It began as a vision - an acorn of an idea that eventually blossomed into a beautiful oak. But in the late 1990s, the only tree associated with the rebirth of the Southside was the one growing in the middle of its first residential redevelopment, Crabtree Condos. Working with its existing brick shell, developers pressed on and in 2000, a 14-unit residential building was born.
"Early efforts in the Southside were like asking people to get in an invisible boat and start rowing," says Jay Robinson of Robinson Real Estate, listing agent for Crabtree and other Southside redevelopments. "Once everybody's been paddling a while, the boat begins to appear and a vibrant community is revealed."
Historic buildings, a rich tradition of the arts and a heavy residential mix just steps from downtown made the down-and-out neighborhood attractive to a few influential visionaries. Grants from The Lyndhurst Foundation got the ball rolling, creating a groundswell of excitement sustained by a few pioneering residents and businesses including REVIVAL: uncommon goods and Shadow Box Paperie. In a bold move, Crye-Leike moved its corporate headquarters in 1999 to the corner of Broad and 12th. Robinson, who managed the office at the time, recalls some rather unsavory neighbors.
"There was a group of winos living in the bushes and crack dealers on the corner," he says of his former employer's spot. Twelve years later, it's quite a different story. As the first residential agent to sell homes after the dedicated redevelopment, Robinson has sold something in the Southside every year since 2000.
"I would feel safer at 10 o'clock at night in the Southside, or anywhere downtown for that matter, than in a lot of suburban developments," says Robinson.
Much like a mechanic's hand, the scrubbed-up neighborhood still has a little grit under its fingernails, and that's part of its charm. The flat-front buildings - relics from its 19th century industrial past - now hold restaurants, offices, boutiques and even homes. Boasting one of the highest numbers of restaurants per capita in Chattanooga, the Southside offers Mexican, Italian, Cajun, Japanese, burgers and home cooking all within about a four-block radius.
Some of the city's most dynamic and creative minds also call the Southside home, ranging from architecture and marketing firms to artisanal coffee roasters and bread makers. Fashion-forward boutiques such as Embellish, Rhinoceros and Ciao Bella attract the young and the hip, while forward-thinking nonprofits, CreateHere and green'spaces help shape the direction of the city. Art studios and galleries featuring local talent - many with national name recognition - dot the neighborhood's tree-lined streets such as Gallery 1401, Townsend Atelier, Area 61 and Ignis Glass Studio. The sidewalks are even littered with outdoor sculpture as part of Chattanooga's Public Art project.
"I tend to think of the Southside as the creative center of the city," says resident Armando Rodriguez, who moved to the Stanton Row townhomes three years ago with wife, Tahnika. Located just a stone's throw from the couple's offices at TVA, they enjoy their foot-friendly neighborhood, offering everything they need within just a few blocks.
"Unlike downtown or the North Shore, which are focused on tourism and students, Southside has a true sense of community, as well as a cultural and economic diversity that's unique to Chattanooga," says Rodriguez.
As president of the Southside Cowart Place Neighborhood Association for the past two years, Rodriguez has worked hard to help achieve this sense of community. Besides planting nearly 100 trees since 2006, the association has improved the overall quality of the area with improved street lighting, a neighborhood watch program, weekly cleanups, speed bumps and sign toppers, which define and give visibility to the area.
While they don't solicit businesses directly, the association's efforts have turned the heads of many local merchants. The recent economy has somewhat stymied expansion, yet several projects are still on the docket including Enzo's Market, a 17,000-square-foot urban food market on Main Street slated to open this summer, as well as the Mission, a 67,000-square-foot mixed-use development featuring nearly 50 apartments and prime ground-floor retail.
Although it took some time to evolve, when you witness the excitement and energy of one of Chattanooga's most eclectic neighborhoods, it's safe to say its ship has finally come in.