Martin: The new Chattanooga creed

Martin: The new Chattanooga creed

January 5th, 2018 by David Martin in Opinion Columns

David Martin

David Martin

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

The piece you're about to read is a good example of "piggybacking."

In his column, "Don't be so cool in 2018," last Sunday, David Cook brought up some good points about how Chattanooga presents itself to the outside world.

Essentially, he argued that by hyperactively marketing, branding and monetizing our town, we're quasi-consciously turning a blind eye to the very real problems plaguing this place.

He cited an article called "Welcome to the MultiMillion Dollar Business of Selling U.S. Cities" that details the efforts by which cities vie against one another for tourist and development dollars.

The author of that piece, Valerie Vande Panne, writes of a practice in which gaggles of reporters are lured to a town, and then their stays consist of "14-hour whirls through the city's brightest and shiniest locales, where every detail is planned down to the minute, and interviews with people not on the tour are discouraged."

If you work or live within a four-block radius of the Innovation District's epicenter, the Edney Building, there's a good chance you've seen these groups being shepherded around.

And while there certainly is plenty of good stuff to write about in Chattanooga — yes we have the Gig; yes, we have a thriving local economy; yes, our natural surroundings are top-notch — the Utopian version, sanitized and "cool," presented to our viewing audience can actually deliver negative outcomes.

But what's being done in Chattanooga is nothing new. Civic boosters, especially in our part of the country, have long been at this game.

Have you ever heard of the phrase "The New South"?

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Of course you have.

In the post-Reconstruction era, Southern leaders were desperate to attract investment and fresh labor to their respective cities. Atlanta newspaperman Henry Grady was the archetypal version of this sort, himself coining the "New South" phrase.

Leaders like Grady would tour the country doing speaking engagements, they'd place stories in papers nationwide, they'd invite reporters to come see their towns, they'd do anything to get the word out about the glories of a region that had turned a new page.

Those folks painted a picture of an idyllic world in which an agrarian and planter-led culture had been supplanted by future-thinking men committed to industry, national reconciliation, new ideas and racial harmony (it should be noted that their version of harmony did not mean equality — not even close).

If you want to read more on this historical perspective, pick up C. Vann Woodward's "The Origins of the New South: 1877–1913" and Paul Gaston's "The New South Creed: A Study in Southern Mythmaking."

The title of Gaston's book hints at the problem with the New South narrative of old — it was a myth. Sure, some industry was taking root, but the states of the old Confederacy still had a long way to go to live up to the hype being sold.

After reading Cook's article on Sunday, I scoured my bookshelves to find my dingy grad school copy of "The New South Creed." The back cover explains to readers the danger of the old marketing campaign:

"The image of the South in the three decades after the Civil War was a destructive deception the false, carefully fostered vision of the region as a place of prosperity, vitality, and racial harmony, worked to preserve the conservative (meaning elite-dominated) and racist nature of Southern civilization down to our time."

No, we're not talking about an apples-to-apples comparison here, but the lesson is that over-accentuating our positives can lead to disastrous consequences — the worst being buying our own hype to the point we ignore matters requiring serious attention.

Contact David Allen Martin at davidallenmartin423@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @DMart423.

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