“Downtown gets plans. They get design charrettes. They get twenty or thirty years advance notice and fancy public meetings. We’re lucky if we get word that there is a plan. That’s the way it is for us.” - Tiffany Rankins, Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association Secretary and COA Board Member.
Chattanooga often gets lauded as a city where citizens come together to set a vision for the community. Going back into the 1980s, citizens gathered together in community meetings to do visioning processes to outline the future of the city. Out of some of these meetings came the initial vision for what’s called the “Chattanooga Renaissance”: a sparkling new downtown, an aquarium, and a new tourist industry.
All too often, though, poor and marginalized communities are not offered the chance to set a vision for their own communities. Their fates are not decided not by them, but by outside interests. Be it developers, Big Business, or government and nonprofit interests, Chattanooga’s marginalized communities oftentimes have very little say about whether a road goes through their neighborhood or whether toxic pollution is cleaned up.
Below are just a few of the stories:
Lincoln Park - Tucked away behind Erlanger Hospital and the railroad sits the little community of Lincoln Park, home to the famous park of the same name. Lincoln Park was once the only recreation center available for Chattanooga’s African-American community during the times of segregation, and its baseball fields saw the very first games of baseball legends such as Willie Mays. But when community leaders learned that city leaders had planned an extension of a major road straight through their community without their consent, Lincoln Park got organized to win!
South Chattanooga & Velsicol - Some communities in Chattanooga have the privilege of resting upon good, green earth. Some communities in Chattanooga sit upon earth so riddled with poison and carcinogens that growing a simple garden in your community is not an option. Suffering at the hands of abusive businesses, the South Chattanooga community has been robbed of its ability to grow gardens, raise food, swim in safe streams, and even breathe fresh and clean air. When one of South Chattanooga’s most abusive businesses, the Velsicol Chemical Company, proposed an environmental clean-up plan for its former sites to state regulators, the people of South Chattanooga decided that those plans weren’t enough.
Westside & Purpose Built - “Public Housing Is NOT for Sale!” - Those were the words that came from members of the Westside Community Association when developers, business-types, and then Mayor Ron Littlefield decided to set their sights on one of the last remaining public housing communities in Downtown Chattanooga. “The Westside, public housing, our homes and our communities are NOT for sale!” Armed with petitions, vision, demonstrations, marches and determination, the people of Westside community, together with Chattanooga Organized for Action, turned what very well could have been the death knell of an historic community into a renaissance full of action, organizing, and hope.
Affordable Housing Ordinance - After public housing residents and their allies successfully defended their homes against Purpose Built Communities, a new focus - and solution - to Chattanooga’s affordable housing crisis came into the spotlight. Written and researched by the Westside Community Association, the Affordable Housing Ordinance mandates the inclusion of affordable units for everyday working families in any new developments. Chattanooga’s political establishment have refused to pass the proposal, but community leaders are still pressing for the AHO’s implementation along with other progressive housing policies.
A Better Deal for Tubman - When the Chattanooga Housing Authority moved to sell the former Harriet Tubman public housing community in 2013, two visions for the future emerged. One - shared by former Tubman residents and Neighborhood Association leaders - promoted a return to providing Chattanooga’s low-income and working families with a safe and affordable place to live. But another vision - developed by Big Business - wanted to convert the residential site to industrial development. Together with the People’s Coalition for Affordable Housing, COA organized a response: to win a better deal for Tubman through the inclusion of a Community Benefits AGreement guaranteeing diret benefits, such as local jobs and living wages, to the East Chattanooga community. Once it became clear that the Chamber’s bid would win, the Coalition pressed for a Community Benefits Agreement, and, although all parties have turned down the CBA, the Mayor’s Office is now making efforts to ensure that locals are recruited to the jobs site.
Through each of these stories, one thing is clear: plans are being made for marginalized communities against their wishes. Without the chance to practice self-determination, marginalized communities end up waging defensive campaigns against outside interests rather than moving forward with a progressive agenda of their own.
“When it’s something wrong with our communities, when its the gangs, guns, and the drugs, they say ‘You can take your community back’, but when they want to build a road through your community, when they want to do something to your community, they say ‘You can’t do anything about it.’ So, who’s community is it?” - Ms. Vannice Hughley, President, Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association Chattanooga Organized for Action works to increase the opportunities for communities to set their own agenda and create a bold new vision for their future. You can learn more about our Community Self-Determination Initiatives by reading about our community planning program called SPARC (Sustaining People and Reclaiming and Communities).