Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Columbia Prof Jackson Tours Memphis

Posted by on Wed, Oct 25, 2006 at 4:00 AM

Flyer City Beat columnist John Branston spent last Saturday morning driving around Memphis with Kenneth Jackson, author of Crabgrass Frontier, professor at Columbia University, and general expert on all things having to do with cities. Jackson spoke at Rhodes College Tuesday night.

No wonder Ken Jackson is one of the most popular professors at Columbia. He’s got so much Memphis in him.

Jackson attended East High School, White Station High School, and Memphis State University, leaving Memphis after college graduation in 1961. He went on to make a name for himself as an expert on what makes big cities thrive and struggle. His encyclopedia of New York City is considered the definitive work, and his class at Columbia featuring a night-time bike ride through the city is one of the most popular offerings on campus.

Jackson’s friend Henry Turley introduced us, and I offered to give Jackson a Memphis “reality tour,” sort of like Kramer’s New York reality tour on Seinfeld. He accepted, and we piled into my old Mustang Saturday morning and spent the next three hours driving through Midtown, East Memphis, Collierville, Hickory Hill, the airport area, and Cooper-Young. Jackson still has family in Memphis and his wife is a graduate of Southside High School, but he had not seen much of the suburbs that have sprung up since the days when he traveling by bus to play football against Germantown High School 50 years ago.

He had been in Memphis for nearly a week, and he planned to spend the rest of his Saturday prowling Memorial Park Cemetery for the graves of old relatives and attending the University of Memphis football game. He was an athlete as a kid and remains a big sports fan. Like a good reporter, he carried a yellow notebook on his lap and parried my questions with questions of his own, usually beginning with “why.” Why is there no true downtown medical center in Memphis, why did Baptist Hospital abandon downtown, why are the roads so wide in the county, why is Memphis still hung up on race, why is the FedEx world headquarters so far from downtown, why is the population density of Memphis so low, why did Memphis fall behind Atlanta, why did Boyle Development concentrate on the suburbs instead of the inner city, why aren’t there more restaurants with sidewalk dining?

The overriding question he seemed to be wrestling with was whether suburban sprawl, which he sees as harmful to the density that cultivates urban creativity, is a zero-sum game. In other words, does the rising tide of prosperity lift almost all boats, or are there big losers who get left behind? Jackson is not an ideologue. Clearly he is a fan of densely populated, culturally rich, diverse, walkable cities. But he does not demonize developers who took advantage of the tax incentives (i.e. deductible home mortgage interest) provided by the federal government. As we drove along Winchester in the annexation area past low-end subdivisions, I said something like “far be it from you or me to suggest that these homeowners are not better off here than in the old city” and he did not disagree.

The theme of his talk at Rhodes was opportunities lost and still ahead for Memphis. Our city, he said, was once, along with New Orleans, the leading city in the southeast, but both have been displaced by Houston, Atlanta, Dallas, Nashville, and Charlotte. He did not pull his punches. He praised Fred Smith as perhaps the greatest strength of Memphis, “compared to his just being here all else in recent Memphis history is reduced to a footnote.” But he singled out FedEx, Baptist Hospital, and Bellevue Baptist Church as important institutions that went with the flow instead of strengthening the inner city. He said Boss Crump stifled political initiative and democracy. He said, only half-jokingly, that he would provide free housing for gays in the inner city because they exemplify the creative class that knows how to rebuild and reinvent and has the disposable income to do it. He sees their acceptance as a statement of a city’s tolerance and its welcoming of diversity. He suggested that entire lanes of suburban roads could be dedicated to bicycles instead of building trails. And he said Memphis needs a true medical center, a slogan, a vision, acceptance of its diverse population, and new political leadership – not the Fords.

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