Tom Jones works with Smart City Consulting and writes for the blog Smart City Memphis, one of the best forums for discussion of how to make Memphis better. This is his Live Where You Live post:
It’s always fun to see Memphis through the eyes of a visitor.
When that visitor is Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, it’s absolutely invigorating.
That’s because it’s easy in our city to feel overwhelmed by its challenges and undervalued as the sources of change. That’s why Live Where You Live is so exciting. It acknowledges and celebrates a simple fact of life about Memphis: we are the ones we have been waiting for.
President Barack Obama gave voice to the power to change our country one person at a time, and Live Where You Live is the local expression of the same conviction.
The most exciting things happening in Memphis today aren’t coming top-down from leaders of government, the Chamber of Commerce, or high-profile civic groups. Rather, the best reasons to be excited about Memphis are the number of grassroots and neighborhood programs begun by people who care about their city and are determined that it can be better.
It’s what Geoff Calkins, The Commercial Appeal sports columnist, called “Memphis’ special gift.” Speaking to Leadership Memphis about great cities, leadership, sports, and newspapers, he said:
“People care and look out for each other. Sometimes in the midst of the drumbeat of fear and negativism here, I have to stop and remind myself what I love about Memphis: the opportunity is there for all of us to shape Memphis. Every one of us can make a difference. It’s not that we have an obligation. It’s a gift. It’s an opportunity that doesn’t exist in other places. You can easily get involved in what gives your life purpose and meaning.”
Mr. Calkins summoned up University of Memphis men’s basketball coach John Calipari as the example of what one inspired person can accomplish. “He set out a vision – to be national champions – and people laughed at him. But he kept talking about his huge, great vision, and he inspired others to join in.”
But, more than vision is needed to change things, he said. “He (Coach Calipari) has incredible attention to detail. He looks at empty seats way up top, and most coaches would say, ‘That’s not my job,’ but he gets a television company to give away a big screen TV every game to the people upstairs.”
I’m quoting Mr. Calkins as I explain Memphis to Mayor Hickenlooper, who’s in our city for the first time for the inaugural edition of Smart City Live. About then, we exit I-55 at Riverside, and suddenly, the bluffs frame our majestic river and riverfront. It’s our “money shot” and as usual, it gets results.
“Oh, my Gosh,” said the mayor. “Oh, my Gosh. That’s incredible. What a sight. What an incredible sight.” The questions tumble out as they always do: “That’s the Mississippi River, right? How wide is it? How did you keep so much parkland on the river?”
As we turn up Union, he’s impressed by the “incredible” downtown building stock, and when we arrive in the lobby of the hotel where the Delta begins, we are just in time to hear the first musical notes summoning the ducks to the elevator and back to their penthouse suite. Mayor Hickenlooper comments on the size of the crowd on hand and rushes to snap a photograph of the ducks.
Later, we to the University of Memphis past Beale Street, FedEx Forum, Church Health Center, and houses along Peabody, Belvedere, and Central. Mayor Hickenlooper is a student of cities, and his positive impressions remind us that we live where we live for so many reasons.
From forms of music that became the beat driving the sexual and social revolutions to entrepreneurial innovations that changed the lifestyles of the world – from the first motels to the first self-service groceries and drive-in restaurants and from the inventor of overnight international commerce to the place where a radio station was programmed by African-Americans for African-Americans, Memphis has been seminal to contemporary culture.
In his fascinating book, “Cities in Civilization,” Peter Hall distilled the story of Western civilization into the story of a couple of dozen cities over 2,000 years. And yes, one of them is mythic Memphis, right up there with London, New York, Los Angeles, and Paris.
Seeing Memphis through Mayor Hickenlooper’s eyes reminded us of how special our city is, and hearing his comments that evening reminded us of the importance of Live Where You Lives. Specifically, he talked about how each of us can change the course of our city’s history.
In fact, he has proven it. As a restaurateur in LoDo, he entered the race for Denver mayor with 3% support but his message of change propelled him easily into the city’s top elected office. Through a customer service ethos forged in his string of brew pubs, a determination to ignore politics and hire the best people and a new vision of regional harmony, he achieved an approval rating of 80% as mayor – and that was outside of Denver among people in the metro area who can’t even vote for him.
He converted this reservoir of good will into approval at the ballot box by seven counties and 31 cities of a $5 billion, 119-mile new light rail system. And it all began when he decided that he should get more involved in the future of his city.
So, why does it really matter if we have a positive attitude about Memphis? Why should we stand up for Memphis? Why should anybody really care about Live Where You Live?
Because a November 24 Gallup study strong suggested a link between economic growth of cities and the loyalty and passion of their residents.
The survey was taken to explore whether results that show a definite connection between company loyalty and company performance also apply to cities. The study found that key emotional connectors for cities are openness (the sense of welcoming to diverse people) and citizen engagement.
In addition, the study found that it generally takes three to six years for residents to feel highly engaged in their community, and cities need to focus on helping new residents connect to others in their area to increase the kinds of connections that are important to city loyalty.
In this way, community citizen engagement is crucial, according to Gallup, which defines it as an individual’s psychological connection with the community; it goes beyond just their satisfaction with the community and extends to passion and pride they take in living there. And citizens who feel that their community will be a much better place to live in in five years are much more likely to be engaged.
In this way, Live Where You Live is no boosterism program. It’s not about happy talk. It’s about celebrating what’s special about Memphis and celebrating our ability to create the kind of neighborhoods and city that we all want.
More to the point, it is about engaging in the kind of community improvement that can change the trajectory of Memphis because each of us is willing to fight for its future, putting down roots in their neighborhood, supporting our local businesses and culture and standing up for what’s right about our city.
In the end, Live Where You Live is also love where you live. It not only feels good, but it feeds our economy.