August 04, 2015

If Nashville is ‘It’ City, What’s That Mean for Memphis?

If Nashville is ‘It’ City, What’s That Mean for Memphis?    
By:  Zach McMillin
Commercial Appeal

It hit social media Tuesday evening, just after the buzz over the Alabama quarterback’s girlfriend had peaked.
Nashville, proclaimed an article in The New York Times, was now considered the nation’s "IT" city.
Kim Severson, who covers the South, published to Twitter a link to her article and the message: "What I found in Nashville: A city with the goofy grin of the newly popular."
Under the headline, "Nashville’s Latest Big Hit Could Be the City Itself," the Times linked Tennessee’s capital city with hip, prosperous locales like Austin, Portland and Dallas.
Soon enough, the chirping began. For many in Nashville, there came the too-cool pose of, "duh!"
"We already knew that," bragged Terry Weaver.
"No surprise to its residents," claimed Nashville sports media entrepreneur Clay Travis.
In Memphis’s Twitter-verse, the reaction in some ways reflected the city’s sense of rivalry with Nashville.
"Noooooooo (inconsolable)," broadcast Greg Akers, editor of Memphis Business Quarterly.
"Memphis is just as cool as Nashville," wrote Joan Vixen.
By Wednesday, the story sat at No. 1 on list of most emailed stories at, and it remained among the leaders all week.
But does Nashville’s good publicity necessarily deserve lamentation and complaint from its sister city 200 miles west?
Steve Cohen, who just began his fourth term as Memphis’s representative in Congress, admits to feeling torn. He grew up in Memphis and came back after getting his undergraduate degree at Vanderbilt University, and in his 25 years as a state legislator, spent an enormous amount of time in Nashville advocating on behalf of Memphis.
"I love Memphis and very, very much like Nashville," he said on Thursday.
And yet …
"It is a great rivalry and there is a jealousy and I understand it," Cohen said. "Even though I lived in Nashville on and off for 29 years, I find myself lapsing into that and I regret it because I do like Nashville. But I do have a little chauvinism about Memphis."
The Times article brimmed with lines that could test even the most avowed Memphis chauvinist, and made much of the hot new TV series "Nashville" bringing attention to the city.
"Flush with young new residents and alive with immigrants, tourists and music, the city made its way to the top of all kinds of lists in 2012," Severson wrote. "A Gallup poll ranked it in the top five regions for job growth. A national entrepreneurs’ group called it one of the best places to begin a technology startup. Critics admire its growing food scene. GQ magazine declared it simply ‘Nowville.’"
A look at the most recent U.S. Census figures for Nashville and Memphis is not cause for much Memphis pride, either. Metropolitan Nashville is growing at a much faster rate (a population of 1.6 million people to metro Memphis’s 1.3 million), has higher levels of income ($47,975 for median household income to $45,377) and a lower poverty rate (15.4 percent to 19.1 percent).
Wanda Rushing, a University of Memphis sociology professor, wrote a well-received book called "Memphis and the Paradox of Place: Globalization in the American South." She, too, understands why there might a natural sibling rivalry dynamic but warns against Memphis trying to follow the same path to prosperity that seems to be working in Nashville.
"I kind of see it like basketball — sometimes it’s good to have a rivalry if the rival makes the team better because it makes them want to improve and surpass them," she said. "But if it gets into negativity, that’s not helpful.
"We’re not Nashville. But we’re not Charlotte. We’re not Atlanta. We don’t want to be those cities. Good for them if they are succeeding, but their success doesn’t mean we’re not succeeding or not capable of succeeding."
Rushing, upon seeing the article, noticed what some others pointed out in the early social media reactions — the dominant photograph featured, in front of a Downtown Nashville souvenir shop, a statue of a swaggering Elvis Presley.
"That caught my eye," she said. "But then you see Elvis everywhere. I guess Nashville can have him, too."
Memphis’s popular mayor, A C Wharton, grew up in a "country" town outside of Nashville but is in his fifth decade of living in Memphis. He agrees with Rushing that Memphis must embrace what is distinctive and not try to become something it is not.
He said when Nashville Mayor Karl Dean was in town recently, the two stood on the roof of The Madison hotel overlooking the Mississippi River and Dean started asking about Memphis’s success in drawing Great American Steamboat to town.
"I said, ‘Look, don’t even try it. You can’t get a steamboat on that little stream you call a river,’" Wharton said. "We’ve got the Mississippi. … So let’s build on our strengths, just as they have."
But like others, Wharton can quickly list many of the built-in advantages Nashville has over Memphis — health care corporations, state government, country music, an abundance of higher education offerings.
"When you have so many of the nation’s hospital companies based there and guaranteed income from the Affordable Health Care Act, you’ve got to do good," Wharton said. "When you are the seat of state government and very little unemployment there. When you’ve got your higher education institutions including one of the wealthiest in the nation, Vanderbilt. And of course it is the country music capital of the world.
"They’ve got a lot going on and there’s no jealousy here. It’s an apples and oranges conversation."Memphis, too, has garnered its own recent positive national press, with an article just last month in The Times examining Memphis’s growing bicycle culture featuring a bucolic scene of active residents on the Shelby Farms Greenline. National Geographic Traveler included Memphis in its select list of best places to travel in 2013. Forbes recently highlighted results showing Memphis as No. 4 in the nation on a list of "Happiest Cities to Work In."
And Memphis has had its own strong pop culture run in recent years, including popular TV shows and award-winning musicals.
Rusty Bloodworth, an executive with Boyle Investment Company, pointed to Memphis’s positive publicity in a Friday interview — from the company’s satellite office in Nashville. A real estate company with Memphis roots that go back more than a century, Boyle opened an office in Nashville in 2001 and Bloodworth, based in Memphis, estimates as much of one-third of the company’s assets are now Nashville-based.
Phil Fawcett, who helped establish Boyle in Nashville, said the area has "unparalleled economic diversity" and cited the thriving system of higher education institutions that draw young talent. That in turn has drawn more companies to locate headquarters in metro Nashville.
Both Fawcett and Bloodworth rejected the idea that Nashville’s gain is somehow Memphis’s loss.
"I really don’t think we compete much but I do think the success in Nashville and growing national prominence is only for the good to Memphis," Bloodworth said. "And anything good happening in Memphis, that’s good for Nashville."
These comparisons are not new, of course. Take an article from July 1984, in The Commercial Appeal with the headline, "Perceptions of two cities give Nashville edge."
The final quote from that article came from James Cobb, then an Ole Miss history professor focused on the southern economy: "Nashville, even though it has a lot of the same problems, has maintained an image as a place you want to go."
Now a professor at the University of Georgia, Cobb said Friday: "In some ways, Nashville got a later start but a fresher start in terms of what was possible with the economy. Memphis was a little bit more a city that owed its prominence and prosperity to large-scale plantation agriculture — processing cotton and lumber out of the Delta. With the shrinkage of that well over a generation ago, it’s been a process of rebuilding. Sometimes it’s easier to start from scratch like Nashville."
The then-journalist who wrote that 1984 piece, Philip Ashford, has lived for long stretches in Nashville and Memphis and currently works in finance for a Memphis corporation. In the 90s, he worked in the Nashville mayor’s office, for Phil Bredesen, who would go on to become governor.
Ashford agrees with Bloodworth that Memphis has more "authenticity" but allows that Nashville "is growing in ways that I think Memphis has trouble keeping up with."
"But there’s no reason to resent it," Ashford said. "To the extent there is more revenue in the state, that’s a fine thing. We have different hurdles and different barriers to get over and really probably not headed in the same directions to become the kind of places we’ll become.
"When Memphis is perfected it will be a different city than when Nashville arrives and it is perfected."
Or as Wharton puts it: "The best thing for us is to aspire to what they are doing but, to use street language, let’s don’t hate on them."