The Trust for Public Land is approaching its project in Alton Park with a commitment to building trust and engaging neighborhood leaders.
Conservationists and outdoor enthusiasts have long considered former railroad corridors an ideal tool in their collective mission to connect people with the outdoors. Typically flat, abandoned railroad tracks can be simple to convert into easily accessible trails for assorted activities – walking, biking, even wheelchair use. Here in Chattanooga, with help from Benwood, The Trust for Public Land (TPL) has acquired a 1.3-mile section of track in Alton Park, a historic African American neighborhood that has been underserved for the last several decades. TPL’s vision is to create a connector trail to link Alton Park to the city’s much-loved Tennessee Riverwalk. A worthy project, for certain, but TPL’s approach to community engagement is the real story.
What do you want? What do you need?
“In underserved communities, we’re used to organizations coming in wanting to help,” says Maria Noel, long-time Alton Park resident and community leader. “They’ll look at the data and what they perceive a community needs, then decide how to meet their mission…whatever fits their organization is what we get.”
But TPL was determined to do things differently. Tennessee State Director Jenny Park knew Alton Park had a complex history and had suffered failures of government and nonprofit organizations. She determined TPL’s community engagement would transcend more traditional approaches and take time to gain community trust.
“We approached community partners with curiosity and humility,” Park says. “We were intentional and diligent about not making assumptions on design.”
Outreach was slow, even difficult at times, in part because community members weren’t sure just what to make of the questions TPL was asking.
“We tried to answer their questions based on our understanding of TPL’s mission, tying our answers back to the Connector Trail,” explains Noel. “But they encouraged us to talk about our neighborhood overall and what we really wanted and needed beyond the scope of the trail.”
Conversations led the team in surprising – and satisfying – directions. Neighbors explained how they’d been requesting new playground equipment for Southside Community Park for years. They pointed out why local parks got little use, while in decades past they buzzed with activity. That led to bigger discussions of Alton Park’s unique history. Ultimately, TPL commissioned Noel to write The Alton Park Connector: Creating a Pathway to Alton Park’s History, People, and Culture, a neighborhood history that stands alone as the first told by residents.
Alton Park’s Evolution
Alton Park began as several white towns and suburbs outside of Chattanooga. It was an economic hub, close to rail lines and manufacturers. African Americans moved in to take advantage of employment opportunities. When Noel’s family moved into Alton Park, the neighborhood was in its glory days with a strong middle class. A majority of African Americans owned their homes and dozens of businesses.
“I grew up on a street where residents bought or built their homes,” Noel says “Our neighborhood was home to a lot of ‘firsts.’ We had the first African American to work as a TVA lineman. We had a former NASA mathematician, physicians, school teachers, and other professionals here. Alton Park also controlled the vote. When there was a tight mayoral or police commissioner’s race, politicians came to our community to help them win.”
While the neighborhood bustled with energy, toxins were in the air and seeping out of the ground.
“The absence of environmental regulations led to contamination from the dumping of coal tar, creosote, pesticides, glass, and other waste into Chattanooga Creek and on nearby land,” Noel writes in the history. Community leaders fought the environmental injustice, and as children and adults grew sick, many families chose to move to healthier neighborhoods.
As the neighborhood emptied, businesses closed and parks grew silent. Alton Park’s Chattanooga Creek became a Superfund Site, meaning it was one of the most hazardous places in the nation.
Today’s Alton Park residents live with this complex history and are actively working to rebuild their community. For them, the connector trail project has been about more than a greenway. The mutually supportive work generated by TPL’s community empowerment commitment has led to securing grants for new playground equipment for the Southside Community Park, engaging teenagers to plant long-awaited trees, and events to draw neighbors together safely outdoors.
“TPL did something many nonprofits don’t do,” says Noel. “The organization expanded its own approach to ‘place-making’ and how you incorporate culture into physical design. They gave value to our emotional attachment to Alton Park. When completed, the Alton Park Connector and Southside Community Park renovations will open our community to other areas, promote the need for diverse resident interaction, and jumpstart potential development in Alton Park. Most important, our story, as documented by TPL, will inspire others to recognize the pride we see in ourselves as a community, and hopefully encourage better partnership opportunities for other nonprofits.”
The Alton Park Connector historic document helps TPL better understand the challenges and opportunities of one particular project. TPL’s thoughtful, intentional approach can be a model for other mission-driven organizations.
“The lens through which we view our purpose and possibility evolves as we learn more from the communities in which we work,” Park observes. “We are proud to be completing one more link in our ever-improving web of trails and greenways to ensure Chattanoogans of all backgrounds, from all corners of our city, can connect.”