This is the final post in a series focused on the Psychology of a Great City.
“Excellence is the Result of Caring more than others think is Wise, Risking more than others think is Safe, Dreaming more than others think is Practical, and Expecting more than others think is Possible.”
― Ronnie Oldham
As you may recall, the inspiration for this series on the Psychology of a Great City was a presentation I attended by renowned urban retail expert Robert Gibbs.
During his presentation, Gibbs talked a lot of about national retail chains. From his perspective they are a critical part of the formula for success of any vital urban center. Tourists, Gibbs claimed, want to shop at the same places they have at home. They want brands they know in a unique setting. Big Box Retail, it seems, is the missing piece of the downtown puzzle.
But Memphis, for some reason, has trouble attracting national retailers to its urban core because, as one audience member argued, there’s a perception that our city isn’t easy to work with.
In contrast, Gibbs described how despite significant challenges, the city of Charleston, South Carolina, has successfully maintained the character and charm of its historic shopping corridor while simultaneously allowing national retail chains – usually known for their lack of cooperation in molding storefronts to the landscape in which they preside – to take up residence in the area.
How has it been done? According to Gibbs, this miraculous occurrence is due in large part to a tough set of building codes and a no-nonsense mayor and city council that consistently enforces them.
They’ve created expectations for how companies will operate in their city limits and they mean business.
You may recall that our city, just last year, passed a new, controversial and strict overlay plan for Midtown. The plan had some very specific design guidelines, including a clause that mandated that all flat surface parking be located behind a structure and that all new-build storefronts should be close to the sidewalk to maintain the urban landscape and enhance neighborhood walk-ability.
You may also recall that within just a few months of the passage of this overlay plan, national retailer CVS Pharmacy completed the demolition of a historic church on its newly acquired land at the corner of Union Avenue and Cooper Street. And you have likely noticed that once the new CVS was built, its primary parking lot, a flat surface one, is located not behind the newly built structure – as mandated by the overlay plan – but instead is smack dab in front of it, sprawling out to the road.
Someone in the crowd at the presentation brought this example up to Gibbs and wanted to know why something like that happened. His answer silenced the room.
“Because you let it.”
Then Gibbs asked the question that had been going through my head the entire time he was sharing his story: Why don’t we have greater expectations for our city?
We pass a new set of building codes for a historic part of our city. Then we don’t enforce them.
We think we can’t get big national retailers unless we cower to their demands instead of insisting that they meet ours.
We claim we X and then we Y. You fill in the blank.
Do we command greatness? Do we expect it? Do we even think we deserve it?
The more I think about it, the more I see that whatever you think the answer is to those questions is exactly what the answer will become. And that’s the whole point. If we don’t have high expectations, we’ll never achieve greatness. A city’s expectations – or lack thereof – are destined to be self-fulfilled.
When it comes to expectations, were do we really stand?
The Grizzlies basketball season ended on Sunday with a disappointing thud. The team fought back from 3-1 deficit to regain home court advantage and retake control of the series, ending it on our home floor, where we’d been so successful this season. But when the final buzzer sounded, it was the Los Angeles Clippers who were celebrating at half court. It was they, not us that went on to face the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Semi-Finals.
The city was heartbroken, upset, frustrated.
On Monday morning I was sad. I looked back at a season so filled with hope and felt that it had all just ended in painful disappointment.
But slowly I began to realize something else had happened entirely.
For the first time in maybe far too long – maybe we set some really high expectations.
Does it hurt when they aren’t met? Yes.
Does it make you want to give up? Temporarily.
When I started writing this series, I thought it would culminate with a call-to-action. I planned to challenge the citizens of our city to start raising their collective expectations so that we too could follow the path of greatness.
What I’ve realized is that while there may still be a contingent in this city that would have you believe the our best days are behind us, that we can’t be more than we are today, that we can never achieve greatness, that particular call-to-action may be a tad too late.
Perhaps the transformation has already begun. Perhaps our expectations are rising.
Is there work to be done? Absolutely.
In Grizzlies’ center Marc Gasol’s exit interview this week he praised Coach Lionel Hollins and his staff for turning around the franchise’s culture of defeat. Hollins had a mantra for the team this playoff season: “Why not us?”
While the Grizzlies ultimately suffered a far-too-early exit from this year’s NBA Playoffs, the expectations were clear and powerful.
And a city adopted those expectations for its professional basketball team.
If we can develop great expectations for a basketball team, we can certainly develop them for our downtown, our neighborhoods and schools, our businesses and churches, our politicians and our press alike. We can develop them for each other.
So whether its building codes or an education system that works or it’s a road where cyclists and pedestrians and cars can all travel together – let’s continue to raise our expectations for our city.
Why not us?