Us and Them: 2012

Do “white” projects jump the line at the city council?

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It was the familiar undercurrent of the debate about Overton Square last week. The charge has been made many times before and will doubtless be made again in 2012: Public and private projects that white people want get favorable treatment at the expense of projects that benefit black people and black neighborhoods.

Overton Square got $16 million in public funding for a parking garage and a floodwater detention basin. There were a lot of Overton Square supporters in the audience, although there were bigger crowds this year at meetings on schools and budgets. Most of them were white. A notable exception was Ekundayo Bandele, the founder of Hattiloo Theatre, which is part of the mix. He got a standing ovation after he said, "This is an opportunity for us to make the Memphis we deserve."

The rest of the evening was not so pleasant. The co-sponsors of the motion, councilmen Shea Flinn and Jim Strickland, called it "rough" and "grueling." Colleagues Wanda Halbert, Joe Brown, and Harold Collins argued during debate that while Loeb Properties and Overton Square were getting the holiday special, Orange Mound, North Memphis, and Whitehaven have greater needs for flood control, redevelopment, and blight removal that are being ignored.

Brown made a similar point earlier that day during a discussion of neighborhood opposition to undesirable businesses. North Memphis, he said in so many words, is full of them. Halbert said her district has flooded underpasses and such. And Collins said Elvis Presley Boulevard has been ignored for decades.

Ed Ford Jr., who also represents Whitehaven, said he would support Overton Square as "a leap of faith" but predicted "it will come up every time we say we don't have the money."

Ford nailed it. Brown, Halbert, and Collins did not.

Whitehaven, unfortunately as it turned out, hitched its star to megadeveloper Robert Sillerman's $200 million plans for Graceland. A persistent focus on, say, a relatively modest $16 million in street improvements would almost certainly have passed the council years ago. Brown, a Memphis native, and Halbert, a former school board member, know that Manassas High School and Douglass High School owe their new buildings to school board member Sara Lewis and former councilwoman Barbara Swearengen Ware.

Memphis has had a black mayor and director of housing and community development for 20 years. During that time, Memphis has rebuilt or air-conditioned its schools and replaced most of its public housing. Willie Herenton and A C Wharton, along with former school board chairman Martavius Jones and HCD director Robert Lipscomb, have been evenhanded about spreading around capital spending, favors, and criticism.

But let's face it. While the goal of broad-minded Memphians may be to live in racial harmony, we are a city of self-segregated schools, neighborhoods, churches, musical preferences, movies, and sports. And our everyday vocabulary includes code words like "optional schools" and "urban" and "hip-hop" and "soccer moms."

Yes, there are crossovers. Some play it both ways. Soulsville. The Grizzlies. Craig Brewer. Beale Street. Tunica casinos. Libraries.

But, honestly, can you look at a crowd shot of an SEC football game or a University of Memphis basketball game and not say to yourself, "Damn, that's a whole lotta white people" even though the majority of players are black?

Or everyone at a baseball game at any level? Or the runners in the St. Jude Memphis Marathon? Or everyone at a soccer game? Or the city council chambers or the school board auditorium when bike lanes or optional schools are on the agenda? Or the fans at the pro tennis tournament at the Racquet Club? Or the candlelight vigil during Elvis Week?

Conversely, can you look at a picture of the Southern Heritage Classic or the COGIC convention and not say to yourself, "That's a black thing"? Or a rap concert. Or The Commercial Appeal's "Best of Preps" city-league football team or basketball teams for both girls and boys. Or a crowded city bus? Or the waiting room at the Med? Or the picnic area at Overton Park? Or an AFSCME rally?

Post-racial America is highfalutin hooey, but Memphis can, just maybe, do better if politicians focus on the merits, not the colors. There are plenty of reasons to question publicly funded boat docks, bike lanes, golf courses, and parking garages, but the fact that they're supported mainly by white people is not one of them.

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