Over the weekend, a wooden bench appeared in a park near downtown Chattanooga.
The bench, painted white with a red pattern, has a message across the front: "This bench is illegal, but shouldn't be."
It was placed in Phillips Park on McCallie and Georgia avenues by a newly-formed mutual aid group dubbed the Chattanooga Urbanist Society and takes the place of a public bench the city removed in October -- one of many that officials said contributed to loitering, harassment and other crime.
"When you remove a bench, you affect the intended cohort, which is the homeless, but you also affect the 99% of the rest of the community -- the elderly, the disabled, the family going for a walk or eating a picnic in downtown Chattanooga," the group's founder told the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Tuesday.
The bench is the first of at least 50 the group hopes to install around the city this year, said the founder, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation by the city.
Many of the benches would provide seating at bus stops and in other high-traffic areas. Adding public seating, along with plans to paint bike lanes and install buffer zones for pedestrians on high-traffic streets, are all part of the group's plans to make Chattanooga safer for people who don't use cars.
"We can't fix the placement of bus stops right now," the founder said. "We can't even build sheltered bus stops right now. But what we can start with is a bench, and if we're going to have a bench be placed, we're going to have it say something, not just do something."
The city faced some public backlash when crews removed more than a dozen benches in downtown Chattanooga in the fall, including from people experiencing homelessness who said the benches served as gathering places and, in some cases, beds.
(READ MORE: Benches removed in downtown Chattanooga, limiting options for homeless)
"The bench we made isn't going to be great to sleep on, but someone shouldn't have to sleep on a bench," the Urbanist Society founder said.
Most of the removed benches were on Market Street near Sixth and Seventh streets. All of them are set to be reinstalled by the end of the month, city spokeswoman Kirsten Yates said in an email Tuesday.
Urbanist Society bench
Any items that get in the way of reinstalling the city's benches, including the Urbanist Society's wooden bench, will be removed by city crews, Yates said.
Yates said the group could file a request to legally place the bench on city property through a program that allows Chattanooga residents to take on improvement projects in public spaces.
The group's founder said the group would happily remove the bench before the city has to, so it could be reused in a different location.
The Urbanist Society asked a local artist who goes by Art for All Peoples to paint the Phillips Park bench, which is made of wood gathered from construction site dumpsters or donated to the group.
"As long as they continue to build benches, then I will continue to paint them," said the artist, who also requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from the city, in a phone interview Tuesday. "I might build some myself."
(READ MORE: Chattanooga to receive federal grant to help reduce homelessness among youth)
The bench isn't the group's first project. In December, the Urbanist Society temporarily repaired a downed guardrail on a Dodds Avenue bridge, patching the hole with reclaimed wood stenciled with the group's logo -- a brick.
"I understand there's work orders, and processes, but there was weeks that if someone were to walk over that bridge, there was about a 6-foot section where there was no guardrail, and it was a 25-foot drop," the group's founder said.
About a week after the Urbanist Society posted a TikTok of the guardrail repair, the gap was fixed. And after a second video showing crews replacing the concrete section reached more than 2 million views and more than 300,000 likes on TikTok, words of support began pouring in.
"Hundreds of comments had to do specifically with Chattanooga," the society's founder said of that video. "I started realizing lots of other people had the same problem, and so I started meeting with people."
The group's TikTok account got attention nationally and internationally (sitting at 63,000 followers Tuesday), but the group has grown a smaller and much more local Instagram following (more than 900) recently as well.
"The way that we see it, TikTok is how we raise awareness and start the conversation," the founder said. "Instagram is how we activate local people."
(READ MORE: Chattanooga's homeless seek reprieve from single-digit cold snap)
About five people are now extremely active in the group, the founder said, and roughly 20 others have contributed time or resources. Another estimated 150 people have reached out to the group, offering to volunteer when needed, according to the founder.
Going forward, he anticipates needing volunteers to find and collect wood, build more benches and set up a website that could help other people spearhead their own "guerrilla urbanism" efforts, as the society's founder puts it. The group is also planning a trash pickup campaign that would encourage people to top off their trash bins with litter collected from public spaces.
The group plans for future benches to be placed along the most popular bus routes in Chattanooga, starting with the No. 4 bus that runs through Brainerd between Eastgate and Hamilton Place. Other locations may be chosen if community members report a need for seating or other amenities, the founder said.
"Where is there a lot of litter around the bus stop? Where do we see people sitting all the time?" he said. "Can we build them a trash can? Can we build a bus bench? What can we do to increase the humanity of someone who uses public transportation?"
Contact Ellen Gerst at email@example.com or 423-757-6319.