When it comes to gaining attention and recognition in the media, subjects usually fall into one of two categories: attention or recognition for something bad or attention and recognition for something good. For instance, the State Legislature has, unfortunately, garnered some rather bad media attention of late. Most of it well deserved bad attention, mind you. Yet despite the seemingly unending efforts of some state leaders in Nashville to turn the white-hot spotlight of the media on the wrong side of those two categories, there are others working to direct the world’s attention to our best assets and advantages.
Take Samar Ali, the state’s assistant commissioner of international affairs. Ali and a group of state representatives visited London late last year and met with editors at Monocle, the U.K.-based global affairs magazine. With its far reaching readership, Monocle is considered one of the most influential magazines on newsstands today. Ali and her fellow diplomats were successful in piquing the interest of Monocle editors, who dispatched Alastair Gee, its San Francisco-based bureaux (with an “x”—everything in Monocle is as stylized as its editor) chief to Chattanooga earlier this month to explore some of the companies, people and community leaders who are at the forefront of the continued efforts to invent, revitalize and make our city better place to work and live.
If you’ve never heard of Monocle, don’t feel left out. The magazine—founded by former war correspondent, journalist and Wallpaper magazine founder Tyler Brûlé—is as hefty as the phonebook and carries a similarly hefty $12 price tag. Sophisticated and encyclopedic in scope, each issue lives up to its tagline of “A briefing on global affairs, business, culture and design,” but is far from brief. The December/January issue carries 270 pages with reports from all over the world ranging from international finance and politics to the latest insider fashion news and the hottest airport lounges. Still, it’s not the most visible magazine on the shelf—at least not here in Chattanooga, which as yet does not boast one of the magazine’s growing franchise cafés. The last time I picked up my copy at Barnes & Noble the clerk said, “So, you’re the guy who buys this. Now I only have to return the two others.”
Impressive credentials and much experience covering a wide variety of topics travel with Gee. The British-born, Cambridge-educated journalist began his career at The Moscow Times, and has written for The Economist, The New York Times, Slate, The Sunday Times, Foreign Policy and U.S. News and World Report, among others. His contributions to Monocle are equally diverse, covering technology, health, transportation, culture and urban design. Among his frequent journalistic obsessions are cities and the revitalization of urban cores, as well as entrepreneurial ventures within cities, making him a natural fit for the Chattanooga assignment.
While in town this month, Gee visited local businesses and start-ups to survey the core of what the city has to offer to the world. I had the opportunity to visit with Gee after a welcome dinner at Alleia on Main Street and probe his perspective on his experiences covering cities and his experience here in Chattanooga.
With the variety of subjects that you cover, is there something unified among them or do you simply have a broad range of interests?
I’ve always liked curious problems—people finding quirky solutions to mysteries or finding out what actually happened at an event. It’s certainly driven by my own interests. I like to go talk to people and find out if there is more light I can shed on this problem.
Is that the approach you take when you’re surveying cities or covering start-up sectors and development within cities?
Yes, I think so. The mystery there is, what is working? Something is working. What’s going right there?
Is there a trend or common thread that you’ve picked up on when things are going “right” in a city?
I think one of the main common threads is when I see a city that has dedicated, civic-minded people. You see that in San Francisco, you see it in Oakland. These are people that are devoted to their cities, devoted to the place they live in and they are not ashamed to embrace it. Another common thread is that, for instance, comparing Oakland and Chattanooga, things were really bad in both cities and people wanted to change it. There has to be that impetus for change as well.
I also think there is a commonality in the “tecnologicalisation,” if you will, of business within these cities. People want to be the next Silicon Valley, create Chattanooga 2.0, for instance. You have these mindful tech scenes and people with big ideas within them. I think they bring excitement to a city. Even if they don’t bring massive profits initially, they bring an energy to a city that is important.
Additionally, there is a definite trend toward cities regenerating downtowns. People across the country have become truly dedicated to these efforts. People are looking at the enormous urban sprawl and asking how they can create an alternative to that. They’re asking those questions now and looking for solutions.
As you continue your visit here, what is your sense about your experience so far? How do you think this city fares in comparison to others you have covered?
Certainly, I wouldn’t have suggested to my editors at Monocle that I write about Chattanooga if there wasn’t some exciting things happening here. Visiting places like Co-Lab and talking to them about the venture capital and entrepreneurial side of things and my visit to the Volkswagen facilities are proving that the right things are happening in Chattanooga.