Lots of people are packing their bags and leaving the ‘burbs
Old industry, faded signs high on brick walls, the odor of a chicken plant, neighborhoods cobbled together amid workshops and a sprawling train depot. Chattanooga’s Southside community is the city’s poster child for its growing sense of urban identity. The energy and attractive hustle of a vibrant central thoroughfare, Main Street, has given rise to steady growth and transformation over the past decade, as conversations with a cross-section of long-time and more recent residents demonstrate.
Urban Chattanoogans express a range of both unified and contrasting views about their city, but one common trait among the range of Southside residents I spoke with, is that they are all quick to chat about where they call home. Not only that, it felt like every person I met had at least five other important neighbors to mention or introduce me to in order to vivify my picture of the Southside with a whole spectrum of colorful characters.
Although not immune to the frustrating social complexities experienced by most gentrifying cities, the story of recent life in Chattanooga’s Southside is one of vibrancy, growth, and a sense of cautious optimism. Many have carved out homes in this corner of Chattanooga precisely because of the lack of a tidy niche culture. For burgeoning entrepreneurs, new starts feel possible here, as they may not in older neighborhoods more steeped in the traditional southern old growth model.
For example, I started out by talking with an old college friend: local community builder and advocate, Stratton Tingle. He moved to his current apartment seven years ago, after noticing a “for rent” sign on the door. He needed more space for his band to practice without annoying his neighbors, so he moved over from the North Shore to what used to be an old hotel on Market Street. Since that time, he has certainly noticed a spike in rent prices, a running theme among every resident I spoke with, many of which expressed relief at having locked in a lower rental rate or purchasing early enough in the area’s development arc to make their lives here comfortably affordable, while still maintaining the flexibility to pump creativity back into their communities.
Favorite community haunts and conveniences like the Carniceria, Mean Mug, and Flying Squirrel are easily walkable, which makes driving an unnecessary hassle, unless the weather is particularly dismal. On driving days, parking is still possible to find along Main, albeit tougher to snag, which is another appeal of the area in contrast to the paid parking pretty much everywhere else downtown. Although nearby residents, Genesis Greykid and Jasmine Clark often stroll to local food and coffee options, they agree that finding parking for their visitors can be a hassle, but can also relate to his rationale about not prioritizing drivers:
“With an increase in foot and bike traffic—I LOVE the Chattanooga bikes—the neighborhood feels more connected and vibrant, so if less parking options pushes that, I think it’s alright. Plus, foot traffic encourages business growth.”
Many young professionals here find ways to weave into the local economy and even government, with the guidance and encouragement of more experienced business owners. Where a larger city might present more hurdles to participation, Tingle admires Chattanooga’s hospitality toward young residents committed to flavoring the neighborhood’s unique vibe. Main Street has seen a sprouting of fresh businesses, owned by a mix of older and younger entrepreneurs with vision, tenacity, and a binding sense of Southside pride.
For instance, The Flying Squirrel now anchors a busy pocket of weekend activity. But when Dan Rose and Max Popple started the Crash Pad climber-friendly hostel five years back, Rose says their plot, sandwiched between Niedlov’s Bakery and what were mostly abandon back-rail yards, had a much more deserted vibe. Rose is encouraged by new establishments continuing to take off nearby, because it allows both locals and tourists to bar-hop, lending to regular weekends the kind of energy once reserved for special events like Mainx24.
Residents often fondly reference the Mainx24 event, initiated by Southside community anchors like Ken and Ellen Hayes, as a unifying hub of neighborhood identity, mentioning the parade and international food offerings as examples of an ideal day spent in the neighborhood. Businesses along Main Street collectively benefit from a rush of exposure to potential customers, some living right on their doorstep.
Friends since college, the Venables and Doremans feel lucky to now share a common backyard at their townhome on Mitchell Street, just off of Main. They can easily stroll over to Niedlov’s or Local Juice for morning treats any weekend, but the proximity is especially handy for access to the festivities during Mainx24. Susanna Venable looks forward to it each year.
“All the shops are giving out free snacks an drinks, so people are wandering in that never usually shop in this area—we feel lucky to be within walking distance of all of it.”
Regular days provide great entertainment in true southern style as both couples enjoy simply “porch settin’,” where they can wave to passing neighbors, and engage in discussions about neighborhood history and issues with others who have lived on the street for years. The Venables know there are many residents fed up with the smell of the chicken plant, but although they admit it’s unpleasant, they’ve gained a broader understanding of the complex blend of industry and residential life after listening to one neighbor who depends on working the night shift there. Conversations between neighbors of varying backgrounds and perspectives keep Southside living vibrant and politically enlightening.
Ang Marlin, who recently settled into the newly renovated Passenger Flats behind the Choo Choo, sees the Southside as a holdout for creative residents in the face of fast development. When I toured the building a few months after she moved in, Ang, a nurse with a personal passion for art explained,
“I’ve always loved the open spirit of the Southside area, and I just want that to keep thriving. I believe in keeping Chattanooga weird.”
Marlin’s sentiments about the Southside as a creative haven echo Tingle’s praise for a now discontinued MakeWork grant he received back in 2009, without which he would have relocated to focus on music. He is hopeful that the community continues to foster support for working artists, making it viable to live and create while contributing work to support business growth.
Over the last thirteen years, architects Heidi Hefferlin and Craig Kronenberg have both witnessed and influenced many phases of Southside development, the quality of which Hefferlin is passionate about maintaining. HK Architects have a tradition of valuing historic buildings, and boast an impressive record of promoting form-based codes for design and structural integrity in the era of fast development.
At her sister Melissa Hefferlin's art studio off of Williams, which she shares with fellow artist Daud Akhriev, we engaged in a lunch conversation about what continues to work on the Southside. As a property owner, Hefferlin is pleased with the popularity of the neighborhood, the vitality of business, and promise of continued growth. Akhriev and Hefferlin, who have worked in the area during part of most years since 2003, agree that most of the changes have been encouraging, especially improved sidewalks and planted trees. Upon each return from Spain, their other home, they noticed more young people starting businesses in town.
With their recent launch of Pathfinder, a video marketing agency with offices off of Main, Leif and Lucky Ramsey find themselves in inspiring company, not to mention conveniently located.
“We really are blessed with perks in this neighborhood,” Ramsey says. “With improved sidewalks, it’s an easy stroll from our loft on Cowart to our offices here on Main. We have fresh coffee just across the street at Velo, where our building’s owners actually live also, in a really lovely space.”
Creative renovation has been another hallmark of Southside living over the last several years, as businesses like Set in Stone (concrete fixtures/design), Velo Coffee, and the Crash Pad/Flying Squirrel took anchor here. Nathan Smith, Andrew Gage, and Dan Rose, respectively, have each invested in residential build-outs connected to their business. Living close to work has its perks and annoyances, but Rose notes that it’s offered him a close-range vantage from which to mingle in the neighborhood.
“I mostly like living so close to all of this,” he comments, indicating the broad swath of lawn between the Crash Pad and the Flying Squirrel, “as long as I’m able to be off when I need to be.”
It seemed true across the board, that the Southside attracts those who are willing or even eager to sacrifice suburban convenience in favor of committing to develop a healthy urban neighborhood. Jefferson Park resident and community advocate, Mike Fulbright, raised the question simmering beneath the surface of gentrification changes, “I tend to hear various interpretations for what folks mean when they talk about the Southside, often dissected from the historical zoning. I’ve been learning from friends in my neighborhood and who teach in our local schools that what feels opportunistic or trendy, may not always be benefiting all neighbors equally.” Greykid and Clark shared experiences with racial profiling near their apartment block, and express a mix of delight and frustration with the Southside.
“It’s growing, but without checks in place for building management and safety, we will still not be taken seriously when we have valid security complaints,” Clark stated. “With more development will come greater competition, so hopefully building management standards will rise, instead of just the rent.”
Southside neighbors agree that their community faces continued challenges common to a developing urban mixed residential/business zone. Main Street may still be a comparatively quiet street most evenings: low traffic, many establishments closed around sunset, but having listened to a range of voices it’s easy to imagine the ongoing hum of hard questions, exciting project proposals, collaboration, shared stories, coffee, burgers, bread, beer. The noise of city dwellers figuring it out.