A New View

March 1st, 2012

Folks not from around here often have a telling perspective about what makes here, well, here. In my experience, that perspective often includes the question of why are we so down on ourselves, so singularly focused on what’s wrong that we can’t see what’s right.

Seeing problems isn’t a unique city view, they tell us, but seeing only problems uniquely blinds city vision.

Cities with larger problems than ours are facing the music. And dancing to it.

As published in The Daily News, March 2, 2012, and in The Memphis News, March 3-9, 2012

(pictured: Harry at The Little Tea Shop)

Harry 5


New Orleans is the city that throws the country’s biggest party about this time of year, putting on the biggest show in return for a few colorful beads and trinkets since the Indians gave away Manhattan. It is also the city so much larger than life that Katrina couldn’t drown it, the subsequent loss of virtually every support system couldn’t kill it, and a slow and painful recovery can’t keep it from partying harder and smiling wider.

From beneath that dark and troubling water, a city’s spirit bubbled to the surface. In the same arena the country watched those dark and troubling scenes of human desperation, the country watched the BCS Championship in January.

So how does the city of Louis Armstrong, the Neville Brothers, Al Hirt, Bourbon Street and po boys see the city of Handy, Elvis, Al Green, Beale Street and barbecue?

Over lunch at the Downtown research center, The Little Tea Shop, I asked that question of my distinguished panel of one – Harry Freeman, from New Orleans by way of Starkville.

Harry has much to teach us by his own example. I met him not long after he arrived, and he asked about getting involved in the city. When he said he was interested in music and community radio, I suggested he check out WEVL. He’d already done that and, in fact, was already hosting his own show, The Country Club, on the station. When he mentioned an interest in books, I said he might look into library programs – maybe reading on the library station. Yep. He was already doing that, already a member of Friends of the Memphis Public Library. And Friends of the University of Memphis Library. And friends of this and that citywide. Harry, unlike many Memphians, doesn’t sit around wondering what happened, he gets out and gets involved in what’s happening.

He sees a city sisterhood between the Crescent City and the Bluff City, born of the same river, warmly blessed of abundant personality, coldly struck by tragedy, world famous for music, always ready with a story and something to eat and drink. He was struck by lyrics in the Broadway musical, “Memphis,” saying our “streets are paved with soul.”

And I believe Harry and I are kindred souls in wondering why Memphis chooses to concentrate on its problems as if no other place in the world has them. Why the assets of our rich diversity, inventive nature, giving heart and creative DNA are largely ignored, replaced by a morbid fascination with the liabilities of ignoring and isolating our poor and hopeless.

In short, why aren’t we celebrating and elevating a great town, healing its wounds and nurturing it to good health, instead of occupying a dark and troubling place, waiting for it to die?

“In New Orleans,” Harry said, “we can choose to just deal with the trash in the street or to dance in them while we do it. We choose to dance.”

I’m a Memphian, and it’s time we danced.


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