Toon Towns

What's so authentic about authenticity?

But now it appears as if some recalibration is in order. Everything about downtown Chattanooga isn't as hunky-dory as had been commonly believed, as evidenced by the city's hotly contested mayor's race that, in an interesting twist, pitted the former director of the Regional Planning Agency (Chattanooga's equivalent of the Metropolitan Planning Commission) Ann Coulter, a suburban-sprawl opponent who was the candidate of the "well-heeled developers" against a "grassroots" candidate who had connections with the road-building industry (the grassroots guy, Ron Littlefield, won, by the way). Public debate in the campaign largely revolved around the city's high-profile public/private redevelopment partnerships and who has profited from them. (A debate whose tendrils touch Knoxville, since Jon Kinsey—former Chattanooga mayor, Market Square developer and sometime business associate of Metro Pulse 's publisher, Brian Conley—was caught up in the controversy.)

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Authentic?

Chattanooga Gets It" was, for a time, a mantra of sorts among Knoxville's downtown denizens and grassroots activists. From public participation to urban design, the city down the river was the yardstick by which most of Knoxville's efforts at self-improvement were measured, and found wanting.

But now it appears as if some recalibration is in order. Everything about downtown Chattanooga isn't as hunky-dory as had been commonly believed, as evidenced by the city's hotly contested mayor's race that, in an interesting twist, pitted the former director of the Regional Planning Agency (Chattanooga's equivalent of the Metropolitan Planning Commission) Ann Coulter, a suburban-sprawl opponent who was the candidate of the "well-heeled developers" against a "grassroots" candidate who had connections with the road-building industry (the grassroots guy, Ron Littlefield, won, by the way). Public debate in the campaign largely revolved around the city's high-profile public/private redevelopment partnerships and who has profited from them. (A debate whose tendrils touch Knoxville, since Jon Kinsey—former Chattanooga mayor, Market Square developer and sometime business associate of Metro Pulse 's publisher, Brian Conley—was caught up in the controversy.)

But the real rift, it seems, was over the "authenticity" of the city's rejuvenated downtown. "Downtown is like Disney World to me now—nice looking but too manufactured," said one former resident of downtown Chattanooga in a recent Chattanooga Pulse article on the divide over downtown's development. And it's an attitude that, according to the article, apparently mirrors many of her contemporaries who called downtown home either before it was cool or when it truly was (depending who you ask). "A lot of us thought Chattanooga seemed poised to be a hip town with artists and musicians, but bohemian types can't afford to live downtown anymore," said the same resident who dissed downtown as Disney-fied.

You can hear similar arguments here, of course. The shape of downtown development—albeit on a more conceptual than concrete level—was certainly a factor in Knoxville's 2003 mayor's race. And, as more and more downtown redevelopment projects push forward, the debate seems far from over. Just the other day a photo on the local weblog South Knox Bubba of some picturesque urban decay along Jackson Avenue elicited the following comment from a poster: 

"That picture really works your sense of longing, either for the archaeology of the scene's past, or for its possibilities. I spent the weekend in Asheville and, for all the primped and trimmed corners of its downtown, I'd never sensed what Asheville was really like until late last night, when some friends of mine walked me through an industrial back lot not too unlike this one, up some clangy wrought iron stairs, and into a dusty letter press studio where some zany looking folks were playing ukulele and mandolin. Anyway, I had the same sense then that your photo gives me about Knoxville, and how you find your history in the secrets of stockyards and ghettos. And you hope that sort of indelible history gets written into whatever redevelopment lies ahead you know, maybe create something out of its industrial vibe, like studios and such, instead of just dormitories for yuppies."

Now, it should come as no surprise that I too have a soft spot for urban decay (for what it's worth, the desktop photo on my laptop was once an artsy-fartsy shot of the neon "air-conditioned" sign that graces the crumbling faade of the Fifth Avenue Motel). But I also realize that "archaeology" becomes more than just a metaphor if downtown's picturesque ruins remain unrepaired for too long. Note that even the preservationists who pushed to save the S&W wrote off another of the block's historic buildings as too far gone to save.

And, as much as I like Asheville and its funky alternative attitude, I'm not sure that "authentic" is the adjective I'd use to describe it.  The same goes for zany folks with letterpresses and ukuleles. Interesting? Yes. Authentic? Well, not exactly. Or, to bring this back to whether a downtown has to be "Disney" to be a cartoon, consider this: The works of counterculture cartoonist Robert Crumb may have been edgy and avant-garde. And they, perhaps more importantly, made the squares uncomfortable. But at the end of the day they were still pictures drawn with pen and ink, just like Mickey.

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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