Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Falling in Love with Chattanooga

I’m not a believer in love at first sight.  Lust perhaps, but not love, which takes time to evolve and to mature.  Exhibit A would be that my wife and I were married on the 29-year and eight-month anniversary of our first date.  (Okay, it wasn’t exactly a courtship of nearly three decades, but that story can be held for another time.)

However, Chattanooga, tucked in the southeast corner of Tennessee, may force me to question my skepticism of spontaneously-kindled love.

I first visited Chattanooga four years ago.  It was at the end of a long day.  With a traveling companion, we’d watched the first seven innings of a minor league ballgame in Nashville, taken a tour of the former home of Barbara Mandrell (which gave me a story of false environmentalism that I’ll recount in my next post), and then driven 140 miles to Chattanooga to see another minor league ballgame.

By the time we arrived at our Chattanooga hotel, within walking distance of the ballpark, the game was already underway.  After a fumbled registration process, it was the third inning before we finally found our seats.

But even with my disappointment at our late arrival, something about Chattanooga had already captured my attention.  Perhaps it was how one arrives at the town, skirting a corner of Alabama, dipping into Georgia, and then swinging back into Tennessee just before Chattanooga presents itself.  Perhaps it was the rocky outcropping on which the ballpark, overlooking downtown and reached via a sidewalk escalator, is situated.  Perhaps it was having a hotel within a short walk of the ballpark, always a turn-on to my sense of urbanism.  Whatever it was, by the time I laid my head on my pillow, I was dreaming of a return visit.

So this past summer, when my buddies and I chose the south for our annual minor league baseball trip, one of my goals was putting Chattanooga on the itinerary.  I was lucky.  Chattanooga fit conveniently, almost essentially, into our schedule.

Indeed, the minor league schedules laid out so well that I could have made Chattanooga a two-night stop.  But I feared that would be too much too soon.   Much like inviting a new girlfriend to a football-watching party too early in a relationship, I was hesitant to show off Chattanooga to my traveling companions until my initial appreciation of her charms had been reconfirmed.

I needn’t have worried.  All three of us quickly saw the delightful qualities of Chattanooga and spent a fine afternoon exploring the town, driving up Lookout Mountain, and settling into a downtown brewpub for an appreciation of local beverage production.

To touch upon the urbanist highlights we noted, there was an elegant brick-faced multi-family development only blocks from downtown, set back from the street by small, but nicely detailed door yards and served by a short funicular.

Nearby was the Bluff View Arts District, anchored by the Hunter Museum of American Art and with many of the old, stately neighborhood homes now converted to art galleries.  My traveling party wandered the public sculpture garden and was then seduced by the aromas wafting from the bakery across the street, incongruously but delightfully located in an old mansion.

It was in the bakery where we made the one slip of our Chattanooga visit.  One of my traveling companions, as he paid for a pair of bronzed pretzels fresh from the oven, noted how impressed we were with Chattanooga, especially considering it was “in the middle of nowhere”.

As the smile froze on the lips of the theretofore friendly young lady who was ringing up the purchase, the third companion reassured her that “We’re still teaching our friend how to give compliments.”

Moving onward, we crossed the Tennessee River to take a quick look at a walkable district on the north shore and returned to the south bank where we viewed the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

After our outing up Lookout Mountain, we came back downtown to a brewpub fronted by whimsical sidewalk art reflecting the river orientation of the town.

While enjoying golden beverages, our waitress offered her version of the rebirth of downtown.  As she told the story, she was raised nearby but rarely visited downtown Chattanooga in her youth because it was a dangerous, scary place.  But the construction of a downtown aquarium in the early 1990s had begun to change the nature of downtown, proof that the seeds of urbanism can come from unexpected sources.

The waitress had now been working downtown for twenty years and loved it.

Of course, we finished our day at the downtown ballpark, watching the Tennessee sky turn orange and purple behind the leftfield fence.

 None of this is meant to imply that Chattanooga is an urban paradise.  The downtown block pattern is bigger than would be desirable.  Also, the downtown doesn’t show the daily vibrancy for which I could wish, with several establishments closed on a pleasant Tuesday afternoon in the heart of summer.  And many of older neighborhoods outside of downtown are gap-toothed and languishing.

Plus, a long-time reader who formerly managed a local business assures me that much of the town’s political leadership retains a suburban sprawl mindset, a reality that I assured him is true of many communities.

But Chattanooga has been sufficiently visionary to move the downtown a long ways upwards and to recently adopt a form-based code that should help sustain its trajectory.

Working off my thoughts on city-centric tourism, I don’t see enough in Chattanooga to justify a week of poking around.  But oh would I enjoy a long weekend of checking out the Art District, touring the Aquarium, and wandering the walkable enclaves.  Chattanooga, being in the “middle of nowhere”, especially relative to the North Bay, is an unlikely destination for a long weekend, but I can dream.  And meanwhile, I understand that absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Next time, I’ll return to the story to which I alluded above, of the Mandrell mansion in Nashville and of false environmentalism.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. In terms of city-centric tourism, Chattanooga has a live-steam railroad, spectacular hiking and scenery, amazing rock climbing within 20 minutes of downtown, and the Ocoee, fantastic whitewater, and the Hiwassee, a nice float whitewater, both within 40 minutes to an hour, hang gliding off of Lookout Mountain...

    I lived there for 9 years before I moved to the SF Bay Area, and though I love the culture of the Bay Area, the scenery and the activities around Chattanooga are hard to beat.

    Aspects of the culture... well... I keep in touch with a bunch of friends still there, and they continue to struggle with many of the same cultural issues I did.

    1. Dan, thanks for the comment. I hadn't realized that you'd lived in Chattanooga. Yeah, I can imagine the cultural issues that rubbed you the wrong way. We've noted similar concerns in many places during our baseball trips, particularly in the south. I'd like to think that the closer contact that would result from urbanist life would gradually wear away the sources of friction, but it'd be a slow process regardless.