Cook: The 27% and the Casey barge

Cook: The 27% and the Casey barge

March 19th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Allen Casey's barge needs to stay right where it is.

Or better yet, move it across the river. Just down from Hennen's, right in front of the pier. Anchor that ugly, dumpy barge in the center of our postcard perfect waterfront.

Make it a black swan we can't avoid. Turn it into a symbol. If The Passage reflects Cherokee culture, then let the barge become a monument to the Other Chattanooga, the one with all the broken things we wish we could ignore, the one that this week was publicized all across America.

"In Chattanooga, the prevalence of low-wage jobs has contributed to the high poverty rate: 27 percent of the city's residents live below the poverty line, compared with 15 percent nationwide," wrote Steven Greenhouse in The New York Times.

Earlier this week, one of the nation's biggest newspapers published a 2,000-word report on Chattanooga. Not our Gig. No mention of all our Best City Awards. No quotes from the Chamber.

Greenhouse wrote about our suffering poor.

"Women head about two-thirds of the city's poor households, and 42 percent of its children are poor, nearly double the rate statewide," he reported.

He profiled:

• The mother who lost her job at Memorial, and moved her kids from their suburban home to a $400-a-month neighborhood, where she put bars on her windows. She's got a son who hopes to go to college and a $320 February utility bill.

• A millennial with a social work degree who can't find work other than as a prep cook at Tupelo Honey, making $9.50 an hour and working 20 hours a week.

• Another millennial who was a promising student headed for college until her niece got leukemia. Now, she makes $8.50 an hour at a downtown parking garage helping pay the bills.

• The 34-year-old father of two who makes $9 an hour as an assistant manager at Domino's. He'd been in school, working on his degree, when his marriage collapsed. He moved back in with his parents, and now must make the Sophie's Choice-type decisions that are the daily bread for poor folks.

"I put my kids in karate about a year ago," he told Greenhouse. "They loved it, but I got to the point where it was a choice between paying for a cellphone or karate, and as a manager, I need a cellphone for people to keep in touch with me."

Twenty-seven percent live below the poverty line ... Women head about two-thirds of the city's poor households ... 42 percent of its children are poor ...

What happens when nearly one-third of us lives in poverty? At what point does the soul of our city begin to fold inward? Has it already?

Greenhouse's report discussed the collapse of our industrial jobs, a point made more relevant with the recent death of industrial giant Gordon Street, whose foundry employed so many. Now, middle class jobs have been replaced by $8.50-an-hour labor.

"Thousands of service-sector jobs: at the aquarium and IMAX theater, built to lure tourists and at hotels, nursing homes, big-box stores, brew pubs, fast-food restaurants, beauty salons and hospitals," Greenhouse writes.

Is that what we've done? In our great revitalization and rebirth as a destination city, have we also cursed ourselves into a future of tourism jobs only? We closed Kirkman, and opened a carousel. Why does it seem easier for us to build a new rock climbing wall downtown than open a homeless shelter?

Twenty seven percent live below the poverty line ... Women head about two-thirds of the city's poor households ... 42 percent of its children are poor ...

"We have passed over a whole population of people," said Rebecca Whelchel, executive director of Metropolitan Ministries.

MetMin calls itself our city's financial emergency room: paying bills, helping with rent, prescriptions, bus fare. Folks line up hours before sunrise in order get through the doors and find help with their long list of needs.

Greenhouse focused much of his report on the work of MetMin; now, Whelchel's getting calls from Huffington Post. Soon, the Other Chattanooga will even be more well known across America.

That's part of the way we fix this: to make it visible, to tell their stories, to not forget.

"But we don't see it. And if you don't see it, you can't be mortified," she said.

So don't move the barge. Let it sink slowly, right in front of us, a public reminder that the same thing is happening to nearly one-third of Chattanooga.

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