UPDATE: This story was updated at 10:55 a.m. Oct. 24, 2021, to correct the spelling of Gail McKeel's name.
In the summer of 2012, Gail McKeel noticed the strangest thing: A few blocks away from her east Chattanooga home, people on Glass Street were partying.
"I jumped in my car and went down there, looking around," McKeel said. "I hadn't driven down Glass Street in decades."
The once-thriving east Chattanooga street — home to stores, a bank, the Rivoli Theater — was lifeless.
"Nobody was sitting on their front porch. Everybody's blinds were closed. Nobody walking on sidewalks," McKeel remembers.
She was skeptical. A block party? Organized by people who aren't from east Chattanooga?
"What are these young people doing here?" she wondered.
At the center of those people was Teal Thibaud.
Thibaud and others originally came to Glass Street to save it.
They soon learned: It didn't need saving.
"We're not saving. We're not fixing," she learned. "Start from a position of strength."
Together, Thibaud and Glass Farms residents built one of the most beautiful stories in our city's recent history.
Now, 12 years after that first block party, Thibaud, 34, has an announcement.
In 2022, she's stepping down as director of Glass House Collective.
"Jan. 1," she said.
This should come as no surprise. Thibaud's work has been making herself smaller while making residents larger.
"I've never met anyone quite like that," McKeel said. "It's been the honor of my lifetime, meeting her."
Early 2012: Thibaud came to Glass Street as a white woman with good intentions. She and others formed Glass House Collective with a vision to use artists and residents to revitalize the neighborhood. She told the mostly Black neighborhood: Let's put art in those vacant storefront windows.
Many told her: "Who the hell do you think you are?" Thibaud remembers. "Who are you to bring your ideas to a community that is not yours?"
Other white folks might have packed up and left; a humbled Thibaud stayed. She stopped inviting folks to her place and instead went to theirs.
"Listen," she said.
The unsexy work began. Dreams of creative place-making turned into picking up trash, demolishing old buildings, a third Budweiser on the front porch to hear about cracked sidewalks and grocery stores with moldy food.
A new vision of development emerged.
"Build trust and trust is a slow game," she said.
"Power," she said. "Their power is collective."
Soon, people began opening their blinds and curtains. Folks returned to front porches. On new sidewalks, they walked their dogs. In yards, planted flowers. Someone hung a Glass Farms pride banner. Then, many did.
This radiated from Thibaud.
"Her ability to make you want to be proud of where you live," McKeel said.
Over the years, Glass House Collective and residents would organize a modern resurrection. More than $3 million in outside investments, Thibaud said. Some two dozen homes were renovated. Businesses — Ashtanti Hair Design, H&R Block, a new Save A Lot, Jacquelyn Allgood-White's All-Good Coffee and Used Books, the only Black-owned coffee shop in the city — were remade and reborn. Streetscaping, sidewalks, murals, more murals, a declining poverty rate, an increasing educational achievement rate.
"We are really proud of what we have done," she said, "and what we haven't done."
The Glass Street story offers us a new way of seeing Chattanooga development.
It is development without gentrification or the scent of colonization.
"It was always people-centric," McKeel said.
"Before this, I was not one to get involved," resident Deborah Bledsoe said. "You have so many games that people play. So many things that you don't trust."
Now, a very involved Bledsoe calls the work "a great movement."
"From the trees to the streets to the atmosphere to the Save A Lot, all of this was established by the community working together," she said. "It's different. It can't be denied."
Bledsoe remembers Thibaud always asking the same questions:
What do you think?
What do you want and need?
"She bites the bullet. She gets in there. She doesn't give up. And she doesn't give up on you," Bledsoe said.
Erika Roberts, the city of Chattanooga's artist in residence, joined the collective, where art and artists are primary, she said (in contrast to white organizations that will invite Black artists not out of genuine respect, but as a check-the-box photo opp).
"A myriad of artists sitting at a table while we are discussing next steps," she said. "It's not uncommon for [Teal] to say: 'Erika what do you think on this?' She's not asking me for anything else than an artist. That is rewarding and extremely validating."
The neighborhood hosts the Annual Glass Street Live from noon to 4 p.m. Nov. 6.
"I have never met anyone like Teal," said Katherine Currin, who co-founded Glass House Collective with Thibaud. "She built trust in a place where so many promises have been broken over the years."
Thibaud, who isn't sure what's next, is reflective, so grateful, so humble.
"I've made many missteps along the way. I am not this woke white woman," she said. "It's messy work, but I am committed to it. It's hard and heavy and so needed. I just know I'm not perfect and still have a long way to go."
Many folks will go with you, Teal.
"I love Teal as much as I could love my own daughter," McKeel said. "I've just never seen anything like it. I just didn't know those people existed where you dedicate your entire life to a neighborhood you don't know It was absolutely beautiful the relationships formed. Encouraging people, empowering people. Just absolutely amazing."
David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at email@example.com.
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