Memphis The ACORN Canada organizing staff held its Year End/Year Begin staff meeting in Memphis with a side trip to Little Rock this year. Among the highlights of the meetings in Memphis were visits at the University of Memphis with ex-Texas and South Dakota ACORN organizer, Steve Soifer, now head of the Social Work Department there along with his associate, Professor Elena de la Vega, an expert in public policy impacting poverty, and the planner par excellence, Ken Reardon, who heads the regional and local planning department at the University, and led the planning effort for ACORN in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina while he was at Cornell.
Both gave fascinating and brilliant expositions of the current situation in Memphis, but the questions that kept coming back from the organizers repeatedly revolved around “what” and “why” and “how” did Memphis find itself in such a mess of a situation. The Canadians had gotten a deal from the Sheraton so were housed right across from the Convention Center at the tip of what used to be called when it opened the Mid-America Mall but was now a virtually deserted, specter-of-Detroit type of wasteland running the bit over a mile from the Sheraton to Beale Street and its two or three blocks of faux blues-for-tourist spots. There was nothing around. When the organizers walked from the hotel to Beale Street they ran into four cops and two community watch people during the entire more than a mile trek and that meant a one-to-one ratio with the other passersby on the strip.
It was all painful to see. I remember 35 years ago almost exactly in 1978 when ACORN held its first national convention in Memphis at the end of the first week of December that year it was also icy and freezing cold, but we had a 1000 people there and were demanding full political representation from the Democratic Party at their mid-term convention which they were holding almost exactly where we were staying. We marched from around Beale Street and the famous landmarks of civil rights history the entire length of the Mid-America Mall and it was packed with people even in the chill with the police then scurrying to deal with pedestrians, traffic, and of course the Democrats themselves. Now what was a lively testament to the future of the city was a deserted space ribboned with tracks and hardly filled trolley cars.
Soifer commented that there are no city operated homeless shelters and the nonprofit shelters charge $7 per night for those unfortunate enough to be on the streets. Reardon said surveys had found 2500 homeless in the downtown area and this had been part of the inspiration in his working with the activist St. Patrick’s Catholic Church downtown to create the Vance Avenue Collaborative, which has been waging a very effective, if longshot, campaign to save the last public housing project, the 500-unit Foote Homes, and try to get a commitment for equitable development in the near downtown, African-American communities.
The “why” and “how” for the disaster of Memphis has to lie squarely with the business community and their political vassals. The mortgaging of their future with one ill begotten tax incremental finance district after another and one bond issue fueled development adding nothing to the job market or tax base while encumbering 20 or more years of all sales tax revenues putting all of the eggs in an empty basket. Add to that the sprawling county, the we’re-here-from-Mars-hospital-district, and the constant tensions of an almost 70% black city with its huge white flight suburbs and it’s now a mess in Memphis where a great city is facing a Detroit future thanks to an abysmal failure of civic leadership and resistance to popular will and democracy.