Don’t be so cool in 2018

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - NEWS - DAVID COOK

In 2017, we were cool. Re­ally cool.

We hosted Iron­man. Four times.

We con­tin­ued the swanky re­build of down­town, with nearly $1 bil­lion in­vested in down­town com­mer­cial space, con­dos and ho­tels, in­clud­ing a new Westin with a $2,500 suite.

We be­gan the ren­o­va­tion of Miller Park.

There are new bike lanes, veg­e­tar­ian restau­rants and more than 50,000 Airbnb ren­tals. In 2017, so many peo­ple gushed.

“One of Amer­ica’s most un­der­rated cities,” Money Inc. pro­claimed.

“The unique South­ern city re­mains an un­der­rated plea­sure to ex­plore,” Food and Wine promised.

“Su­per cool,” de­clared Ex­pe­dia.

On Christ­mas Eve, I spoke to a man from Eng­land who moved here to open his con­sult­ing firm.

“You could have gone any­where in the world,” I said.

“Yes,” he ac­knowl­edged. “And we came here.”

There are many sto­ries like that and many rea­sons why: the glitzy, re­born down­town, the invit­ing water and land around us, the Ten­nessee Aquar­ium, the Gig. There’s also pre­cise strat­egy: the city con­tracts with a pub­lic re­la­tions firm — De­vel­op­ment Coun­sel­lors In­ter­na­tional — to, among many things, in­vite journalists to travel here and write about Chat­tanooga’s cool­ness.

“A packed itin­er­ary of 14-hour whirls through the city’s bright­est and shini­est lo­cales, where ev­ery de­tail is planned down to the minute, and in­ter­views with peo­ple not on the tour are dis­cour­aged,” writes Va­lerie Vande Panne.

Her Nex­tCity.org es­say is called “Wel­come to the

Multi Mil­lion Dol­lar Business of Sell­ing U.S. Cities” and should be re­quired read­ing for the hid­den ways we pro­mote and ped­dle our cool­ness.

“Twenty-five to 50 per­cent of my job is sales,” Mayor Andy Berke — def­i­nitely a cool politi­cian — told Panne. “The mar­ket­ing is done by the Cham­ber. I’m the per­son they wind up to talk to peo­ple like you.”

Just like other U.S. cities, Chat­tanooga is fight­ing a cold war for tourist dol­lars; our un­end­ing re­brand­ing and re­mar­ket­ing is a ham­ster wheel of at­ten­tion. Come here. Play here. Stay here. Our down­town has be­come a per­pet­ual host, a never sleep­ing geisha to tourists and in­vestors.

I won­der: When did the rest of us agree to this?

Is this a foun­da­tion of sand? What hap­pens when the money dries up?

And are we los­ing our city in the process?

Here’s why be­ing so cool is ac­tu­ally un­cool.

› Cities aren’t meant to be mar­keted.

The pur­pose of a city isn’t tourism. It’s to pro­vide life and health to its cit­i­zens. In the bid­ding war for shiny, happy peo­ple — that’s what tourism is — city gov­ern­ment di­verges from its real pur­pose, which is not, as Berke said, “sales.” A stone’s throw from the Westin are for­got­ten home­less camps, now torn down, and Col­lege Hill Courts, with gov­ern­ment hous­ing that’s the ex­act op­po­site of a $2,500 ho­tel suite. Where’s the mar­ket­ing cam­paign for them?

› Cities aren’t meant to be mon­e­tized.

Our out­door tourism op­er­ates on the prin­ci­ple that more use is bet­ter. It mon­e­tizes land, sky and water. More climbers equal more money. More moun­tain bik­ers equal more money. But what about the im­pact on the land? What’s the tip­ping point for our rocks and wa­ters and trails? How much is too much? The Cham­ber doesn’t seem in­ter­ested in these ques­tions.

› Cities aren’t meant to be branded.

In the pur­suit of cool­ness, au­then­tic­ity is lost. And au­then­tic­ity is the lifeblood of a place.

“It ap­pears we’re be­com­ing a hy­brid of Dal­las and Port­land,” one friend said. “Yuck.”

My friend? He’s an old bar-stool buddy. Like some of you, he’s not so sure our ur­ban cool­ness is an al­to­gether good thing.

“Think about how tire­some a hip­ster is, then mul­ti­ply that to city scale,” he con­tin­ued. “It’s a mar­ket­ing cam­paign that ul­ti­mately will alien­ate a lot of Chat­tanoogans.”

› Most of all, cities aren’t sup­posed to lie.

This fairy­tale ver­sion of our city glosses over so much of what ac­tu­ally hap­pens in Chat­tanooga. The blood and vi­o­lence. The sweat and suf­fer­ing. The tears and grim mis­ery. There are a thou­sand sto­ries like this: I heard re­cently of one down­town fam­ily liv­ing with­out water. They have to squat in the back­yard. They drink from their neigh­bor’s tap. Ap­par­ently, their land­lord won’t lift a fin­ger.

In 2018, let’s be less cool. And more hon­est.

Fair.

And wise.

“I have a friend in Asheville who lives there and never goes down­town be­cause it’s such a cir­cus,” my friend con­cluded. “If Chat­tanooga goes that route, we will have killed the goose that laid the golden egg.”

David Cook writes a Sun­day col­umn and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Fol­low him on Face­book at David Cook TFP.

STAFF FILE PHOTO BY ERIN O. SMITH

VML Cre­ative Di­rec­tor Betsy Je­mas pad­dles on the Ten­nessee River at the Mar­ket Street Bridge in Chat­tanooga in July. A team of three from VML par­tic­i­pated in var­i­ous out­door events in the Chat­tanooga area as part of a new Snapchat chan­nel the Ten­nessee Depart­ment of Tourist De­vel­op­ment cre­ated to at­tract peo­ple to the many things to do in Ten­nessee.

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