published Tuesday, October 8th, 2013

Journalists see Chattanooga with fresh eyes

More than 500 out-of-towners gave Chattanooga journalists -- including me -- a fresh look at Chattanooga during the past week.

Most of the out-of-towners were journalists, too. They came here to attend the 23rd annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists. They came to see what Chattanooga, once the "dirtiest" city in America for air pollution and boasting the most polluted creek in the Southeast, had done to become an outdoor mecca.

What these newspaper, radio, magazine and blog writers told us, as we hosted them here from Wednesday to Sunday, made us realize how much we take our city for granted, and how much we should both congratulate ourselves (but also push ourselves).

Over and over, we heard, "I love your city;" or "This is a great town;" or "It's so beautiful here."

Some took a bicycle tour and rushed up to conference organizers to gush about the Tennessee Riverwalk. Four or five of them pinned me against a wall to ask seemingly 1,000 questions about how Chattanooga came to the "wonderful" decision to save the Walnut Street bridge and make it the springboard for new homes and businesses on the city's North Shore.

While taking in the sights of the 21st Century Waterfront on Friday, several conference attendees quizzed one of our business reporters about why there are not more shops and bars along the water where the Tennessee River skims our downtown.

Our reporter stroked his chin and told them: "You have to realized that just a few years ago, this all used to be a scrapyard. For this to be even like it is now is a minor miracle." But he told me later that the question set him thinking. He said he understands it's a slow process for entrepreneurs to ramp up plans for a newly opened area, but he wondered -- looking around on the waterfront -- even where there would be space for new eateries and watering holes.

Another attendee -- yes, one from a much larger city -- was shocked that we didn't have more mass transit. Clearly that's a need, he said. I nodded, wondering why our local culture is still so car-oriented even in a town that has a free electric shuttle. I can't remember the last time I took that shuttle to grab lunch.

One woman from California asked about the city's diversity. "It seems so lily white," she said. My eyebrows went up and I asked why she thought that. After all, the city's population is more than 35 percent black.

"Well, mostly," she explained, "from what I've seen in the ads around the convention center and downtown."

Note to Chattanooga: Let's show off our diversity better.

During a visit to the Tennessee Aquarium, a young journalist from the Midwest mused to me, "I'll bet there's a lot of taxpayers' dollars in this." He swept his hand toward the river and ocean buildings.

"Actually, no," I told him, adding that the aquarium was seeded with an $11 million donation from Chattanooga's then-richest resident, and the rest was built with public-private partnerships, using a first-ever hotel-motel tax so visitors helped pay the "public" part. The city spent only to build the landscaping of the public park around the buildings.

He replied with just one word. "Wow!"

On Sunday, at the end of the conference, the journalists had what we call a "pitch slam" for book ideas. One pitched publishers on an idea about innovative cities, and Chattanooga was on her list. Another pitched an idea about the politics of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas called fracking -- something that's new and threatening to our region.

As we all stood to walk out of the Hunter Museum of American Art with its windowed panorama view of the serene Tennessee River, I asked a writer who lives near Boulder, Colo., to tell me his take-away about Chattanooga.

He looked at me and smiled. "What I want to know is what's next? You've done so much here in 40 years, but what are you going to do in the next 40 years?"

Good question. One thing's for sure: We can't sit our laurels.

about Pam Sohn...

Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...

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aae1049 said...

Great editorial. It was interesting that the woman viewed the downtown and recreation areas as "lily white," and our demographics speak to a completely different view. There is a 35 percent black population in the city. However, 40 percent of the black population in Chattanooga lives in poverty. I believe this site extracts from census data.

I do see where she would make the Lily White observation. Even though we are a diverse city, we are very economically segregated. These numbers are staggering, because the greatest poverty in our city exists in children 15 years of age and younger. Children in poverty have so many consequences that are bad for everyone. These stupid elected officials in Hamilton County need to recognize that schools are the only place these children will get meals and structure in many cases. So they need to invest in the schools, instead of giving all of the public bond issue leverage to their Chamber of Commerce corporate welfare programs that drain the tax base.

October 8, 2013 at 2:48 p.m.
JonathanMCook said...

I concur on the ethnic diversity not being fully exposed. But in all fairness, we're not exactly an international hub. I do agree we have more people moving in with international ties then we have had in the last five years but most of said immigrants I see usually live in certain areas that tourists rarely venture in nor would you not know about them unless an article appears in the paper. That said, where did most of these so-called journalists ventured to? Did they stay in the general downtown area or did any of them venture into the outlining neighborhoods (East Ridge? Red Bank?). Believe it or not, that can make a significant difference in viewpoint. I live in Dallas ('Noogan born and raised; still with ties to the city) and in my neighborhood I am the minority. The majority is India-Indian, followed by Koreans, Vietmannese, Arabs, and various Central or South American countries. This is all in North Irving-Carrolton-West Addison which is all a good 10-15 miles west of the city. But how many out of towners visiting Dallas would know of this. I guarantee you none would.

We also have a great rail system which is convenient most of the time but has been in the red for years due to the fact they only have stations in key areas of the city that sometimes don't always have a stop where you need to go. I love Chattanooga but we're not big enough for rail service. Also, most of the "locals" still live in the outlining areas where none of the roads are either bike or pedestrian friendly. Sorry granolia-eaters, but we're not in any position to adjust the city for more alternative means.

October 8, 2013 at 4:02 p.m.
ChattanoogaVol said...

My not be alot of taxpayers' dollars in the acquarium, but the riverfront has many millions of taxpayer dollars. How much is stil left to pay back on all the bonds for all that riverfront work?

October 10, 2013 at 11:41 a.m.
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