Chattanooga, the Next PXXXXX XXXXX ?

Ladies and gents – be forewarned that the next couple of weeks on the ole C.Rushing blog will be dark. I’m going to use this week and next to experiment with another way of making the argument that both design and the triple bottom line matter.  The way to do that is to project what our city might look like if we continue to sacrifice our uniqueness and quality and to see if there are other cities that have followed that path. In a last second change of heart I have decided not to actually call out all the example tourist trap cities- it’s not really about them anyway.

This year’s obligatory news reports of Americans spiriting off hither and yon for the holiday weekend rubbed me the wrong way. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the institution of the vacation, on the contrary, I embrace it. My agita stems from what a number of our cities have done to themselves in a struggle to grasp the tourist dime. For those who have not had the pleasure of visiting XXXXXX XXXXX, imagine if you would a place flowing with cheap plastic trinkets, airbrushed t-shirts and salt-water taffy. A place cluttered with cheap and cheesy enterprises that appeal to the lowest common denominator of tourist traffic. Its sister cities are likely Panama City Beach, FL and Blackpool, England. If you think I’m being snobby, or that the amount of lucre generated by such places justifies their state– read no further, there is no help for you here.

Our Destiny?
The reason people are still attracted to these places is the nostalgia and myth associated with them. Assuredly these places were not originally founded on principles of visual clutter, renegade advertising, and discount bric-a-brac, otherwise no one would have ever visited in the first place. What made these places once distinctive is their physical setting and environmental quality. These qualities generated visitors and spawned local businesses to service them. Over time the places have become victims of their tourism success. The thirst for the tourist dime has compromised the features that made the places authentic and turned them into caricatures of themselves.

Surely Chattanooga, poster child of American downtown renewal, will never follow that path to the dark side. Right? Well my friend, the transformation is afoot. The symptoms can be seen in the new Buffalo Wild Wings, Applebee’s, the new riverfront ticket shack, our lack of attention to public realm detail, and the way in which we treat the entrance to our downtown home. The symptom is the declining standard of quality- the causes are simplistic accounting, a lack of community discourse and the failure of the citizenry to form and implement its collective will.

When the Aquarium hit the scene in ‘92, developers could have filled every parcel within a 3-block radius with all manner of chain restaurants, souvenir shops and gas stations within weeks. However, there existed an understanding in the community that every parcel downtown should contribute to the quality of the whole, that there is value in home-grown business, and that quality matters. This understanding was not the innate notion of a few individuals, it was the result of community conversations that produced a consensus about how the city should evolve. The consensus galvanized a collective will that drove both the public and private sectors and mandated them to partner with one another.

Apparently, somewhere along the way we as a community lost our resolve. 20 years ago, would BWW or Applebee’s have been allowed to develop in their current forms? Absolutely not. Would a city department have been allowed to plop down an out of context shack in the middle of our most impressive public space without community discourse? Not only no, but hell no. Would utilities have gouged out pavered sidewalks and replaced them with cheap asphalt patches? No-sir. Would there have been uproar from angry citizens and community stakeholders? Bet your tail there would have. Well, how about 2010 when these things happened? Cue the crickets.

Ach, I hate the colonel, with his wee beady eyes.
"Oh, you're gonna buy my chicken, ohhh."
Why are things different now than in days past? The private and not-for-profit players are still here. City and County Government are still here. We have more downtown business/chamber/resident coalitions than we can shake a chicken wing at. Where is the uproar? Where is the righteous indignation? Where is the mild casual comment? Cue the crickets…

Considered in isolation, none of these sub-urban transgressions have the ability to undo a downtown. The problem is that they are not happening in isolation, they are occurring concurrently and continually. The problem is that there is virtually no community conversation regarding these things and that they are actually being encouraged by local government. By not challenging these things, what we as a community have done is lower our standards. Without a significant voice of protest, these now-lowered standards will only continue to decline.

Next week, the root of this evil.

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