We are indebted to a wise and friendly visitor, Mayor Mick Cornett of Oklahoma City, for the phrase that heads this editorial. The mayor, who has been elected four times to lead his up-and-coming city, was the third in the series of other cities' chief executives who have been invited to Memphis to share their urban wisdom with us Memphians under the rubric of our sister publication Memphis Magazine's annual "A Summons to Memphis" series. He follows Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans (2013) and Mayor Karl Dean of Nashville, who spoke last year.
The phrase "suburb of nothing" is one of those conceptual terms, instantly understood once you've heard it, that you end up wishing you'd said yourself. Before he spoke to a large audience at the official "Summons" luncheon at The Peabody, the mayor had first broken bread at breakfast with a small group of Memphis/Mid-South leaders at Harbortown's River Inn, and when he served up the phrase to his hosts, it resonated immediately.
Cornett used the term, in a sense that was simultaneously descriptive and cautionary, to denote those developed and nominally independent areas adjacent to a core metropolis that either choose to disaffiliate from the mother city or are alienated from it by some aspect of the city perceived by them to be undesirable. Or both. Those of us who live with this condition on a daily basis on one side of the dividing line or another and who still smart from the wounds of a protracted city/county school-merger controversy instantly recognized ourselves in the phrase. As Cornett went on to dilate on the matter, he made the obvious point that such a de facto divorce between city and suburb is in the long run ruinous to both, for it is the city, and only the city, that can provide both a psychic and a physical infrastructure to nourish its suburbs and make of them something other than peripheral zip codes. We are in this together, or should be, and the city, by virtue of its size and clout, has the major responsibility to make it so.
Ask someone in a suburb where downtown is, Cornett suggested. "If they point to the smaller buildings nearby, you're in trouble. If they point to the taller buildings off in the distance a bit, you're okay." It is a syllogism of sorts: If the core city is a living, breathing, culturally attractive place, then to that degree its suburbs will be drawn into its orbit.
Cornett is recognized as a national leader (most recently the only mayor named to a list of 50 movers and shakers by Politico Magazine) because he was instrumental in converting his own city, an automobile-centric place "with the most unfriendly walkability imaginable" (a kind of overgrown suburb itself, in other words), into a walkable, lively, urban environment.
That was one of the lessons for us that the Oklahoma City mayor brought with him, and that is precisely why we summoned him.