Two Ways To Look At It

April 7th, 2011

Most cities are looking for something to hang a civic hat on – a single thing that can define and attract and separate.

Might be they’re the birthplace of something or someone significant enough to brand a whole city. Or perhaps they’re known as the center or capital of some enterprise, the place where something is made or from or named after.

If they’re really lucky, really rare as cities go, they’ll have more than one such thing and a few, incredibly few, might have such things from both the right and left brain, both cool and profitable.

Of course, they’d have to realize it.

As published in The Daily News, April 8, 2011, and in The Memphis News, April 9-15, 2011



Coming from Arkansas, it looks like Oz.

It appears suddenly, just past that truck in front of you, between that truck and the one next to you, glimpsed between rearview mirror checks of that truck behind you. You’ve somehow survived the concrete gauntlet of West Memphis and the semi cowboys whipping their rigs into a frenzy, driving them to market across the modern day trails of I-40 and I-55.

There in front of you is a city on a hill. It’s an urban island; surrounded by the agrarian sea of cotton, soybeans and rice you’ve just navigated. You’ll reach it by crossing a bridge of lights and a river so great that a great nation uses it to define its east and west. You see the city spread out across the horizon, and to my taste, a feast for both eyes and spirit.

Okay, that’s a truckload of metaphors, but I think the view is pretty trucking impressive.

You’re looking at a place where new ideas come out of nowhere and go everywhere, where cultures, races, circumstances and history all come together and give rise to new ways to see, hear and heal. From here – from a brand-new waterfront town and a 30-story stainless steel pyramid on one side to an old city makeover and fledgling arts district on the other – you can’t see the problems, but you can still see the possibilities.

Coming from Mississippi, it looks like a Star Wars set.

It appears to the right, just past that truck in front of you, between that truck and the one next to you, glimpsed between rearview mirror checks of that truck behind you. You’ve somehow survived the challenge of the Lamar corridor where Mississippi turns into Tennessee and farm turns into industry as suddenly and chaotically as a five-truck pileup.

There beside you at Shelby Drive is the old Tennessee Yard, the new Memphis Intermodal Facility. BNSF dropped a $200 million upgrade here and rolled in those ginormous cranes that look like Empire war engines and can lift the national debt. The wheels are bigger than my house. They pick up 40-foot containers from railcars and put them on trucks and vice versa, and they do that 600,000 times a year with capacity to do it a million times a year.

You’re looking at a place where things come from everywhere and go everywhere else, where river, rail, air, road and geography all come together. From here – from the permanent ruts in the road made by the world’s heavy loads – you can see what made Memphis storage closet and delivery service to the known universe.

Two views, one of a city of imagination, an incubator where new things are born and grow strong in the Delta heat, and another of a city of purpose, a critical transfer point where whatever’s wanted comes to be sorted and sent.

One city.

I’m a Memphian, and our original music includes the sounds of boats, trains, trucks and planes.


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