A Lifetime of Leadership
Sharon Dragg Ensures Westside Planning Is Committed to Community
Sharon Dragg wasn’t awarded the title of “Miss James A. Henry” by luck. No. She earned it through leadership. Ever since she was a child, Dragg wanted to be a leader. Day by day, year by year, in hard times and in good, she puts her community first. Always speaking up for a person in need, always looking out for ways to serve others. Her compassion and commitment is evident as she walks through Chattanooga’s Westside neighborhood. She knows decades of stories for each building, and she crosses streets to check on today’s neighbors. Dragg knows and loves the Westside, and she’s determined to make it an even better place to live.
Bound by Riverfront Parkway, West Main Street, Highway 27, and Martin Luther King Boulevard, the Westside has been home to generations of Black Chattanoogans. The Chattanooga Housing Authority (CHA) owns College Hill Courts, a 497-unit development built in 1940 in the heart of the Westside as segregated public housing for Black residents only (East Lake Courts was constructed for Whites only in the same year). Now 80 years old, the buildings are challenging to maintain and repair. Even more challenging? Determining how CHA can be a good neighbor in a community that is surrounded by rapidly changing downtown districts.
Learning to Listen
CHA approached Chattanooga Design Studio, a nonprofit with a mission to enhance quality of life by educating the community about, advocating for, and facilitating urban design, for help developing a plan for College Hill Courts. Initially, Eric Myers, Studio Executive Director, was hesitant. “We recognized that there would be significant concern regarding gentrification and displacement,” he says. His reluctance became enthusiasm, though, as the partnership discussions took shape and the City of Chattanooga and CHA determined that 1:1 replacement of affordable units was to be a core value of the project.
“Through Westside Evolves, we are breaking from the traditional methods of urban planning and intentionally finding alternative ways to engage with the community.” Myers explains.
Beyond a robust community advisory group, the Studio has hired a local artist team with ties to the Westside to document the process, and Dragg has joined the team as Community Engagement Fellow.
“Neighborhood and community are two different things,” says Dragg. “The voices of the people who live here should matter, and I want to make sure everyone gets involved and knows the Westside Evolves team is here to listen.”
The James A. Henry building rests in the heart of the Westside. Here, Dragg and countless other children spent summers, weekends, and school days learning everything from crocheting to reading–and being involved in community fundraising and improvement through programs including those earning Dragg the Miss James A. Henry award. It’s important to her and others that the building remain and its iconic murals be preserved.
“Our history matters,” she says, “and we need to talk about the future too.”
Dragg and the CHA team have been hard at work surveying current College Hill residents, learning what matters to them and dreaming along with them about what they want their community to become.
So far they’ve surveyed 80 percent of residents and are learning lots.
“People want a supermarket, a laundromat, better public transportation, and art,” she says. “We want our scenery to be better, with more parks and beautiful homes.”
When Dragg was a child, the now empty field was a baseball diamond, the flagpole a working public fountain that provided hours of fun on hot summer days. She has a renaissance vision for a community where future generations of children will make their own happy memories and young adults will choose to buy homes.
But even as Dragg encourages her neighbors to dream big, she doesn’t want the design team or CHA to make any plans they cannot carry out. “If you tell me cheese is on the moon, I’m going to bring my crackers!” she warns.
Myers feels the weight of that responsibility. “There have been missteps in the past, especially as it relates to promises made to Chattanooga’s urban communities,” he says. “We’re doing a commercial and residential market scan to understand the real-time possibilities and opportunities, and we’re diligently building trust that will be critical as we have conversations about expectations.”
“Other communities have been told a lot of stories and there’s been breach of trust,” says Dragg. “But everything the Design Studio has said would happen has happened. They are earning our trust. I tell our community ‘We–the people–have the power. We need to tell them what we want and we need to do the work to make it happen!’”
In the coming months Dragg and Myers look forward to formalizing the Westside community vision and for CHA to begin work. By next year, Dragg hopes transforming work will be well underway.
“Let’s do this!” she implores. “The dreams have been dreamed; I want to get to the College Hill Courts remodeling and get it done.”
Benwood Foundation supports the work of Westside Evolves as part of its commitment to supporting the development of strong community leadership and robust engagement from residents. You can learn more about Westside Evolves at its website and follow College Hill CHA on Facebook.