Place Paradox 

Local sociologist tries to explain why Memphis is the way it is.

As far as Wanda Rushing is concerned, the world isn’t flat at all.

The World Is Flat,Thomas Friedman’s bestselling book on the impact of globalization, says that place matters little in a global environment. But Rushing, an associate sociology professor at the University of Memphis and author of 2009’s Memphis and the Paradox of Place: Globalization in the American South, argues that place is just as important as ever.

“Part of his thesis is reflected in a lot of other theories about cities: The more globalization you have, the less you have unique characteristics of cities and the less important places are unless they are centers of command and control, such as New York, London, or Hong Kong,” Rushing said. “That underestimates local culture.”

Rushing kicked off the Memphis Urban League’s and the Memphis Urban League Young Professionals’ “Changing the Conversation” speaker series last week at the National Civil Rights Museum.

“Whatever we put on the landscape tells people about who we are,” Rushing said.

Where a person lives has a large impact on their life. Take, for example, the recent news that Memphis was one of the top five cities in which single women outnumber single men by a vast majority. (Those interested in the top five cities where single men outnumber single women should check out Las Vegas, San Diego, Salt Lake City, Austin, or Phoenix.)

Where a person lives can also impact their job, economic status, and what they do for fun, among other things.

“Where you live has a tremendous impacton your health,” Rushing said. “That can be explained by income, access to health care, nutrition, and the environment.”

In writing her book, Rushing wanted to give people a new way to think about Memphis. She considers Memphis and the Paradox of Place a biography, describing the city like the living entity it is.

“People don’t think of cities as having a narrative,” she said. “You have statistics: gender, age, race, major industries.” Last week’s talk was billed as a discussion on why Memphis is the way it is. Judging from the number of non-Memphis natives and recently returned natives in the audience, it’s a salient question.

Though Rushing gave examples of outsiders identifying Memphis as a significant city for culture — TNT’s Memphis Beat, for instance, or Three 6 Mafia winning an Academy Award for “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” — “the paradox is that a lot of people who live here don’t feel that way about it,” Rushing told the audience.

Instead, many Memphians try to rebuff the city’s history and discount the legacy of what she calls “low-down culture.”

So why does the city consistently underestimate itself?

Rushing posits the attitude is based on a legacy of underdevelopment: a high rate of infant mortality, low high school graduation rates, and a high number of families living in poverty.

“These disadvantages have been accumulating over time, and they’re not going away tomorrow,” she said. “We have not invested in the people who live here.”

She said the city needs to attract new knowledge workers and expand educational opportunities.

Though some scholars argue that transplants eventually dilute local culture, Rushing cites studies that show new residents embrace local culture instead.

She herself could be a case study.

Rushing moved to Memphis in 1998, and though she “never would have believed it,” it became her home.

“My family roots are so deep in North Carolina. The idea that I would think of anyplace else as home … it just never occurred to me,” she said. “I get excited when I see downtown Memphis. I don’t feel that way when I travel to my home state.”

But her favorite view of Memphis is the diagram of FedEx and former Northwest flight routes that illustrates what she sees as Memphis’ place in the world.

“Look at the center of the planet. It’s us,” Rushing said.

Despite that, she said Memphis needs a better national and international image.

“We don’t look so good with quality-of-life issues,” she said, citing obesity studies.

But she also called Memphis an iconic American city, and it’s difficult to argue with that, especially given its history.

“My point is: If you look at globalization and place, Memphis matters,” she said. “It’s a city of culture. It might not be the kind of culture you like, but it’s a city of culture.”

To read more about this and other topics, visit Mary Cashiola’s In the Bluff blog at memphisflyer.com/blogs/InTheBluff.

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