Cook: Whitewashing the Best Town Ever

Cook: Whitewashing the Best Town Ever

January 20th, 2019 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

A view of downtown Chattanooga is seen from the Tower atop the Electric Power Building at the corner of Martin Luther King Blvd. and Market Street. Some of the landmarks in this view are the Read House, BlueCross and BlueShield, the James Buidling and others.

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

Next time you're downtown, try this:

Count the number of African-Americans you see.

Not waiters or dishwashers or minimum wage workers.

Count the number of black people you see having fun. Going to movies. Grocery shopping. Rock-climbing. Unlocking their front door in the evening after work.

White people? They're everywhere. Too many to count.

But African-Americans?

"Six," said Dr. Everlena Holmes. "We counted six."

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

Holmes, a former university dean and one of our city's wisest community leaders, is black. Not long ago, her son and daughter came to visit. Holmes drove them around town: down M.L. King Boulevard, Market and Broad streets. To be black in America often means counting, scanning, wondering: Am I welcome here?

That evening, they counted six people that looked like them. Holmes was surprised.

She's been downtown before and counted far fewer.

"I've been down and counted one," she said.

Within Holmes's story, we find the distilled core of what it means to live in Chattanooga today.

Our city is segregated.

It is not a segregation found in separate water fountains or bathrooms, yet a similar message exists: For Whites Only.

According to a new report released by Chattanooga Organized for Action, our 21st century renaissance has created not only a transformed downtown, but racial blow-back.

"The data are undeniable," writes Dr. Ken Chilton, associate professor at Tennessee State University. "African Americans have been collateral damage in the redevelopment of Chattanooga."

Between 2000 and 2017, downtown and its adjacent neighborhoods lost 2,592 black residents.

And gained 5,066 white residents.

"These numbers are not the result of random market forces," writes Chilton, former head of Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies. "Rather, they are a direct result of policies implemented to attract new residents to downtown — more affluent, more educated, and mostly white."

COA's new report has a gut-punch title: "Negro Removal in Chattanooga: The Impact of Market-Based Displacement on Communities of Color."

Chilton's choice of words — "Negro Removal" — isn't derogatory; the title echoes back to the 1950s, when U.S. government-financed programs under the guise of urban renewal consequently upended black communities, with some two-thirds of all displaced being black.

A similar "removal" is happening again today.

"The process is driven by public/private partnerships," Chilton writes. "Foundation grants, real estate speculations and tax incentives to lure developers."

Look at celebrated Main Street and Jefferson Heights, or census tract 20. In 2000, more than 1,500 African Americans lived there.

In 2017, fewer than 400 remain.

In 2000, fewer than 100 white Chattanoogans lived there.

In 2017, more than 700 do.

During those 17 years in tract 20, the median household income for whites increased by 142 percent.

Yet the median household income for blacks there?

"$12,133," Chilton writes.

This is not news. Chilton, COA and the NAACP have published multiple reports, each complex and unique, but carrying the same damning message:

"The benefits of Chattanooga's renaissance have not trickled down," Chilton writes. (A copy of the report is available at https://bit.ly/2R090n7.)

This is 21st century racism, our new version of redlining, a whitewashing of who belongs downtown and who doesn't.

While black Chattanoogans are being displaced, white leaders tout Chattanooga as the Best Town Ever.

This is the double wound of racism. The first comes in the loss of physicality: body, home, community, money. The second comes in the maddening silence as city leaders pretend as if all is well — come see our success story here! — while refusing to give legitimate attention to the crisis at hand.

Black Chattanoogans are being pushed into the Rossville Boulevard area, where nearby neighborhoods have seen an influx of more 4,800 African Americans since 2000.

There, the Hispanic population has grown by more than 4,000 residents, as well.

And in the same neighborhoods, more than 6,400 white Chattanoogans have moved out.

So what do we do?

If you have to ask, you haven't been listening.

For years — years! — the community has been pleading, protesting, petitioning:

Give us a seat at the table. Not a token seat, but real, invested power within decision-making.

We need leaders who actually listen.

We need policies with teeth and muscle, like Community Benefits Agreements.

We need to change the entire way this city approaches its citizens.

"We challenge civic leaders to embark on a new renaissance," Chilton writes. "We challenge Chattanooga leaders to live up to their professed progressive values by investing in truly disadvantaged communities that require human capital training and social capital — not just street art, tax breaks and bricks and mortar."

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329.

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