Often, it seems Memphis took Groucho Marx's self-deprecating attitude and overlaid it on the entire city. Paraphrasing the comedian, Memphians don't want to belong to any city that will accept them as members.
It's a lack of self-worth that plays out in local politics, where big projects pass for vision and where cheap projects lose out to quality ones. The poster child for this lack of ambition is The Pyramid, a bargain-basement arena touted as state-of-the-art until we saw what one really looked like when FedExForum opened.
It's as if there's an underlying belief that Memphis just doesn't deserve the best or that it doesn't have the ability to do what great cities do — dream big and set national standards.
There are signs that things are changing (FedExForum, AutoZone Park, National Civil Rights Museum expansion, and Hattiloo Theater) and exciting ideas bubbling up from the grassroots (Memphis Music Magnet, Memphis Art Park, Skatelife Memphis, Project Green Fork, Clean Memphis, Coalition for Livable Communities, Grow Memphis, and dozens more).
A hub for Memphis creativity, Memphis College of Art continues to be a force in neighborhood redevelopment, a new theater for Playhouse on the Square hints at new life for Overton Square, Memphis Bioworks Foundation advances construction of its research park, and the Fairgrounds offers a blank canvas for something nationally significant.
But a great city isn't about great projects. It's about great people. That's what's most exciting these days — the willingness of groups of people all over the city to be part of a DIY (do it yourself) movement to improve Memphis.
Often, news coverage leads us to believe that great things only happen when there is a great mayor. There's little denying that after the chaos, division, and distractions that have dominated City Hall in recent years, it will certainly be a welcome change to have a different style and attitude in the mayor's office. That said, there are just as many cities whose success is tied to citizens working for change as mayors leading change.
That is why all of us should be so hopeful right now, because we could be about to have both — innovative mayoral leadership and a growing number of citizens involved at the grassroots level. As this new era begins, Memphis must shake off other evidence of our lack of self-worth — the lack of recognition for the experts and the "best practices" that we already have here.
Youth Villages CEO Patrick Lawler seems to win a national award every year, and this year, he was invited to join a select group of nonprofit leaders to meet with President Obama, and to top it off, Youth Villages got a shout-out from the First Lady herself.
The Church Health Center is a regular tour stop for cities looking for innovative ways to respond to the health needs of their poor, and founder Scott Morris has often been featured in national and international news programs. The Urban Child Institute is a unique civic asset, driving policies and programs for children from conception to three years of age and its research is definitive. Local foundations have been forces for riverfront improvements, Shelby Farms Park/Memphis Greenline, and community development.
Meanwhile, the university that gets too little respect — the University of Memphis — has methodically improved its faculty so that it now has people and programs that are competitive with most universities.
For example, this year's Distinguished Faculty Award winner, Robyn Cox, is recognized as a leading international researcher in audiology and hearing-aid research, and Provost Ralph Faudree is a world-class mathematician specializing in the field of combinatorics that is understood by only a few people on the globe. Director of the Graduate Program in City & Regional Planning, recently moved here from Cornell University, is the oft-quoted and widely respected Ken Reardon, an activist for neighborhood redevelopment.
Robert Neimeyer, professor in psychotherapy research, is the author of 21 books with emphasis on finding meaning in grief. Communications professor David Appleby is well known for his nationally broadcast documentaries, which have won almost every award in his field. Meanwhile David Cox, Laura Harris, and Karen Weddle-West spoke at a Congressional hearing earlier this year, an invitation that is often used as the marker for a major university.
With a new mayor will come a new attitude, and hopefully, a new appreciation for the grassroots leadership, the innovative programs, and the national expertise that need to be treated as the kinds of forces that can change the course of Memphis history.