I was walking around downtown with a friend this weekend when we were stopped by a homeless woman. She asked us if we wanted to buy a Bible. When we said no, she asked if maybe we needed some toothpaste instead.
Let me tell you saying no to both a Bible and toothpaste just makes you feel a little dirty.
But I'm not the only one who's felt the need to freshen up lately. Maybe it's because Memphis' image has gotten so trashy, maybe it's because it's spring, or maybe it's because Richard Ransom is back in town. Whatever the reason, our city has decided it's time to "Clean up!"
As of this writing, the City Council is pondering what to do with personal possessions after a tenant has been evicted from a rental property. Currently, landlords just throw it out and the city spends about $1 million a year hauling it away.
The new budget doesn't even include weekly recycling anymore, yet we can afford maid service for landlords? I don't think so. Not only is it an eyesore, it creates another kind of mess for the person being evicted.
"[Residents] often get evicted because they can't pay," says Robert Lipscomb, director of the city's Housing and Community Development division and the Memphis Housing Authority (MHA). "They're poor, and you're putting all their possessions on the sidewalk. By the time they come back for them, there's nothing left. All you're doing is making the situation worse."
But the eviction restriction is just one part of a larger plan to make Memphis "clean up!" About six months ago, the Shelby County district attorney's office, the health department, and MHA formed an interdisciplinary task force to fight blight. Memphis is also looking at federal funds that could be used to spruce up certain neighborhoods. And the Memphis City Beautiful Commission, now in its 75th year, is airing a new campaign of ads that state, "A cleaner Memphis starts with you."
"Twenty-five years ago, we were the cleanest city in America," says Lipscomb. "We needed to take the lead and show it's important to us as a city. [City government] had to begin the process. It's our responsibility."
Code enforcement will be split into seven community offices. The number of code enforcement officers at each will depend on how much blight is in the area.
"Memphis is being turned around right before our eyes," says Lipscomb. He cites the removal of derelict public housing projects as the first step to a cleaner Memphis. "Public housing really stifled redevelopment, but now the task ahead of us is doable. We're tackling the hardest part first."
I'm not trying to proselytize for completely sanitizing the city. Memphis' gritty authenticity is one of its strong points, especially in a world gone slick and conglomerate. Just think of the movies that have filmed here and what the backdrop of Memphis has brought to them. But there's a difference between gritty and, well, filthy. We could probably use a little soap and water without scrubbing away the city's soul. And though cleanliness might be next to godliness, the dust-up could also have some financial benefits.
"We're trying to attract tax-paying citizens back to these neighborhoods," says Lipscomb. "We're looking to do a quid pro quo. If we do our part as a city, maybe they'll do their part as citizens."