After a long nine-hour bus ride from Akron, Ohio, we arrived in Chattanooga, Tennessee late on a rainy Monday night at a barn-like tavern with a large private room. The long tables were set, Chattanooga Whiskey was served, and three types of meat were barbecued to perfection. We were in Southern heaven. This first evening in the glowing room with the sound of rain falling heavily on the roof and the hospitality of our hosts set the tone for the next three days. Even with thunderstorms, the city was warm and charming, unique and vibrant.
At the end of April, 34 Akron leaders traveled by bus to Chattanooga, Tennessee for a study tour of information and inspiration through panels, tours, and exploration. The ride was long, uncomfortable, but inevitably revealing.
In our first morning session, we congregated in the country’s largest freshwater aquarium, surrounded by luminous jelly fish inspiring us for the first dive into Chattanooga’s strategy. Within the first five minutes of the panel, the phrase “helpful and hopeful” was repeated, almost chanted. It was a phrase that we would hear during the three days over and over again and it became a mantra for the leadership of the city.
An inescapable truth that emerged within the first hour of our sessions was that Chattanooga’s story is eerily similar to Akron’s, one that many post-industrial cities share: large industry gives city identity, people work and build, industry leaves, and so do the people. In 1969, Walter Cronkite called it the “Dirtiest City in the US.” An almost serendipitous parallel is Northeast Ohio’s Burning River, a narrative that came to light the same year and still follows the Cuyahoga in the national eye.
However, in Chattanooga’s version of the post-industrial fairy tale, it found solidarity in an asset of the city that would bring together its strongest leaders and largest donors. The Tennessee River runs through the middle of the city with a diverse range of fresh water fish, many held in reverence in that first day’s aquarium. By the 1980s, the leaders of Chattanooga created the Tennessee River City Park Plan, which spanned 22 miles, to highlight the River.
We walked along a part of this plan where they built concrete “explosions” and botanical bridges (pictured) to reveal the water way to the public. It was so beautiful and memorable that I had private thoughts about my plans to move there if Akron didn’t work out the way I wanted.
“Helpful and hopeful” were the words ingrained in my reflection as we left the city after spending three days exploring the details of their revitalization and the challenges they were still facing. Chattanooga has a smaller population and larger square footage, yet the city felt more dense than Akron. The difference in our towns is not just geography but the energy and patience that leaders feel in their work. Chattanooga’s success didn’t happen overnight and many of the leaders we met argued it’s still a work in progress.
This was reassuring to me as we boarded the bus for home. Our motley crew of 34 leaders was returning with an experience that demonstrated what Akron could be in 10 to 15 years. We do not have the same assets, but we do have the scrappiness of a mid-size city just like Chattanooga.
As I continue my work in North Hill at the Exchange House, I have a deeper understanding of the commitment and time it takes to see change. Although I usually struggle with waiting for things to happen, I can use “helpful and hopeful” as a breath, an inhale / exhale when I need to slow down and re-center myself when so much is going wrong or when everything is succeeding. As community leaders, we need these moments of realizing that we’re not alone, that others have walked this path and failed, then got up and tried again.
If we remember to be “helpful and hopeful,” then our communities will change for the better because we took the time and energy to continue on even in the face of adversity. —Katie Beck, Exchange House Manager