As this issue goes to press, we don't know who the next mayor of Memphis will be. The polls indicate A C Wharton is still the front-runner, but nothing is over until it's over. By the time you read this, Prince Mongo may be seated on a purple bat-throne at City Hall, though we truly hope not.
But no matter who wins, he or she will face a plethora of problems and issues. Too many Memphians are impoverished, undereducated, and overweight. There are too many vacant buildings, trashy streets, and empty lots. There is too much crime, not enough efficient mass transit, too much sprawl. Race polarization is still too much with us.
No mayor can fix all these woes, nor should we ask him to. Making our city a better place to live is a job for all of us. That said, here are some of our ideas for moving us out of the doldrums of the latter Herenton years.
Follow Lowery's Lead
You might be fulfilling the rest of Herenton's term, but forget Herenton's lead. Follow Lowery's.
In the short time since Lowery became mayor pro tem — and, granted, a deadline and a mayoral election can be powerful motivators — he swooped in, cleaned house, opened public records, almost finalized the Bass Pro/Pyramid project, got fairgrounds revitalization moving again, and sent out his own press releases. And, yeah, there was that little thing with the fist bump, but in the end, there's no such thing as bad publicity.
The lesson? Lead like you only have 90 days to prove yourself. You might just leave a legacy. And, Myron, if you're reading this as the newly elected mayor, keep it up. — Mary Cashiola
Beautify Union Avenue
Lots of attention is given to putting a spit-shine on our city's "front door" to the outside world, and rightly so. But let's no longer neglect one of our most frequented hallways: Union Avenue between downtown and Sun Studio. In-season, every day, flocks of tourists march from downtown proper to visit the music mecca where Elvis, Johnny, Carl, Jerry Lee, B.B., Howlin' Wolf, Ike, Rufus, and many more put their stamp on history.
And what those tourists walk past to get there is a dump (particularly on the north side of Union). Cracked and uneven sidewalks, overgrown weedy patches of grass, sickly trees, boarded-up, abandoned buildings tagged with graffiti. What impression is Memphis making on visitors by the time they make it to Sun Studio? It's a Mystery Train.
It wouldn't take much to turn squalor into an actual amenity. Repair/replace sidewalks. Plant grass. Plant nice trees. Involve the businesses along the corridor — they have a lot to gain by a beautification project. Involve a local arts organization or maybe even art students from Memphis City Schools — get the kids invested in their city. Have them paint murals or line the route with a cohesive element that celebrates our music heritage. Give tourists something to do while they're trekking other than wondering, "Are we there yet?"
Heck, get bold and link Sun Studio all the way back to Beale Street. Chicago has the Miracle Mile, so why shouldn't Memphis have the Musical Mile? Put up historical markers and call them Musical Milestones. Businesses might be attracted to the area to refill those empty storefronts. It would more directly link the Medical Center to downtown and would certainly make Memphis a more walkable destination for visitors. — Greg Akers
Start Over With MATA
Long a bastion of nepotism and half-baked, too-expensive projects, the city's transportation department needs a total makeover. Take a long hard look at current routes, equipment, staffing, and budget. Then start fresh, with the goal of creating a transit system that fits the current needs of our populace — and our tourists. Do we need a simple, direct tourist-centric bus to Graceland from downtown? Are there quick commuter routes that might be appealing to people in Collierville or Horn Lake or Bartlett? Can we get by with smaller buses? Are there areas where a late-night route makes sense?
No more trolleys to nowhere. No more bus routes that look like silly string. Directions, routes, and schedules need to be clearly posted and user-friendly. When riding a bus is easy and makes sense, people will hop on board. — Bruce VanWyngarden
Back a Free Shelter for the Homeless
Unlike many large cities (including Nashville), Memphis has no free shelters for homeless men. Yet men make up about 80 percent of the city's homeless population, according to statistics from local nonprofit Partners for the Homeless.
The Union Mission, the city's largest men's shelter with 120 beds and 100 floor mats, does offer four free nights of lodging each month, but men must pay $6 per night for the remainder of the month. There are a handful of small shelters offering free beds to women and children, but those tend to fill up quickly.
In their Issues First campaign for mayoral candidates, the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center pushed the need for a free shelter, as well as a safe parking lot for people who sleep in their cars, greater access to application assistance for Social Security benefits, and augmented health services. Only candidates Charles Carpenter, Carol Chumney, Jerry Lawler, Kenneth Whalum, and Myron Lowery signed off on a pledge supporting such services. A better quality of life for the city's homeless can help them get off the streets and make life better for all of us. — Bianca Phillips
As Richard Ransom used to say when reporting a restaurant that failed a health inspection: Clean up! Trash and litter are everywhere. Let's incentivize people and groups to clean up. Offer a "buck a bag" for each garbage sack of litter turned in to the city dump. And pay them the going rate for recycled materials. This, in conjunction with the proposed "50 cents a tire" program, will help get trash off the streets and offer low-income people and nonprofit organizations sweat equity in the city — and a little cash for their efforts. — BV
Nine Quick Wins
Don't give out your cell phone number. This town is full of people you don't want calling you.
Take vacations. We'll manage. If the president can do it, the mayor can do it. Enough of this cashing in your unpaid vacation crap.
Keep Veronica Coleman Davis as city attorney, because she is experienced (former United States attorney and corporate attorney) and her own woman and has a mean look that works.
Appoint some naysayers — that is, people who will speak truth to power, including you.
Get younger. Appoint some bright young directors and assistant directors who don't remember the Sixties.
If you keep him around, clarify the role of Robert Lipscomb. Is he the director of Housing and Community Development or the de facto mayor in charge of big deals?
Do whatever it takes to turn the southeast corner of Riverside Drive and Beale Street into a pocket park instead of the field of weeds and broken concrete that every downtown tourist has seen for six years. That fancy hotel/condo ain't coming for a while, if ever.
In 30 words or less, explain what a TIF is (tax-increment financing) and why it is or is not a good thing and is or is not free money for every big project on the boards.
Answer yes or no: "Barring serious illness, I plan to run for this office in the 2011 mayoral election and will not seek any other office until such time as my term in office is over, whenever." — John Branston
Contrary to some opinion, you aren't the only city mayor in Shelby County. Those other municipalities might not have as many people or as much clout, but that doesn't make them any less valid. And frankly, when it comes to sustainability and smart growth, you can't make changes without them. Even if Memphis and Shelby County never consolidate, it's time to work together, and the only way that's going to happen is with some old-fashioned bridge building. — MC
Build an Ark
Speaking of construction projects, sometimes Memphis likes to brag that it built one of the country's first sanitary sewer systems in the 1880s (following the yellow-fever epidemics).
Judging by the recent monsoon-like weather and the resulting street flooding, someone needs to be thinking about a solution to storm-water runoff. The system currently is at capacity in Midtown. Either we need to add capacity to the system or we need to mandate a variety of alternative solutions, such as permeable concrete in alleys, parking lots, and driveways. — MC
Memphis is one of the most overweight cities in America. Lead the way by showing your own physical fitness. Encourage local businesses to offer fitness incentives to their employees. Use the bully pulpit to lead us out of obesity. It will save all of us money in the long run.
Urge the local superintendents to make good, old-fashioned PE classes a requirement for every city and county student, starting in kindergarten. Twenty minutes of calisthenics every day would go a long way toward shaping up our kids. Also, no junk food or sodas allowed at school. Give students or, better, entire schools that improve their physical fitness or lose a certain amount of weight free movie passes, athletic shoe store coupons, etc. Partner with Nike or another local corporation to get our kids moving.
Create more bike lanes. Put exercise trails and equipment like those in Audubon Park in neighborhoods all over the city. — BV
Be Transparent. Be Visible. Be Active.
There's a huge gap between the ironic desolation described in Shelley's sonnet about a presumptuous long-ago pharaoh and the keep-busy activism evinced by either one of the last half-century's Chicago mayors named Richard Daley. The son has followed in the footsteps of the father, whose ongoing reconstructions of the Windy City's landscape were always flaunted on massive billboards proclaiming, in large letters, the authorship of "Richard J. Daley, Mayor."
Egotistical? Self-serving? Yes, indeedy. But these gigantic advertisements for oneself were also a form of transparency — simultaneously a reality test and an open and aboveboard statement: This is what I am doing for the city.
A desirable extension of that model would require that the responsible chief executive make public a full accounting of any conceivable connection between the project in question — be it brick-and-mortar or merely a process — and their own potential private gain. Such obligatory candor might preclude future repetitions of the Ozymandias-like fate now befalling the good name of our recently resigned longtime mayor, Willie Herenton.
When he became mayor pro tem, then council chairman Myron Lowery continued his habit of issuing regular report cards, providing for the public in great detail a line-item record of his recent activity on the job. Lowery also began the process of prying off the lids on documents and financial records and opening to public access the premises of City Hall, including the formerly off-limits mayoral penthouse.
This sort of openness should continue, for both symbolic and practical reasons, regardless of who gets to tenant the space for the next four years. Give Herenton his due, by the way; mayoral press conferences, however erratically scheduled, were a welcome feature of his administration. Under the new mayor, these should be regular — ideally on a weekly basis, with no holds barred. — Jackson Baker
Take a meeting with Bob Compton
Local entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and film producer Bob Compton has made two documentaries about education and has traveled around the country proselytizing on the issue. The latest, 2 Million Minutes: The 21st Century Solution, profiles a high-performing public school in Tucson, Arizona, that Compton has called "the world's best high school."
There is obviously a lot that needs to be done with Memphis public education at all levels, but more and better high-level, college-prep-oriented high schools should be a big part of the equation. When I graduated from White Station High School 15 years ago, the student body was roughly 1,600. Now it's more like 2,300.
It's not hard to see why: When I was there, White Station drew students from all over the city — smart kids from out of district who couldn't afford private schools or didn't want to attend them. Now, with the economy making private-school tuition prohibitive for more families, the desire for a public option that can equal or better the best private schools is in even more demand.
More schools on the order of White Station (and several others, like Ridgeway, Central, and Whitehaven seem part-way there) would decrease the overcrowding that risks pulling the best schools down and get more middle- and upper-middle-class families reinvested in public schools. All of this can and should have a positive impact throughout the public schools.
— Chris Herrington
Urge the city Council to Pass a
NonDiscrimination Ordinance for City Employees
This past summer, Shelby County joined approximately 200 other local governments around the country when the commission approved a nondiscrimination ordinance protecting county workers on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Now it's time for the city to follow suit.
The Tennessee Equality Project (TEP), the gay rights group behind the county ordinance, has been working with the Memphis City Council on developing a similar ordinance for years. In fact, the county leap-frogged ahead of the city when Commissioner Steve Mulroy got wind of TEP's efforts on the city side.
The council was expected to discuss such a city ordinance protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender workers a few months ago. But TEP urged the council to postpone discussion until after the special mayoral election.
The issue should go before the council again in early November. — BP
Once upon a time, Memphis was the cleanest city in the country. We've long since fallen from that designation, however, and now have more of a reputation for trash, blight, and overgrown vacant lots.
What the city could use is a little flower power, à la guerrilla gardening's seed bombs. Traditionally, guerrilla gardening has been a way of cleaning up abandoned areas and stimulating further urban renewal, but even just a few flowers would be an improvement.
Using grant and private funding, establish a small beautification initiative. Create a partnership with the Memphis City Schools in which elementary art students make thousands of seed bombs — a simple combination of clay, water, compost, and native wild flower seeds. Once done, have Memphis City Beautiful and Code Enforcement coordinate a city-wide "bombing" campaign in the areas with the most vacant lots. Nature will do the rest. — MC
Be Out Front on Race
Be the first color-blind mayor in Memphis history. When someone asks you what you're going to do for their "race," tell them you're a mayor for all Memphians. Hire the best and brightest, regardless of skin pigmentation, ethnic background, or gender. There's a guy in the White House who's offering a pretty good example of how it's done.
Don't tolerate the race card, no matter who deals it. Bring us together. Don't look for ways to divide us. Inspire us. Don't be afraid to offer hope. Lead by example. Make us proud. This city is hungry for it. — BV