Parks, Progress, & Politics

The Parking Park - via David Lindsey on Facebook
The Parking Park – via David Lindsey on Facebook
I’ve been struggling to organize my thoughts since last week’s last week’s hasty action by the Memphis City Council regarding zoo parking.

But I don’t want to get into the specifics of the issue. I think others have captured what’s going on there better, and with more detail than I could.

The events of last Tuesday set off a lot of complicated thoughts that have lingered in the background of my mind for some time. Those thoughts were stirred up by the following two Facebook posts. One, from Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, posted just minutes after the City Council’s action:

Via the Mayor's Facebook Page - Click to view the post
Via the Mayor’s Facebook Page – Click to view the post

And this reaction from friend and local organizer, Brad Watkins:

Click to read the whole thing
Click to read the whole thing

For a week now, I’ve been thinking about these two statements, and what they mean for Memphis. And for a week, these thoughts have been disorganized and jumbled like the sounds of an orchestra warming up before a performance…with moments of clarity, like a melody that sings over the noise of the musicians for a moment, then is overtaken in a wave of disorganized dissonance.

That dissonance became more quiet after reading this article: Memphis Burning: Housing and Inequality.

There’s a lot to unpack in the article, but through it all there’s a consistent theme:

That in Memphis, political power is used as a blunt object to defend the powerful few, rather than a positive transformative power to lift up the many.

Last Tuesday’s Kabuki Theater serves as a prime reminder to Memphians that if you’re a well placed individual or group, like the people serving on the Zoo board, you can get the City Council to act swiftly and decisively on your behalf.

If, however, you are not, you can expect little more than words. Which is all the 300 families soon displaced from the Warren and Tulane Apartments, received on that same night.

With all that said, not everything is all gloom and doom. The passage of the resolution gifting the Greensward to the Zoo has ignited more interest from the people who live in the area…working to spare the space from the indignity of becoming a parking lot. One can only hope the fire doesn’t diminish over the coming months, as winter turns to spring and summer…and the continuing crush of cars descend on the zoo, complete with a new attraction, but with no corresponding infrastructure to deal with the additional visitors.

And hope springs eternal as the City waits, with baited breath, for the Mayor to release some sort of plan addressing the “crime, blight, litter, creating jobs, minority and women-owned business development, and the significant financial issues in front of us” for “hipster activists” to coalesce around.

In his defense, Mayor Strickland is on board with a short-term plan to revamp public transportation, though the impact of those changes to actual riders isn’t currently known. We’ll have to wait and see if the concerns of actual bus riders are dismissed as freely as the supporters of the Greensward were.

Over the past 12 years I’ve watched as citizens who show a little too much interest in local affairs have been derided. Hell, I’ve been one of those derided citizens. We’ve been dismissed, by both the powers that be and the media. We’re characterized as malcontents trying to sow dissent, and we all know, in Memphis dissent is something to be violently squashed.

Our politicians hate dissent so much the City Council wanted to do away with public comments a few weeks ago because they couldn’t take the heat of being public officials.

And dissent is messy. Too messy or the local media to report on regularly…even though its a fixture of local politics everywhere. I mean, its hard to drill down a story to a 45 second VOSOT or a 200 word bullet point when you’ve got to tell both sides of the story…with more detail than a he said/she said.

And when the reporters don’t even understand the basic civics of the area, all that noise of people with good intentions makes it too hard. Better to talk about demonic weaves than…you know, real shit.

And consequences? What consequences? I mean, this one elected official said it would be good… isn’t that enough?

So while the city faces the loss of 300 low income housing units with the closing of the Warren and Tulane Apartments, there are still plans to demolish 900 more when Foote Homes comes down, with no idea of where those people will land, and no chance of even trying to ensure that where they land will be more suitable than what they have now.

I’ve only seen one person talking about that, and it ain’t a politician or any person in the media.

We just don’t plan for those things, much less report on them, or hear from people who don’t wear $1000 suits. I mean, what about the developers feelings?

And so the people most impacted by these decisions, the working poor, are an afterthought in Memphis. A group to be blamed for not Horatio Algier-ing themselves into success while carrying the crush of history that is both summarily ignored and dismissed from our fair leaders.

In the end, I keep going back to one passage in that Memphis Burning piece:

To this day, many believe that King’s death coincided with the death of Memphis, that it marked the beginning of a half century of decline. It’s a convenient notion, but it doesn’t ring true. The assassination merely punctuated events set in motion decades earlier, when Boss Crump suppressed Bob Church’s dream of social equality and economic justice.

And every time I read it, I think about our elected leaders in Shelby County, and I laugh a little. Because who, of those people, have the stones to really talk about social equality and economic justice with any authority, credibility and political ability to get any of it done? Who is going to be the point-person that gets the City Council, County Commission and the County School board on board with social equality and economic justice?

No one…that’s who.

Its not funny, its comically tragic.

Because when it comes down to brass tacks…social equality and economic justice will always be framed as too financially expensive…when in reality, we’re going broke trying to ensure it doesn’t happen.

The truth is, social equality and economic justice are too politically expensive for our political leaders to bear.

And while what happened last week with the Zoo resolution may not be the ‘social equality and economic justice’ issue of our time. You can bet your ass that anyone who advocates for such policies will be dispatched, derided and dismissed with as much, if not more haste than the folks standing up for the Greensward.

Because, as Boss Crump says, “This is Memphis”, and that kind of justice ain’t how we do things around here.

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