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Healing the Urban Heart: Chattanooga’s Next Great Challenge

Roberta Brandes Gratz / Jan 28 2012

For Release Saturday, January 28, 2012

Roberta Brandes GratzIn 1969, Walter Cronkite, in one of his nightly newscasts, called Chattanooga “the dirtiest city in America.” The pollution was so thick that drivers needed headlights to see through the fog, men took two white shirts to work for morning and afternoon, and respiratory deaths were 20 percent higher than national average. Today, Chattanooga is one of the cleanest cities; its success on a number of fronts has raised concern of being too successful.

The city is indeed blessed with the spectacular Tennessee River snaking through it, a setting surrounded by small mountains and woodlands filled with recreational attractions. The 1970 Clean Air Act forced the issue of pollution and by 1972 clean air standards were met. In the meantime, the city was working on big plans for change.

“We were the smart ones,” Mayor Ron Littlefield, a professional planner, told a meeting with the Citistates Group last week. “The city produced a detailed plan, colorful documents and maps, gathered lots of figures and then delivered them to the people. We figured they would recognize our genius and run with it.”

Well, it didn’t happen that way. The plans fell flat, met unanticipated resistance and went nowhere. With a complete reversal of strategy, Littlefield explains, “We discovered that if we brought all the factions to the table first and engaged them in drawing up the plans, they were more likely to support the implementation. It doesn’t stop criticism but it does build the support you need to get things done.”

With the help of the Partners for Livable Communities, in 1983, a cross-section of civic leaders toured European and American cities, returning home with a new set of regeneration ideas. Then, in 1984, with funding from the local Lyndhurst Foundation, the citizen-based Chattanooga Venture process was established to initiate a community-wide visioning process from which a series of goals and projects would emerge. It took 52 meetings in 26 weeks attended by 3,000 people — but a plan did emerge.

A longstanding aquarium idea grew from a “little sideshow on the river” into a huge, privately funded $45 million defining project and was quite controversial. “The fish tank on the river,” the critics called it. Prevailing views identify the aquarium as the catalyst for dozens of good things adding up to downtown renewal.

The process revealed ideas planners hadn’t thought of and could be done quickly. There was a strong call for a Family Violence and Rape Crisis Center, a “real surprise,” Littlefield reports. “Quality of life is about more than the pretty things. We didn’t know we had a battered women problem.”

Another surprise was a strong push to save the lavish 1921 Tivoli Theater, once known as “the jewel of the South” and centrally located on Broad Street, downtown’s spine. It closed in 1961. The city purchased it, slapped on a coat of paint and reopened it in 1963. But the visioning process revealed a strong desire for a full restoration of its elaborate interior notable murals and golden cherub glory. After a $7.5 million restoration, the Tivoli reopened in 1988 and like in many of its counterparts in American downtowns again serves as a centerpiece.

Many distinctive revitalizing projects followed. A free electric bus running the full length of Broad Street carries a million passengers a year. This turned into a veritable economic development project: a new company was formed in Chattanooga, Advanced Vehicle System (AVC), to manufacture the buses and is now one of three such companies in the country.

The 100-year Walnut Street Bridge over the Tennessee River, scheduled for demolition, was restored as a pedestrian and biking passage, connecting downtown to the North Shore neighborhood so effectively that the North Shore experienced an organic rebirth. A waterfront highway was replaced with Riverpark, replete with a variety of recreational uses.

The appealing projects are many — an impressive Hunter Museum of American art and an adjacent arts district, scattered loft conversions, a restored inner city school serving as a very successful school for arts and sciences, and more. But most interesting perhaps is that Chattanooga is still very much an industrial city with many large manufacturing companies, most recently joined by Volkswagen. This “family wages” industrial base, Littlefield notes, remains the heart of the city’s economy.

As good as it all sounds, Chattanooga’s downtown is missing the connective granular city that so many American cities lost during the height of bulldozer urban renewal. An overabundance of parking lots and garages, curb cut drive-in eateries and unfortunate replacement buildings interrupt the flow of what could be a positive pedestrian experience. Residential conversions are scattered — and so far, scarce. One million square feet of empty office space remains a challenge. The small local businesses that give a place character lack visibility. Shop windows offer nothing to stop and look at. The vibrancy of a bustling urban place remains to evolve.
Still, it’s hard to believe the Chattanoogians’ “can do” spirit won’t in time uncover new ideas to make the city center — and, with luck, the entire Chattanooga region — a place of distinction.

Roberta Brandes Gratz is an urban critic and author of the newly published The Battle For Gotham: New York In the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs,2010, Nation Books. columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to