Whenever my friend Amy introduced me to people we encountered in Chattanooga, she would say, “This is my friend Christina. She’s just got back from South America. She was there for nine months, the length of a pregnancy.”The person would look at me. “Just a coincidence,” I would say. Before I headed south a gestation period ago, I lived in Chattanooga for two years. I knew nothing about the city when I moved there to take a job at the newspaper, but I quickly grew to love it for its downtown parks, hilly old neighborhoods and position on the slow-moving Tennessee River at the base of Lookout and Signal mountains.
Coolidge Park and its carousel, on the river
I went back to visit my friends there last weekend and found the city a lot like I left it and a little different.
Things that did not change while I was gone:
- The same stained white curtains are hanging in the bottom half of the nine-foot, wavy-glassed windows of my dear old apartment at the corner of Mississippi Avenue and Summer Street.
- My former landlord, a bleached blond in her late 30s, is still crazy. The last time I saw her before my move, she proudly shouted to me — and everyone sitting on the grass behind me at an outdoor concert — “I got new boobs! Check ’em out!” When I ran into her this time, she introduced the man on her arm, then performed a song and dance. “I got a boyfriend, I got a boyfriend!” she yelled, shaking her hips back and forth. The man on her arm looked mortified.
- The cathead biscuits, omelettes and grits at the ever-popular North Chattanooga establishment Aretha Frankensteins are tasty as ever. Stuffed crows, movie villain heads and rock ‘n roll posters decorate the walls of this turquoise house-cum-restaurant perched on the steep side of Tremont Street. The porch, patio and inside tables are still packed on weekend mornings.
- The homeless man with a bushy white beard still sits on the bench at the end of the Walnut Street walking bridge that spans the Tennessee River (he has a new pair of overalls, though).
- Friday evening Nightfall concerts at Miller Plaza downtown still draw a crowd that’s not afraid to dance. Texas-based soul singer Ruthie Foster performed while I was there and completely rocked the place.
- The Pickle Barrel, a rickety downtown pub with rooftop seating, will still give you Tater Tots in place of French Fries, and it will still make your night.
- My running route along a section of the 10-mile downtown-to-dam riverwalk still makes me happy. As do the hiking trails on Lookout and Signal mountains, which overlook the river valley as they weave through hardwood forests and granite formations.
- I still wish I could rollerskate through the Times Free Press newsroom, which has expansive hardwood floors that just BEG to be skated.
Things that DID change since I left:
- Holy riverfront condos! Honestly, are there THAT many people clamoring to live in condos to justify building 50 MILLION of them along the river's edge?
- The Yellow Deli, run by the long-haired members of the Twelve Tribes Christian sect, is back in town. The religious community opened the original Yellow Deli in 1973, but left town after stirring up controversy and arousing suspicion they were a cult. They returned to the Scenic City this spring for Try #2. Tribe members, dressed in modest handmade clothing (which means long, flowing skirts for women), serve dishes like fresh chef salads, reuben sandwiches, papaya smoothies and carrot cake. Every aspect of the building — from the doorways to the walls to the banisters — has been meticulously hand-carved or painted. The quality of the food and décor is almost enough to make you forget the misgivings you have about the group that runs it.
- Greenlife Grocery closed its store down the street from my former apartment and opened a big new megastore closer to the river. With the addition of second-story restaurant seating, there’s really no reason to ever leave. Pick up breakfast burritos from the hot bar, the best blueberry muffins in the world (I’m not kidding), made-on-the-spot sushi, gourmet salads, smoothies, fruit, whatever, and hang around.
- And, perhaps the biggest change of all: VW is coming! VW is coming! The German automaker Volkswagen announced last month they’ll be building a $1 billion production facility in the Scenic City in 2011. This means an additional 2,000 jobs in the area. Everyone is elated about the economic boost the automaker will bring to Chattanooga. “Willkommen” signs hang from the side of all the street lamps downtown. I can only hope the city plans its growth and expansion wisely and with taste and that it doesn’t ruin its charm by erecting cheap, cookie-cutter neighborhoods, strip malls... and more condos.
Arethas photos by Dorie Turner