Last week I made a schoolboy error. I know better than to tug the sweater string of a home improvement project during a holiday weekend (but I did it anyway). The good news is that I was able to fix a couple of things that were bothering me. The bad news is that I burned through my typical writing time. In addition to playing Bob the Builder, I enjoyed the World Cup Games, wobbled through the outstanding Jefferson Heights neighborhood block party, and called my English buddies for some Independence Day trash talk. With that, my list of excuses for why I didn't write last week is complete…well, almost complete. As I write this, the Outside the Lines story today is “Addicted to Golf”…er…uh…I plead the fifth.
I’ve been struggling to find topics to write about lately. In a bit of daydreaming about the term “struggle”, however, I found my topic for the week. The city seems to be in a weird place right now. We have great things working in our favor; we also have serious challenges. Viewing the city through an urbanist lens with a downtown tint, it appears to me that the city is in the midst of a struggle, or at the very least going through growing pains.
In the context of that argument, the revitalization of downtown and the riverfront was easy. This is not to diminish the truly great work done by so many over the course of decades, for they had tremendous challenges to overcome. (and yes, I realize that the passage of time makes it seem inevitable, but follow me). They were, however, dealing with a mostly blank canvas. Downtown was dead- no one was playing in the sandbox. My heroes weren’t operating in a vacuum, but let’s say they had the benefit of room to operate. The big moves were made, and the rest is history.
In downtown the easy things have already been done. The tasks ahead will be more difficult as only the complex projects remain, and there are more people involved in everything. I suspect that projects in our downtown will become increasingly tricky to pull off from a numbers standpoint, which will in turn place significant pressure on the urbanistic and aesthetic concerns that have been the cornerstone of our civic rebirth. To make things even trickier, there are now a LOT of people fiscally and emotionally invested in downtown (which is a good thing), and everything that is planned or built will be subject to scrutiny, politics, and zealous people.
When we look at the reinhabitation of downtown, the poster child is the Southside*. The area followed a trajectory that we’ve seen in many other cities. It starts with an older residential neighborhood with great proximity to an urban center. The neighborhood is typically economically disadvantaged and has a high percentage of minority populations. “Urban pioneers”, often emboldened by other efforts of downtown revitalization realize that there are housing bargains to be had, and start to move in. The pioneers typically embrace the conditions of the neighborhood, and understand that some of the less desirable aspects (noise, petty crime, etc) are simply part of the tradeoff for living in a downtown. Eventually the influx of new residents reaches a tipping point. Once developers see that someone else has jumped in the pool and the water is fine, things take off. Development becomes more aggressive, properties are often razed rather than restored, and bigger scale development moves in. The profile of the buyer starts to shift as well. The new residents don’t remember the neighborhood as it was, and have a different set of expectations. Those expectations are reinforced by the fact that the housing has now become as expensive (if not more so) than sub-urban comps. The expectation is that because they cost the same, the urban property will have the same characteristics associated with housing in the sub-urbs.
In the “Southside”, the easy things have already been done. The tasks ahead will be more difficult because only the complex projects remain and there are more people involved in everything. I suspect that projects in the Southside will only continue the trend of transforming an urban neighborhood into a suburban surrogate. This, in turn, will place significant pressure on the urbanistic and aesthetic concerns that made the new wave of people want to move there in the first place. To make things trickier, there are now a LOT of people fiscally and emotionally invested in the neighborhood (which is a good thing), and everything that is planned or built will be subject to scrutiny, politics, and crazy people.
The obviously example of our growing pains is in the news these days: NoMaWeWa** vs. Track 29. In this case people who have moved into a newly constructed urban neighborhood are upset with loud noise emanating from a local business. The flip side of that coin is that a local business now has to deal with the concerns of an encroaching residential population in addition to the task of making a living. The Track 29 conflict isn’t the only one; there are any number of places where new urban residential populations are coming into conflict with businesses (think The Big Chill, Midtown Music, etc, etc). This is a growing pain that we will have to work our way through. What is our ideal balance between supporting urban residential and providing the opportunity for our businesses to be successful? Can we have both? If we look to other cities that have gone through this, we find that people who want peace and quiet seeks areas that provide that, and people who live in very urban areas embrace the ambiance of the city. How that will eventually play out here is to be seen.
This is the nature of the city, it thrives on and is defined by density. The challenge for the community is to navigate the expectations, needs, desires (and neuroses), of a large group of people who want to live work and play in a relatively small area. I wish us luck!
*Even the term Southside highlights the change in the city. Long time Chattanoogans (especially African-Americans) understand Southside to be the south side of the city – Alton Park and Piney Woods. Southside didn’t take on its current meaning until they started to market to a new wave of folks (like me) and needed something easier to say than Rustville (Cowart Place), Fort Negley, and Jefferson Heights.
**”North of Main, West of Washington”- hey, everyone else is using silly made-up district names, I might as well do the same.