Urban Ascension

What can we learn from Chattanooga's downtown revival?

You're downtown in this city beside the Tennessee River, where lots of the cars have orange-and-white Go Vols stickers on their bumpers, where Republican bankers in dark suits and well-identified TVA employees amble to lunch with hands in pockets, pretending to ignore the Market Street preacher. It's a city that used to have a terrible reputation, you know, called the worst in the nation for one thing or another--but you don't hear much about that today.

There's the massive turn-of-the-century Miller's department-store building on the corner; it's beautifully renovated and well used, a restaurant out front, an elaborate fountain in the lobby. Most of the old buildings downtown appear to be renovated; almost all are occupied. Old warehouses are handsomely refitted as upscale retail outlets. People are lining up to see a movie at the brand-new downtown seven-screen cineplex. An electric shuttle whooshes to a noiseless stop along a tree-shaded street and picks up passengers who pay nothing. By the river, downtown and on into the suburbs, there's a gorgeous public greenway, miles and miles of it, even crossing the broad river on a pedestrian bridge; on this weekday, hundreds of very young and very old citizens walk and jog and bicycle. Everyone you meet, black and white, rich and poor, seems proud and excited to live in a city like this.

It's not a futuristic dream of Knoxville, or a Jehovah's Witness tract about Heaven. It's Chattanooga, this week.

If you were in Chattanooga 20 years ago and haven't been there since, we may have already lost you. You remember when Chattanooga was a post-industrial wasteland where you had to turn on your lights to see through the haze at midday and people told stories of women's nylons disintegrating in the sulphurous air. By 1970 Chattanooga had become America's most polluted city, an official designation from the Nixon administration and, less formally, the "Armpit of the South."

Maybe it took things getting just that bad for Chattanooga to turn around so radically in the last 25 years, to change from one of the nation's foulest cities to a modern Citadel profiled as an ideal in Swedish television documentaries, that was only last month hailed as one of the "Ten Most Enlightened Cities in America" in an Utne Reader cover story; a city that urban planners and environmentalists and entrepreneurs see as a model city.

And, for more pragmatic purposes, land values in downtown Chattanooga's 200 acres nearest the river have doubled since 1988, and continue to rise at about 20 percent per year; the number of businesses in the same district has quadrupled. "Office space is extremely tight in downtown Chattanooga," says Jill Kidder, manager for business development for the busy Chattanooga Downtown Partnership, located on Miller Plaza at the center of downtown. "There's not a lot of retail space left." Since 1992 alone, more than 50 new retail stores and 35 new restaurants have opened in downtown Chattanooga.

The story of Chattanooga's turnaround is dramatic and inspiring--and maybe relevant to Knoxville's problems and potentials.

At the heart of Chattanooga's change, it's true, is a cadre of very generous philanthropists with wealth unimagined in many cities--but in Chattanooga today there's also a motivated and energetic network of public officials, academics, and volunteers, as well as something less tangible--unity of purpose, a defiant civic pride, and an often-startling sense of municipal adventure.

Stand on Chattanooga's old Broad Street during the day, and within five minutes you'll hear a whooshing sound you've never heard in Knoxville. It's the sound of an electric shuttle stopping to pick you up and take you anywhere you want to go along the two-mile stretch that's downtown Chattanooga, from the famous Aquarium on the riverbank to the Choo Choo and Warehouse Row outlets. At the end of the working day, Chattanoogans queue up like Brits; if this one's full, they'll wait five minutes for the next one. These wonders are manufactured here in Chattanooga, by a firm that will soon be exporting them abroad.

Chattanooga's transit company, CARTA, may be unique in this galaxy. It's one thing to use home-built electric buses as commuter shuttles. It's another thing to run them free of charge. It's yet another thing for the public-transportation people to build parking garages; the city's built two of them so far, with public funds. And it's a whole 'nother thing for the bus company to get involved in building a movie complex downtown.

That's what happened last year when CARTA shared its parking garage project with a Carmike seven-screen movie cineplex. Now, when you buy popcorn at the movies, the revenues help pay for the electric shuttles. Having a big movie complex showing first-run movies downtown for the first time in 20 years is good for the parking-garage business that funds the free-shuttle business, and it's good for the city.

The Deep Pockets

Discussing Chattanooga's success, Knoxvillians who know something about that city down-river are likely to shrug and mention three names: Lupton, McClellan, and Davenport. These are dynasties that have made major fortunes on a huge Coca-Cola bottling concern, Provident Insurance, and Krystal restaurants, respectively. (The Luptons founded their own personal mega-charity, the Lyndhurst Foundation.) We just don't have anybody that rich, we say, and maybe we don't.

The ratio between private and public funding in Chattanooga is strongly tipped on the private side; members of the families involved are justly proud of that luxury many cities can't enjoy.

However, some Chattanoogans seem impatient with the prejudice that their city is propped up with hundreds of millions of Lyndhurst bucks. Bill Sudderth, who once headed much of the revival effort as president of the Lyndhurst-funded River City Company, has been quoted saying, "Tell you what we'll do. In the case of Knoxville, you send us UT and we'll trade, okay?" Every city, he says, has its own strengths. (It's a relevant comparison; UT on-campus sporting events alone draw as many paying visitors each year as Chattanooga's Aquarium does.)

"Every city has its deep pockets," says Jim Bridger, a planner who works with RiverValley Partners, the dynamic organization funded by the city and the Lyndhurst Foundation. "But the question is, do the people with those deep pockets have vision about what the city can be."

You get the impression that the word vision means something different in Chattanooga; organization and implementation is somehow implied. In 1984, Chattanooga Venture, a Lyndhurst-funded community organization, invited the whole city to set goals through a public meeting process they called Vision 2000. Some 1,700 Chattanoogans brought their ideas to the table. The 40 goals set through those meetings became the blueprint for much of what's happened in Chattanooga--including the riverside greenways, the Walnut Street Bridge restoration, and the Aquarium itself--in the last 10 years. Two years later, the RiverCity Company formed to give shape and money to the citizens' dreams. Another organization, Partners for Economic Progress, was already at work. The merger of all those beneficent organizations is now known as RiverValley Partners.

Heir Robert Davenport Jr. works in a plain corner of RiverValley's design center at Miller Plaza. He spent years making a success of the drive-through hamburger chain Central Park, still headquartered in downtown Chattanooga. However, after decades of work in an automobile-dependent business, Davenport now spends his time trying to get people out of their cars. As full-time project manager of the Trust for Public Land, he spends his days acquiring property for Chattanooga's already amazing but forever growing network of greenways. It's not as lucrative as heading a corporation, but to him it makes perfect sense.

"Some cities are in such a 1950s mentality," Davenport says. "I can't believe how much Tennessee spends every year on roads. Building roads, maintaining roads, thinking about roads. We've just got a ton of roads. The big opportunity is building the cities. But it has to be done artfully. All this stuff is carefully planned. You can have gigantic investment and make gigantic errors. It takes a lot of damn leadership."

Greenest City in the Land of the Free?

David Crockett is a long-time Republican city councilman, an army veteran who worked as a salesman for IBM for 25 years. At well over six feet tall, he seems to command a shadow of his famous ancestor's popularity. As he stands talking for a few minutes on Broad Street on a cloudy afternoon, Chattanoogans both black and white approach him and shout, Councilman! and greet him with a hug or a handshake.

Councilman Crockett answers in folksy accents of the small Southern towns where he grew up. Paunchy and clean-shaven with a golf pro's haircut, he wears a dark suit and, sometimes, an old-fashioned Stetson. He's a good ol' boy, no question, but the things he says aren't what you expect to hear from a country boy or, for that matter, a Republican city councilman.

Crockett heads a Chattanooga organization called Sustainable Development Institute and has become a celebrity on those urban-design documentaries as an evangelist for a new way of thinking about cities. "We're starting to ask different questions," he says. "The whole notion of sustainability--what does that mean? The whole notion of how you do things through design, technology, and public policy. How do you look at each of these elements and build a city that's progressive and livable?"

Sustainability is a word you hear a lot in Chattanooga these days. To Crockett and many Chattanoogans in the public and private sectors, sustainable growth means efficient use of land and other resources with an eye for future generations. It calls for long-range thinking and zero tolerance for the notion of waste, whether it's waste of land, time, money, or human resources.

We're in a meeting room at the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce when this Republican councilman does something astonishing. He takes the dark blue coffee mug he's been drinking from and empties it out on the table. "That's about two ounces of coffee," he says.

As he talks, the puddle grows slowly, and he makes no move to get a CD and some papers safely out of the way.

And, he adds, "That's the growth pattern of cities."

The brown puddle on the table widens. Unplanned cities, he says, grow in concentric circles, moving people farther and farther away from each other and from goods and services. The wider the puddle-city stretches, the more time people spend in cars, the more roads have to be built, the more countryside is lost. "For years, the path to progress was paved with asphalt," he says. "We're suffering a loss of farmland at an alarming rate, to highways and strip malls and big-box centers."

Environmentalists might like what he's saying--but Councilman Crockett's perspective is that of a conservative businessman. "We're building roads we can't pay for by any tax rates that are reasonable. Costs are rising far faster than the population is. No good business person would raise spending to the extent that we have and expect to stay in business."

Suburban commercial and residential developments served by interstate exits, Crockett says, are a tax-and-spend boondoggle. "There's a whole lot of difference between being conservative and being stupid," he adds. "To create the suburban model required government subsidies. That's antithetical to conservatism."

The puddle thins out and widens still more, eventually taking the shape of a run-over cat. Crockett seems to be containing a keen anger at his predecessors in Chattanooga government. "Ninety percent of what we do in city government is mop-and-bucket work," scrubbing the stains of careless generations who built stores cheaply, used them for a few years, and then found it expedient to abandon them. "You see them today, cutting the ribbon on a new development with seven K-marts' worth of parking. Twenty years from now, somebody will be back mopping that up, cutting the ribbon on another one.

"This time we're not gonna say, 'Here's a model we ran in the '50s and '60s and '70s and '80s.' This time we'll design cities in such a way they'll be livable, and we can build on them. One billion dollars in road improvements, state, federal, and local: If we were just a little bit bright, here, we'd ask, 'What are we doing that will allow the future to build on what we've done?' We think the answer is to widen the roads--so people can leave town faster. How come all this dumb stuff seems so smart while you're doing it?"

Business people, Crockett says, should know better. "If we'd started asking real-estate agents about selling homes next to those cloverleafs, I wonder how many of them would have thought building them was a good idea? Anybody who is a businessman and a conservative--beyond the bumper stickers--can do the accounting."

A good Republican, Crockett doesn't suggest killing careless development with legislation. Still, some of Crockett's solutions are as surprising as those electric buses. "We could pay developers not to use their property," he says. "Say, 'Listen, I want you to make money, but the rest of us don't want to go broke--so just take the money.'"

He and his colleagues have also discussed declining state road grants. "Everybody says, 'You mean you'd turn down state road money?' We say, 'Yeah, we might!'"

Building More Than Buildings

Some urban boosters cite the presence of footloose UT-Chattanooga student consumers as a big reason for Chattanooga's success; but UTC's student body is less than a third the size of UTK's. One clue to Chattanooga's success may be another university that's not even in town. UTC doesn't have the College of Architecture; UTK does.

It was almost 20 years ago that Vision 2000 was casting around for ways to improve the city and called UT. Over the years, several UT architecture professors and scores of students have gotten to know I-75 south as they helped Chattanooga realize its dreams. Leading the brainstorming was a maverick urban designer just back from several years of work designing towns in England. In a bushy white beard and leather vest, Stroud Watson is a strong contrast to Crockett's conservative appearance. Some refer to Watson, who has been instrumental in the city's urban planning for 16 years, as the mastermind behind Chattanooga's success. A UT professor of architecture, Watson was a Knoxville resident when he visited Chattanooga in 1981.

The festival that became Riverbend was then in its infancy; Watson says the celebration was partly an attempt to get Chattanoo-gans downtown in the evening. "We began with the notion that you inhabit the city," he says. "You don't desert it at 5:30." Chattanooga's Riverbend festival has been held for 10 days every June since 1984 and from the beginning was bigger, grander, more successful than any Knoxville festival has ever been, with major, nationally-famous musical acts performing outside along the riverfront.

But Riverbend was just one way to get the public involved. Chattanoogans at large were invited to offer advice and ideas; many of all races and incomes participated enthusiastically.

"What you want in urban design is to look at the wholeness of a community: its history, past, present, and future," says Watson. "We were dead set on creating a place that couldn't be created anywhere else but Chattanooga," he says. "Chattan-oogans couldn't get to the river," the city's historical source. "There was no center, no civic life. We asked the question, How do we get to the river? How do we go back to where the city began? Is there a way to make a physical, metaphorical, intellectual link to the city?"

One answer that came up through these UT co-sponsored Vision 2000 meetings was a freshwater aquarium--a relevant, modern way for Chattanooga to rediscover its origins as a river town.

"The Aquarium didn't become the reason for getting back to the river," Watson says. The reason was there on the table first. "The Aquarium became a catalyst." The Lupton family later took that ball and ran with it, with money to make the Tennessee Aquarium, completed in 1992, bigger and more amazing than anyone had anticipated.

Via Vision 2000, public participation was welcome and invited. Knoxville architect Buzz Goss, who has been working as a consulting architect on various Chattanooga projects for years, comments on an interesting irony: The RiverValley Partners' solicit public advice and approval for its privately-funded Chattanooga projects, he says, much more than Knoxville's own government seeks the public's opinion for its publicly- funded projects, like baseball stadiums and county jails.

Watson says education of the public--partly just through demonstrating what can work--is central to RiverValley Partners' mission.

Some cities, like Portland, Oregon, achieve similar goals through legislation. Chattanooga has sign ordinances much stricter than Knoxville's, making the Market Street McDonalds look humble indeed, but Republican Chattanooga wouldn't cotton to many more rules imposed by government. "It's done through public persuasion," Watson says, "through making things visible."

Watson's design center strongly encourages downtown businesses to follow sound urban-planning guidelines. "You build cities--you don't just build buildings," he says, mentioning just one example of the guidelines the design center offers: All buildings at ground level have to have publicly-accessible activities.

"We've been fortunate," Watson says. "We've had success after success. Nothing has happened that hasn't spun off something else. We try to be careful that all we do is a positive example of what can be done."

Ask these folks to brag about what they've already done, and they're likely to steer you toward what's on their drawing boards now. Southside, a large and until recently blighted residential area adjacent to downtown, is the current project. Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise is nonprofit-- funded by Lyndhurst, HUD, and state and local funds--and serves as a sort of massive neighborhood-wide Habitat for Humanity. However, CNE has a little different twist on the idea. Within this low-income neighborhood, they're building and renovating some upscale apartment buildings; if it works, very different socioeconomic classes of people will live in the same neighborhood. It's textbook urban planning, and it's the way most cities worked a century ago, but it's rarely tried today. Other "catalyst projects," like UTC's new 20,000-seat Finley Stadium and a huge, publicly-funded $35 million expansion of the existing Convention and Trade Center, will help out.

Diversity and Sustainability

Chattanoogans in leadership positions tend to talk faster than most Knoxvillians, as if they've got more to say and less time to say it. But even then, a Chattanoogan may take an hour to answer one question, especially when the question is something like, "What's the deal about Chattanooga, anyway?"

Watson's no exception. "To have a sustainable city, you've got to continue to inhabit the footprint. Re-use, re-energize, contour the life within the city so you don't have to go out of it. Re-inhabit what you have. You wonder why cities are like war zones. It's because we build these cheap-ass buildings and then get up and leave! People settle in Chattanooga for the natural environment. If we keep going out in the country and gobbling it up, we won't have one."

For more than 30 years, scholars of urban design, several of whom have lectured to Chattanooga's public and private officials, have convincingly blamed several of America's problems--from the high divorce rate to gang activity, from racism to plain rudeness--on badly-planned cities. Watson keeps a copy of Jane Jacobs' classic treatise, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, handy on the shelf. She and many more scholars since have emphasized the importance of a diversity of people and activities in a public place.

"If you want a quality downtown, you have to have diversity," Watson says. "You get in line for a movie, you see the whole city, the mayor, city councilmen, the guy who scrubs dishes at the Choo Choo, kids spilling popcorn. Every segment of the population thinks it's for them." Open public involvement in urban planning may have beneficial results. Though there are lots of concealed areas along the riverwalk, these public places seem remarkably free of graffiti and vandalism.

"Children come down here with skateboards, in-line skates," Watson says, adding that he pushed hard to allow skateboarders on Miller Plaza, the public area outside RiverValley's offices, which architects have designed to serve as a cultural city center. "For every chipped corner, that's a downtowner you've created," Watson says. "That person will always understand what it means to be downtown, meet their friends. They can't miss the homeless--and they know me. Life is a full spectrum of things happening. Until people can see them and accept it, I won't know it's part of my problem. If we don't care about our neighbors, in the end we won't have anything to care about, anyway."

(Just outside the design center, the police officers who hang around the substation seem to have a different perspective. "Skateboarding is a no-no," Officer Pope says, pronouncing the words carefully as if to be sure they'll be spelled correctly. He cites a favorite judge who always throws the book at the miscreants he busts; Pope is also proud that they've run off most of the homeless, as well.)

When he lived in Knoxville, just after the World's Fair closed, Watson became intrigued with one of Knoxville's biggest urban-design challenges. "I tried to develop the fair site as 'a city within a city,'" Watson says, "but there didn't seem to be a will to go forward with that." Told of current plans to raze three or four blocks of occupied downtown Knoxville buildings to construct a new justice center, he winces. "I thought we'd gotten past that," he says.

Watson says his wife, who is English, always found the distances in suburban Knoxville especially frustrating. She's now happy in Chattanooga, a city that seems long-since to have become more than a job to her husband, the New York-raised architect. "We're dyed-in-the-wool Chattanoogans, now," Watson says, with a smile that means it.

After Hours

In Knoxville, as elsewhere, crime is at the center of suburbanites' fear of downtown. Neither Knoxville nor Chattanooga have particularly high rates of violent crime, but Knoxville's crime rate is a little lower than Chattanooga's. The Chattanoogans who tread the downtown sidewalks and greenways just aren't as jumpy about it. "We're not afraid anymore," says Jill Kidder.

To Watson and other urban planners, diversity and mixed-use buildings make it less likely pedestrians will be alone on a sidewalk; good urban design is the best assurance of safety.

Two policemen are enjoying a cigarette at Miller Park. Their little outpost is labeled Chattanooga Police Department Substation #3, but these officers say it's the only one. Its presence, they say, has repelled the vagrants who used to congregate here. "Downtown's the safest part of Chattanooga," declares one. "It's also the most patrolled," says the other, flicking his cigarette butt into the square. "Now you see people downtown with their kids at 9, 10 at night." You do, but mainly only when there's a well-advertised reason to be downtown.

Watson speaks of the 24-hour city as an ideal, and promotional literature speaks of Chattanooga as, at least, a "16-hour city"--but in spite of 13 years of well-attended nighttime festivals like Riverbend to prime the pump, as well as the new movie theater, downtown Chattanooga at night is still mighty quiet. "Downtown closes at 5:15," a downtown waitress states matter-of-factly. That's an overstatement, of course: You see people walking the riverwalk and bridge through the evening, and the brewpub, the pool hall, and several restaurants stay open well after dark--but most are too far apart from each other to allow patrons of each establishment the impression that there's anything else going on this evening. There's no Old City here, no Cumberland Avenue.

Nightclubs, in particular, are scarce. Despite a populace that's liberally well-educated by one of the South's best-organized and best-attended public-music programs, Chattanooga has frustrated music promoters, who say Chattanoogans just don't turn out and pay to see good shows. Young Chattanoogans bemoan the lack of small venues for local performers to play.

You can guess at part of the reason in Chattanooga's demographics. The median Chattanoogan is also about a quarter-decade older than the median Knoxvillian and is more likely to live in a family. Chattanooga's long been a more family-oriented place. "Chattanooga's a great place to grow up and go to high school and a great place to settle down and raise a family," says one 30-year-old resident. "But for that time in between, get out." Sitting at the counter at Mudpies, a hip coffee-and-sandwich shop on the north bank where the menu invites you to try to find a female nude hidden in the unconventional art on the walls, he admits that things are much more tolerable for young singles than they used to be, and getting better.

This unique neighborhood is one of the reasons. Even when it's attractive and thriving, much of downtown Chattanooga has a theme-park, unrealistic quality about it. The Aquarium, Discovery Center, IMAX, Bijou cineplex, and their brightly-colorful, oddly-shaped neighbors are meant to appeal to families with kids--and they do. They look like a collection of giant toys on Christmas morning. On the hill around the old Hunter Museum is Bluff View, a tasteful cluster of bed-and-breakfasts, artsy boutiques, art-themed restaurants (e.g., "Rembrandt's Cafe"), and playfully attractive sculpture gardens. They look as if they were all arranged by one well-heeled entrepreneur to create the impression of an "Arts District"--as was the case, in fact. It's very nice, but with rooms at the bed-and-breakfasts running around $200 a night, it's hard to avoid the impression that at Bluff View, art serves the purpose that golf serves at Hilton Head.

However, across the Walnut Street Bridge is the north bank and Frazier Avenue. Despite its small scale, a couple of blocks of one- and two-story buildings, Frazier Avenue seems a more genuinely diverse commercial neighborhood than anywhere else in downtown Chattanooga, maybe more than anywhere else in East Tennessee, boasting an upscale toy store, a pawnshop, a couple of art galleries, a tackle shop, an independent bookstore, a gourmet shop, an ice-cream parlor, and a homebrew shop. The RiverValley Partners didn't subsidize this phenomenon, but it looks like a textbook triumph of urban design.

A blighted, ignored neighborhood in the '80s, Frazier Avenue seemed on the wrong side of the river until Chattanooga, faced with a common problem--a deteriorating, century-old bridge unsafe for heavy traffic--solved it in a very unusual way. With federal, state, and local funds, as well as a few hundred small donors, Chattanooga paved the oldest bridge across the Tennessee with wood. Now the oldest bridge across the Tennessee River is the longest pedestrian bridge in the world.

For thousands of walkers, joggers, and bicyclists, the Walnut Street Bridge is a spectacle more unusual and interesting than the Aquarium itself. (It's nearly a mile across town from the Aquarium, but you can walk there by the riverpark without even crossing one street.) With thousands crossing the bridge just to cross it, entrepreneurs weren't slow to observe the possibilities of the empty Northside area. Today, shopkeepers say foot-traffic across the bridge remains a big part of their business. The city's contribution has been the bronze dance steps in the sidewalk that "animate" the walkway. It seems to work. Every few minutes you see giggling pedestrians trying the Mambo or the Foxtrot by tracing the sidewalk patterns.

If Frazier Avenue wasn't envisioned in the original plans, sidewalk "animation" was. Throughout downtown Chattanooga are whimsical brick sculptures on the sidewalk: a sofa, a rowboat, a fanciful colored-tile mural. Urban design folks say these conceits make ordinary sidewalks more comfortable, interesting, and lively to pedestrians. Similar to another project in Asheville, the Streetscape program is funded by the city of Chattanooga, which intends to add another sculpture every year or so.

So What?

One might doubt whether it's relevant to compare Chattanooga's experience with Knoxville's. Several intractable factors do tip the balance in Chattanooga's favor--and they're not all named Lupton or Davenport. For one thing, Chattanooga is 100 miles closer to Atlanta, making it a comfortable shopping or sightseeing day-trip. Clerks at nationally prestigious Warehouse Row shops say that more of their customers come from Atlanta than from Chattanooga itself. Chattanooga's Aquarium is recent, but the city's tradition of entertaining tourists is not; they've still got Rock City, the Choo Choo, and the visible relics of a nationally-critical conflict.

Another advantage is topographical. Built on an inside bend of the river and hemmed by steep mountains, Chattanooga can't sprawl in the same ways Knoxville does. (The restricting peninsulas of Manhattan and San Francisco are sometimes cited as the reasons those cities maintain such a thriving and concentrated urban life.) Also, some note, wealthier Chattanoogans are forced to deal with downtown Chattanooga purely because downtown Chattanooga happens to be the back-door view from their palatial mountainside homes. "People work downtown, they go back home, and they still see downtown," Watson observes. "Knoxville--when you leave, you fall off the edge. Downtown disappears. The only thing you might see are the tops of the two Butcher buildings."

Perhaps downtown Chattanooga's visibility accounts in part for the fact that, in spite of three large suburban malls, Chattanoogans never gave up on downtown retail quite as thoroughly as Knoxvillians did. Downtown Knoxville has not seen a general-interest new-book shop, for example, in several years. However, Chattanooga's downtown Walden-books opened years before the Aquarium and remains profitable today. (It's a cinch that the national chain wouldn't keep it around if it weren't). Downtown Chattanooga has also maintained a grocery, a couple of clothing stores, a large and lively pool hall, and several other small pre-gentrification specialty stores like a rare-stamp shop, Wormser's Hats, and the Pelican Pipe Shop, the likes of which perished here long ago. Proffitt's closed its downtown Chattanooga store (originally Loveman's) only two years ago; a spokesman says the condition of their enormous old building, and the price of maintaining it, was the deciding factor.

Proffitt's timing seemed odd to many, but the downtown renaissance reportedly had no positive effect on Proffitt's sales; in fact, several of the older businesses report the Aquarium, the Warehouse Row outlet mall, and everything in between has done little for business. (Some say it has even hurt; the young barkeep at the venerable Billiard Club, in fact, says their lunch-hour crowd at the paneled Cherry Street walkup has been way off in the last five years--due to competition from so many other attractions, or so he figures.)

Most of these places have survived thanks to loyal patrons who work downtown; thanks to TVA and some insurance HQs, there seem to be a lot more 9-to-5'ers in downtown Chattanooga than in downtown Knoxville.

Chattanoogans talk a lot about people living downtown, but few actually try it; even fewer, reportedly, than in Knoxville. However, with several ambitious residential developments in the works, Chattanooga may have an urban residential neighborhood downtown soon. "That's the toughest nut to crack," admits Watson.

There's reason to believe that much of Chattanooga's experiment is workable here. In spite of Chattanooga's advantages, downtown Knoxville remains theoretically central to a much-larger metropolitan area than Chattanooga's. Our riverwalk, a somewhat shyer version of Chattanooga's, is well underway. A huge Aquarium is expensive, but Streetscape sculptures, sound urban design for projects that will be built anyway, and the public participation that got it all moving, come pretty cheap.

Though these two cities on the Upper Tennessee are similar in many ways, their public personalities are extremely different. When architectural colleagues Buzz and Cherie Goss were recently considering a move to Chattanooga, where much of their work has been, "Civic Pride" was their chief motive. Visitors are struck with the number of Chattanooga superlatives heard quoted matter-of-factly. The Walnut Street Bridge is the longest footbridge in the world. The Aquarium's the largest freshwater aquarium in the world. The old Incline Railway is America's Most Amazing Mile. Chattanooga native Bessie Smith, for whom Bessie Smith Hall is named, is "undoubtedly the most important woman in the history of American music." "Chattanooga is regarded as one of the most harmonious words in the English language," reports one introductory book, without irony. (We don't necessarily doubt any of these; we're just unaccustomed to hear East Tennesseans talking about home that way.)

Call it arrogant, but that pride seems to be a healthy thing and may be the single biggest difference between Knoxville and Chattanooga. A unity of purpose seems to come with the bargain: Politicians and entrepreneurs do represent their constituencies and patrons--but moreover, they all seem to represent Chattanooga. For now, Jill Kidder observes, "there's not anybody pulling in a different direction." After all, it's not just big money, but the will to use it for the betterment of a whole city that makes Chattanooga seem "enlightened" to so many around the world.

© 1997 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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