A City Divided “The Progressive City of the South” or “A City of the New Gilded Age”?
Have you ever been to the third floor of the library downtown? It’s called the local history section and it’s truly one of the quiet treasures of our city. Up there, there’s a large case of filing cabinets, and inside are hundreds upon hundreds of newspaper clippings, each filed under different topics and headings. Everyday, the staff at our public library look through the newspaper, clip out articles, and file them by topic.
Together, those articles weave the story of our city, and its a story we all think we know.
Once called the dirtiest city in America, Chattanooga bounced back to become the Renaissance City of the South. With a sparkling downtown and the arrival of new industry, it looks like things are on a roll for the old Dynamo of Dixie, right?
It might come as a surprise to some that there are two Chattanoogas. A city of opportunity for some, and a city where the gravity of poverty gains a stronger grip. As one opinion columnist described it, ”We are a city of the New Gilded Age.”
Chattanooga is making national headlines, but they’re not the kind we want to make.
Poverty & Economic Inequity
ANew York Times article on American’s growing poor and low-income populations featured Chattanooga as a highlight of disturbing new trends. The article found that 27 percent of the city’s residents live below the poverty line, nearly double the national average. Out of that number, “women head two-thirds of the city’s poor households and42 percent of its children are poor, nearly double the rate statewide”
Chattanooga's public transportation system is failing our poor and working families. According to a 2011 Brookings Institute report, Chattanooga ranks #87 out of the top 100 metro areas in combined coverage and access ranking for access and coverage to centers of employment and job. Only 23% of all working age Chattanooga residents live near a transit stop. The average for the top 100 metro areas is 69%
All of these facts leave us with one fateful question - Is this it?
Will the “Two Chattanoogas” be our legacy? Is this the city we will leave behind for our children? Must we accept conditions of poverty and unemployment, and the suffering of our fellow citizens - oris there more we can do?
The Progressive City of the South
The growing gap between the rich and the poor have marred this era of history, but there was another time a lot like ours. It was called the Gilded Age. This era of history saw a dangerous and growing gap between the rich and the poor and the loss of opportunity for many. Much like our time, the Gilded Age was the result of runaway greed.
But the story doesn’t end there. Through the work of determined activists and organizers, the Progressive Era came as an answer and brought forth many new solutions and innovations to the social ills of the time such as labor unions, the 8-hour work day, and the end of child labor.
Over 100 years later, we here in Chattanooga find ourselves with a choice: we can continue on our road towards wider and deep disparities, or we can become something new - the Progressive City of the South - a city where citizens combine their efforts to make sure no community falls behind.