Is Memphis on its way to becoming a "city of choice" for college graduates? Or is Memphis a poor, black city in decline? Pretty stark contrast, but that's the core of a discussion that will play out this year in the national as well as the local media.
On Sunday, The New York Times published a long story headlined "Decades of Gains Vanish for Blacks in Memphis." It started at the top of the front page — coincidentally under an unrelated picture of tombstones — and jumped to a full page inside. A highly edited version appeared the same day inside The Commercial Appeal.
The gist of it was that the recession and home foreclosures have had a disproportionate impact on blacks in our city, once seen, the Times wrote, as "a symbol of the South where racial history no longer tightly constrained the choices of a rising black working and middle class."
Among those interviewed was Mayor A C Wharton, who may have unwittingly delivered the killer quote: "I remember riding my bike as a kid through thriving neighborhoods. Now it's like someone bombed my city."
Ouch. This from our foremost salesman. Wharton was a kid 50 years ago, when the NAACP had to outfit some of the dozen first-graders who desegregated the school system in borrowed clothes and shoes. And now things are worse. So much for "city of choice."
(In a "correction" on his Facebook page, Wharton noted that he grew up in Lebanon, outside Nashville.)
I asked Robert Lipscomb, head of the Division of Housing and Community Development and a 50-year resident of Memphis, if the story was on target. By and large, he thinks it was. "There is no wealth in the black community," he said. "Wealth means you can sustain a bad event. The people on the margin with very little margin of error are the problem."
Lipscomb oversaw the demolition of most of Memphis' housing projects and the dispersal of their residents. The Down Payment Assistance Program of 1994 helped 13,000 of them become homeowners. Otherwise, things would be worse, he said.
The black "everyman" in the Times story is Tyrone Banks, a single father who lost one of his two jobs and refinanced his home at a low teaser rate that ballooned to a payment he could not afford. It is not clear whether he was a victim of a vulture loan from Wells Fargo or knowingly took on too much debt. The story drew hundreds of comments, with the verdict split on that point.
Memphis lawyer Webb Brewer who, along with the city of Memphis and Shelby County, is suing Wells Fargo, said Banks was "seriously misled" and will be "a fairly key witness" in the suit.
"Mortgage misconduct started the collapse of the housing market," Brewer said. "It's primarily African-American neighborhoods where home equity has just fallen like crazy. It's a huge reversal of fortune."
William Mitchell, an African-American Crye-Leike real estate agent also quoted in the story, thought it was "right on target."
"It's almost like the oil spill," he said. "Who gets hurt the worst? The wealth of people I am dealing with is evaporating."
Henry Turley, a developer of the downtown mixed-income Uptown neighborhood, said Wells Fargo helped revive downtown by making 100 percent loans for condominiums several years ago. He does not doubt, however, that predatory loans were made in other parts of the city.
"I don't know if blacks were affected disproportionately or not, but for lots of structural reasons you can see how they would be more vulnerable," he said.
If it is not already, Memphis is soon to become the first metropolitan area of more than one million people with a majority-black population. That milestone may prompt another round of stories along the lines of, "Memphis: more like Detroit or Atlanta?"
The next time Memphis goes national is likely to be the Herenton-Cohen congressional battle in August, with race at the forefront. Bob Levey, former Washington Post columnist and former journalism professor at the University of Memphis, said Herenton-Cohen is "one of those pop-in stories for the national media just because of the demographics. Here's a district created for blacks to have representation and its representative is not black."
Vanishing wealth in the black metropolis. The trial of Wells Fargo. Herenton versus Cohen. Important national stories, but they don't bode well for the city of choice.