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City Comparison

Miserable Memphis needs to look at its opportunities.


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I guess I'm okay being miserable.

When Forbes' Most Miserable Cities list came out earlier this month, I realized I've lived in or near three of the top four most miserable cities.

The one I've missed is number one: Stockton, California. But numbers three and four — Chicago and Cleveland, respectively — are near and dear to my heart, and number two, as you've no doubt heard, is even closer: self-conscious "sad sack," Memphis.

(Modesto, California; Flint, Michigan; Detroit; Buffalo; Miami; and St. Louis round out the top 10.)

Forbes cited the city's crime rate — natch — sales tax, and government corruption as Memphis' defining factors. The Grizzlies' losing record didn't help, either.

I don't generally put much stock in place rankings. How do you compare Apples (the Big) to Oranges (the county)? But no matter what the context, I'm usually interested to see how Memphis stacks up.

Sure, I'd much rather see Memphis on a list of Best Places for Education or Cities with the Least Crime rather than Cities That Are Morbidly Obese or Scariest Place To Raise Your Children.

But we have to realize that because of its size, Memphis is going to make a few lists. And because of its poverty, it's not always going to be good. It might not be the reputation we want, but at least people recognize we're around. Or, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde: The only thing worse than being listed is not being listed.

It's fairly easy to discount these lists. After Memphis was named one of the most dangerous cities by the FBI, the Memphis Police Department countered that they track crime differently from other cities. But even if the rankings are based on something subjective, they can help show Memphis' weaknesses, and, if you look at it the right way, its strengths and opportunities.

Memphis might not be seen as a great place to live, but according to the laws of supply and demand, it follows that the cost of living is very affordable.

In response to President Barack Obama's plan to limit the salaries of executives at companies who receive federal bailout funds, the New York Times recently ran a story about how difficult it is for an upper-middle-class family to live on $500,000 a year in the Big Apple.

The story looked at the cost of private schools — $32,000 a year per student — as well as mortgages, co-op maintenance fees, and salaries for the nanny (or, manny, if you prefer).

"A new study for the Center for an Urban Future, a nonprofit research group in Manhattan, estimates it takes $123,322 to enjoy the same middle-class lifestyle [in New York] as someone earning $50,000 in Houston," says the story. In Memphis, that figure is $42,022.

According to, it is 56 percent cheaper to live in Memphis than New York City, mostly because housing is 82 percent less expensive here.

But the difference isn't just in housing.

To many upper-middle-class Memphians, private schools are important because they don't trust the city schools with educating their children. Briarcrest costs between $4,000 and almost $11,000 per student in tuition. Memphis University School's tuition is $15,250 a year.

But lists can also help pinpoint things we already kind of know but don't want to admit.

Numerically, the city's population has been propped up by annexation, but the reality is that Memphis is shrinking.

During a Leadership Academy forum last November, Councilman Kemp Conrad shared one of his concerns: "Memphis has lost 7 percent of its population in the last 10 years if you don't count annexation. That's scary. We need rapid change."

Smart City Memphis' Tom Jones has noted that once Memphis annexes all its potential area, it will be the size of Los Angeles with a fraction of the population.

Are people leaving because they're miserable? If all the people who can leave do, what will the city be left with?

Because, you know, misery loves company.

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