As my buddy and I were cruising north on East Parkway, an ancient maroon Buick roared past us on the left, swerved into our lane, and made a quick bat-turn onto Sam Cooper, forcing me to slam on my brakes and utter a seriously obscene four-letter word.
"Damn," my friend said. "Memphis has the worst drivers in the world."
Maybe. Maybe not. The truth is, I've heard the same statement made about drivers in Pittsburgh, San Francisco, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C. — four other places I've lived over the past 30 years.
If you reside in one place for a long time, you tend to get cynical about it. It almost becomes a point of civic pride, as in (city name goes here) has the worst drivers, the crookedest politicians, the lousiest sports teams. I suppose it's a classic case of familiarity breeding contempt, or at least a lot of negativity.
Often the cynicism is aimed at a particularly local target, as with Pittsburghers and their resigned but deep cynicism about their lousy baseball team, the Pirates. Yeah, they're the worst team in baseball, but so what? Wanna make something of it? Of course, it helps that Steel City residents have perennially contending franchises in the NFL and NHL.
Memphis is no different. We have a huge native legion of cynics who believe we're the most racist city in America, that our politicians are all crooks, that our crime problem is the worst in the country, etc. It's so easy to take shots at the negative aspects of a place. And all too often, those who express pride in the city — our music, the zoo, FedEx, barbecue — are accused of naive boosterism.
Cynicism is easy. Pride is what takes effort. But often, the most cynical among us are those who've never lived anywhere else and have no points of comparison.
I was reminded of this universal provincialism when I recently read an article about how Atlanta — a majority-black city, like Memphis — might possibly elect a white mayor for the first time in decades. My first reaction was that it was probably a situation like the one that led to a white man — Steve Cohen — being elected to Congress in Memphis' 9th District while running against a large field of candidates who divided the African-American vote. Yes, I'm cynical. Sorry. And, yes, the article did point out how some of Atlanta's black leaders were calling on one black candidate to drop out to help assure that the mayor's office stayed in the hands of an African American. But what really struck me were the following paragraphs:
"And while blacks have been the majority population and voting bloc in the city for decades . . . young professionals, black and white, have flocked to opportunity in the city.
"In 2000, Atlanta was 33 percent white and 61 percent black. In 2007, the numbers were 38 percent white and 57 percent black, according to the U.S. Census. . . . You have a young generation of blacks who . . . may be staking their vote on matters more critical than race."
We hear so much about the decline of American cities, Detroit being a case in point, a city where you can buy a house in some neighborhoods for less than the price of an ancient maroon Buick. But Memphis is still a manageable size, with problems nowhere near the scope of those in the Motor City. We're much closer — geographically, culturally, and in our demographics — to Atlanta. So if Atlanta can manage to get past "racial-majority rules" politics and lure young professionals, black and white, back into a major Southern city, why can't Memphis?
Cynicism is for those who see what is and complain about it. Hope is for those who see what is and believe they can change it for the better. What kind of city will Memphis be in 20 years? That depends mostly on what kind of Memphians we are. Me? I'm hoping cynicism loses out.