Friday, November 5, 2010

Elvis-loving Chilean Miner's Appearance on Letterman

Posted By on Fri, Nov 5, 2010 at 2:00 PM

I kind of love Edison Pena, the Chilean miner who is scheduled to visit Memphis and Graceland in January.

Last night he was on Letterman, and it's a very entertaining interview ... even with his translator.

Pena's also doing the New York marathon this weekend, despite a knee injury he suffered while trapped in the mine.

Family Time

Posted By on Fri, Nov 5, 2010 at 12:00 PM

Livable Memphis takes a cradle to grave view at its 4th Annual Summit for Neighborhood Leaders tomorrow morning at Bridges.

"Livability: It's a Family Thing - Building Cities for Children, the Elderly and Everyone in Between" will feature keynote speaker Sadhu Johnston, the deputy city manager of Vancouver. There will also be break-out sessions on green parenting, walkability and increased property values, preservation beyond old buildings, blight, and navigating bikes on the road.

And to make things really family oriented, kids

It's free but registration is required.

For more info, click here.

School Enrollment Blues

Posted By on Fri, Nov 5, 2010 at 9:00 AM

A few weeks ago, I tried to get some high school enrollment and capacity data from Memphis City Schools.

I didn't get it by deadline, and there were people out there who said I've never get it.

Well, I finally got it. And it showed what you might expect.

Many of the schools in the southwest quadrant of the city — Westwood, Mitchell, Carver, BTW — are about 2/3rds full.

Northside, which is between Manassas and Douglass, the district's more recently built core-city high schools, fares worst with a 44 percent utilization rate.

To see how they all compare, I put together this handy-dandy chart.

The size of the box is the size of the school. White Station, for example, has a capacity of 1,733. But with 2,203 students, its utilization rate is 127 percent, which is denoted by color.

The bluer a school is, the more under-capacity it is (percentage wise).

The redder a school is, the more over-capacity it is.

The purples are somewhere in the middle. For a baseline, Sheffield has an almost 97 percent utilization rate while Kirby has a 108 percent utilization rate.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Race For Grace with Lightning Bolts, Hooper Troopers

Posted By on Thu, Nov 4, 2010 at 9:00 AM

The Church Health Center's Race for Grace 5K is this Saturday at Shady Grove Presbyterian Church, but not all the participants will be running.

Well, they won't *only* be running.

The Hooper Troopers will be hooping while they do the race. Though I can't say exactly how they'll do this, having seen them hoop all sorts of ways for our summer fashion issue, I have no doubt it will be amazing. This video gives a hint:

CHC staff encourage you to form a team of people with your colleagues or church members, or you can join Genevieve and the Lightning Bolts just by listing the team name when you sign up.

To register or get more information, go here.

And here's an inspirational video from another participant:

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Bill and Melinda Gates Visit MCS

Posted By on Wed, Nov 3, 2010 at 3:45 PM

A year after Memphis City Schools (MCS) won $90 million from the Gates Foundation, co-chairs Bill and Melinda Gates were in Memphis today to see, in part, how all the "pieces line up."

"To hear how the community is coming together is quite something," Melinda Gates said.

Memphis won the large, multi-year grant by showing a commitment to bold new initiatives, as well as a comprehensive partnership with non-profits, national education entities such as The New Teacher Project, other foundations, and teachers themselves.

In the past 10 years, the Gates Foundation has focused its domestic efforts on education, and most recently, teacher effectiveness.

"I was surprised when we got into education how little was known about effective teaching," Bill Gates said. "Years of experience, various degrees — it doesn't explain the differences (between teachers)."

MCS is currently working under its teacher effectiveness initiative or T.E.I. Learn more about that and what it means for Memphis, in this recent Flyer cover story.

In addition to initiatives directly impacting student achievement, MCS is participating in a Gates study on what makes an effective teacher. As part of that, volunteer educators have had their classrooms filmed.

"There are lots of great teachers out there," Bill Gates said. "What we haven't done is identify what effective teachers are doing and spreading that to others."

Blight Fall

Posted By on Wed, Nov 3, 2010 at 8:30 AM

In this week's print edition, out this morning (hint, hint), Bianca Phillips, Hannah Sayle, and I take on the collateral damage of the foreclosure crisis — Memphis neighborhoods — and what's being done to combat blight and deterioration.

Of course, not all of Memphis' blighted properties are foreclosures. Many are investment properties long ignored by their owners and in need of some serious upkeep.

What I find the most alarming is the scale of Memphis' blight. In discussing this story with friends and colleagues, most people I talked to said something like, I have a house like that on my block. Or around the corner. Or in my neighborhood.

The story focuses on several people's attempts to fight blight: Attorney Steve Barlow's efforts to sue owners of dilapidated property under the Tennessee Neighborhood Preservation Act; Brad Watkins' "Blightwatch" videos on YouTube and his confrontation of Wells Fargo's over back taxes they owe to the city and the county; and Tommy Wilson and his bomb the blight art project.

One of the things people have been very interested in — especially given how many of them have said they have blighted property near them — are the lawsuits.

I should note that you can't just sue your next door neighbor for having a junky house. But if the property is vacant or renter-occupied and doesn't meet code, then you could sue for the loss in value to your property or to force the property owners to fix whatever problem exists.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Case of the Missing MATA Board Members

Posted By on Mon, Nov 1, 2010 at 11:19 AM

Officially, MATA has a nine-member board.

But its most recent meeting, on October 25th, was the first time in four years — at least — that even seven commissioners were at the table.

Looking back at data from 2006 to October of this year, the board has never included more than seven commissioners in recent history.

MATA spokesperson Alison Burton says the board changed to from a seven-member board to a nine-member board by city ordinance in August 2000. But in her more than two decade tenure with the transit authority, she says she can't remember a time when it had more than seven board members. (In fact, she says she always writes that it's a seven-member board.)

Of course, it's had fewer than seven members much of the time.

In 2007, board member Dick Walker passed away after the second meeting of the year and was never replaced, leaving the number of commissioners at six.

Vicki Cloud then resigned in 2007.

Both Marion McClendon and Reo Pruitt were appointed in February 2008, but Pruitt resigned two months later. No one was appointed to take his place.

Ray Holt then resigned at the beginning of 2009, and with no one being appointed to take his place, either.

But Cliffie Pugh, whose term ended this September, hadn't attended a meeting since April 2009.

Call it the case of the missing MATA board members (or one of those complicated word problems you see on the math portions of state tests).

With Pugh's long absence and the resignation of Holt, the MATA board dwindled to only four effective members for much of 2009.

Maybe it's a result of "out of sight, out of mind." MATA's headquarters are on Watkins, north of Chelsea, and built on an old landfill. Maybe no one wants to be on the MATA board. But I can't help but wonder if this isn't more evidence of a general negligence coming from city government at the time.

After Memphis mayor A C Wharton was elected, he appointed former City Councilman John Vergos to the board. After interim Mayor Myron Lowery appointed former City Councilman John Vergos, mayor A C Wharton appointed The New Teacher Project staffer Sheila Redick and Memphis Regional Design Center head Chooch Pickard, and there are still two open spots.

MATA's board and staff are scheduled to have a retreat later this week.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Big Short

Posted By on Thu, Oct 28, 2010 at 10:51 AM

I'm one of those people fascinated by the mortgage/foreclosure crisis: how it happened, how it was allowed to happen, the resulting effect on Americans and their communities ...

So I've recommended Michael Lewis' The Big Short to a lot of people. Lewis is one of these talented writers who can take a sprawling, complicated issue and make it easily digestable. In this case, he focuses on the six or so people who saw the bottom coming and bet against the American mortgage machine. By doing so, he encapsulates exactly what was going on and how things were slipping through the cracks.

Fresh Air's Terry Gross also focused on the "complex foreclosure mess" last night with New York Times financial reporter Gretchen Morgenson.

One of the things that both Morgenson and Lewis talk about is how a bunch of risky loans would be pooled together — and because that seemed to equal a diverse portfolio — it would be given a better rating.

From Fresh Air:

"Thousands of them would go into one security, like say 10,000 mortgages, from a variety of places. They were trying to achieve diversification in these pools so as to diminish the risks associated with them.

And so you would have varying economic ability to repay in the loans. You would have very high-grade loans, you would have subprime loans, you would have a variety of loans from different geographic areas. And so this would, you know, it was hoped, be put into a security that would perform well over time and, you know, where people would repay the mortgages. And at the end of the line, the owner of the securities, and there were many of them because they were sliced up into varying risk degrees, okay. But in case, the idea was that everyone pretty much would get repaid at the end of the line.

Well, what was happening that many people did not recognize was that the types of loans were poisonous, toxic as you describe them, made to people who could not repay them, carried interest rates that would ratchet up dramatically after a few years, thereby making certain that they couldn't be repaid."

Lewis goes even further, talking about how loans were made to people who had very little credit history (thin credit files). Say, recent immigrants to the country. Because they had no previous credit history, it was easy to manipulate a high credit score. These loans would then be used to help achieve a certain average credit score in the pool of mortgages, making them appear to be less risky.

So if you're interested, both Lewis' book and Gross' interview are worth a look.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Neighborhood Preservation

Posted By on Tue, Oct 26, 2010 at 11:30 AM

Regular readers of this blog or my column know we're interested in blight over here.

Seems Mayor A C Wharton is interested, too.

Wharton filed 135 lawsuits against the owners of blighted property this morning as part of the Neighborhood Preservation Act.

The properties are spread across the city, but many are clustered together. Five are located on Forrest Avenue, for instance, while another five are on North Hollywood and another five are on Grenadier Cove in Frayser. (Another five are on nearby Elbert in Frayser.)


Intermodal Change

Posted By on Tue, Oct 26, 2010 at 11:05 AM

MATA's intermodal terminal, currently about 60 percent done and scheduled for completion next May, is already a million dollars over budget, and that figure is climbing.

MATA staff have already processed $959,997 in change orders for the original $9.62 million intermodal project, $750,000 of it stemming from a problem with the building's original design. Procurement policies say that staff can do change orders up to 10 percent of the contract amount.

Because the transit authority estimates an additional $650,000 in costs related to the design problem, the MATA board had to approve changing Zellner Construction Services' contract to reflect a cost of $11.48 million for the facility.

MATA is seeking reimbursement of all the construction-related costs — roughly $1.4 million — through the architect's errors and omissions insurance.

In other news, MATA board members and staff will participate in a retreat early next month. As part of the retreat, they've challenged themselves to ride MATA to the retreat facility.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Rock on Film

Posted By on Wed, Oct 20, 2010 at 8:30 AM

During this week's upcoming Indie Memphis film festival, I can personally recommend "Gerrymandering," "The New Year," and the Rock for Love concert film, screening October 22nd at Playhouse on the Square.

The long-awaited film features performances from Rock for Love 2 and 3, including Lord T and Eloise, the Magic Kids, Al Kapone, River City Tanlines, John Paul Keith and the One Four Fives, among others.

Jeff Hulett wanted me to illustrate this post with a drawing of his face, but I chose to go the Lord T and Eloise route instead. Mostly b/c I cannot draw.
  • Jeff Hulett wanted me to illustrate this post with a drawing of his face, but I chose to go the Lord T and Eloise route instead. Mostly b/c I cannot draw.

Produced in partnership with Makeshift Music, the annual Rock for Love shows benefit the Church Health Center.

The screening after-party, held on the roof of Playhouse — is it becoming *the* venue for things or what? — will include performances by Snowglobe, Pezz, and the New Reaches.

Tickets are available online at Indie Memphis or at the door.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Going Far

Posted By on Tue, Oct 19, 2010 at 10:52 AM

As part of its new "Days of Giving" program, Wells Fargo distributed $1,000 to eight local non-profits, including the Memphis Union Mission and the Vance Avenue Youth Development Center, at the Memphis Botanic Gardens this morning.

Wells Fargo brought its iconic stagecoach to Memphis for the first time.
  • Wells Fargo brought its iconic stagecoach to Memphis for the first time.

But demonstrators with the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center were on hand to ask the lending giant to pay the more than $60,000 it owes Memphis and Shelby County.

By looking at foreclosures, deed transfers, as well as board-ups, demolition, and grass cutting fees, the group found 30 homes and 15 properties that Wells Fargo owes money on.

The city of Memphis also has a lawsuit pending against Wells Fargo that alleges the company engaged in predatory lending practices.

"They owe $60,000 in back taxes, fines, and fees for grass cutting," said Brad Watkins with the Peace & Justice Center. "That's just the data we had. That's not the whole of it. We don't have any data from 2010."

City taxes are due at the end of August. Since county taxes are due this month, the group chose not to include 2010 delinquencies.

"They just kind of left these open sores in our neighborhoods," Watkins said. "Now they want to get around it with throwing a little money around."


"We're happy to address their concerns at the appropriate time," said Wachovia Communications Consultant Jamie Dexter. "We're going to dig into this and listen to what they have to say, but today is about celebrating these groups. That's what we're focusing on."

Continue reading »

Friday, October 15, 2010

Dangerous Data

Posted By on Fri, Oct 15, 2010 at 5:47 PM

A certain magazine/website with an affinity for rankings has once again chosen Memphis for an unfortunate distinction, this time "most dangerous":

Memphis, Tenn., where gang crime has ramped up in recent years, takes the dubious honor of first place.

But to local law enforcement, the list itself seems, well, suspect.

"We're trying to figure out how they arrived at the conclusion that gang crime has ramped up," says MPD deputy chief Jim Harvey. "We don't know where they're getting that, because we don't know that ourselves."

In fact, MPD's data shows crime down more than 12 percent from this time last year and down about 29 percent since 2006.

Part 1 crimes include aggravated assaults, homicides, auto thefts, residential and non-residential burglaries, and larsony.
  • Part 1 crimes include aggravated assaults, homicides, auto thefts, residential and non-residential burglaries, and larsony.

"I don't understand how Memphis could be number one with the decreases in crime we've had," Harvey says.

Nationally, crime has dropped about five percent, and Harvey attributes Memphis' stats to the MPD's Blue Crush initiative.

Continue reading »

Costume Shop

Posted By on Fri, Oct 15, 2010 at 10:47 AM

This might not be the right blog for this, but Opera Memphis is selling dresses, robes, and pantaloons from its famed costume stock. And it's just in time for Halloween.

I hit the preview sale yesterday, and I have to say ... it was amazing.

They are only selling a fraction of it, but Opera Memphis' costume collection includes more than a million pieces. (Ed.'s note: It's a closet the rivals only my own.) It has costumes from at least 13 shows, a lot of them made in Europe, and the pieces date from 1940 to the present.

Costumes for sale include those from shows, such as La Boheme, which the opera has half the costumes for, and some are one-offs, period pieces that were used to fill in the chorus but don't go with any particular set.


"We have so many costumes and we only have so much space to store them," said director of development Christiana Leibovich. "We really love the idea of people being out in the community in really amazing costumes and being like, 'I'm wearing an original opera costume.' These are costumes you couldn't rent for the price we're selling them."

Some of the costumes are so well-traveled they even have passport stamps.


(More after the jump.)

Continue reading »

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Gray World

Posted By on Thu, Oct 14, 2010 at 3:40 PM

The NYT's magazine preview this week is about how old the world population is:

Right now, the world is evenly divided between those under 28 and those over 28. By midcentury, the median age will have risen to 40. ... By 2018, 65-year-olds, for example, will outnumber those under 5 — a historic first. In 2050, developed countries are on track to have half as many people under 15 as they do over 60. In short, the age mix of the world is turning upside down and at unprecedented rates.

This means profound change in nearly every important relationship we have — as family members, neighbors, citizens of nations and the world.

The reasons include longer life expectancies in developed countries and lower birth rates.

(One of the key transitions in U.S. demographics has to do with different birth rates between residents born here and recent immigrants to the country, and that same trend is also keeping the country "younger" than some other developed nations.)

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