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The City Council is looking to update the Miller Park. The downtown park is where many homeless people congregate.

At three different public gatherings last week, city leaders and design consultants brainstormed with citizens about ideas on how to transform Miller Park, the city's oldest downtown park.

The renovation has the blessing of Chattanooga's City Council, River City Co. and the Benwood Foundation. With $3 million set aside for renovations, Miller Park could become something stunning and beautiful.

And that's what concerns me.

What then happens to everything that's not beautiful?

Like our homeless poor?

Miller Park has deep meaning: it is one of the last remaining public spaces in our downtown. Like all public spaces, it is infused with democratic ideals and possibility: a place of assembly and gathering, a place to protest and speak out, a place of leisure, especially in a downtown more and more concerned with capital, tourism and commerce.

In public spaces, you come as you are. There are no demands, no dress code, no admission tickets to buy.

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David Cook

"They are the places where we are all equal," writes Boston activist Shirley Kressel. "In public spaces we are reminded of the most important civics lesson: we are all in this together."

Far more than a cosmetic act, renovating Miller Park is a democratic one, something that will affect our ability to protest, gather, assemble and simply exist in public ways. Will renovations make these freedoms more robust, or not? Will there be more pluralism, or less? Will our civic body grow, or only grow in certain ways and for certain people?

One way to answer these questions — one litmus test — lies with our city's homeless poor.

For years, our downtown poor have congregated in Miller Park. Visually, their presence stands in stark, shaggy contrast to the suit-and-tie hustle and bustle of downtown commerce. They are not tourists. Not businessmen or -women. Their existence is resistance, a form of anti-hustle and bustle.

Practically, they have few other places to go. Miller Park has become a de facto shelter. Besides the public library, where else can the homeless poor go?

(Or where can they use a toilet? Get a drink of fresh, free water? If you look closely at downtown life, we have made the most basic of human functions into something only certain people can do.)

Yes, urban planners have already been intentional. The city specifically looked for consultants with experience in such situations; they've talked with folks at Patten Towers and the Community Kitchen. But it's naive not to recognize the larger forces at work. This park renovation is being discussed in the middle of a $400 million surge of downtown condos and apartments and against a backdrop of a $1 billion-a-year tourist economy.

Will the renovation create an inclusive and diverse community of parkgoers? Or will these two groups collide — the homeless and the housed — with the new and improved Miller Park only big enough for one of them?

In such social jousting, the homeless rarely win.

While important, our tourist economy also has a shadow side. It makes us a city of desirables; we stand before the mirror — who is the fairest city of them all? The temptation then is to sanitize, to rid downtown spaces — from the Casey barge to Miller Park's homeless — of what is ugly, messy or uncomfortable.

One warning sign of social sanitation? The implementation of some sort of Miller Park usage fee.

Each week, pastors, church groups and activists serve food — and provide counseling, work opportunities, free clothes, bus tickets, trips to the hospital and so on — to huge crowds at Miller Park.

If charged a usage fee, shoestring pastors and activists would have to stop serving food. No more food, no more big, huddled masses yearning for help in the very public heart of downtown.

"We served 250 bowls of soup last week," said the Rev. Barry Kidwell of Mustard Tree Ministries. (Under past mayors, Kidwell has been kicked out of the park for serving food.)

Kidwell was one of 20 or so residents who gathered Friday to share ideas on the renovation. The discussion was held across the street at Miller Plaza, which looks and feels parkish, but is actually private property.

Case in point: a sign listed all the Miller Plaza no-no's.

No panhandling.

No loitering.

No canvassing.

No public speeches.

If the ultimate goal is a blending of Miller Park, Miller Plaza and Patten Parkway — "a district of spaces," one planner said — how will this public-private space affect our public freedoms? How will the First Amendment travel through such a park?

Will public speech and protest be allowed in one spot, but not the other?

Will this new space be public or private?

"We're making it a better park for everyone. That's why we're doing this," said city planner Jenny Park. "The park is intended to serve all the wishes of the public. It's a public space."

I mostly believe her. Park spoke about many conversations within City Hall and without about these very issues, and if done right, this whole renovation could really be dynamite — democratically and aesthetically.

But we cannot forsake one for the other.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

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