When I told people I had heard wonderful things about Chattanooga and had really, really wanted to visit, I got a lot of strange looks. Um, Chattanooga? As in Chattanooga, Tennessee? Yep. That one. Wanted to see for myself. If you’re not in the habit of reading up about New Urbanism, Walkable Cities and other Quixotic notions about how to live, you might have missed the story. It’s quite a story. The long version is available in more than one place online, including this article.
The short version, I got in wonderful, detailed,first-person from Tony, of Bell Limousine Service, who drove us the two blocks (yes, really!) from the Chattanoogan Hotel to the convention center for the She Expo. Tony and I had a “green room” to ourselves for a while. We shared a laugh about how Limo drivers know everything: they’re the ones who hear, first-hand, whether the deal is going through or not; who’s in and who’s out; where the bodies are buried. Kind of like the downstairs staff on Downton Abbey, Tony and his peers are frequently not considered actual persons who might be listening or thinking as they drive.
They are flies on the wall. They hear, and see, everything. Tony, for example, was in the computer business as a Management Information Systems analyst, but he found out that he made more money and had more fun being a fly on the wall. His ears worked fine, and so did his brain, and he’s a terrific story teller, too.
So I began to ask him about Chattanooga, and hit paydirt right away. First of all, sez Tony, he loves the city. Thinks it’s a great place to live and raise a family. Second, he credits that quality of life to one guy. Mr. Jack Lupton. Tony told me a great story about the first time he ever drove Mr. Lupton, who was rude to him. At the end of the ride, Tony told Mr. Lupton there would be another driver for his next trip. Asked why, Tony leveled with the man, told him he wouldn’t allow anyone to treat him that way. Lupton apologized, extended his hand and asked Tony to be his driver from then on, on the condition he always be as frank and honest.
What gives this little tale-within-a-tale meaning is that Lupton had inherited a huge, more-than-a-billion-dollar fortune from his father, who had the largest Coca Cola bottling company in the country. Especially but not exclusively in the South, that meant he’d been raised in a big house up on a hill, being “yes sir’ed and no sir’ed” by everyone in his life, but not necessarily being told the truth about much of anything.
The old Chattanooga Choo Choo terminal, now a hotel lobby
The miracle is that Jack Lupton decided to use his considerable money and love of place to help turn Chattanooga from a filthy, polluted, grim, broken, ugly old river town, to a lovely old river town with modern amenities and a big future, where people were now happy to live.
His idea to build an aquarium had everybody snickering at country clubs in several counties. The aquarium was built, then expanded and built some more, and is now a world-class, extremely popular attraction. I loved that the building design was uncompromising and modern, yet extremely welcoming, down to little canals built all around it specifically to encourage kids to splash and play. The steamy summer day I was there, the kid-sized waterways were full of toddlers, bigger kids and their barefoot moms, dads and grandparents: lots of happy screams, and the sweet burbly noises of families doing what families love to do on a Sunday afternoon. There was plenty of green grass to picnic and laze on, and the whole business looked out on the Tennessee River, which now flows by without the stink of pollution, full of actual river critters.
Beautiful streetscape details
The aquarium is just one element in a cinderella story that involved years and years of public meetings, private wheedling, arm-twisting additional donors and investment money: all the hard, usually thankless work of bringing contentious factions together to get something done. Nasty old freight yards and factories were torn down, but worthy old buildings saved and retooled for new uses. Great thought was given to signage, public spaces, private uses. I can tell you first-hand, for example, that if you are walking around in downtown Chattanooga and need to find a restroom, you can. A lovely restroom.
Jack Lupton, I’m sorry I missed my opportunity to shake your hand, but so grateful to meet Tony, and get from him a sense of who you were. Ironic that the money came from Coca Cola, still very much a presence downtown. But it seems like if you follow Huge Money to its source, there is often good reason to seek redemption.
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