The Times Free Press asked several newsroom staff members — newcomers and longtimers — to write about what they like about their city.
With our three boys grown and out of the house, my wife and I decided it was time for our lives to be all about us. So we made a list of where we might want to live, possibly for the rest of our lives.
Chattanooga was at the top.
I had visited the city a few years ago and was knocked out by its beauty, its vibrancy, its sheer “cool” factor.
I’m not easily swayed by such. I grew up in Atlanta, which has plenty of “cool” itself (along with too much traffic and sprawl), but Chattanooga was different.
It was, like Goldilocks’ porridge, just right. Big enough to offer amenities such as museums, free concerts and a thriving downtown, small enough to be easy to get around.
My wife is a painter, so Chattanooga’s arts scene was a huge attraction, but she, too, was entranced by the city’s overall vibe.
Maybe it’s the Tennessee River. There’s something about a river running right through a city that gives it energy, as if life and history are constantly flowing in and out. I’ve never lived in a city with a river flowing through it — no, the Chattahoochee River in Atlanta doesn’t count since it’s knee-deep and doesn’t flow through downtown.
Maybe it’s mountains. Mountains leave me in awe, something I can’t adequately explain in words. They’re huge, primeval, evidence of the raw power of nature. They make me feel humble.
Chattanooga also has an energy about it, a progressive, forward-thinking mindset. I’m not just talking about stuff like Volkswagen or Amazon; that’s business and I don’t do business, although I understand and appreciate its overall value to a community.
But I lived in Birmingham, Ala., for most of the past 20 years and, while I still love many things about the city, Birmingham just can’t seem to get out of its own way. There’s always squabbling between the city, Jefferson County and the 30 or so municipalities that dot the landscape around the city. Everyone’s suspicious of everyone else and there is no cooperation. Ever.
Around Chattanooga, while the various cities are certainly interested in their own kettle of fish, there’s also a sense of trying to make the entire region better, not just their own back yard. People actually work with each other instead of always being at cross purposes. It’s a refreshing attitude.
Chattanooga has rekindled a dormant love of nature in my wife and me. We’ve hiked. We’ve bought bikes and actually ridden them. In the spring, I’m going to return to whitewater kayaking, something I did in my younger days.
We’re also planning to buy a house, something we wouldn’t do if we weren’t going to stay. I detest moving with a passion, and it would be just fine by me if we never had to move again.
So it looks like we’ll be here for a while.
I can live with that.
Shawn Ryan is an assistant Metro editor with the Times Free Press.
When I got my start in newspapers, I had big dreams of covering news in a bustling metropolitan city with subways and throngs of taxis amid looming skyscrapers. So as I plotted my mental course for Metropolis, I imagined progressively hopping from small-town papers to big-city dailies.
But as my fourth year in Chattanooga approaches, my inner small-town boy is growing more and more charmed by how easy it is to live in this city. Visits to Jacksonville, Fla., Atlanta and Nashville are fun for all the fast-paced excitement and wild nightlife, but passing through the hills and into Chattanooga feels like I’m sliding into warm sheets.
Back here, I relish that just about anything I want to see or do is just 15 minutes away. I feel like I’m home when the bartender at my favorite watering hole knows my name and what I want poured in my glass. On top of that, late at night when the Tennessee River beckons, the Walnut Street Bridge feels like it’s my secret spot.
I will celebrate my 30th birthday in 2011, so maybe appreciating Chattanooga’s slow, easy-living pace means I’m officially getting older. Or maybe it’s a product of my upbringing in rural Glennville, Ga., which has just 5,600 residents and two traffic lights in its entire 61⁄2 square miles.
Whatever the reason, Chattanooga is comparatively big to many cities. It has everything a person wants in a hometown, but it also has charm. Just a few blocks from malls and multistory buildings are cute shops owned by husbands and wives. A few miles from there is a gateway to the pristine outdoors.
There are few cities in America where one can shop the state’s largest mall in the morning, stand beneath a 250-foot waterfall at lunch and then dine at a world-class restaurant in the evening. But it happens every day in Chattanooga.
There is certainly appeal to Atlanta, our neighbor to the south, and country living has its lures. But for me, the small-town boy who has felt both pulled by the country and lured by the city, Chattanooga melds the two in a way that makes it feel like home.
Adam Crisp is a reporter with the Times Free Press.
When I look around at what Chattanooga is today, I can’t help but feel that perhaps longtime residents, the Scenic City natives, appreciate this city’s transformation more than anyone.
I grew up here in a close-knit neighborhood that in the ’60s was home to many who worked at Chattanooga’s signature foundries.
Back then, a sooty orange-colored smog smothered the city and a burnt odor came and went with each sunrise and sunset. Back then, no one paid attention to the mighty Tennessee River or our mountains and ridges. The city, back then, suffered mightily from an inferiority complex — what in the world did we have to offer?
Today our skies are clear and clean. We can enjoy the spectacular geography that draws hundreds of thousands to us. The city has grown up, confident, optimistic, energetic.
Forty years reporting on the business life of the city gave me a ringside seat to the reversal in Chattanooga’s direction. Chattanooga thought big in the ’80s with a community visioning effort, and the city showed true grit in turning itself around. I respect and admire that. “Quality of life” — a cool downtown, green spaces, affordable cost of living, tons of outdoor recreation and promising jobs outlook — means something today.
Few cities can tell this story. I like that Chattanooga refuses to rest on what has been accomplished so far. Anything is possible; that’s the Chattanooga I like today.
John Vass Jr. is Web editor at the Times Free Press.
I first fell for this city like many people do — as a tourist.
Every summer my parents sent me to a Bible camp for a week on top of Lookout Mountain, and one summer, the year I turned 13, in the mid-90s, some of the camp counselors asked me to play hooky with them in the big city after the camp closed up for the weekend.
Chattanooga was nothing like where I had grown up near Birmingham, Ala.
It was big and small all at once. And it struck me as beautiful in an idyllic way. The mountains. The water. The bridges.
Everything on the riverfront seemed revived and new, then. I bent my much younger body through the holes in a sculpture on the North Shore. I sat on top of a stone lion in Coolidge Park. With the other teenagers, I ran through the park’s fountains fully dressed.
Walking over the Tennessee River that night, I never imagined that one day I’d be a college graduate, a writer for the city’s newspaper and leave Alabama to call Chattanooga home.
So many things about this city still surprise me. I never get tired of watching couples — almost always tourists — try to match the dance steps built into the pavement on Frazier Avenue or moon along the Walnut Street bridge hand-in-hand. In the summer, toddlers in sopping wet diapers run from parents, waddling through the water fountain that shoots and jumps unexpectedly near the carousel.
School-age boys race down a sharp, grassy hill in Renaissance Park on flattened cardboard boxes and gather themselves at the bottom, overcome with some sense of bravery or adventure.
I’ve lived in Chattanooga for three years now, and moments like this always seem more special than kitschy. They make me feel proud, like I’m living and working somewhere with a sense of place, a city that people want to hold onto even when they leave.
Joan Garrett is a reporter with the Times Free Press.
I grew up in Daisy when downtown Chattanooga was still a vibrant retail area, the only place in the area with department stores and first-run movie theaters.
Shopping centers and subdivisions began the downtown decline and Chattanooga began to lose some of the magic for me. As a teenager in the 1960s, I longed to experience the exploding music scene that I heard and read about, but I felt was passing my hometown by.
I spent five years away from Chattanooga and saw a lot of great musical performances. Circumstances brought me back closer to home, and somehow I wound up as a photographer at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in the mid-1970s, a job I thought would be temporary until I could find my path in a city that had more going for it.
Then things started changing for me. The more I learned about photography, the more I loved it and the more I was able to use it as an expression of myself. I found some friends who encouraged me to write and play music. I began to fall in love with the downtown area again, even though it was mostly a ghost town, and I found out that I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. I got involved early on with the Nightfall concert series and helped bring the music I love to my city.
The revitalization of downtown Chattanooga has been well documented, and I feel very fortunate to have been right in the middle of it, both as an observer and a participant. I learned by watching and by doing that things are what you make them. I grew to love Chattanooga, and I have enjoyed a wonderful quality of life that is partly due to my surroundings and partly due to a lot of work by a lot of people who care and act to make things better.
There are cities with better music scenes than Chattanooga, but I am amazed and proud of what this town has become. There is great music in this town each and every week. I wish there was more support from the community, but the opportunities are there, the performers come to town, and there are so many great local musicians and bands of all types in this area that I do not envy Nashville or Atlanta anymore.
We have a great city that is still a small town. We live in one of the most beautiful geographical areas in the world. We have seasons. We have art. We have diverse, thriving cultures. We have a lot of great people that mostly get along with each other and take care of each other. Like everybody else, I don’t know exactly what the future holds for me, but I think the future looks bright for Chattanooga and I am very happy to be planted here.
John Rawlston is a photographer for the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
I’ve lived around.
Despite growing up on the idllic backside of Walden’s Ridge, I thought my goal should be escape from Chattanooga.
And I did.
I lived for a while in Washington state and watched sunsets on Puget Sound.
I lived for two years in Charleston, S.C., where Spanish moss replaces kudzu.
I lived a decade in Northeast Alabama, where Victorian houses still punctuate lazy streets.
I even lived in Europe for couple of years — settling down in the south of Spain near Puerto de Santa Maria, where Columbus sprung prisoners from a medieval prison for a risky trip to the New World.
But I came back to Chattanooga.
And, thankfully, when I did, there was a new world in Chattanooga.
The dingy blanket of smog that had encrusted downtown every morning of my childhood had disappeared.
The gritty smell of foundry and the stench of creeks strangled with sewage was gone.
The ghost town of downtown was replaced with an aquarium, restaurants, music and shops that don’t just stop at the river.
And of course, there is the river — the one we can see now because it’s banks aren’t piled with the trash from foundry and warehouse back yards.
Chattanooga has done some traveling, too, and I’m glad I’ve escaped back to it.
Pam Sohn is a reporter with the Times Free Press.