Cook: Mirror, mirror on the wall

photo David Cook

The Gilded Age was so terrible because it was so extreme. Like an hourglass, the measured middle was squeezed up or down. We were an either-or America: you were either fabulously rich or poor like a bowl of dust.

(Once, the Vanderbilts threw a party. They gave all their guests silver buckets and shovels and let them dig for diamonds and rubies in the dining room sandbox.)

Inequalities are canaries in the societal coal mine. The center won't hold under such conditions.

I fear that Chattanooga has become a Gilded Age city.

The latest report from Gallup-Healthways named us one of the unhealthiest cities in the nation. Thirty percent of folks told researchers they were too sick to do normal age-appropriate activities each day. More than nearly 200 other American cities, we are tired, obese and poor.

Yet, paradoxically, we are also one of the nation's most outdoor-minded cities. Athletes migrate here to climb, run, paddle and bike. Our bodies are sculpted and cardiovascularly superb. We build rock climbing walls in the heart of downtown. We grace the cover of Outside magazine.

Such dualism -- some of us sick, others beautifully fit -- is one example of a larger dichotomy.

We have orchestrated downtown with million-dollar condos and townhomes. Soon, construction begins on a $100 million riverfront pleasure of cottages and apartments.

Yet a stone's throw away, there sits a housing project that needs millions in repairs.

And our city has no homeless shelter.

We've fashioned ourselves as a tourist destination, turning our riverfront into a red carpet.

Yet a mile away, there are neighborhoods of people who say they've never gone to the riverfront. One woman told me she's never been to Coolidge Park.

We are the most Bible-minded city in America. We erect 100-foot crosses by the interstate.

Yet we have obscene poverty rates. Nearly one-third of citizens live below the poverty line, almost double the national average.

We trumpet our Gig, and work to build a tech industry that leads the nation.

Yet we have lost our industrial infrastructure and middle-class manufacturing jobs.

We have some of the most prestigious private schools in the nation, places where students glow in intellectualism and opportunities. Around here, when people ask The Question -- where'd you go to school? -- they don't mean college.

Yet our public schools are crumbling. Some of our students don't even have textbooks.

One of our communities has been named the best place to live in Tennessee.

Yet others have rates of infant mortality that rival Third World countries. More than 40 percent of our city's children are poor.

We are white.

And black.

But rarely both.

Not long ago, we were named one of the most dangerous cities in the country.

Yet that violence is located only in several ZIP codes. It affects some daily, yet others rarely.

Our councils and commissions and companies are headed by men. Nearly every election ballot is stuffed with male candidates.

Yet Chattanooga women are two-third's of our city's poor.

So what does the future hold? Will we continue to fragment and fracture, one tortured part of Chattanooga being flung like Sandra Bullock into outer space while the other only becomes more beautiful and healthy?

What is the gravity that brings us back closer to one another?

There is only one place where such healing can occur.

Our public schools.

Every day, thousands of future Chattanoogans gather in classrooms. We can teach them things that can continue our gildedness, or completely reverse it.

We need a revolution, some head-turning movement that completely blows up the status quo of school-thought. Our schools need to turn into hubs of medical care, health education and cutting-edge instruction, each precisely operating off a bold mission statement that is anything but status quo.

We need leaders who have vision and school board members who are outraged. We need commissions that are clawing to find 21st century solutions. Our principals and teachers need to drown in funding and political support.

Our fall elections -- school board, commissioners, the county mayor -- need to be centered around the importance of public schools, each politician clamouring over the other to explain how many new ideas they have.

Otherwise, nothing will stop our city from becoming more divided against itself. And cities divided cannot stand.

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