The Pachuta Connection

Please allow me to state the obvious- urban design in Chattanooga is a niche topic. Trying to keep things fresh after three years and 149 posts can be a challenge. At a loss for what to write about this morning, I collared my oldest as he walked by and pressed him for a topic. The boy is gifted, but if not prompted he has a one-track mind (that one track being sport). “Why don’t you write about our trip to the Sugar Bowl?” was his inevitable reply. There is, of course, no way in hell I’m writing another post about college football after the events of the past eight weeks (I just need a little time, that's all). No father wants to disappoint his son, however, so this week I’ll draw on a detour we took while on our trip.

My PaPa and BaBa grew up just outside of a tiny town called Quitman, which is outside of a small town called Meridian, which is in rural eastern Mississippi. As men of his generation did, he joined the military and the two of them traveled globe and country before settling in Montgomery. No matter where PaPa and BaBa happened to be, however, their home was in Mississippi. Whenever they any spare time, they traveled back to see their brothers and sisters in the country. After PaPa passed, Baba continued the practice and brought me along. I hated most of those trips. I was far more interested in the comforts of the “city” (the metropolis of sub-urban Montgomery), than roaming the back forty of the family land (Pahcuta, MS makes the sub-urbs of Montgomery look like Times Sqaure). In hindsight, however, there was no more carefree time than that spent wandering the woods alone, whittling spears out of pine limbs, and chucking dirt clods at my brothers. (My claim to fame in the extended family was that in addition to being Luke's grandson, I was the little angel who shot out the lights in Uncle Dave's barn with a bb gun.)

Big Luke, rocking the fez in front of Khafre's pyramid.

One of the tragedies of my life is that I never had the chance to know Luke Britton. He was, by all accounts, a great man- kind, generous, loving, unselfish, and a man of principle. I’ve never heard anyone speak an ill word of him. While he had the great fortune of meeting me, I was too young to have any recollection of him.  He was, however, a constant presence in our lives. Big Luke’s name and memory was always in the air. A constant about PaPa is that whenever the family talked about him, they also talked about his connection to a place. Pretty much any time BaBa talked about PaPa, the story ended with a discussion of “the land”. Somewhere along the line, PaPa bought a hundred acres near where he grew up. His unfulfilled dream was to eventually move back to the land that he dubbed the Rockin’ B. People who live off of the land tend to have a special connection to it, and this was certainly the case for Luke. The land had significance for him because it was a symbol of home and family no matter where in the world he happened to be. After his passing, that land took on added significance.

BaBa, having been raised in the country as well, held the same deep-seated connection to land as Luke did. That particular land, however, evolved into a tangible representation of the man that she loved and lost. For my Mom, who is decidedly not about a subsistence-based connection to the land, the land is a symbol and a memory of her father. My two (decidedly less handsome) brothers and I have been told of the significance of the land our whole lives, and in a sense, the place has taken on an almost mythic quality. Because the land was originally important to Luke, it has become important to us all.

As the boy and I were driving back from New Orleans after the game, it occurred to me that we should make a detour and let him see the land for the first time. Taking my oldest child to see our ancestral homeland, a place deeply imbued with meaning is a significant life event for us both. In a more romantic world, that event would have involved a fly-over by an eagle, a glimpse of a deer, or the sweet smell of the pine forest. As it is, my recollection is that I really needed to relieve myself, I had an Icebreaker stuck in one of my teeth, and the boy was in some discomfort after rubbing his nose with fingers dirtied with Golden Flake Louisiana Hot Sauce Pork Skins (don’t tell his Mom, but we indulge in such things during football trips). We didn’t hear angels or trumpets, or see anything spectacular. The visit was, dare I say, boring. In the process of writing this post, however, I discovered a jewel in that little excursion.

This was the first time I have been back to the land since Baba passed, and I saw the place in a slightly different light. It’s a fine piece of land, mostly flat pine forest with a lazy creek that runs through it. From an objective standpoint, however, I realized that it’s not exceptionally unique or beautiful. My brothers and I (living in Aspen, Athens, and Chattanooga) could easily find a piece of land that is more dramatic, idyllic, or productive. We would not, however, be able to find any place more valuable. That observation led me to a fundamental truth- a place is only as important as people deem it to be. That is as true for downtown Chattanooga as it is for land in rural Mississippi.

Architecture and urban design in our city only matter when people believe that downtown is important- the greater our belief, the greater the importance. Our downtown sucked in the sixties and seventies because few people cared about it. Our turnaround was only achieved after the community rallied around the concept that downtown was a special place. While we stress the importance of design, the more fundamental task is nurturing the concept that the places where people live/work/play are important.

By observing the family's reverence for a  mans connection to the land, I've been learning a lesson subconsciously for forty years: places have no inherent value, they only become important when people give them meaning. It is quite possible (and perhaps probable) that my career spent working in the physical environment is a direct product of Luke Britton’s love for a piece of land in rural Mississippi. What a jewel- a gift from a grandfather I never knew, that took me four decades to see.

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