Opinion: First week of 2022 has echoes of 50 years ago

Contributed Photo / Eastgate Town Center, the city's first shopping mall and today a mixed office/retail space, was in the news for a devastating fire 50 years ago this week.

Local newspapers from 50 years ago, the first week of 1972, offer tastes of what we are still dealing with in 2022, proposals that never came to fruition and portents of things that did.

While Chattanooga Mayor Robert Kirk Walker was pictured smiling and drenched in streamers on the front page of the Jan. 1 edition of the Chattanooga News-Free Press, the city had a lot going on.

Walker and the then-City Commission, in that first week, were dealing with an annexation resolution that would take 11 parcels into the city at once, the thought - according to one commissioner - being, "It's better to take the castor oil in one dose."

While today's Hamilton County Election Commission handles all matters dealing with voting precincts - recently reducing 135 precincts to 88, with few polling location changes for 2022 - the City Commission 50 years ago authorized four new voting precincts for annexed areas but "took under advisement" splitting several precincts to have a more equalized number of voters in each.

The early 1972 commission also discussed cable television being offered in the area but learned the Federal Communications Commission had yet to allow clearance for foreign - meaning out of the area - signals for the city. Cable television would not become a reality in the area until the end of the 1970s.

A city project that would come to fruition sooner was the extension of Riverfront Parkway from Amnicola Highway. A photograph 50 years ago this week showed a path being cleared under the Walnut Street and Market Street bridges for the road that would help speed people out of downtown. Completion was scheduled for the spring of 1973. In 2017, under former Mayor Andy Berke, changes were made to slow drivers down along the same expanse.

The week's biggest local story, though, was a Jan. 2 fire at Eastgate Mall, destroying 22 businesses in what was said to be the mall's northeast sector and causing an estimated $2-$2.5 million worth of damage. Eastgate, at the time, was the city's only shopping mall. Northgate Mall wouldn't open until March 1972.

Meanwhile, on the county side of the ledger, the Hamilton County Quarterly Court (one forerunner of the Hamilton County Commission) was preparing to deal with two matters today's county commission and Hamilton County Board of Education dealt with over the past few months.

The first was to decide whether to re-elect Dr. Sam P. McConnell county schools superintendent. Though in the hospital recuperating from gall bladder surgery, he signaled his interest in returning, and county court members seemed ready to grant his wish. Today's county school board elected a new superintendent, Dr. Justin Robertson, last month.

The second was a proposal by County Judge Chester Frost - the county judge was the forerunner of the county mayor - to expand the court to 15 members, two members each from the current seven districts and one who would be elected countywide. That change never occurred, but in 1978 a lawsuit forced a change in the government, and the mayor/commission form of government was born.

Last month, the current Hamilton County Commission, for the first time since 1978, voted to expand from nine to 11 members, and representatives of those two new seats - and corresponding school board members - will be elected for the first time this year.

Speaking of the county commission, on the front page of a Chattanooga News-Free Press edition in the first week of 1972, was a Mrs. John J. Martin of Hixson, the year's Mothers March of Dimes Drive leader, with her children, Cynthia, Greg and Doug.

In 2022, Greg Martin is one of the county's nine commissioners. His mother, Martin says, "was such a pretty young mother" ... "with a more beautiful soul" and today "is in good health" despite being a 24-year cancer survivor and "having a treatment every week these past 24 years at Erlanger [hospital]."

Elsewhere, that week, a local architectural firm was given a state contract for a $4.3 million, 100,000-square-foot classroom building at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. It was to be built west of Chamberlain Field, at the corner of Vine and Douglas streets, according to the newspaper.

No classroom building was built there, but Holt Hall, a classroom building, opened on East Fifth Street in January 1976. Today, the UTC Library occupies the space where the building was once planned.

And, in an issue that had both national and local implications, U.S. Rep. LaMar Baker, R-Chattanooga, decried the busing that had begun to achieve racial balance in schools.

Busing, he told the East Lake-Rossville Boulevard Advisory Council, was "the most ridiculous and impossible proposition faced by the American people today," and he suggested parents should support an amendment to the Constitution forbidding it that "no Supreme Court could possibly misinterpret."

No such proposal ever came to the amendment stage, but race-tinged issues - critical race theory, to name just one - continue to roil the country 50 years later.

We hope racial matters won't be in the news in 50 more years, but we can imagine there will be ties between what is happening in 2072 and what happened in 2022. For, as astronomer Carl Sagan once opined, "You have to know the past to understand the present."