Saturday, November 27, 2010

Why I Chose Memphis: Jessica Lotz (The Woman Behind The Movement)

In an effort to give credit where credit is due, I'm reposting the Why I Chose Memphis story of Jessica Lotz, whose Quick Memphian Call to Arms was the original inspiration for this series. If you're not already familiar with JLotz's blog Waves and Wires, stop what you're doing right now and go check it out, especially her hilariously (and bitingly) awesome monthly series "WTF is Wrong With People?". Jessica is a Rhodes alum, and she's what we in the human-evaluation business call a "triple threat." Maybe even a "quadruple threat." She's wicked smart, uproariously funny, a talented singer and guitarist, more than little skilled at the billiards table, a super-savvy networker, the guaranteed life-of-any-party, a subtle but effective political progressive and an eminently erudite cultural critic. Wait, that's more than four threats... ah well, who can keep count with JLotz? At any rate, she is in every conceivable way a woman who's good to know. Here's her story:

"I've been planning to do this post for a couple weeks, since I'm thrilled to say that I finally nailed down an exciting, personally challenging and well-compensated job that will keep me in Memphis for the next several years. (I'm choosing not to elaborate more here, as I'm sure the organization would want some say-so in being associated with my blog). Then of course, as many of you other Memphians may already know, this publisher's-whipping-boy-of-a-town "ranked dead last in intelligence, attractiveness, safety, romantic getaways, environmental friendliness, and athleticism" in never-heard-of-it Travel + Leisure Magazine's "2010 America's Favorite Cities" survey. I could go on and on about the scientific shoddiness/subjectivity of this allegedly credible publication as I did with Forbes Magazine earlier this year, but that's why I hyper-linked that post too. Hell, your first clue should be that somehow Memphis is ranked as less diverse than Anchorage, AK, Nashville, TN and Portland, OR... Huh?! Of course, a large part of the issue here is that my fellow residents ranked Memphis lower in most categories than outsiders, given the chronically widespread sad Charlie Brown funk so many of us can never seem to get out of (and yet refuse to move away, tellingly). I'm not saying Memphis is some golden city on the hill with abundant resources and civic pride and zero social problems. We've got a lot of challenges that would eviscerate a lesser city and that will continue to require a lot of creativity and determination from those thousands (most likely not surveyed) who are passionate about seeing Memphis through in good times and bad.

But first back to my looong months of job-hunting. Although these economically hard times certainly had something to do with my many months of pajama-clad resume/cover letter spawning ways, I did have a few tough choices to make along the way when offers in Washington and Baltimore came up during the summer. Against the advice of some of my more pragmatic (and DC-situated) friends, I, ever the stubborn mule, held out on the easy way out with steady income streams afar and wound up winning big in the city I love. This is why I chose Memphis:
1. It's got character. I mean this in every sense of the word... except the kind of "character" you attribute to unattractive blind dates and real estate double-speak for crumbling rat holes. There are quirky, vibrant and singular communities, businesses and people all over this city, and unlike the more "attractive" and "stylish" Nashvilles or "intelligent" DCs of the world (and I can say this because I've lived in those places too), we don't really care what you think about us. There's  just people with the good sense to take each other at face value, pretenses of self-importance aside. And believe you me, the people that choose to live here intentionally (I know I'm perhaps arrogantly including myself in that number) have far more character than your average bear.Memphis may not be the most user-friendly to outsiders or the suburb-dwellers who refuse to cross the Wolf River, but those who have taken the time to explore its less obvious/touristy nooks and crannies know and cherish what this city has to offer. Lord knows we don't stay here because of other people's approval, just that of Wild Bill, Mollie Fontaine (may they rest in peace), Ruby Wilson, AC and Prince Mongo, et al.
2. It's got promise. Having grown up here and watching this city evolve over the last 20+ years, I think that the vast majority of Memphians would agree with me that this is a resilient city that has developed in tremendously positive ways in recent years. I remember times when downtown was as dead in the water as any of the Spice Girls' solo careers and Cafe Ole was the only thing people drove to Cooper Young for. Both of these areas are now thriving and among Memphis's most well-known and highly frequented places, while nooks like Broad Avenue, the High Point Pinch and South Main continue to blossom into great and admirably sustainable spaces for the next generation of residents.

We've got elected officials that a huge, diverse electorate can and does support and who, as far as I can tell, really care about the future of this city and have taken great strides to implement innovative policies with buy-in from a large array of local interests, not just insular cronies. We have a new bicycle Green Line and about a bajillion farmers markets that just about everyone in town can agree on. We have an avalanche of new resources and support via the Gates Foundation and Race to the Top to mend our public schools and much-needed new grants for infrastructure improvements and community development. We've come a long way, baby, and our most ambitious goals are still ahead of us. For whatever abysmal flack Memphis has gotten since all the "Southern backwater" and "decaying Mississippi river town" crap began from residents as well as outsiders, there is a lot to be proud of and it sure isn't for lack of trying.
3. It needs us. Yes, in spite of all of these assets and positive changes that I stand behind, there is still a lot of work to do here. It may sound daunting, but it's also exciting given what I think is a critical mass of Memphians who are as fed up as I am with this can't-win-for-losing onslaught of negative media attention and self-inflicted pessimism. As Ann Landers would have said to the wallowing 70s single gal with low self-esteem, how can you expect someone else to love you if you don't love yourself? Memphis needs all the civic love--and talent, compassion and devotion--that it can get and that it deserves, more importantly.

To those who feel as frustrated as I do, we must challenge ourselves and each other to find new ways to plug in, get informed and get involved in at least one more of the many initiatives that others are lovingly bringing to the table these days, be it sustainable/green development, education, neighborhood associations or improved infrastructure and transportation. Just as an individual is only as good as her friends and family and a party is only as good as its guests, a city is surely a reflection of its people for better or worse. I say it's time to put our collective best foot forward because we owe it to each other and because it's simply the right thing to do."

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