Shifting gears: The intersections of race and sustainability in Memphis


Memphis is a city of dichotomies and disparities, a perplexing city of illustrative idiosyncrasies and instructive ironies. The city roils with a sweaty, gritty, creative energy, yet it has struggled to find a creative solution to overcoming its challenging past. As a global center of commerce and trade, the prosperity of the United States relies heavily on Memphis, yet Memphis is home to some of the nation’s most impoverished communities. The city is stretched geographically, fiscally, and socially in so many directions that gaining a sense of unity around any shared cultural ideal is a daunting exercise, one that Memphis has only recently begun to undertake. This chapter explores the emergence of “sustainability” in policy making and cultural perceptions in Memphis through conversations and controversies surrounding a proposal to institute a multi-use trail network across a geophysical landscape marked by socioeconomic and racial segregation. As Wanda Rushing (2009) puts it, “for more than one hundred years, changing views of space and place, conflicting values of ‘progress’ and preservation, as well as divisions of race, class, and gender have affected the physical and symbolic production of urban landscapes in Memphis” (Rushing 2009). How does the concept of “sustainability” as a social ideal play into the policies and decision making that are going to shape the future of a global city mired in a history of especially poor race relations, white flight, and cultural isolationism? A conversation on “sustainability” cannot occur without first dismantling a racialized “culture of fear” that impacts nearly every aspect of urban life in Memphis (Glassner 2000). To accomplish this, we dissect the discourses and practices associated with “community” and “safety” as they relate to transportation policy, urban planning, and alternative transportations infrastructure projects. We demonstrate how “safety” and “community” take on different meanings, even in adjoining neighborhoods, and provide ethnographic snapshots of people and communities affecting (or affected by) various connectivity and livability projects.

Publication Title

Sustainability in the Global City: Myth and Practice