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VOL. 8 | NO. 13 | Saturday, March 21, 2015

Love Song to a City

‘Let’s Stay Together, Memphis’ aims to advance the civic conversation

By Don Wade

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As the story goes, Al Green wrote the lyrics to “Let’s Stay Together” in about five minutes. In 1972, the song – which spans just three minutes and 13 seconds – reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

The guess here: When Memphian and music legend Green penned the opening lines, he wasn’t thinking about 2015 Memphis; about too much sprawl and not enough density; about challenges in city transportation, housing and public health; and about how all of that intersects with urban design and community development.

But imagine the easy rhythm to Green’s song as you read these words:

“I, I’m so in love with you.
Whatever you want to do is all right with me
’Cause you make me feel so brand new.
And I want to spend my life with you.”

Imagine that as a love song between a city and its residents, a real relationship with all the emotional highs and lows of any other, rooted in Green’s first and fourth lines.

It may sound corny, and there will be critics that poke fun. But the new University of Memphis Design Collaborative was intentional in coming up with the theme “Let’s Stay Together, Memphis” for an opening event being billed as “relationship therapy for the city and its citizens.”

The event – to be held Saturday, March 21, at Central Station’s Hudson Hall (at Main Street and G.E. Patterson Avenue) – serves as the launch for the Design Collaborative, a joint venture between the university’s Division of City & Regional Planning and the Department of Architecture.

“I like the way they framed it, that we’re in a relationship together,” said Maria Fuhrmann, grants coordinator for the city of Memphis and a former special assistant to Mayor A C Wharton Jr. “What really speaks to me is this is a unique and creative way to engage with citizens and get input without them knowing we’re getting input. I think it’s a good way to get citizens involved (beyond), ‘My trash didn’t get picked up.’”

The event begins with an open house at 11 a.m. followed by an afternoon session from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. with structured conversations about specific topics of concern in the city-citizen relationship.

“We do need to get into the sticky issues,” said Charlie Santo, director of the university’s Division of City & Regional Planning. “And that’s part of the therapy.

“When you do a visioning session there are three things you want to know: What do you like? What do you not like? And what do you want to see?

“So we’re asking people, when you started this relationship with the city, how did it start? Was it a forced marriage? Did you come here by choice? What did you instantly love about the city? But we also need to know, what are those things that need to change?”

Fuhrmann is eager to attend, not just as a city employee but also as a citizen with her own city relationship. She knows from experience that she cannot accurately predict what the public will say. But she is sure of this: The information gleaned from this first session could be invaluable.

“It is often hard for us to gather that granular-level data,” Fuhrmann said. “A lot of people are really busy and they’re not going to call government or go to a town hall meeting. This is something that’s fun and gives us a chance to meet people where they are and hear their ideas. I want to attend because I want to hear the dialogue. And this will put us in touch with the not-so-squeaky wheels.”

For better or worse

So let’s skip ahead in Al Green’s song.

“Oh let’s, let’s stay together
Lovin’ you whether, whether
Times are good or bad, happy or sad.”

The words are not pulled directly from traditional wedding vows, but they are close enough for the purpose of exploring the commitment required in a successful city-citizen relationship. And while we can trace Green’s song back to 1972, everything good and bad about Memphis goes back much further.

But one thing a lot of folks agree on is this: The population shifted and mostly everyone just stood around and watched, having no master plan for how to address the layers of change that would follow an outward migration.

“The population in the city itself, if you look at a map and a population of dots and you look at 1960, 1970, 1990, 2000, it’s the same amount of marbles in the bag,” Santo said. “It’s just that somebody has loosed the string and they spill out.”

Persistent blight that crosses generations and has been the target of past civic efforts is a formidable challenge to any discussion about redeveloping inner-city Memphis.

(Memphis News File/Andrew J. Breig)

In other words, sprawl.

“My understanding is that we haven’t had a plan in decades,” said Emily Trenholm, executive director of the Community Development Council of Greater Memphis. “I think it’s well overdue.”

This, however, leads to another question: “A big part of the conversation in Memphis, not having had a comprehensive plan for so long, is, ‘Are we ready to do this?’” said John Paul Shaffer, program manager of Livable Memphis. “But I’m excited the conversation is being started. I’m very optimistic.”

Santo is clear that the objective is to look forward. The Fairgrounds Tourism Development Zone project, for instance, is “an issue that’s already been proposed, people are upset about it, and ultimately we want to be the entity that becomes the go-to,” Santo said. “The Design Collaborative can play that kind of role. But we don’t want to start by looking backward.”

Which isn’t to say the Design Collaborative will exist in a vacuum or ignore lessons learned elsewhere. Students at the U of M will work on ideas and projects as they pass from one phase to another – from gathering data, to the eventual director of Collaborative Design (yet to be hired) polishing that data, to finally going forward with signature projects and seeking funding.

“Part of the learning process for students is doing precedent studies,” said Michael Hagge, chair of the university’s Department of Architecture. “Not only cases from Memphis, but anywhere that might have relationship back to an issue or issues.”

Like the failed Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis and the failed Cabrini-Green housing project in Chicago.

“It was public health issues, policy issues, design, the whole realm of all these things (that was flawed),” Hagge said.

Of course, it’s one thing to see what’s wrong elsewhere – or in Memphis – and another to come to agreement on what to do, how to do it and how to pay for it.

At one level, this puts the citywide conversation almost immediately in an uncomfortable place. Frayser and South Memphis have significant blight issues, whole neighborhoods that are “sort of hollowed out,” as Shaffer puts it. That at least raises the question about whether hard choices ultimately will have to be made about what neighborhoods can be saved and what neighborhoods cannot.

Again, the relationship analogy comes into play. As Green sang: “Why people break up, turn around and make up.”

To that end Steve Lockwood, executive director of the Frayser Community Development Corp., has long been dedicated to relationship restoration in his part of the city.

He works on legislation at the city, county and state levels that would ultimately free empty houses held hostage by back taxes that exceed the homes’ value. He’s also quick to say that rampant annexation failed Memphis.

A reconfigured Memphis bus system – including some consideration of light rail systems – is considered key to taking redevelopment plans from the page to reality.

(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson) (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

“You (the citizen) pay more money in taxes, and the city loses long-term because it costs more to manage and run the suburbs than Cooper-Young,” Lockwood said. “Suffice to say, we are very poor and very sprawled.

“There are major riddles to be solved. MATA is ineffective. We have a large number of low-income folks and a large number of them don’t have automobiles. In the evening, if you work at FedEx and live in Frayser, it’s nigh impossible to (get from one place to the other) without a car.

“I’m not looking for MATA to be magicians, but they don’t have the density and that’s the problem.”

The transportation problem

Lockwood doesn’t blame Memphis Area Transit Authority president and general manager Ron Garrison, saying, “Ron’s a good guy and the right man for the job.”

But the job is big. Lockwood has spoken to Garrison about encouraging development along transit lines. It’s worked well in Portland, Ore., Lockwood says, where developers are allowed to build apartment complexes with little or no parking if they are located on transit lines for buses and light rail.

St. Louis also has a light rail – MetroLink – that can take city passengers from home to work and back and also deliver suburbanites downtown for a Cardinals game at Busch Stadium.

“Every time I ride that thing I say, ‘Why can’t Memphis have this?’” Hagge said.

The short answer is cost. At the “Let’s Stay Together, Memphis” event, there will be a 30-minute session aimed at helping attendees understand transportation challenges their fellow citizens face.

“We’re gonna put you in someone else’s shoes,” Santo said. “We’re gonna assign you a neighborhood – say Raleigh or Whitehaven – and say, ‘Here’s where you need to get to today, your job in the warehouse and the grocery store. But you don’t have a car, figure it out. If one of you happens to have a smartphone, a laptop, Google map, see how you get there on the bus. If not, here’s a stack of MATA timetables. Figure it out.’”

Lockwood has some ideas. Odds are, many people won’t like them, and that’s fine with him. As he noted, “I’ve said a lot of unpopular things.”

So, here it goes: “I’m disappointed gas is $2.18 a gallon because it leads to sprawl,” he said. “If gas were $5 a gallon, this would be a denser town. We need to make it more difficult to own a car. Raise taxes on gas, make parking Downtown more difficult and expensive, and bus transportation cheaper.”

Lockwood, 65, does own a car. A smaller, older model he sometimes drives from his home in Cooper-Young to work in Frayser. Other days, he rides his bike on the new bike lane.

Obviously, Lockwood’s view for keeping Memphis together – and denser – won’t be shared by all. The conversations are likely to be spirited, and the Design Collaborative isn’t starting a short-term plan of five or 10 years but one that figures to outlive many of the people participating in it.

The dreaming phase

The first “Let’s Stay Together, Memphis” event is just the beginning of what might be called the “dreaming phase,” that time when, as Green crooned, “You make me feel so brand new.”

Broad Avenue

(Memphis News File/Andrew J. Breig)

But the challenges facing the city mostly aren’t new: blighted neighborhoods, empty big-box stores and a transportation problem for the poorest of residents that can make it difficult to reach the most essential places: school, work, grocery stores and hospitals.

The city also needs to draw more residents – both from the outside and from within – to live inside the city limits.

“There’s data that shows the group most likely to move is 25-34 college-educated folks,” Santo said. “They’re just starting their careers and they’re mobile. Those folks are important to cities because they’re going to drive the workforce. They’re appealing to employers because they don’t cost as much. And there is data showing these folks want to live within two or three miles of Downtown.”

Trenholm looks on recent redevelopment projects on Broad Avenue and in Crosstown, and she is encouraged. She also points out that such projects don’t have to be limited to Memphis; something similar could be done, for example, in the old part of Bartlett.

“On some level, that’s the low-hanging fruit,” she said.

Meaning, it is one place to start the sea of change, even while understanding the task ahead is much larger than holding a nice community event, putting university students to work on gathering data, and embracing the feel-good notes from a three-minute 1972 love song.

“It’s the classic turning of the ocean liner,” Trenholm said.

RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 105 193 8,028
MORTGAGES 120 239 9,024
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 2 7 1,135
BUILDING PERMITS 192 445 17,512
BANKRUPTCIES 27 69 5,228
BUSINESS LICENSES 25 60 3,442
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 20 50 2,318
MARRIAGE LICENSES 25 50 1,642