by Courtney Miller Santo
Memphis is a city for passing through. Its history is that of a town of intersections, the site for exchanges, a layover in a cross-country trip, the spot before the final stop. It isn’t a place people stay. Since moving here, this characteristic has colored nearly every moment in Memphis. I can see it on the faces of those who call Memphis home, nearly everyone looks as if they got off at the wrong bus stop and are just waiting for the right moment to leap back aboard and travel to another place – a place of permanence. And because too many people don’t consider Memphis their home, they don’t recognize what this city has to offer – especially to parents.
I moved to the Bluff City from Portland, Oregon with my husband, our four-month-old son and three-year-old daughter in August 2005. I spent the first eighteen years of my life in Portland, and then returned for a four-year tour of duty – during which I became a mother. What I failed to understand while living there is that for many progressive parents, Portland is Mecca. It is the end-all, be-all for those who picture themselves riding their bikes to work, enjoying excellent public transportation and beautiful city parks, or sipping coffee in a child-friendly, environmentally-friendly, locally-owned and operated café. All these things are true, but it doesn’t make the city perfect. While Memphis has an issue with permanence, Portland has an issue with authenticity.
What you see is what you get in Memphis – its nickname (Bluff City) is geographical. There are steep bluffs along the Mississippi River on the Tennessee side, which protect the city from flooding. Portland got its moniker (City of Roses) after the wife of a wealthy newspaper mogul started the Portland Rose Society, which encouraged the city to plant 200 miles of rose-bordered streets in 1905 to draw attention to the centennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
With that, I give you my list of ten reasons why Memphis is better than Portland:
1. Cost of Living
A family of four living on the median U.S. income ($43,200) in Memphis, would need an additional $9,669 to maintain the same standard of living in Portland. One big reason it is much easier to make ends meet in Memphis is the cost of a house. According to the National Association of Realtors, the median house price in Memphis is $145,300 vs. $235,000 in Portland for the quarter ending October 30, 2006. For our family to afford a home in Portland, I would have had to keep my sixty-hour a week job in corporate communications. Instead, my husband works full-time, while I am able to work part-time from home.
2. Commuting Time and Congestion
At first glance there is not much difference between the time it takes to get to work in Portland (21.9 minutes) and Memphis (21.4 minutes). But these numbers come from census data, not real-world experience. And let me tell you, Portland is a much more congested city than Memphis. Traffic on all freeways, local highways and busy streets starts to slow down at 7:30 a.m. and again at 3 p.m. (and by slowing down, I mean bumper-to-bumper, less than five miles per hour). In Memphis, even during rush hour, I can usually drive at thirty-five miles per hour. I don’t have to plan errands and doctor appointments around commute times.
3. Memphis Zoo
The Oregon Zoo (located in Portland) is like an ugly stepsister compared to the Memphis Zoo. There are two schools of thoughts with zoos – either they create such animal friendly environments that it is nearly impossible to find the animals or they accept the reality that zoos are for people and embrace visitor friendly exhibits. At the Memphis Zoo my son watched a lion walk up to the barrier and let out an enormous roar. He then spent the rest of the day imitating the lion. There is one exception – the train at the Oregon Zoo (or the Washington Park and Zoo Railway) goes on a four-mile trip through forests to a world-famous rose garden. Which is amazing compared to the five-minute manure smell ride at the Memphis Zoo.
4. Minds Its Own Business
It is possible to walk the streets of Memphis and not collect stacks of leaflets and pamphlets for Greenpeace, the Peace Corps, peace protests, lactation sit-ins, or any number of pet Portland causes. It is possible to drink a caffeinated beverage, while pregnant, and not be lectured by three or four strangers on the dangers of this habit. I can fill the tank on my fifteen-year-old SUV at the local gas station and not be given a pamphlet on the danger of fossil fuel by a woman in head-to-toe Nike exercise clothing driving a brand-new Prius. It isn’t that I have anything against any of these causes, I just enjoy not constantly being lectured on my life choices. The “live and let live” attitude of Memphis is refreshing. And as a parent, it helps my sanity. If there is one topic everyone has an opinion on, it is how you raise your kids, especially in public.
Memphis is miserable from June to September. It is four months of muggy, oppressive, sweat-inducing heat. Those same months in Portland are beautiful, with sunshine and highs in the mid-80s. But what about those other eight months? Portland will be cold, damp and gray, while Memphis is enjoying moderate temperatures and lots of sunshine. When I was about ten, my mother received a circular from Sears for siding, which in big, bold letters said, “THE SUN BEATS DOWN ON YOUR HOUSE ON AVERAGE 68 DAYS PER YEAR.” If you live in Memphis, you get on average 118 sunny days – but you may have to repaint your house more often.
6. Southern Hospitality
It is so strange when a cliché is true. Portland is laid back and casual, even the whitest of white tablecloth restaurants wouldn’t blink if you showed up with socks and sandals, but it isn’t overly friendly. No one really talks about the great hospitality of the Pacific Northwest, but Memphis, well that’s another story. People are always chatting me up, asking me about my children, trying to find a personal connection between us. “Oh, your husband works at Memphis State …. My brother-in-law goes there.” In Portland, people will talk to you, and are happy to give directions, but you have to ask first. And at no point will your neighbors bring over food to welcome you to the neighborhood. They may however make sure that you are well-versed in the various ways you can best adhere to the recycling rules.
In my high school class of 440, there was one African American, a couple of third or fourth generation Asians and a handful of Hispanics. And this was no uppity-up school – we had one kid (Alan Bond) whose father was a lawyer and we could never get over the fact that he went to school with us (the children of union workers, factory workers, and teachers). It is wonderful to have the opportunity to have my children grow up in a place where integration and diversity are the norm.
All cities have panhandlers, but at least the panhandlers in Memphis are actually poor. In Portland, be prepared to be accosted by suburban teenagers “getting real” by leaving their parents’ McMansions, bathing in patchouli oil and moving to Portland to live on the streets.
Portland’s greatest musical acts include the Kingsmen, Quarterflash, Everclear, and Storm Large (CBS’s Rock Star, season two). Memphis not only lays claim to Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Al Green, Isaac Hayes, Justin Timberlake, Three 6 Mafia, among others, but Sun Studio and Stax Records, and there are more songs about Memphis than I can list.
Memphis is a city with rhythm, deep blues and plenty of gospel. If you take it all together you get soul, you get authenticity. It is a city full of people making their way the only way they know how. It is a place worth putting roots down in, a place that deserves people who want to make it a permanent home.