Taking a wheels-on-the-ground tour with local photographer Bob Edens
When I arrive at the South Chattanooga Recreation Center in Alton Park, photographer Bob Edens is already waiting for me—a self-described “redneck Tennessee boy” sitting in a well-worn wheelchair next to a white van. He has a camera slung around his neck and a boonie hat on his head.
“Tell me where you want to go,” Edens says.
The Villages at Alton Park are a few blocks east of us, and the St. Elmo Food City is a couple blocks west. If I lived in Alton Park and needed groceries, that’s the way I’d go.
While Chattanooga has slowly become more accessible to people who use wheelchairs, scooters, walkers or other forms of mobility assistance, it still isn’t perfect, Edens says as we travel.
Disabled in an accident while riding a Kawasaki 1000 down Shallowford Road in 1985, Edens has seen plenty of change in Chattanooga since then. Sidewalks are wider and smoother as the city has revitalized and welcomed pedestrian natives and tourists. Other changes are due to legal advances; for instance, the ADA requires curb cuts to be installed when any sidewalk is constructed or replaced.
Still, travel by wheelchair is always a challenge.
The Man-Made World
Wherever he goes, Edens must maintain a high level of situational awareness. Sidewalks and the transition between sidewalk, drive, parking lot and road make a lot of difference in where he can go. Other obstacles, unnoticed by most bipeds, can make travel impossible or force long detours.
A two-inch obstacle, such as a drop to a lower sidewalk square, can flip a chair.
Garbage cans left in the sidewalk can make it impassible.
Bricks and other historical or faux-historical pavers can be unpleasantly bouncy.
A phone pole in the sidewalk requires a time-wasting detour or a dangerous hop into traffic.
Behind Food City, we pause to assess our route. We can’t take a shortcut down the alley to Food City; there are chain fences and retaining walls. We start down the hill. I’m feeling a little abashed for choosing this path (what if he crashes into the Grafe Studio window?) but Edens is philosophical: “In Tennessee, you’re gonna have hills.”
A 1:12 gradient is Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant, but nature doesn’t always pay attention to regulations. Edens is less patient with human structures. He can’t get to most of the Incline area, he tells me.
He gestures to a building housing a local eatery.
“How could I get up there?”
“That’s right; I couldn’t.”
Mr. T’s is all right if a crowd isn’t filling the sidewalk, he notes.
We continue on down the hill, past Mr. T’s, and back up the steep drive to Food City. There’s no sidewalk; luckily it’s a Sunday morning with little traffic. I find I’m walking to the outside, protectively.
“Am I being condescending?” I ask, checking myself.
“No problem—you’re taller, so the drivers see you first,” he says, noting that he’s more annoyed by people who hold doors open for him. “But I don’t want to discourage them, either, in case the next person in a chair needs the door held open.”
Another pet peeve: car drivers who stop and wave him across an intersection.
“That’s so annoying,” he says. “I don’t wanna stop traffic for half a mile.”
Up at the Food City parking lot, he asks me again, “How accessible is it?”
I start to look for curb cuts, but the answer’s simple.
“Where shopping carts can go, I can go.”
Returning, Edens asks a man carrying a bucket whether we can take a shortcut behind Food City back to 40th.
“Not in that chair you can’t!”
Instead, we start down the second steep hill of the morning. Edens’ chair has some automatic braking capacity, he says, else he’d be riding the brakes all the way down. I’m becoming mesmerized by his virtuosity.
Edens pops numerous wheelies as we travel around Alton Park, St. Elmo and, later, Main Street. Utility cut? Wheelie. No curb cut? Wheelie.
And everywhere he has to flip up the front of his chair to change levels, he reminds me, a frail wheelchair user or a person in a motorized scooter would likely be stymied altogether.
Back at the Recreation Center, he lets me try the chair. It’s far more responsive than I imagined, speeding forward at a touch, stopping quickly, turning more sharply than I intend. I feel like a kid on a bike for the first time.
We’re ready go to. Edens transfers briskly into the driver’s seat of his van, disassembles his chair, stows battery and seat cushion, and lifts it (one-handed, well out to the left side of his body) into the backseat, where he attaches it with a bungee cord.
To my questions, he notes:
The battery life’s two hours. You can haul a backup battery, but you can’t go too many hours off-grid.
Edens’ Quickie Xtender wheelchair costs upwards of $6,000. His specialty 24-inch by 1 and 3/8-inch tires are $20 apiece for a tire and tube; despite the fact that bicycle tires are available in the same size, the rims are different, so he must special order.
A replacement battery costs $1,400.
The chair, without the power assembly and battery, weighs 15 pounds; fully assembled and ready to roll, it weighs in at 45 pounds.
Wheelchair maintenance requires money or ingenuity; Edens sources Amazon for reasonably priced parts, and sometimes builds his own. For instance, he created a device to prevent traveling sideways with typical sidewalk drift.
“It’s basically a scooter wheel attached to the vertical bolt that holds the front castor on the chair,” he explains. “It normally spins free, but holding the wheel prevents the chair from drifting on uneven terrain.”
Playing in Traffic
We drive downtown to explore Main Street. Edens parks in front of Center Med Spa and assembles his chair; in a parallel parking spot, he has to do this on the traffic side of the van.
We roll up Main Street without incident, though there’s no curb cut at Wilhoit and Main, so Edens has to pop another wheelie. As we travel, he points out Estate of Confusion, once Central Tire at 301 Main, his dad’s business years ago. We meander along talking ‘Nooga gossip without incident until we come to Market Street. We make the right turn, then realize the sidewalk is blocked due to construction in front of the Terminal.
There’s a sign on the barrier, but that’s way too late: a wheelchair user would have needed a “detour” notification back at the Main/Market intersection. Now we face an interesting choice: pop down into the road, or backtrack to Main Street.
We hop down the steep curb and travel along Market Street, with traffic, to the Choo Choo, where the bricks jounce Edens around.
The return trip is equally fraught, though we cross Market Street to avoid the chain-link fence in front of the Terminal. As we travel the block between 14th and 15th, there’s another closed sidewalk, and again we have to pop down into the road and roll along with cars flying past us from behind.
“Chattanooga is an ancient Cherokee word meaning ‘under construction,’” Edens quips.
Edens is remarkably calm about unavoidable obstacles on the sidewalks: construction, a broken crepe myrtle branch. He’s less charitable about predictable problems, such as closed sidewalks without prior notice, or ramps foolishly installed with handrails down the middle, making the “accessible” path, in fact, unusable to anyone in a wheelchair.
Still, there is a lot left to do. When I ask Edens what he’d like to see improved for wheelchair users, he mentions public parks.
“Barriers are put up to discourage four-wheelers—well, chairs are four-wheelers,” he says ironically. As a former nature photographer, lack of access has been one reason he’s switched to figure photography, he tells me.
“I did have a bush suit made of a PVC cage for my wheelchair, covered with camouflage.”
I try to picture a mobile ghillie suit. I fail utterly.
In general, Edens continues, more accessible trails in parks would be great; he calls out Point Park as mostly out-of-range (picture that large metal staircase). On the other hand, Chickamauga Battlefield in Fort Oglethorpe is decent, he notes.
Away from the city center and Southside, the Chattanooga area gets rapidly less accessible, Edens says. East Ridge and East Brainerd he describes as “horrid;” when he wants to go far in his home neighborhood of East Brainerd he generally has to take his van. The Northshore is all right near the river, he tells me, but more difficult toward Hixson Pike
However, Edens is quick to point out, “Accessible for me doesn’t mean accessible for everyone.”
With old-school chivalry, he asks people to consider the needs of those with spinal cord injuries, the elderly, power-chair users, stroke victims. Those folks may not be able to pop a wheelie or muscle a chair up a steep grade.
If he were given an urban accessibility budget, he says, “The first thing I would do would be to get with wheelchair support groups and people who are 90 percent less mobile than I am—I would defer to the people who need it most.”