Bill Purcell, former state legislator and popular two-term mayor of metropolitan Nashville during a transformative era, 1999-2007, launched the new Ashe Lecture Series at the Baker Center Monday night.
Close to half the audience of about 75 were students. About half of those who weren't students were recognizable city leaders of one sort or another. A good 4 percent of the people in the room were mayors. Among them, Mayor Madeline Rogero and former Mayor Victor Ashe. The namesake and benefactor of the series, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland, was on his way to the Republic of Georgia, where he'll monitor some elections, still a new idea in the former Soviet state.
The title of Purcell's speech--"American Cities Are Back: Now What Do We Do?"--sounded more provocative than it was, but was interesting nonetheless, peppered with some urban history and effective jokes. ("You are so Nashville if you think our Parthenon is better than theirs, because theirs fell down.")
The affable, self-effacing Purcell--the most popular mayor in Nashville history, based on his re-election margin--spent the first several minutes praising Ashe, perhaps predictably, since Knoxville's longest-termed mayor in history endowed the lecture and was sitting in front. The Democrat Purcell would even have us believe the Republican Ashe was a role model. Once famous here for his Mayor's Night Out initiative, Ashe urged Purcell in 1999 to adopt that public-meeting habit in Nashville.
"He's been mayor for, what, 35 years, so he must know what he's talking about," Purcell said.
Purcell's first effort in that regard was a four-and-a-half-hour ordeal.
"It was a moment I doubted Victor," he said. Later, Purcell recalled a trip to visit Ashe in Krakow. He wasn't surprised Ashe had instituted an Ambassador's Night Out, celebrating each venture with a push-pin on a map in his office.
Purcell outlined the decline of many American cities in the mid-20th century, and the fact that, by the 1950s, much of America seemed to be giving up on cities altogether, citing the chilling example of St. Louis, a once-ambitious city which collapsed to one-third of its former size. He criticized 1950s demolition-based urban renewal for wreaking almost irreparable damage, a reflection of a belief that the main problem with American cities was people.
"People weren't the problem," he says. "People are the solution."
Many American cities have recovered in the last 20 years, he said, by concentrating on three things cities should do best: providing education, assuring public safety, and delivering a superior quality of life.
The first and most important obligation of a city, Purcell said, is education, "the most important thing we can do in our cities." The subject might have seemed slightly awkward in context, considering that here, county government, whose majority constituency does not live in a city, is principally in charge of education. Mayor Tim Burchett was not among the room's multiple mayors, and if any county-government representatives were curious about hearing or meeting Purcell, they weren't conspicuous. Maybe they were exhausted by their afternoon meeting.
He then emphasized public safety, touting America's recent declining crime rates. While acknowledging there are several theories, he noted deliberate policy improvements in community policing and data gathering. Sometime in recent years, he said, rather than segregating crime to certain districts and therefore ignoring it, "We recovered the belief that public safety was attainable." That in itself was a major change.
The quality-of-life role of cities is the vaguest, but often the most interesting. Cities once congealed around purely economic attributes--ports, rail or road crossroads, and natural resources. Today it's more about the specific attractions that make living there appealing. That was behind Nashville's evolution of the Music City moniker, he said, a reflection of one particularly important part of the city's appeal. He didn't suggest any comparable identity for Knoxville, but praised Ashe's greenways initiatives. He'd ridden in from the airport and spent most of the day with students; nothing in his talk suggested he'd had a good look around Knoxville recently.
Cities could easily collapse again, he said, if left untended. "If we don't stay focused, we know what will happen," he said. "We know, because we've been there."
A question from Rogero about leadership brought a plea for a "collaborative spirit" and a quip. Purcell remarked on one particularly cozy row in back that included Rogero, several staffers, and two members of city council "who genuinely, for all purposes, seem to get along." Sitting with Rogero were Councilmen Finbarr Saunders and George Wallace.
The most obvious question came late, from UT professor Lee Riedinger, about metro government; Nashville-Davidson is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary, with a population that now tops 600,000. Purcell thinks metro government is unquestionably the best form, but doesn't see himself as an evangelist for it, and admits he doesn't see a trend in that regard in America today. Motivation has to come first, he said.
A question about public transportation, emphasizing inter-city rail, drew Purcell's response that it wasn't likely to happen soon, despite Nashville's experiments with commuter rail. But, he said, we could push it by using what we do have--that is, buses. The former mayor, who's also a director of Harvard's Institute of Politics, surprised a few of the well-heeled attendees by mentioning how he was getting back to Nashville.
"I'm taking the Megabus," he said. "It leaves tomorrow at 11:30, and costs $4. You're welcome to join me."