The Memphis Conversation

Last week at the Memphis Boot Camp and the various activities associated with it I was repeatedly confronted with an issue that I’m not familiar with and far from an expert on and, for those reasons, actually rather uncomfortable talking about. That issue is equity, specifically racial equity. It is a really important topic and I’m going to share with you my limited thoughts and hopefully, in doing so, open up this conversation so that you can teach me something.

Thank you to everyone who followed us last week at the Memphis Boot Camp. It was a huge honor to be invited to hold this event in Memphis and to be able to engage so many people at that level of intensity. We’re looking for great things to come of this. If you want to stay in touch with us or just support our ongoing work, consider becoming a member of Strong Towns. We are a 501(c)3 non-profit organization and so your membership and any donations are fully tax deductible.

Where I live, we have a lot of diversity. We have people of Norwegian descent, Swedish descent and Finnish descent. We also have some Germans and my family even has a Russian patriarch (although I believe that is Russian via Prussia, which is actually more German than Russian). My jest here is to point out that, while I’m aware of race and equity issues, particularly in a place like Memphis, they are not a present force actively shaping my daily life. So I’m approaching these issues from my brain and my heart in ways different than many other Strong Towns advocates.

In fact, the handful of minorities that have been part of my community over the years have tended to be rather affluent and, in most ways, indiscernible from most everyone else in the community. I know this creates a gap in my understanding, but it has also meant that I’ve tended to understand – right or wrong – issues of equity more in terms of poverty than race. I’m not insensitive to race, but I’m also not intuitively understanding of racial issues the way that I am other things I have more directly experienced.

So with that as a backdrop, I’m going to share with you something I have shared with many audiences around the country but have not written about before; namely, my greatest fear in regards to the economic transition underway.

Let’s pretend we could go back to 1942 and pick someone with a decent level of affluence living in an urban neighborhood. We inform this person of the future telling them that, within a decade, they will pick up and move their family to the cornfield on the edge of town. What would their reaction be?

It would like be astonishment and disbelief. They would probably point out that they had lived in their current neighborhood for generations. Had a job there. Had family and friends there. That their church was there, their kid’s school, all their social clubs. They would indicate that it just didn’t seem possible that they would walk away from all that regardless of what happened in that cornfield.

Yet, as we know today, they did just that. In large numbers, those with enough affluence to move did. Why? Because it seemed like a smart thing to do. And while I’m sure that many involved in “white flight” felt some remorse for the negative consequences this had on those less affluent that were left behind, that didn’t make the move less rational for each individual family who was looking out for what was best for them and their children. (Note that initiatives like Urban Renewal – which made things worse, not better, for those left behind – was undertaken, at least partially, to prove to ourselves that we care. It is really dangerous to attempt to assuage individual guilt with collective action absent an outpouring of individual action in that direction.)

This outward migration inverted the traditional development pattern where, for thousands of years across different cultures, continents and civilizations, the most affluent lived in the city center with a poorest relegated to the outside edge of the community.

In my macro viewpoint, as the federal and state governments become less and less a force in the day-to-day shaping of our cities, I see a reversal of the artificial inversion that began after World War II. In short, as the systems that promulgated and then artificially propped up the horizontal expansion model of growth wane, our cities are returning to their “natural” state. What started as a trickle has now become a noticeable shift. It is sure to become a torrent in short order for much the same reason we experienced suburbanization: it seemed like a smart thing to do.

As highways are not properly maintained, energy prices increase and suburban governments find themselves overwhelmed with financial liabilities and desperately short of tax base, a house in a city center or nearby neighborhood is going to seem like a wiser investment. The more people that choose this, the more the shift will accelerate. Ultimately, I think we’ll largely abandon the exurbs and distant suburbs and substantively walk away from the second ring suburbs in short order.

Here’s where my greatest fear comes in. When the disadvantaged and the disenfranchised of a prior generation were left behind in our central cities, it was a terrible injustice. Crime and disinvestment followed poverty in a cycle we now too often subconsciously think of as inevitable. But they were left behind in neighborhoods that still functioned. People there could still get around without a car. They could still get groceries. They could walk to school, even if it was a bad school. At least initially, there were still jobs.

When we abandon our exurbs and distant suburbs – something I see as inevitable -- if we leave behind the poorest and most disadvantaged, we won’t be leaving them in functioning neighborhoods. We’ll be leaving them in total isolation. Places without grocery stores that can be walked to. Places without transportation. If the 1960’s inner city was inhumane, this will be far, far worse.

The notion of gentrification was on the lips of many last week and, while not dismissing it, I feel like it is one of the few problems we should welcome. We can actually deal with gentrification (by growing incrementally instead of in huge leaps). And the problems of gentrification may seem quaint when compared to the mess we are going to leave on the periphery of our cities.

I’m not pretending to predict the future, but when you look at a bridge and can see that it is very fragile, you don’t have to be an engineer to predict that it will someday collapse. The auto-oriented development pattern creates communities that are very fragile. I’m not setting a date, but what can’t continue ultimately won’t.

The physical challenge of this generation is to contract our cities to something financially viable. This is prompted by the financial challenge of not having enough money to make good on all the promises prior generations made to themselves. The accompanying social challenge is going to be to make this transition without leaving people behind, without leaving the least empowered among us isolated on the periphery of the community.

These challenges are not as fun – or as easy -- as going to the moon, building the interstates or making lots of promises about the improving future, but I believe they are healthier pursuits, ones that we can emerge from as a nation of people we can truly be proud of.