andy berke arts
I can’t shake the feeling that Chattanooga right now is at a hinge point. I’m not sure a hinge is the best image, but there it is. Which way will the door swing?
I see two hinges, actually. They coincide with the turning of the electoral wheel of fortune into and out of the Littlefield administration.
There have been plenty of other inflection points in Chattanooga’s renaissance, when dice were rolled, risks were taken and directions changed: Riverbend’s 1981 predecessor “Five Nights in Chattanooga,” the Vision2000 and Moccasin Bend Task Force community planning exercises, the Tennessee Aquarium’s opening in 1992.
But most of those began before official Chattanooga was fully on board with this renaissance thing. Even with foundation backing, many of these initiatives—including the Aquarium, when it was first proposed—were way outside the mainstream. It’s only since Mayor Gene Roberts’ 1983-97 tenure ended that mayors have explicitly claimed the role (for better or worse) as bandleader-in-chief for the city’s renaissance.
While Mayors Kinsey and Corker had their share of successes, failures and controversies, their administrations didn’t change the arc of Chattanooga’s narrative. The Littlefield years were such a turn for the worse on so many fronts that they must be considered qualitatively different.
Although populist anti-Lookout Mountain sentiment has always been around, Littlefield was unique in recent politics for making it a centerpiece of his campaign. To some degree it might have been inevitable since his chief opponent in 2005, Ann Coulter, had been a RiverCity Company executive.
But Littlefield went deep into those toxic waters, portraying himself as an anti-Mountain populist while gathering support from developers who resented being told what to do by Stroud Watson, RiverCity Company’s urban designer who had been given quasi-official design oversight by Kinsey and Corker for much of downtown development.
Some developers resented Watson telling them their best efforts to cash in on the downtown renaissance with suburban-style projects wouldn’t cut it. Instead of trying to learn how to develop effectively in an urban setting, they complained and supported Littlefield’s campaign. One of Littlefield’s very first acts as mayor was the very public sacking of Watson. The urbanist who had done more to shape the form of the rejuvenated city than anyone else went out on his ear.
After Littlefield threw that bomb (plus a few others) into the collection of city agencies, the foundations and RiverCity Company that comprised Chattanooga’s urban revitalization infrastructure, there were more than a few weeks of hand wringing. But before long new agencies were created with foundation backing: CreateHere and green|spaces simultaneously worked around the new lack of city enthusiasm and tried to mend fences and bring the city back to the table as a willing (if smaller) player in the drama that was being moved forward primarily by others.
For example, the city repaired curbs and sidewalks to help kick off the commercial revival of Main Street. Groundwork for Main Street’s comeback had been laid by years of neighborhood-focused housing development by Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise (which Littlefield stopped), and the work continued with the presence and activities of CreateHere and green|spaces, as well as various incentives from foundations.
If the first hinge is defined in retrospect by all the things Littlefield took a wrecking ball to and by those creative work-arounds, the second hinge is defined not just by his departure, but because so many things are in play now and awaiting Andy Berke’s response.
The economic ripples from Volkswagen and other new industries are just beginning. EPB’s gig-speed Internet is getting national media attention and starting to spin off companies. The Lyndhurst and Benwood foundations are refocusing. A three-state, 16-county economic growth initiative is just getting started. RiverCity Company last year restarted big public urban design thinking with their Urban Design Challenge.
What Chattanooga’s visionary urban planning has done in the past is to help the city dream. The methods may be invisible to most non-professionals, but the results are not: the Aquarium and its surrounding blocks, Coolidge Park, Walnut Street Bridge, the riverfront, the Riverwalk, the first few blocks of a revived Main Street, the Southside, Stringer’s Ridge.
The visible part of that iceberg may look like the result of just holding a few public meetings, creating a plan and building it out. But effective public engagement is best understood as a structured way of helping people dream about a new city. For the dream to work, it has to emerge simultaneously not just from the heads of designers, developers and investors, but also from regular people who couldn’t care less about design and development.
It’s a crazy balancing act, and it needs to happen again. That’s what I want to see from the new mayor: a return to the kind of urban dreaming that reshapes the city. Not instead of dealing with crime, education and economic development, but as an integral part of the whole agenda. When urban design is done well, it draws everything else in and supports other priorities.