After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Time magazine called the city a "decaying, backwater river town."
One wonders what they might say about us now. Unfortunately — or fortunately, because we've barely lived that label down — they're kind of busy right now.
Time magazine is spending the next year in Detroit. They've bought a house, thrown a lawn party, and already written their first cover story about Detroit: "Notown: Hubris, racial tension, myopic politicians and the woeful auto industry brought this iconic American city to its knees. Here's how the Motor City can rise again."
I've long thought of Detroit as Memphis' unofficial sister city. Both cities are shrinking in terms of population; both have high levels of poverty; both have a rich musical heritage. See the subhead above. With the exception of the "woeful auto industry," doesn't it sound sort of Memphisy?
Take this, for example:
“[The mayor] was at first fairly effective, when he wasn’t insulting suburban political leaders and alienating most of the city’s remaining white residents ... When jobs disappeared with the small businesses boarding up their doors and abandoning the city, the mayor seemed to find it more useful to bid the business owners good riddance ...”
"During [Mayor Coleman] Young's reign and for many years thereafter, the possibility of city-suburban cooperation — which is to say, black-white cooperation — was close to nil. The black city didn't want white suburbanites telling it what to do, and white suburbanites had no interest in assuming the burden of a black city."
[Sidenote: One of the Detroit's suburbs' bond rating is in peril because of its proximity to both Detroit and Flint, Michigan.]
If you consider Memphis Detroit's unofficial sister city, there are bound to be lessons here ... and as the series continues for the next year.
So what does Time suggest, as of now? The magazine says Detroit needs to address the fact that the city is way too large for its new, halved population; that it needs to shrink its footprint to be able to afford to provide fire, police, and sanitation services; that it needs to build greenbelts and encourage urban farming, and it needs to face a new economic reality.
The author, Detroit native Daniel Okrent, suggests a future:
"The fuel-cell technology that dazzled me at the GM Tech Center is less about autos than it is about energy — energy, as hydrogen, that exists in every molecule of water. What's to stop us now from turning Detroit — its highly trained engineering talent, its skilled and unskilled workforce desperate for employment, its underutilized production facilities — into the Arsenal of the Renewable Energy Future?"
Okay, we don't have that background, exactly, but if Detroit can meet its challenges, Memphis has no excuse.
[Another sidenote: Okrent apparently loves dashes as much as I do. Swoon.]