The release of U.S. Census data this week triggered a fresh wave of city bashing. In 2006-2007, the population of Memphis, the nation's 18th largest city, declined by 3,317 while the population of Nashville, the 25th largest city, increased by 5,200.
The boo birds and naysayers came out.
On population: "That's nothing. Compare that to Charlotte, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Austin and see what real growth is."
"You idiots don't have a clue what growth is."
On public schools: "Now the district faces state intervention because of consistently low standardized test scores for poor, black and foreign-language-speaking students."
"NAACP may take rezoning plan to court."
"Bring on a new director ... and the STATE."
On public transit: "Our transit system here is the worst. WE NEED TRAINS!"
"What this city needs is a light-rail system like St. Louis and Atlanta have."
On white flight: "Why are so many people moving to Williamson, Rutherford, Wilson, and Sumner counties? Nashville has a dying core, and people want to live in thriving communities."
Yes, all those comments and headlines are about Nashville and the Metro Nashville Public Schools (still looking for a superintendent, or director as they call it), and appeared this week on the Tennessean's website. Imagine what they think about Memphis.
Attempts to downplay the Census estimates, as a local economist quoted in The Commercial Appeal this week did, are fruitless. We take preseason college football and basketball rankings compiled by self-styled experts as fighting words and a matter of national urgency and we're supposed to shrug off the Census?
The knowledge gap widens. As a reporter and as a middle-class Memphian, I used to struggle to understand the underclass. I still do. The world of food stamps, poverty, and housing vouchers is foreign to me.
But now that times are tough I don't understand the overclass. The world of huge SUVs in a time of $4 gasoline, $4 coffee at Starbucks, $56 concert tickets, government pensions that let you "retire" at 50 and take another government job, annual raises, rising stock prices, season tickets to the Grizzlies, a "mental recession," and boosterism.
The Center City Commission held its annual luncheon this week and brought in a speaker from the National Endowment for the Arts to talk about moving Memphis "from good to great," with "world-class planning" and $3 billion in downtown investment "in the pipeline."
The speaker was quoted as saying, "A gap in the community's values and the reality that they live cannot be closed by routine behavior."
If you say so, but aren't the vacancies on the mall, on Front Street, and at Union and Main Street more to the point?
Another dangerous word that public figures, correspondents, and reporters can't say on network television or in a family newspaper: nuts. Particularly in reference to presidential candidates. But sex in all its variants is still okay. Particularly in reference to former presidents, criminal trials, and the ever-popular stories about sex between school teachers and students.
You can say anything in popular music and videos, in books and movies, on the Internet, on shock radio, on the stage of Circuit Playhouse or The Orpheum, and on HBO. And then network correspondents and reporters at family newspapers and local television stations can talk or write about "the controversy" for days, but they have to use "***" for some letters and words, as in "cut his ***s off."
Are we clear?
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