Thursday, March 4, 2010

Miserable or Livable? It's All in How You Look at It.

Posted By on Thu, Mar 4, 2010 at 1:55 PM

In the wake of Memphis' rating as the country's #3 Most Miserable City by Forbes magazine, much has been written. I weighed in on the subject in this week's Flyer, as did most other columnists and editors in town. Even Mayor Wharton got in on the act, writing a letter to the publisher citing Memphis' many charms. Over on Facebook, several groups were started with the purpose of either bashing Forbes or supporting Memphis.

As I wrote in my column, it's really quite silly. And yet, somehow, it's not. I've seen the phenomenon of a city ranking go in the other direction, as well. In the 1980s, I lived in Pittsburgh, a city that had for years suffered from low self-esteem. It was the butt of jokes. It was a grimy steeltown where white-collar workers had to change shirts at lunch because the grime that built up on their collars. At least, that was the story I heard a thousand times. Even on sunny days, you couldn't see the sun, they said.


In the late '70s and early '80s the bottom fell out of the steel industry. Factories closed, unemployment went through the roof. Thousands left the city, looking for work in the South. Pittsburgh was battered and bruised. The Steelers sucked. The Penguins were a joke. The Pirates played to "crowds" of three or four thousand people in vast Riverfront Stadium. The joke was that if you called the Pirates' ticket office and asked what time the game was, they'd say "What time can you get here?"

Then, in 1985, Rand-McNally's "Places Rated Almanac" named Pittsburgh the nation's "Most Livable City." It was like a bomb went off. No one could believe it — in Pittsburgh or elsewhere. Pittsburgh??? No way. The weather sucks. Nobody's got a job. What the hell?

How did it happen? Rand-McNally used a rating system that factored in such things as cost of living, cost of housing, length of commute, major sports teams, arts organizations, environment etc. Pittsburgh didn't WIN any of these categories, but it placed high enough in all of them to earn the top rating. With the death of the steel industry, pollution went away; commuting time got better; there were three major sports franchises; the city is and was very hilly and green once the smoke cleared. Pittsburgh was the nation's Most Livable City.

To its credit, the city embraced the label and marketed the hell out of it. It was then and still is today, one of America's great cities. But it took someone else saying it to get Pittsburghers to see it and take pride in their hometown's attributes.


That designation by Rand-McNally, was as essentially meaningless as Memphis being designated as "miserable," but it triggered something positive. I think it's good that the Forbes rating pissed Memphians off. Too often, we wallow in negativity and ignore the positives. We have big problems — poverty, a limping public education system — but we have assets and people who are good and hard-working and friendly to a fault. All we need is pride and a will to turn things around. Even though the Forbes rating is essentially meaningless, if it stirs some pride in us, it serves a positive purpose.

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