positive, two neutral.
At a University of Memphis forum last week commemorating the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, a young man in the audience asked the panelists if Memphis was forever stuck in 1968.
The question was bundled with several others and didn't get answered very well, which was too bad because it was a good question, maybe the best of the day.
The 40th anniversary, of course, follows the 10th, 15th, 20th, 25th, 30th, and 35th King anniversaries along with — since 1986 — the annual federal Martin Luther King holiday (January 21st this year), the local ceremonies marking King's birthday on January 15th, the NBA's sixth annual civil rights game, and the second annual Major League Baseball civil rights game — all within the space of 80 days. In the fall, the National Civil Rights Museum hosts the annual NAACP Freedom Awards.
How many times can a city review a man's life and rededicate itself to his ideals before inviting apathy, hucksterism, and self-indulgence instead of activism? Memphis has become America's racial guilt trip and America's civil rights city. Less would be more. Share the guilt. Atlanta, Detroit, and New York don't have racial histories?
Parachuting into Memphis last week were Jesse Jackson, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Al Sharpton, Martin Luther King III, NBC news anchor Brian Williams, New York Times columnist David Brooks, broadcaster and author Tavis Smiley, former Memphis Invaders, Bishop Charles E. Blake, and several others who knew King, marched with King, wrote books about King, or had something to say about King and 1968. It was, in its own way, a lineup to rival the roster of performers at the Beale Street Music Festival or the throng of sports reporters, ex-jocks, and coaches at the Final Four.
At a personal level, it's impossible to say how many lives are positively influenced and changed by the Martin Luther King Jr. revivals. The big picture doesn't look good. For all the talk of transformations and rededications, Memphis still moves backward.
The basic measurement of citizenship — voting in Memphis municipal elections — has declined dramatically since 1968, with the exception of the 65 percent turnout in the landmark 1991 election when Willie Herenton defeated Dick Hackett. From 1971 to 1983, voter turnout ranged from 50 percent to 57 percent. From 1995 to 2007, it ranged from 17 percent to 38 percent. The single-digit turnout in local special elections, virtually unheard of until 1995, has become commonplace, with 12 of them since 2005.
Nine out of 10 black students in city schools attend all-black schools, just as they did in 1968, four years before massive court-ordered busing.
The Memphis metropolitan area has the highest violent-crime rate in the country: 1,263 violent crimes per 100,000 residents. Memphis has the highest infant-mortality rate in the country: 14 deaths per 1,000 live births. Memphis is in the top 10 for bankruptcy, poverty, and sexually transmitted diseases among teenagers. The population is growing slightly due to annexation, but greater Memphis has fallen behind greater Nashville.
The event where the young man asked the "stuck-in-1968" question was, by turns, informative, boring, and weird. There is a wallop to hearing someone recollect something in person that you don't get from the printed page or a video documentary. Former Commercial Appeal editor Angus McEachran told about being Metro editor in 1968 and sending reporter Tom Fox to the hospital where King was taken. Fox conveniently had a "heart attack" that gave him an extra 15 minutes near King and a scoop. Although I used to work with Fox, I had never heard the story.
There was power and fire, too, in the words of former Memphis Invader Charles Cabbage, telling tales "for the 1,000th time," former Memphis policeman Ed Redditt, and labor leader Jessie Epps. The consensus of the panel, McEachran excepted, seemed to be that James Earl Ray, a convict from East St. Louis, didn't do it. Cabbage said the United States government should be indicted for the murder of King. Kevin Kane, head of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, gave plaques to Cabbage and the other former Invaders and lauded them as "heroes."
As University of Memphis student body president Gionni Carr noted, the crowd was small, probably under 50, and included very few students. Basketball fever? Apathy? Who knows? You certainly couldn't blame the student newspaper, The Daily Helmsman, which was a model of perspective. Above the front-page fold was a story on radical activist and King anniversary speaker Angela Davis. Below the fold was an exclusive, hard-edged story by reporters Casey Hilder and Jessamyn Bradley about the University of Memphis having the lowest graduation rate of any college in the Final Four and in the state of Tennessee.
"We learned some interesting stuff as we looked into Angela Davis, a lot of things we didn't know," said managing editor Travis Griggs. "I think it's good to re-address this and get people thinking about these issues, regardless of how you feel about her."
Circuit Court judge D'Army Bailey, an activist in his college days 40 years ago, participated in a panel with "Green for All" founder Van Jones and others.
"The anniversary is still a unique opportunity for the city to converse with the world on the issue of human rights," Bailey said. "The events can be meaningful if they provide the impetus to be creative and dedicated in tackling the issues of poverty, violence, alienation, and indifference on the part of the establishment to the raw and aching concerns of the inner city."
Bailey said there is a danger that resolve will fade when the celebrations end. "I don't want to sound the cynic," he said, "but the trench work required is done away from the glare of the media."
One of the most important choices Memphis will make this year is the new superintendent of Memphis City Schools and its 115,000 students. A panel of the National Action Network 2008 national convention here last week included several big-city mayors and superintendents, including the dynamic team of Washington, D.C.: Mayor Adrian Fenty and schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, each 38 years old.
"Education is the civil rights issue," said Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City school system. "We've got to get it right in education or all these other issues will not be straightened out."
About 40 people attended the panel. Memphians stayed away in droves.
The question was bundled with several others and didn't get answered very well, which was too bad because it was a good question, maybe the best of the day ...
Read the rest of John Branston's provocative City Beat column.
Ask him. Ask Willie Herenton to be superintendent. Then cross your fingers.
Because at this troubled time in this troubled city, he can do more good for more people and do it faster than anyone else.
The superintendent search looks like a charade. Two weeks ago, the consultants from Ray and Associates held a series of meetings to gather community comments on the qualities sought in the next superintendent. Four people showed up at Manassas High School, five at Craigmont High School, and two at White Station High School.
"We would like to have had more people, but everybody had an opportunity," said consultant Al Johnson.
Maybe the fact that the meetings were held during spring break and publicized in the daily newspaper had something to do with it. Ten points off for poor planning.
The Herenton news broke during one of the meetings. A teachable moment if there ever was one. Consultant Carl Davis carried on, like a teacher plowing ahead with an algebra lesson during a fight or a fire drill. Ten more points off.
On Monday, I asked Davis what impact Herenton would have on the search.
"I thought he had resigned," Davis said.
Ten more points off for not being wired into the local news.
So, I asked, if Herenton applies, does that deter other candidates from applying?
"He would be just another candidate," Davis said.
And John Calipari is just another coach. Ten more points off. Turn in your paper.
Now, why Herenton, with all his messy baggage?
For starters, Fred Smith is not going to apply. If a great business leader or non-educator wanted the superintendent's job, he or she would have come forward during one of the five searches in the last 18 years. Any candidate with an ounce of curiosity will see the long shadows of the school board, city and county mayors, and city council.
Herenton knows where all the schools are, and he is probably one of about a dozen people in Memphis who can say that. He can find not only the bathrooms but also the skeletons and the fat at 2597 Avery. He oughta know, some will say. He might make the central office leaner and meaner. He would close some underused schools and take the heat. He won't bat .400, but he can still hit .300, with power, when he wants to.
He would be playing on his home field in front of a mostly friendly crowd. His hardcore constituency would be the 115,000 students in Memphis City Schools and their parents, not the electorate that gave him just 70,000 votes and 42 percent in 2007.
He is not a nice guy, like his old friend and former superintendent Johnnie B. Watson. He is not demure, like former superintendent Gerry House. He is not tied to old friends from Minnesota or likely to be hired away by Boston or some other school district, like Carol Johnson. He is not a racist. The handful of optional schools with significant white enrollment wouldn't exist without him. And he is a gray-haired, 67-year-old man, which is physiologically different from being a 47-year-old man.
He is a tough guy who can speak the language of the street. So, who do you want telling gangbangers to clean up their act? Or telling hard-working kids that they can make it to college and have successful careers?
Outspoken former school board member Sara Lewis has a city job. If Herenton owed her one, he's even.
He would doubtless drive off some good people, but he would also hire a lot of young idealists who remind him of himself 30 years ago.
If he wants to make a symbolic gesture and defuse a rumor or two, Herenton could offer to take the job for the same salary he makes now as mayor.
Herenton would be a motivated superintendent instead of a frustrated, ineffective mayor. If he resigns, there might or might not be a better mayor in our future. That's democracy. There might also be a better superintendent in our future. The formal search could attract some strong candidates, and the school board could pick one. Or not.
A strange and risky choice, for sure, but that's where we are.