Invest in Yourself, Memphis 

We need to encourage citizen involvement to reinvent our public spaces.

After decades of depression, Memphis finally finds itself in the early stage of a renaissance. We're also blessed to have before us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to remake so many of our most prized public spaces. Yet Memphis is once again the poorest large metro area in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. How we go about finding the right solutions for Memphis at this defining moment will determine how authentic, inclusive, and sustainable our renaissance will be.

Believing that the best visions for our city can come from any Memphian would help engender such a rich renaissance. After all, that's how we became famous in the first place.

click to enlarge JOHN KIRKSCEY
  • John Kirkscey

So imagine this, Memphis: The city issues a request for proposal (RFP) for Tom Lee Park, the Fourth Bluff Promenade, Mud Island, the Fairgrounds, or any public space, where any local citizen can submit a proposal — be they a "highly qualified" developer, a University of Memphis student or class, an entrepreneur, a group of local creatives, or even a kid with a vision. The RFP could be done in stages, where proposals are voted on to see who makes the cut to the next stage. At each stage, seed money is kicked in to the winning participants, if needed, to help them further develop their proposals (creating equal opportunity), until a final winner is awarded.

Rather than limiting the pool of ideas to established firms and community sticky notes, the city would be creating the optimal conditions to get the most innovative and visionary ideas that are organic to Memphis. As urbanist Carol Coletta said in an interview with the Smart City Memphis blog, to be successful, Memphis must be a place where "we all have the opportunity to develop all of our talent and put all of our talent to work." So let a thousand local flowers bloom, Memphis! Open meritocratic exchanges are the future. Websites such as offer financial rewards to independents who solve problems or offer ideas to companies. So why not have an open, meritocratic, local RFP for public spaces — or even for public problems or issues?

The city hands out incentives and subsidies to established firms. Why not incentivize our most creative, community-oriented minds? It'll pay loads of dividends locally. Stoking entrepreneurial minds sounds more promising than subsidizing minimum-wage jobs. We need all the help we can get. It's not easy being an independent creative in Memphis. Open RFPs would facilitate fruitful connections as local visions coalesce with local know-how and wherewithal. New collaborations may lead to innovative solutions. Fresh ideas could be sparked. New careers could be launched. Emerging creatives may be inspired. The incentive to stick around becomes greater. Such a movement would help build our community problem-solving capacity and boost our confidence. At his swearing-in ceremony, Mayor Jim Strickland pledged: "We will work harder than ever to renew our city's sense of self-confidence." Well, widening opportunities for locals and investing 100 percent of all disposable resources into our economy would be two surefire ways of doing that. When free ideas are expected from locals, then big bucks are paid to out-of-town firms for theirs, that's, as they say in soccer, an own-goal. Ditto commissioning out-of-town artists to create public art for local spaces. Every dollar is precious to the poorest large metro area in the nation. Why needlessly throw any away and risk being a me-too city at the same time? Why invest in the creative capacity and economy of another city with our scarce dollars when we need the stimulus more than they do? It just adds to our city's cynicism and insecurity.

"Local" is all the rage these days: local businesses, farmers markets with locally sourced, organic food, etc. Why is this any different? Locally sourced community spaces and public art that are organic to Memphis sound pretty healthy to me. No artificial flavors wanted here. Just knowing that it's created by locals instills pride. Plus, big bonus: locally created ensures authenticity and distinctiveness and adds to the sustainability of our renaissance, all of which best connects our community.

So invest in yourself, Memphis. Till, nurture, and cultivate your own garden. You don't need to ask others for advice, ideas, or inspiration, because, guess what! You're no longer depressed!

Write down "insecurity complex" on a piece of paper and then burn it. Know that you've got the goods right here and trust the force within. Are you what you are or what, Memphis?

John Kirkscey is a community activist and the developer of

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