"What would you do now?"
A friend asked me that question last weekend. We were talking about school consolidation and got off on a conversation about Memphis in general.
We have both lived in Memphis a long time and have seen many of its hits and misses up close. We know that Memphis is losing population and that its story line for the past 40 years can be summarized as "White Flight Plus Blight."
This was his premise: Apart from reducing crime and improving schools and short of attracting a major corporate headquarters to Memphis, what would you do now that would make a significant difference and generate popular support?
I bought time for a few seconds — "Yeah, well, uh, the stock market has come back, so I guess there's more money out there and good people willing to spend it for the benefit of the city" — and so on. I'll get to my answer in a minute.
But first I made a mental list and, later, a written list of things Memphis already has done in the last 20 years, and it's pretty impressive. There's no easy answer, no low-hanging fruit.
Major-league sports? For years, this was the mantra. Now Memphis has the Grizzlies, bound for the NBA Playoffs.
Other pro sports? Memphis has a high-level pro tennis tournament at the Racquet Club and a PGA golf tournament.
AutoZone Park, which replaced Tim McCarver Stadium at the fairgrounds, is the most expensive minor league park in the U.S.A.
A first-class arena? FedExForum put that argument to rest, along with the Pyramid and Mid-South Coliseum.
Mike Rose Fields is as good a soccer complex as you'll find anywhere. My old friends from Michigan drive 600 miles to use it.
First Tennessee Fields gave Memphis and Shelby County a destination baseball complex to compete with Snowden Grove in DeSoto County, Mississippi.
College football? Tiger Lane is a big improvement over the cow barns at the fairgrounds a year ago.
Sports and fitness for the underprivileged? The future Kroc Center, Memphis Athletic Ministries, and Streets Ministries.
Family-friendly recreation on a budget? Shelby Farms, with a playground opening that sounds so advanced it should come with a manual. Or the new bike trail, with a link to the Harahan Bridge over the Mississippi River in the making.
Memphis music? Soulsville USA and jazz-man Kirk Whalum. Plus Beale Street. Plus Memphis, the musical, at the Orpheum and a smash on Broadway. Plus outdoor summer concerts at the Memphis Botanic Garden. And Minglewood Hall. And the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts. And the Levitt Shell.
Brains over brawn? The Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library is 10 times the size of the old main library at McLean and Peabody.
Consolidated government? Voters rejected it last year.
A big stage for live theater? That would be the new Playhouse on the Square in Midtown.
A big-name University of Memphis basketball coach and a Final Four? John Calipari and Derrick Rose, at a price, in 2008.
A zoo? Memphis arguably has the best one around.
A trolley? Got it. I didn't say it worked.
Riverfront living and parks? Miles of them. Check out the 1993 movie The Firm to see how barren Mud Island was 20 years ago.
Dressed-up gateways to the city? See Danny Thomas Boulevard north of North Parkway, Sam Cooper Boulevard east of Overton Park, and Poplar Avenue at Methodist Le Bonheur Hospital.
Aerotropolis? New control tower, a world airport conference here in April, and a new entrance and garage under construction.
I probably left something out. We can argue over the timing, execution, players, and particulars, but Memphis has not been standing still. Most of this has been done in the last 10 years.
To get back to the original question, my two-part answer, such as it was: a university medical center on Union Avenue that looks more like the ones in Nashville, Birmingham, and Jackson, Mississippi. And 50 small things instead of one big thing.
On further reflection, I can see a case made for an NFL team and a new stadium if teams in Buffalo or Jacksonville bail. Or a new convention center if Bass Pro comes to the Pyramid. Or casino gambling, although I think Tunica got the easy money.
Anyway, it's your turn. Try it yourself. What would you do?