High Times in Chattanooga
Tennessee’s mountain hideout never misses a chance to reinvent itself
It’s also a prime stop on any civil rights pilgrimage. Dr. King, only thirty-one years old, stood in the city’s auditorium in 1960, captivated his audience for almost an hour, and then bellowed, “Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain.” The refrain made it all the way to Washington in his “I Have a Dream” speech.
For the Southern technophile, according to the New York Times, the city’s smart-grid Internet service will be two hundred times faster than standard broadband, the fastest in the States and matched by only a few international cities (such as Hong Kong). It is Chattanooga’s fruit from the stimulus plan. A gaggle of developers said: Hell, give us a few million and we’ll put this town on the global cutting edge of business and technology.
And the music! It is deep-rooted. Yes, Huey Lewis is on his way, but Chattanooga is the hometown of Bessie Smith, the “Empress of the Blues,” who used to sing in the clubs so loud and elegant and forceful that, even unamplified, her contralto voice saturated the streets. The Mountain Opry is still kicking up on Signal Mountain, too, continuing three decades of bluegrass and old-time music every Friday night. And the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera—the only symphonic and operatic marriage of its kind in the country—recently celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary.
I remember humming the tune to “Chattanooga Choo Choo” as I climbed up the bur oak: Pardon me, boy/Is that the Chattanooga Choo Choo? It’s catchy. Kind of sticks in your head. I had to cut the oak back, lowering the limbs with ropes and carabiners not for a prize, but for a paycheck. And when I reached the top, I could actually see the Choo Choo, or at least the tiny dot of its gargantuan sign sitting on top of the old station turned hotel. In fact, I could see the whole city from up there on the ridge.
The whole city—a fragmented whole. There are the touristy parts, the rich parts, the nature-y parts, and the part on Broad with an authentic carnicería where you can buy cow tongue and fresh tortillas. Sometimes the parts blend a little, overlap. Sometimes they stay as distinct as a store-bought watercolor palette.
Chattanooga is “the summit of what you are,” writes Reed.
I was the Tennessee Tree Climbing Champion. Now I was simply back to work. Chattanooga, too, sheds her old skin and grows anew. A midsize city of fresh beginnings. A deep-down Southern kind of resurrection.