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Vital Signs

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In a world of rankings, performance measures, and accountability standards, Memphis doesn't always look good. Last fall, an FBI report said that Memphis was second in the nation in terms of violent crimes. Homes here are foreclosed at 2.5 times the national average. And I'm sure that if there was a ranking of cities with the most corrupt politicians, we'd make that list, too.

But CityVitals, a recent report from CEOs for Cities -- a group headed by Memphis native Carol Coletta -- puts the city in new perspective.

The study looks at a variety of (somewhat unexpected) factors such as self-employment, wireless Internet access, transit use, foreign travel, and how many people vote and uses those to measure how cities perform in four key areas: talent, innovation, connections, and distinctiveness.

"One single measure tells you so very little," says Coletta. "It doesn't tell you that there are ways that cities with certain demographics or certain geography win or lose. That's the thing I like about this. It has a wide-ranging set of measures to help cities understand the things that are their strengths and where they need to work on things."

In fact, the study reports that "one key insight from our work is that there is no single recipe for metropolitan success." But even though there's no one answer, Memphis doesn't really shine in the study. Overall, the metropolitan area scored low in categories relating to talent, innovation, and connections.

"We 'score well' on distinctiveness," says Coletta. "The reason is pretty clear: Our population is very different from populations elsewhere."

If all the world is like high school, Memphis wouldn't be a "brain" -- only 26. 3 percent of the metro population 25 years old and older have a four-year college degree -- or one of the "artsy" kids because we're 47th on the list of cities with the most creative professionals. It wouldn't be one of the popular people: The ratio of people attending cultural events to those regularly sitting at home and watching cable is slightly greater than 1 in 5. Actually, Memphis' highest ranking -- at number 19 -- was on what the study wonkily calls the "Weirdness Index," a measure of how the metro area's 10 most distinctive consumer behaviors differed from those of the rest of the country.

In other words, we're Napoleon Dynamite.

If you've seen the DVD or the T-shirts, the watches, the calendars, you know that Napoleon Dynamite sells.

"We are distinctive demographically. Therefore, we're distinctive in terms of consumer behavior," says Coletta. "This gives us an interesting opportunity to capitalize on."

The study sites the case of a Eugene, Oregon, company that began because a group of people in that city took up jogging before anybody else did. The company began to sell imported sneakers.

"The result of that different consumer behavior lead to Nike, Portland's only Fortune 500 company," says Coletta. "The result of distinctive behavior is that you can recognize certain consumer behaviors other places might not."

There are causes for concern in the study. Connectivity is one of the report's key themes: "Cities thrive as places where people can easily interact and connect" both in the "interaction of local residents and the easy connections to the rest of the world."

"On the one hand," says Coletta, "we're as connected as a city can be," because of FedEx's global headquarters. But while we might be connected by cargo, we seem to be trying to stay as separate as humanly possible.

Under the heading of "economic integration," the study looked at what percentage of the population would have to move to distribute high-income and low-income households equally. Of the 50 metropolitan areas the report studied, Memphis had the greatest amount of separation between where rich people live and where poor people live.

"Previous research has shown that physical isolation of minorities is not just bad for minorities but bad for the entire economy. You don't have to be motivated by a sense to do good to want to economically integrate," says Coletta.

Unlike a number that says the city has more than its share of violent crime or that its residents are unnaturally obese, the study takes the city's collective pulse.

"It's really easy to get defensive about numbers like this. It's easy for me to get defensive," says Coletta. "I don't want my hometown to show up number 48th or 50th on anything. If we don't resist it, but learn from it, I think it's a piece of work that can strengthen the city."

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