One for the Books

Some years are more memorable than others.


You will not forget 2011. Not if you spent a good portion of the year in Memphis, Tennessee. Decades from now, when artists design a timeline for the city’s history, 2011 will have an inflated marker, with a list of events rarely packaged so conveniently within a calendar year.

Over the course of just 16 days in May, Memphis made national headlines on three counts:

◗  The mighty Mississippi River — in metaphorical terms, the amniotic fluid that nourished the birth of Memphis — swelled to its highest levels in more than 70 years. By May 9th, much of Tom Lee Park was under several feet of brown water, the annual World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest washed eastward to a new venue for the first time in its glorious history. National media swarmed to the newly submerged cobblestones across from Mud Island, suggesting to those attracted to disasters that the end could be near. The photo-ops near tributaries where real damage was being done weren’t nearly as titillating.

◗  On May 16th, President Barack Obama delivered the keynote address at the graduation ceremonies for Booker T. Washington High School. In hindsight, the visit was a meeting of underdogs, one in which it was hard to tell which party left more inspired. Said the President, “Education teaches you the value of discipline — that the greatest rewards come not from instant gratification but from sustained effort and from hard work. This is a lesson that’s especially true today, in a culture that prizes flash over substance, that tells us that the goal in life is to be entertained, that says you can be famous just for being famous.”

◗  As newsworthy as the rising river and visiting President may have been, they weren’t as shocking as the 13-game playoff run made by the Memphis Grizzlies, the deepest venture our only big-league team has ever made on the NBA’s brightest stage. Local favorite Shane Battier returned in a trade to run alongside Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and Mike Conley as the Griz upset the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs, then took Oklahoma City to a decisive seventh game before falling in the Western Conference semifinals. Included in the run was just the sixth triple-overtime game in NBA playoff history, surely the most memorable Memphis loss at FedExForum for years to come.

But May was merely the headliner in this Year of years. Two companies — Mitsubishi Electric and Electrolux — announced plans for new plants in Memphis that should bring hundreds of jobs. The Memphis City Council approved a financial package in excess of $200 million that seems to have finally resolved the future of downtown’s Pyramid. By the time Bass Pro Shops completes its renovation, a city known for tourism may have a glowing new destination for those with some time to kill between Graceland and the National Civil Rights Museum. 

On a smaller business scale, but just as significant for those who enjoy reading books (and magazines) with actual pages, the former Davis-Kidd Booksellers was saved by its Laurelwood landlord after its parent company declared bankruptcy. Long live the Booksellers at Laurelwood. 

The significance of any year, it should be noted, is measured not solely by the events that took place, but by the impact those events make on the years that follow.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Hardy Mays in August that Memphis City Schools’ surrender of its charter — with the aim of consolidating its system with that of Shelby County Schools — is, in fact, constitutional should lead to the most significant transformation of the local education landscape since desegregation. By 2013, Shelby County — that’s all of us, city and county residents — will have a unified school system, one less wall dividing upwards of 150,000 children. The new system will certainly come with flaws, with unforeseen challenges (every new venture does). But it will be unified. A prominent local business leader recently told me, “Collaboration is always better than division.” Wise words, especially when it comes to raising our children.

We don’t get to choose the times in which we live, however “interesting” they may be. Local unemployment remains too high. Poverty saps the strength of Memphis as it does any city of comparable size. As we went to press, it appears there may not be a Memphis Grizzlies season this winter, let alone another playoff run. The sun, alas, continues to rise.

What’s to come in 2012? Here’s hoping for prosperity, for peace, perhaps a Final Four appearance by the Memphis Tigers. Let’s hope it’s memorable, one way or the other. Next year has a tough act to follow.


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