Cook: Tubman's return

Cook: Tubman's return

September 6th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's plans to bulldoze and then rebuild the Harriet Tubman public housing site could turn into something grand, perhaps his equivalent of an urban Enterprise South.

While Berke has the wherewithal to push for this idea to become reality, the plan didn't begin with him.

"We definitely want new industry, and that site [Tubman] is definitely on the radar," Jim Sattler told the City Council last October.

(At the time, Sattler was on the board of the Chattanooga Housing Authority and part of the Chamber of Commerce, which seems a bit messy -- a public housing proponent also working for a business-promoting entity? -- and also begs the question: who exactly is making decisions on what to do with public housing?)

If City Hall is able to purchase the property, the work then begins on how to court and recruit industry to fill it.

And, more importantly: what type of jobs will this industry bring?

Since the beginning, Berke has pledged a grassroots vision of government, promising a City Hall that works for all people and communities, not just privileged ones.

Will his plans for the Tubman site work for that vision or against it?

Before we hear from the mayor, let's rewind to September 2012 when the Comprehensive Gang Assessment Report was released. The 173-page document didn't just talk gangs, but the accompanying issues of crime and poverty. Top of the list of solutions for all three?

A job. The word appears roughly 80 times in the report, most frequently in sentences like this one:

"The role of poverty was emphasized by a number of respondents as a major factor in gang proliferation in Chattanooga, with jobs and job training stressed as the most important ways to help reduce the power and growth of gangs," the report reads.

Why?

Because, as anti-gang activist Father Greg Boyle out in California likes to say: nothing stops a bullet like a job. The vaccine to poverty, jobs are the boots and straps by which people lift themselves up. The antidote to crime, jobs will make our streets far safer than 40 new police officers.

The Tubman site is a perfect opportunity to make the mayor's vision manifest in the form of industry that provides jobs to people (gang members or not) in the community who might not otherwise have one.

But can it happen?

"It is hard to do," said Berke. "If it were easy, someone else would have done it."

The mayor stressed that if the city buys the property, he's focused on recruiting companies that will participate in some form of this jobs-for-local-people goal.

"We will work with employers starting at the demolition phase then the construction phase and finally the long-term employment part to find ways to set goals and achieve them," he said. "It is rare for cities to do that."

Here's the pickle: how does City Hall and the Chamber turn the Tubman site into a geography that produces living-wage jobs to unskilled folks while attracting a desirable industry for the area? Not, say, a chicken plant.

We're not the only dog in the hunt; industries are being courted by plenty of other cities, some of which will probably offer little requirements in terms of who's hired and who is not.

But if City Hall -- a democratic institution, run on behalf of the people -- is purchasing the property and will more than likely offer tax breaks and PILOT-esque temptations to industries, then that same City Hall must make this Tubman turn-around benefit the very people it represents.

All the pieces are in place: a mayor who has said from the beginning he's committed to things like this. And a Chamber in his corner.

"The Chamber is 100 percent on board with working with the city," said J.Ed. Marston, the Chamber's vice president of marketing.

But there's no magic wand.

"It is not easy," said Berke. "I don't want anybody to think that it is."

And that's the scary part.

What if we can't pull this off?

Imagine if such a vision turns out to be fluffy Disneyland idealism, squashed by some invisible hand of capitalism. Turn the Tubman site into something that actually benefits the people there? Please. As if.

Why does it seem that some of the most right and just decisions are also the hardest to turn into reality?

All of it makes me think about Tubman herself, an escaped slave who found freedom, then, risking her life, stole back into the heart of slave country to help her fellow blacks find freedom through the Underground Railroad.

Sounds crazy, then and now. But she did it.

Surely then we can do this, too.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.