Only a Zen Master would begin and end a public appearance in Memphis by paying tribute to the ducks of The Peabody as a key to urban success.
Only a Zen Master or Mitch Landrieu, Mayor of New Orleans, who portrayed the hotel’s amphibian wobblers, famous in the tourist trade, as a case par excellence of creating “something out of nothing” — the apparent nothing having been something all the while, just waiting there to be discovered as such and leveraged for a whole community’s benefit.
Landrieu used the analogy to explain the extravagant success that his city, which was “17 feet under water” after the devastations of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, has enjoyed in becoming, eight scant years later, “the Number One place to do business in America” according to Forbes Magazine.
Granted, the Big Easy’s advantages have always been there — indigenous music, cuisine, Old World charm with New World attitude, an intellectual life, a burgeoning sports culture, and a reputation as “a place to have a good time” — but rarely have they been combined to such effect as in the city’s stunning rescue from near-ruin.
Recent visitors to Landrieu’s city (like myself) have seen the revival for themselves — the gleaming shards, the bright lights of entertainment, the burnished glow of restored history — and reveled in the distinct tastes of New Orleans.
Some of the latter were generously sampled by members of the capacity crowd of blue ribbon paying guests, a cross-section of the city’s leadership, that gathered to hear Landrieu in The Peabody’s Continental Ballroom for Thursday’s first annual “Summons to Memphis” luncheon, sponsored by Memphis Magazine.
The menu: “salad of romaine, arugula and red oak, avocado, and Tomatoes; gulf shrimp remouilade; muffaletta sandwich slice, freshly baked rolls and breaks with sweet cream butter; chocolate caramel turtle tart; vanilla anglaise and bourbon Chantilly….
Yeah. Laissez le bon temps rouler, citizens.
Landrieu was the inaugural “Summons to Memphis” speaker — the event titled in honor of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by the late Peter Taylor, the eminent Memphian who was himself feted at a Memphis-sponsored banquet a generation ago. Like all “Summons to Memphis” honorees who will follow him in years to come, Landrieu offered encouragement by word and by example to a host city questing for its own mojo.
The ducks, the Grizzlies, the river, the people, the barbeque, the city’s disproportionate number of Fortune 500 companies — all these were cited by the mayor. And, of course, the music. Landrieu, an artful politician indeed, may have gotten his biggest hand when he made reference to Memphis’ rivalry with a sister city: “Nashville — claiming to be the music capital of the world. It’s not.”
(It should be noted that Landrieu said that in the course of praising Tennessee’s capital city for having marshaled its assets toward the creation of a formidable music industry.)
Landrieu has a talent for rounding things out in the unexpectedly simple phrase, concept, or example.
To wit: “Less is less;” “It’s possible for government to be too big and too small at the same time;” “We all live together. Or do we? If we don’t, we don’t. If we do, we do;” “Everybody who thinks they can do everything by themselves, build a road, build a bridge, call me later;” “Nobody’s coming to save you. You’re it.”
That Zen thing: He spoke of “The Way of getting to the thing,” pointing out that “if you develop your golf swing, you can use it on any club.
In the case of city-building, this means discovering your assets, letting them mix and thrive symbiotically with each other, and, most importantly, working together, across racial, geographic, and economic lines. “If you leave anybody behind, they will be behind.”
Oh, there was a lot of nitty-gritty practical talk, too — about how to balance the private sector’s contributions with those of government, understanding the pluses and minuses of each, about reforming public pensions, choosing priorities, and expanding only that which you’re willing to pay for.
In sum, Mitch Landrieu, rumored to be a potential candidate for governor of Louisiana in 2014, was a revelation: a formidable speaker, a convivial guest, a dispenser of useful advice, and a perfect lead-off man for a series that will attempt to do on a year-by-year basis just what the mayor suggested: Bring everybody together.
Ken Neill, the editor/publisher of Memphis Magazine and the CEO of Contemporary Media, Inc., the parent organization of both the magazine and the Flyer, concluded the event by paying a well-deserved hat-tip to Ward Archer, Jr., chairman of CMI’s board and, as it happens, son of Ward Archer, Sr., a close friend of Taylor, the title of whose prize-winning novel will continue to adorn the series and summon distinguished visitors to Memphis.