Friday, January 27, 2012

Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton Seeks to Tame City's 'Sea of Poverty'

In an earlier post, I mentioned the great time I and my family spent during the holidays in Memphis, Tennessee and the Mississippi area. We have family in both Tennessee and Mississippi and it's always a joy to visit them.

I also had a chance to check out a special series in the Memphis Commercial-Appeal and found out they like Dallas have a problem with poverty. They also have a new mayor, A.C. Wharton, who promised to reveal an aggressive plan to deal with the economic depression that has a stranglehold on some neighborhoods in that city. Mayor Wharton was inaugarated a few days ago and he laid out his plan in his State of the City Address. I think it lays out a bold plan, that is a blend of public, private and philanthropic solutions to what is for most of our cities, a near intractable problem.

Here's an excerpt...

"Our city’s long-time income disparity is ice on our economic wings.  The number of Memphians living in poverty has essentially been the same for 30 years, and it is simply unacceptable.  We have too many people who are unemployed and even more who are underemployed."

"The density of many Memphis neighborhoods is half of what it was only a few decades ago, and this aggravates the problem of blight and crime and increases the costs of city services.  There are too many vacant houses and too many families struggling to keep their homes."
"That’s why city government will act with an impatience for the status quo and business as usual."
"This is our moment.  This is our time."
"Within 100 days, we will announce our investment in Memphis neighborhoods.  Our neighborhoods are the connective tissue that ties together our work on jobs, education, public safety, and quality of place.  That’s why we will be deliberate in assessing the needs of our neighborhoods, in developing a plan of investment with residents to respond, and in executing a sustained program of improvements."
"These reinvestment strategies will be implemented by a strike force equipped to act courageously and in solidarity with the people in our neighborhoods."
"This is our moment.  This is our time."
We will work in the next 100 days to develop procedures to determine the condition of every park in Memphis, to develop a consistent plan of maintenance and consistent standards for equipment and programming, and to recommend ways to partner with neighborhood groups so city government helps them oversee and operate their own neighborhood parks.
"Neighborhood parks are the backbone of our parks system, and we will ensure the equitable distribution of resources and connect parks to greenlines to open up new opportunities for healthier lifestyles.  We are also working to strengthen the presence of the Redbirds in our city by reimagining our relationships and refinancing costs.  As part of this process, we will also bring competitive baseball back into our neighborhoods."
"Meanwhile, in the next 100 days, we will move to create a new seven-acre park on our riverfront to replace the Lonestar concrete plant.  Before the end of the year, there will be another special place on our most important natural resource: our riverfront."
"The riverfront was Memphis’ first great place.  On the north, there is the construction of a reinvented Pyramid and ultimately, new landscape, and streetscape to upgrade the entrance to downtown off I-40.   On the south, Beale Street Landing moves toward completion."
"Because of these new anchors on our riverfront, we will embark in the next 100 days on a place-making process to find consensus about how we can protect the riverfront while making it more active and vibrant.  Our purpose is not to create a master plan, but to set a general direction for the riverfront that we can all support so it can once again be a force for harmony rather than conflict."
"This is our moment.  This is our time."
"In our neighborhoods, there is no success story more dramatic than our fight to reduce crime.   While our crime rates have seen record drops, our work has just begun."
"In the next 100 days, we will move ahead with community policing programs, reentry programs to return former felons to lives as productive citizens, programs to give deserving youth alternatives to Juvenile Court, Metro Gang Unit, and plans to put more cameras in high-crime areas."
"We will fight gun violence and gang activity, and we’ll do it with a carrot and a stick.  We’ll punish strictly anyone who uses a gun in the commission of a crime, but we’ll also create the jobs that give youths better choices for their lives."
"In addition, the Police Executive Research Forum will begin to examine the Memphis Police Department’s systems, priorities, plans of attack, and manpower deployment.  This review will guarantee that the police department is operating at peak performance.  We are making important progress, but we can do more."
"This is our moment.  This is our time."
"Today, about one in two Memphis children live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty where crime, blight, and economic vulnerability are all too common.  These high stress environments put the optimal brain development of our youngest children at risk.  In the first three years of a child’s life, research has proven that the brain grows to 80 percent of its adult size; however, in those days, less than three percent of money spent on education is spent getting infants and toddlers hard-wired to learn."
"In two years, city government’s role in education will change but our responsibility won’t.  Research indicates that what takes place outside of the classroom is just as important in determining academic success as what happens inside it.   That’s why city government should take its work to the neighborhoods and to the youngest children in Memphis."
"We must find ways to expand Early Head Start so every child can attend rather than the fortunate few, and we must pilot intervention strategies that give every child a fair start in life."
"Our progress as a city can be no faster than our progress in education.  That’s why city government will always have a job to do.  In the next 100 days, I will convene a special task force to evaluate the best strategies for early childhood development and to make recommendations for investing the money now allocated to school funding so our children are ready for school and life."
"This is our moment.  This is our time."
"As for our neighborhoods, we will make recommendations in the next 100 days to deal with the flooding problems in Memphis.  Our community has 165 drainage basins and 13 are problematic.  It’s an issue that cries out for more than crisis management.  It demands an overall plan of action and a strategic context for action."
"This also applies to anti-blight and clean up programs.  With the merger of three divisions, we have now aligned city services to be more coordinated and have more impact.  However, to succeed, we need the help of our neighborhoods.  Already, we are entering into contracts with grassroots groups to clean up and cut weeds in their neighborhoods.  In the coming 100 days, we will expand this program and build on the lessons learned from last year’s 25-square block strategy."
"This is our moment.  This is our time."
This is a big agenda. But Mayor Wharton appears determined to go big. I hope we can all follow his example. We certainly should all be watching. 
You can read the rest of his State of the City Address here

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