A combination of business and personal travel has taken me to Atlanta, New Orleans, Nashville, and Jackson, Mississippi, for extended stays this year. As Yogi Berra supposedly said, you can observe a lot by watching. Some observations about our Southern neighbors and occasional city rivals:
Headliner: Mayor Ray Nagin is fighting to keep his job. There is an interesting comparison here with Memphis. Under our rules put in place in 1991, Nagin would have been reelected by virtue of outpolling 21 opponents last Saturday. But he got less than 50 percent of the vote, hence the runoff with second-place finisher Mitch Landrieu.
Migration: Katrina cost New Orleans more than half of its 495,000 residents.
Advantages: French Quarter, Tulane University, and Garden District remarkably unscathed. Skyline makes city look so much bigger than it is.
Albatrosses: Superdome. Will big-league football and basketball survive in the Big Easy? More important, is the city governable by Nagin or anyone else?
Oddity: New Orleans has seven, count 'em, elected assessors.
Headliner: Bernie Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot, set the standard for philanthropy by spearheading the privately financed $250 million Georgia Aquarium. Located in the central city, the aquarium opened last year and has already attracted 1.5 million visitors.
Migration: Metro Atlanta has four counties among the national top 20.
Advantages: Major public and private universities, including Georgia Tech, Emory, and Morehouse. Four major-league teams. Midtown skyscrapers are architectural gems, especially when lit up at night.
Albatross: Traffic and sprawl. Public transit does not reach many areas.
Oddity: Atlanta proper is less than half the size of Memphis in population and area.
Headliner: Mayor Frank Melton, elected in 2005, is a crime-fighter. The former television station owner and head of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics (and how's that for a unique bio?) totes a gun and personally leads cops on raids of crack houses and pursuit of bad guys. But his act seems to be wearing thin, and he has fallen out with the daily newspaper and the district attorney.
Migration: Mississippi is the only Southern state to lose population since 2000, despite fast-growing DeSoto County.
Advantages: State Capitol, government offices, and mainstream churches assure a downtown base. Suburban Rankin County has landed a Bass Pro superstore and a new baseball stadium for the Atlanta Braves AA affiliate. Jackson State University is booming, thanks to the Ayers higher-education lawsuit decision on funding for historically black colleges.
Albatrosses: Mississippi Memorial Stadium, once host to Ole Miss and Mississippi State football games, is orphaned and may be demolished. Redevelopment of historic icons Farish Street and King Edward Hotel still pending.
Oddity: Nissan plant north of Jackson has probably accelerated urban flight.
Headliner: If Steve "Air" McNair doesn't play for the Tennessee Titans this year, the team could slide into the lower tier of the NFL. Quick, name his back-up.
Migration: Most of Tennessee's 66,500 population gain between 2000 and 2004 was in greater Nashville and Middle Tennessee.
Advantages: State Capitol, Vanderbilt, the Titans, and country music. Bull's-eye of the new landscape of domestic and foreign car makers and suppliers in Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, and Mississippi.
Albatrosses: Estrangement from and condescending attitude toward Memphis and Memphians. And Atlanta-style traffic.
Oddity: Despite baseball-friendly demographics, Nashville can't get it together to build a new minor-league baseball stadium a la Memphis and Jackson.