The Chattanooga city government and the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce have created a myth about our city. It is one we all know well, almost by heart. It is trotted out with the arrival of each new factory, each mayoral election, each time the national spotlight is affixed upon us. The myth goes something like this: the blue-collar working class town of Chattanooga lost some factories and population and was dirty, poor and uneducated – but the residents were virtuous and innovative. Through the combined leadership of big business, political machinery and public will the city of Chattanooga rebounded and became the sustainable and green shining city on the hill. The pride and joy of Dixie. Business came, factories sprung up, fiber-optic cables were laid down. Chattanooga has now even become the tourist spot that children find preferable to Disney World.
This myth serves the same purpose as an advertisement, but what it is selling is not a name brand product. What is being sold to us are policy decisions. And policies matter. Budgets have consequences. Policies dictate what the official position is of the city government, budgets determine what we collectively value by deciding who gets money and for what purposes. The city and Chamber have marketed their policies to us and are leading us to believe one thing, but, like Disney World, there is another side that we purposely choose to ignore, to silence, to forget, until it results in nine people being shot on Christmas Eve.
Violent crime is here to stay, it is not just random bad people doing crazy things. It is the result of policies, it is an unintended consequence of the Chattanooga Myth. The facts are there, for anyone who cares to look:
- Residents living in Tennessee are more likely to be victims of violent gun crime than residents in any other state, earning Tennessee the distinction of being the worst state for gun crime in the country.
- Chattanooga was ranked 11th among the top 20 cities in America with the highest crime rate, beating out two of the most dangerous cities in America: Atlanta and Detroit, according to a study by The Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies.
- Despite all the evidence surrounding the rise of crime in our city, Mayor Littlefield and the Chattanooga City Council have taken no substantive steps to deal with the epidemic of violent crime in our city, nor have they publicly advocated any serious reforms to begin treating the deep, underlying economic and social conditions giving rise to such desperate acts.
Why has the city government not dealt with violent crime? Well, in part, it is because violent crime does not fit the narrative. It is not part of the myth we tell ourselves about ourselves. Seriously acknowledging violent crime would entail that we take a critical look at ourselves and, chances are, we won’t like what we see. So, instead, our city government chooses to remain complacent with violent crime so long as it happens out the sight of visiting tourists – and the Chamber continues to sell us childish cartoons about how our policies and our budgets are creating a rising tide that will lift all boats (or Passats).
It is up to the citizens of Chattanooga to fill the void of responsibility that has been manufactured in our city. We must take the easy answers and the comfortable myths provided to us and turn them into critical questions to those in power. We should begin with the recognition of the current policy choices that are the basis for the deep, underlying social and economic conditions from which organized criminal behavior and recurring violent crime are created. Let’s look at two such policies: corporate welfare and structural unemployment.
City government robs the poor to bribe the rich into providing jobs for the middle class
Our city government has formed a consensus around the unifying dogma that it is sound policy to slash programs for the poor while filling the coffers of the rich as long as it is all done in the name of jobs. Just look at the city budgets from the last two-years: After a huge property tax-increase and the termination of the long-standing Sales Tax Agreement with the Hamilton County government, the city of Chattanooga has acquired millions of dollars in additional revenue in our city budget. While our city coffers are filling up, Mayor Ron Littlefield and the Chattanooga City Council passed a budget that resulted in drastic cuts to Chattanooga area non-profits and agencies that provide essential social services to our most vulnerable and impoverished communities. At the same time we are cutting services to the poor and disabled and homeless, we are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the capital-intensive infrastructure needs of multi-national corporations (VW, Amazon, Alstom) that move into our community with the agreement that the citizens of Chattanooga will pick up their tax-bills for decades.The unintended and unacknowledged consequence of this policy decision is the creation of a more deeply entrenched caste-system than has existed in our city for over a hundred years.
City government is creating a permanent class of unemployed
The shootings at Club Fathom on Christmas Eve carried over into College Hill Courts. College Hill Courts is one of the oldest public housing developments in the country. It was built by direct order of President Roosevelt for the explicit purpose of providing an opportunity for a greater quality of life for Chattanooga’s people. Today, College Hill Courts is being starved of resources. Take one primary example: folks living in College Hill Courts have no adequate public transportation. What does adequate mean? What it means is that the CARTA bus routes do not even run to Enterprise South. The consequence of this policy decision, to not fund bus routes to Enterprise South, is that there is no way for a resident of the city of Chattanooga who lives within the city limits and relies on public transportation for travel to even be considered for a job from the businesses at the very places that we the tax-payers are paying hundreds of millions of dollars for them to locate.
Structural unemployment is created through policies that manufacture barriers to employment. Transportation is just one example. Other examples are more profound and result in serious unintended consequences for decades and decades, like education.
The single greatest determination of an individual’s ability to be successful at school is income level – whether a child is resourced (can eat breakfast everyday, can afford to visit the doctor, is provided with an environment that encourages and rewards learning). College Hill Courts is a classic example of an area of our city that has been completely, and purposefully, neglected and forgotten during the “Chattanooga Downtown Renaissance”. The children there are growing up in a world of fewer and fewer resources and fewer and fewer opportunities. The budget cuts to area non-profits that serve children living in College Hill Courts will result in their having fewer supporting resources which will result in fewer graduating from high school and even fewer attending college. The result is that the children of College Hill Courts will have fewer opportunities to escape the life of grinding poverty that they were born into. The city of Chattanooga’s purposeful decision to not make a financial, political and spiritual investment in the people living in College Hill Courts, and other public housing developments across our city, has created an environment of futility, and such environments are the source from which organized criminal activity and violent, gun-related crimes emerge.
The Myth of Chattanooga is perfectly captured in the story of Kirkman Technical High School. Located in the heart of downtown Chattanooga, Kirkman provided an invaluable quality vocational education to Chattanooga’s workforce. Here, students were provided with the resources to learn the skills necessary to make a good living working in one of Chattanooga’s local industries because the Chattanooga city government made a conscious decision to invest in our people. Through this investment, many people from Chattanooga’s poorest communities were lifted to a new quality of life. Today, at the exact location that Kirkman once stood, is the Creative Discovery Museum. We have invested in tourism, not in our own people. Disney has replaced sound public policy. Myth has replaced reality.
Break through the myth to reality
There is no simple and direct solution to the plague of violence and crime that is overtaking our city, but the beginning is simple enough: we need to acknowledge how the consequences of our city government’s policies and budgets have resulted in deep structural inequities which create the conditions for violent crime. This requires that we turn from childish and comfortable myths propagated to us by those in power to the reality of life in Chattanooga’s poorest and most desperate communities. To make this turn we need real leadership in this city that will stand up and fill the void of responsibility by not-only truthfully acknowledging the problem but by making a real commitment (financial, political, and personal) to its solution. This leadership will not and must not find its fulfillment in any one individual, but in the grassroots – in neighborhood associations, churches and union halls. What we need is to radically re-prioritize our priorities and re-evaluate our values as a city. These values must be put into practice through the purposeful development of real life-opportunities for the people living in College Hill Courts, in East Lake Courts, and in all the communities of concentrated poverty around our city. Through the power of truth and a commitment to loving action, we can confront the policies of corporate welfare and structural unemployment which have been sustained through myth and self-deception and finally deal with violent crime in a responsible and holistic manner.
Executive Director, Chattanooga Organized for Action
This article is a reader-submitted editorial and is not to be interpreted as the opinion of Nooga.com or its employees.