Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Just Stop It Already

The Commercial Appeal once again parades a false inferiority complex as an excuse to prod the populace to support efforts to make Memphis a "world class city." That phrase has been the rallying cry behind every suspect and expensive civic project this city has attempted, from Peabody Place, to the new FedEx Forum, to the Pyramid, to the Main Street Trolley, to the proposed light rail system, to every Board created for the myriad boondoggles infesting the downtown.

It's the fault line between government and civic leaders, and the regular folks. I've lived in Memphis for the past 15 years now, and happily so for all the problems the city has. But every city has problems and many have far worse problems than ours. Not being a "world class city" isn't one of them.

It's been pretty clear to me for years now that there's a tremendous disconnect between our leaders' desires for big showy projects that squawk gaudily to the world and the far simpler desires of most Memphians. One after another, some new thing is trotted out to the city's people, cheered on by the fawning and compliant local media. The people of the city are expected to fall all over themselves to support whatever this new something is.

And every time, when the folks of Memphis yawn and go elsewhere, we get from the local paper the same exasperated, disappointed plaint. It baffles the media and the leaders that most Memphians don't seem to want a "world class city."

I really believe what most Memphians want is the largest small town in America. Most folks like being large enough to get things like Starbucks, regional malls and big-name concerts. But I believe most of us like more having life-sized neighborhoods of varying cultures and character, wrapped together in a common bond of relationship and geography, not lines drawn on a map. We seem to like that sensibility of a town, where folks know each other and say "Hey," where we don't call attention to ourselves with flashy display, where we love the homegown things, where things aren't so large that we can't wrap our view of ourselves around it.

As long as our leaders keep trying to drag us to somewhere we don't want to be, we'll keep seeing embarrassing pleas like this. As long as we look elsewhere in envy, coveting what others have, trying to pimp our own gems alongside theirs, instead of wearing our jewels like the loved and cherished mementos of a life well-lived, we'll be eaten up and consumed by this sense of inferiority. When they decide to instead make Memphis the best biggest small town in America, then they'll be on to something that will distinguish us. And then folks will know who we are, and maybe even envy us a bit.

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