Community Voices

Their Soul Will See Mountains

The following remarks were made by Ann Coulter to attendees at the Next City Vanguard Conference of young leaders in Chattanooga, April 24, 2014.

To you Vanguards and to others here tonight, I’m humbled to be in front of you and awed by my task – to take only ten minutes to get you up to speed on what we’ve done here and how we’ve done it over the past 30 years.

I feel a little like Neil DeGrasse Tyson in the new Cosmos TV series – have you seen it? He glides around in his silver sliver of a space ship and dips into the cosmos through time to explain the history of the universe to us. I hope this journey in time through the Chattanooga cosmos tonight serves you well during your weekend here.   

I’ll try to blend some pithy advice like you might find in a commencement address with some core things we’ve learned about city building in 30 years. Because you are commencing something tonight aren’t you?

Vanguard Conference participants tour the Walnut Street Bridge. Photo: Ennis Davis, Metro Jacksonville

I’ll begin with Chattanooga’s First Law of City Building:  Working Together Works.  It’s not always how we did things here but some visionary people started a powerful new tradition of working together just over 30 years ago with the Moccasin Bend Task Force, Chattanooga Venture, and Images of the City. This law is at the core of all success we’ve had since.  It is the truest form of civic innovation, a trendy term today but we didn’t know to call it that as we were doing it.

This law of working together has four corollaries and I’ll talk about these in the increasingly less than ten minutes I have left.

Corollary One: Use adjectives -Use them over and over, make them up, string them together with gusto!  Adjectives prime the pump of our imaginations.  They can get some arguments started that need to be had.  Imagine the arguments around here when it was announced to the nation in 1969 we had the dirtiest air in the U.S.  That’s not an adjective you want in front of your city’s name. So we changed that adjective.

You cannot make something happen if you cannot imagine it and if you can’t help others imagine it too.

If we hadn’t started using adjectives in new way in talking about our city over 30 years ago you and I would not be together here tonight.  In 1981 we said the beauty of our built environment must match the beauty of our natural environment.  Look around at our landscape. There is nothing like that statement to raise the bar in city building.  We said world-class city, best mid-sized city, and gig city. 

In the late 1980’s a group of people imagined we could be a more representative city. They sued in Federal court to change our discriminatory form of city government to one that would be fairer for minorities, and therefore for all of us. They won that suit and big changes followed.  Without vision the people perish and without adjectives the vision falls flat.  

Corollary Two: Want it all. Don’t look at the world as either/or but as both/and.   At one time we actually debated around here whether we should try to have good jobs or a clean environment, as if one cancelled out the other.  We are beyond that now, thank goodness. A city must not allow itself to be a zero sum game. 

In 2002 we launched an ambitious plan to create a 21st Century Waterfront in fulfillment of a two decade old community vision. $120 million in improvements were needed for public parks and streets, and to three major cultural institutions. Not a dime was in anyone’s budget.  It might have become a battle of who gets to go first, of who would be most successful at raising money.  But what happened? The heads of those institutions, the Aquarium, the Hunter and the Creative Discovery Museum got together and everybody laid their major donor lists on table and they fundraised together, not as individuals, but jointly – in more than fifty meetings.  People were asked to give to the Waterfront Trust – not to pet projects – with the promise it would all be done.  In matter of months the money was raised and you see the results all around you.  

Corollary Three: There is not an app for that. I like apps as much as the next person and have a cell phone full of them. But sometimes I worry about the seductiveness of apps.  However trendy and clever they may be – they are still just tactics, not strategies.  Cut loose from context and values, apps can’t be city builders.  They can make us busy but what for?   And it is the what for that is the real work of city building.  

What for did we build two new downtown magnet elementary schools in 2002, only nine blocks apart, when all new schools in the past 15 years were in the suburbs, when downtown population was going down not up, when half the money to build them would have to come from non-tax sources, and when the state said we couldn’t build schools on small urban sites?  These schools were not apps but part of a vision – a strategy – of making our downtown a place for everyone, for the public housing resident who put who put her child on a bus each morning for a school she’d have to call a taxi to get to if her child were sick, for the family who wanted to live near their jobs downtown but couldn’t afford private schools, for neighborhoods that decades ago lost the unifying element a school brings.  We did it because we could imagine it and we wanted it all.  So our downtown wouldn’t be just for empty nesters and young singles.

Corollary Four: Make place.  Did you know you have a sixth sense? It is the sense of place and its power is underappreciated by most of us.  But as a species we cannot experience the world apart from our experience of place.   You are experiencing these words as part of your experience of the space around you right now and you’ll never be able to separate the two.

The high value we place on our landscape and downtown public realm as the core of this place we all have in common is imprinting on generations of Chattanoogans to come.  We have weighted down these places with layers of meaning that free us, not bind us.   A child raised in this river valley, wherever in the world she or he later find themselves, in lifting their eyes to the horizon their soul will see mountains.

During the planning of our 21st Century Waterfront, we wrestled with how to interpret the history of our city’s birthplace on the river.  We were told by the National Park Service that we should graphically tell the awful story of the Native Americans forced on the Trail of Tears from Ross’s Landing in 1838.  So we consulted the people whose history it was. The Cherokee and Creek people told us we could take the Park Service advice and try to satisfy our historic guilt for the wrongs done their people, or we could interpret the meaning of the place by celebrating the living, surviving heritage of the tribes removed from the region. With their help and that of some fantastically talented Native American artists from Oklahoma, The Passage at Ross’s Landing celebrates the art, stories, songs, games, dance and religion of over 1,000 years of our area’s Native American people so that what surrounds you in that place is a living culture - and the largest installation of Southeastern Native American Art in the world.  

Fifteen blocks south of Ross’s Landing is the Southside where Chattanooga’s industrial, commercial and railroad history is a back drop that is helping inform and inspire a new generation’s placemaking.  There you will meet outdoor enthusiasts, Latinos, artists, music makers, young families, and entrepreneurs.  

We have more to do here, and sometimes our imagination fails us. We have yet to fully imagine great public education.  We must imagine it for every child in order to make it happen.  We have not always wanted it all or believed we could have it all.  We are still writing our story here in this place.

Nonetheless, Chattanooga’s first law of city building still stands solid as the river bluff we are built on – Working Together Works.  I invite and urge you all to go practice its corollaries - use adjectives, want it all, it’s not about the app, and make place. 

“A child raised in this river valley, wherever in the world she or he later find themselves, in lifting their eyes to the horizon their soul will see mountains.”