Where There’s Smoke

By Dan Conaway

DON’T WAIT FOR THE FIRE TO FIND THE WATER. Neglect and denial burns in empty buildings and blighted neighborhoods, futures are hazy, moods are dark and the smoke from all of it chokes cities and sends those able to flee to greener ground at the edges, leaving behind a bitter landscape, a smoldering threat.

Those fleeing, those who would neglect and deny the problem rather than face it and fight it, don’t realize that the heat will only increase, the fire will only grow and spread beyond the false firebreaks of borders and gates, fueled by stereotypes and fear.

Sears Crosstown has water.

The original resident of that castle tower, the one it was designed to house in 1929, is still up there – looking down on the 1.5 million square feet that has a whole city looking up, still standing in defense of a neighborhood’s pride, and now of a shared dream. Up in that tower is a gigantic, bright red water tank that holds 75,000 gallons of water when full. Gravity and the weight of that water would drive it wherever it was needed to stop a fire cold anywhere in that vast store and warehouse. Now the needed water comes from the Church Health Center and St. Jude and ALSAC and Methodist Healthcare. From Gestalt Community Schools, Rhodes College and Crosstown Arts. From the vision that sees people living, working, playing, learning and healing in Sears Crosstown, and from the larger reality of what that will do to raise everything and everybody around it.

Last week, as a volunteer for the Coalition For A Better Memphis I was part of a broad cross section of Shelby Countians who interviewed candidates for various offices in the upcoming primary on May 6. Each had submitted written responses to Coalition questions and these were the in-person follow-up interviews. Of the 12 County Commission candidate interviews I sat in on, all but three – Republicans and Democrats, men and women, white and black, urban and suburban – used Sears Crosstown as an example of what public support can do when it gets behind the private imagination and innovation of its citizens.

Water.

In those same interviews, the majority knew that education was underfunded, that raising property taxes raises despair, and that the state would have to start providing more answers than questions, more stimulation for our core than manipulation of our parts. They knew that our workforce was undereducated for the jobs we would bring them, and that incentives to bring those jobs must bring measurable return. They knew that future prison bed budgets are based on literacy rates in today’s third grade, and that pre-K was not merely a nice idea but an absolute necessity.

Water.

I see hope in this group, a non-partisan understanding that resources must be provided now to avoid disaster down the road, that fire control is not about fanning flames but about prevention.

Now, let’s see who we elect to carry our water.

I’m a Memphian, and you can see the results of those interviews at bettermemphis.org.

Dan Conaway is a lifelong Memphian, longtime adman and aspiring local character in a city known for them. Reach him at dan@wakesomebodyup.com.