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VOL. 7 | NO. 52 | Saturday, December 20, 2014

Evolving Identity

New Memphis optimism meets newer moments of doubt

By Bill Dries

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Some of the most telling views of Memphis are the ones many of us see for only seconds at a time as we drive on viaducts that take us and our cars just above the treetops and rooftops of older neighborhoods interrupted by the roadways.

Modest homes, small churches and tiny streets taken in quicker than a snapshot. More of their detail visible in the winter symmetry of bare branches. To dwell on them any longer in traffic is usually hazardous.

Bill Courtney thinks about the Warford Street viaduct in particular when he talks to Memphians about how we see the city and its actual state.

“When you peer over the side of that viaduct and you view that abject disparity involved, you have to understand. We, in order to love us as a community and embrace our amazing diversity in race and religion and in art, business and science – we are only as strong as our weakest link,” Courtney told a thousand people earlier this month near the end of the Greater Memphis Chamber’s annual luncheon at The Peabody hotel.

Courtney, the North Memphis business owner turned Manassas High School football coach in an Oscar-winning documentary, is also a motivational speaker.

His view highlights an evolving definition of civic love that has turned a corner recently. For about the last five years or so, love of Memphis has been a pushback against persistent criticism of not only the city but a downing of any and all attempts to change the city’s trajectory.

It’s been relentlessly positive because the criticism has been so relentless for so long, entrenched by a longer-standing and formidable inferiority complex.

But the response is beginning to yield somewhat as civic love of Memphis begins to include questions about the complete and complex reality of Memphis and how to change the parts of it that have endured for too long. It’s also changed as the Memphians in their 20s and 30s who have so persistently spread civic love of Memphis through social media begin to see beyond the medium.

It’s the difference between tilting a mirror to capture something attractive and seeing more than that in the reflection’s background no matter where the mirror is aimed.

Discontent is not pushing out the civic love. But the coexistence between the two is not always comfortable.

Business leaders through the Greater Memphis Chamber are now talking about education as the way to build the city's middle class. That includes workforce training and associate degrees as well as continuing work on K-12 education.

(Memphis News File/Andrew J. Breig)

The event that began to reflect that discontent happened in September when a large mob of teenagers in the parking lot of the Poplar Plaza shopping center attacked several people including two workers at the Kroger supermarket who came to the aid of the others.

Memphis Police were already battling a surge in crime when the attack pierced City Hall’s mantra that crime was under control and on the run.

The usual official and political establishment reaction followed – town hall meetings to vent frustration and calls for police to get tough as well as calls for programs to give kids something to do.

“I hope nobody will try to use as an excuse – well, the children need something to do,” Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. said the day after the attack. “We’re not going to accept that they didn’t have anything to do, so they went out and formed a mob. That dog will not hunt in Memphis, Tennessee.”

Meanwhile, there was another reaction to the reaction.

“People made it really racial,” said Tami Sawyer, a social media activist and lifestyle blogger who moved back to Memphis this year after 10 years in Washington.

“Those kids were villainized. They were wrong. But it went down racial lines so strongly,” she said. “It just made you wonder what people were thinking. You are saying this about some kids acting up in a parking lot. What are you thinking about me when I grocery shop?”

The conversation outside of the town hall meetings where elected officials are the center of attention was moving in a different direction as the messages from officialdom began to conflict.

Bill Courtney is a North Memphis business owner whose time as a football coach at Manassas High School was featured in an Oscar-winning documentary. These days Courtney is a motivational speaker.

(Memphis News File/Lance Murphey)

Despite his reaction at the outset, Wharton began talking about the very thing he said was a distraction – programs for children to have more to do to distract them from such incidents.

“We have to love us as much as the world loves us – by virtue of you sitting in this room today with a $150 meal in front of you and the car you drove here to this wondrous place knowing that only 15 minutes from here sit children and families in abject despair and poverty who just want to be one of us.”

–Bill Courtney

Wharton touted midnight basketball programs at several community centers that the city kept open for longer hours.

That, in turn, has prompted a debate about whether the community centers are drawing teens that otherwise would be causing trouble or teens who would never dream of causing trouble. There are also concerns that such programs reduce the problem to a stereotype and leave the problem untouched.

The specific concern intersects with a renewed emphasis on doing something other than locking up juveniles, particularly black juveniles.

Easy answers designed to move the controversy out of the spotlight were giving way to more complex comments that sometimes were more current reality than solution.

City Council member Harold Collins termed the event “urban terrorism” as he drew a distinction between the leaders of the attack and those who were following.

“In that mob were a valedictorian, a salutatorian, a perfect-attendance student, a straight-A student,” Collins said in October as he opened an exploratory campaign for mayor in 2015. “So it tells you that these young people are searching out for what they consider to be on-the-edge living or something to do. They are followers … because they need somebody at home to get them to understand their full potential.”

The move to push past process and its trappings and get to long-awaited results on minority business expansion began traditionally enough – a column in The Commercial Appeal by Wendi Thomas this past summer recapping the abysmally low level of minority business activity and expansion despite black majorities in elected offices at the city and county government levels.

Critical mass was built on social media. The physical meeting point after the extended social media huddle and phone calls was a bold call to action in June at the National Civil Rights Museum in front of the museum’s “Movement to Overcome” sculpture.

Meanwhile in November, grand juries returned not true bills in the violent deaths of two African-American men at the hands of white police officers in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y. That and similar incidents in several other cities made the issue of police treatment of black men a national issue. In Memphis, it underscored issues raised in the local discussion about the Poplar Plaza attack.

The youngest police officer from the ranks to ever hold the office of Memphis Police director, Toney Armstrong, sees the reaction locally to Ferguson and Staten Island as an important moment for Memphians in their 20s and 30s.

They have no first-hand memory of the long catalog of Memphis police controversies from Elton Hayes to the Garner case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and outlawed the policy of shooting “fleeing felons.”

This is the generation of DWB – driving while black. This is the generation that not too long ago was getting “the talk” from their parents about what to do if they are stopped by the police and are aggressively trying to end the necessity for it.

“So how's that working out," Greater Memphis Chamber president Phil Trenary said of decades of political efforts aimed at ending the city's historically high levels of poverty. "We haven't made great progress in the last 20 years. The only way we are going to reform Memphis is to grow the middle class.”

–Phil Trenary

That effort doesn’t find the comfort that previous generations might have found in a police force that is majority African-American. And the police director isn’t drawing a line between the police force and the protesters.

“These are the same young people that when our president ran for his first election, he tapped into that,” Armstrong said this month. “He tapped into that and now we have a two-term president because those young people got involved and they stayed involved. They are doing exactly what the president asked them to do and that is push for change.”

Sawyer watched live cable news coverage from Ferguson and New York City and began reacting on social media where others were. The reaction soon coalesced into a simple plan for protest and Sawyer was surprised by who showed up in the courtyard of the National Civil Rights Museum several days later for the “die-in” protest.

“I think Memphis has a lot of promise. I worry sometimes that we are just really comfortable,” she said. “There is some discontent in the city where we could end up the next city on the news. I think a lot of people are starting to come together and have some conversations.”

National Civil Rights Museum president Terri Lee Freeman welcomed the group and the conversation.

“Race is a tough subject. But the fact of the matter is it’s around us every minute of every day,” Freeman said as the “die-in” in the courtyard ended and protesters who had just met in person began to get reacquainted without social media. “We can’t allow human beings because of the way they look to be treated differently. We thought we were beyond this, right? We thought this was kind of a non-issue. Well, it’s not.”

The museum isn’t the only local institution changing its role.

Chambers of commerce historically refer to their roles as telling the good news of a city or community. They are the voices of their respective business communities from storefront to skyscraping corporate headquarters.

Phil Trenary, the president of the Greater Memphis Chamber has made growing the Memphis middle class a priority and in the process he says his bluntness means he “kind of stepped in it my first week on the job” this past June.

Trenary talked about the need to “break the cycle of poverty in Memphis,” a topic elected and political leaders in Memphis have long perceived to be on their turf and which business leaders have long welcomed them to keep on their turf.

“So how’s that working out?” Trenary told those at the chamber’s luncheon this month. “We haven’t made great progress in the last 20 years. So, if you think about it, the only way we are going to reform Memphis … is to grow the middle class. You can only grow the middle class by providing the education and skills that we need for our young people to have good jobs.”

Trenary is specific in saying the goal isn’t to make Memphis more attractive to a middle class that might be enticed to move to Memphis from somewhere else.

“This is what we are going to do,” he continued. “If you take one young person and one family and that young person is the first person in that family to have an advanced degree and has a good job, you’ve broken the cycle of poverty in that family. If you do that one, two, three thousand times, you are now breaking the cycle of poverty in Memphis.”

The protests are the best indication yet of a new generation becoming involved in issues thought intractable – the issues that older Memphians may agree exist but disagree on how to deal with.

In the loss of the city’s inferiority complex – the one that often prompted us to not have any public discussion because people outside Memphis might hear it – there remains the idea to put aside what we can’t agree on.

The younger adults becoming politically active and involved in other ways want to specifically talk about those issues. And they want a more direct discussion that involves everyone, especially when the issue involves race.

“Yet when we have these strong conversations, we have them in isolated groups,” Sawyer said.

Social media in the still-evolving formula of Memphis sentiment is more important than a new instrument to channel new thoughts through. It isn’t the message either.

The best indication of the current dissatisfaction has been in social media interaction where the give and take and ongoing responses have proved to be a far better barometer of the discontent than the public sessions that operate on the ground rules of elected officials.

Freeman warns that we must be wary of confusing the medium with the cause.

“I think we do have to recognize social media for what it is. It’s a mechanism. It’s not the movement,” she said. “We have to be careful lest we think that because we change our profile picture on our Facebook or our Twitter. That’s not social action.”

That brings us back to Courtney’s point about the drive to and from home and the view from the viaduct.

“As you drive past it and you look in the rearview mirror as you pass by, you think, ‘Somebody ought to do something about that,”’ Courtney told the Chamber luncheon. “I have a question for you. Who is someone? I have a suggestion for you, click that rearview mirror over about 15 degrees and look yourself in the eye.”

Courtney defines that love as more than admiring an attractive reflection in a tilted mirror.

“We have to love us as much as the world loves us – by virtue of you sitting in this room today with a $150 meal in front of you and the car you drove here to this wondrous place knowing that only 15 minutes from here sit children and families in abject despair and poverty who just want to be one of us.”

PROPERTY SALES 91 158 16,219
MORTGAGES 98 179 18,735
BUILDING PERMITS 136 349 33,738
BANKRUPTCIES 63 115 10,429