published Thursday, February 20th, 2014

Martin: Born from boosterism: Chattanooga and the modern South

By David Allen Martin

I would find it hard to believe that there is a southeastern city with more boosters per capita than Chattanooga. Seriously, I can't think of many things Chattanoogans prefer to do more than talk about the Scenic City. And we don't just talk about it. We heap thick praises on it and brag on it at every turn. We are certainly a city of boosters.

OK, just to make sure we're all on the same page, a booster is a person who promotes a city or organization, hoping to improve its reputation. In short, boosterism is a blend of marketing and sales. Some boosters are paid to promote a message, but the most effective are the ones who do it free of charge simply because they hold a deep affinity for what they are praising -- think client testimonial.

In Chattanooga we have paid boosters -- though they go by slicker job titles -- at the Chamber of Commerce and the Convention and Visitors Bureau. But what amplifies and helps validate their efforts are the legions of area residents who routinely go out of their way to talk up the city.

Not long ago I read a column authored by a friend who was pleading with Chattanoogans to tone down the self-praise. Although he loves the city, as a northern transplant he finds the incessant bragging to be a bit over the top. I can understand his sentiment, but what he, and others, might not be aware of is that boosterism is in most Southerners' DNA.

The Chattanooga booster spirit is nothing new. By bragging on this city, we are simply continuing a tradition that was first put into overdrive in the decades following the Civil War. The modern South that we live in today was, in large part, born from boosterism.

The postbellum years witnessed a region trying to figure out what to do with itself. While many Southerners longed for a return to the mythic age of moonlight and magnolias, there also emerged a generation of forward-thinking people who wanted to cast off the ways of the old guard and commit the region to a paradigm of progress and industrialization. It was during this time that the phrase "New South" was coined by Henry Grady, owner of the Atlanta Constitution and archetypical Southern booster. Grady was recognized nationally as the mouthpiece of the New South movement, but every hamlet and city across the South had boosters of their own.

To attract capital and labor to a land reeling during the war's aftermath, these boosters at first hyped the potential of the region. Later on, most boosters decided that a better selling approach would be to brag on things already happening. This brought on messaging abundant with embellishment -- and often outright fiction. That's where our Southern booster forebears ran into trouble. There has to be substance behind marketing programs for them to bear fruit.

But Chattanooga now has lots of material results to boast -- that's how we're different today. The prolonged attention we're enjoying from outside eyes is a result of self-promotion coupled with tangible and measurable outcomes.

So while our booster efforts can seem overdone at times locally, they must be kept up for the message to carry outside our immediate area. We've got to shout loudly for people across the country to hear us. And if we want others to sing our praises, we've got to supply them with the sheet music.

My friend might want to put my boosterism on mute sometimes, but as long as there are things to brag about, I plan on vocalizing Chattanooga's value for the foreseeable future.

A civic engagement advocate and history teacher, David Allen Martin writes from Chattanooga.

c. David Allen Martin

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