Cook: So is Chattanooga a city that's hip?

Cook: So is Chattanooga a city that's hip?

April 30th, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

Happy 20th birthday to the Tennessee Aquarium. Without you, our city would not be what it is today. If you were a person, we'd paint your portrait and ask you to run for office.

"Our shift as a city really began with the aquarium in '92," said Peggy Townsend, director of Chattanooga's Public Art program. "There was a collective shift in our thinking about the possibilities of what our city could be."

This shift is worth 1,000 straight nights of Riverbend fireworks, and anyone who lived in Chattanooga in the B.A. (Before Aquarium) days knows what she's talking about.

We ought to thank a lot of people a lot of times.

This identity shift as a people and city is perhaps best symbolized in three ways: the Kayak, the Coffeeshop and the Studio.

The Kayak represents all the people who have moved here to be closer to our area's mountains, rocks and rivers. Asking more than 26,000 people in 2009 why they liked Chattanooga, CreateHere's STAND researchers found one top answer: the natural environment.

The Coffeeshop symbolizes creative thinking and intelligent labor. Between 2001 and 2009, the two fastest-growing job markets, according to the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies, were computer and mathematical operations and the combined job market of arts, design, entertainment, sports and media.

The first sector grew by 121 percent, the second by 60 percent. Both are linked in creative intelligence and laptop-based labor. Our Gig City and tech-entrepreneurialism bolster this.

And the Studio represents the artist.

"Our city has become a mecca for artists," said local sculptor John McLeod. "People are moving here from all over the place."

Now consider the year 2032. What will the next 20 years contain?

What is shifting ... now?

Let's ask this question. Imagine the most visionary college student at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Or the smartest Hamilton County high school student. An expert in her field, a genius in his.

Would they stay here to live and work? Can Chattanooga - with its culture, people and communities - keep them here?

There is one thing we as a city don't want to export: good, creative, forward-thinking people. The last 20 years, we've figured out how to be a tourist destination. The three Rs - Riverfront, Riverbend and Recreation - draw untold numbers of people to our city each year.

The next 20 years need to be about building our city as a livable, vibrant place. A city to move to, not visit on a weekend.

What do good and vibrant cities contain? Hipness.

I think it's time we ask: Is Chattanooga hip?

By hip, I don't mean fashion (just ask my wife). I mean an attitude, philosophy, way-of-being.

Hip is the opposite of close-minded. It opposes racism. It runs from status quo. Hip looks for conversation about differences, and applauds new ideas, imagination and political engagement. It's kind of like jaywalking in order to help someone across the street.

We're not Boulder, Colo., or Austin, Texas, or Portland, Ore., and don't want to be. But it is time we swept the rust of some creaky hinges, and allowed the 21st century into some of the board rooms, council meetings and churches, particularly the ones that don't allow women to be pastors and preachers or schools that won't allow Gay-Straight Alliances.

You can name your own example here.

You can be hip and conservative. Hip and a church-goer. Hip and go to bed by 11 p.m. It's not about nose rings, but rather a willingness to move past the hierarchy and unsustainability of the 20th century.

(Maybe it's time we became a college town.)

Hip people need to run for office. We need a massive push for creative, forward-thinking people in the political space, making political decisions. We need the coolest, most visionary people in town running for school board, mayor and town councils.

The next aquarium for our city won't be a building, but a diverse set of ideas, kept alive and turned into policy and reality by creative and engaged minds and artistic hearts.

David Cook can be reached at