Officer Alex revisits a place of pain and history, for him and its residents
It was like a furnace out here more often than not; an Easy Bake Oven for depression and unemployment, and it was set for “broil.”
At the peak of the summer you could literally see waves of heat coming from the pavement, eager to greet the polyester Kevlar and cotton of your uniform in a way few other places can do. That was just its initial “hello,” which was appropriate since this place had a veritable pulse about it, like it was a living thing. And now? It was in ruins.
I stopped by the opening of a chain-link fence surrounding what was once the Boone Heights Housing Development, the largest set of projects in Chattanooga for decades. (It ended its functional life as the Harriet Tubman Federal Housing Project, but to those in the club it will always be Boone Heights.) Four hundred forty units of fun at every corner, and a shell casing for every doorstep in its criminal prime.
I wandered through rubble-filled streets that once bordered the two-story, red-brick, cookie-cutter homes that made this place what it was and it felt like I might as well have been on an alien planet.
It was the first place I had been shot at from an alleyway. My first on-the-job injury to my back took place rolling into a concrete drainage ditch on its north end. It was the site of the most interesting New Year’s Eve I had ever worked. And now, it resembled a post-nuclear-war golf course.
I wanted a brick.
Those red bricks said it all when you worked out here, an unmistakable symbol of that place and places like it. They were tough, almost impossible to break. They were porous but they shed water quickly. Bullets defragmented but they never shattered. They were tough, and now? They were in heaps and piles in the streets, red dust from their shattered remains blowing low and slow to the ground like phantoms.
We had discussed making team patches a few years back (this being the Echo Team policing area), and while it never materialized, I was determined that whatever crest was designed, it would have ’60s-era brick patterns in one quadrant. This being the last housing project in Echo Team, imagine how depressing it would have been to have that constant reminder of what was no more?
I remember in years past having to answer all calls in a caravan for safety. A choo-choo train of cops would come in, and as we’d begin questioning the complainants, the indigenous people would throw 40-oz. bottles over the roofs of the adjacent buildings to come randomly raining down on us. I can only imagine their surprise when we would throw them back.
For all the shootings, stabbings, retaliations, thefts, and “burning of the garbage dumpsters in protest” when community tensions were high (a new brand of stench you’ll be happy not to even imagine, I can assure you), it was also one more thing: people’s homes.
I met a young girl once who was holding a newborn. Standing in the middle of the street, she was excited because this meant she could get her own place. “Right there, right by my grammaw’s house,” she said, leaning her head in its general direction. She was going to be the fifth generation to live within two blocks of each other in what used to be called “temporary housing.”
This isn’t a socioeconomic rant, mind you; her pride was as real as the red clay grassless yard we were standing next to. She grew up here on these streets, as did her mother and her mother before that. This wasn’t a sentence, this wasn’t a punishment: This was their home, and I tried to bear that in mind out of respect…it just became more difficult when the bottles or bullets were falling.
I’ve got my souvenir brick now, and it’ll go on a shelf with other mementos that wouldn’t mean anything to any other person, but I’m being sincere when I tell you that while the bricks themselves are being loaded on pallets for resale and soon won’t be here anymore, the memories of this place will never fade.
Good night, Mrs. Harriet.