Diasporic Placemaking in Chattanooga: A Q&A with Courtney Knapp

Katherine Peinhardt
May 11, 2018
May 14, 2018

Can placemaking help a city come to terms with its past? In many U.S. cities, redlining and racial inequality have left a lasting mark on where people live and spend their time. Just as decades of urban U.S. history have been shaped by these politics of exclusion, public spaces, too, bear the marks of segregation and erasure. Now, placemaking initiatives are taking this history into account.

Coming to terms with the historic displacement of communities in Chattanooga, particularly of Black and Native American populations, has meant finding new ways to talk about its public spaces. Courtney Knapp, Assistant Professor and Graduate Coordinator in Urban and Regional Planning at California State Polytechnic University has traced this history in her new book, Constructing the Dynamo of Dixie: Race, Urban Planning, and Cosmopolitanism in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and created an emerging narrative around diasporic placemaking, a framework for examining racialized structures and policies, and their lasting impacts on people and places.

Photo by Courtney Knapp

Q: In the process of writing your book, you took a closer look at the history of segregation in the city. How does Chattanooga’s past, rooted in the diaspora of different communities, drive the way the city has developed?

A: In many ways, Chattanooga's historical development is a story of Southern exceptionalism. From its modern origin as a ferry crossing between sovereign Cherokee territory and colonial America, to its evolution into the ‘Dynamo of Dixie’ (a moniker assigned during the New South period to reflect its industrial innovation and prowess), to today, where the city wins planning and community engagement awards for their cultural and economic revitalization work along the riverfront and downtown historic core, Chattanooga is by many measures a quintessential ‘comeback city’ of the South.

However, the engagement, citizen empowerment, and neighborhood investment for which Chattanooga is well known do not reflect the daily experiences of many residents of color who call the city home. This double standard in engagement and uneven investment is impossible to comprehend without first having a firm understanding of the how Chattanooga developed according to racist logics of legal and de facto segregation and exclusion.  Chattanooga provides a particularly interesting case for theorizing about race, placemaking, and spatial justice for three reasons.  First, as much as well-intentioned liberal residents try to distance themselves from this fact, legal and de facto racial segregation is in the city’s DNA.  Second, the city’s historical development is as much a product of the ordinary placemaking and community-building efforts that people used to reject, subvert, and circumvent local racist structures, as it is those structures themselves.  Third, recent revitalization and cultural development efforts have attempted to acknowledge, and at least symbolically, reconcile with sinister local histories.  My book traces three centuries of this complex urban history in to make sense of contemporary revitalization and gentrification politics in a city comprised of multiple and overlapping diasporic communities.

Q: What do places like Chattanooga’s Lincoln Park, which faces destruction to make way for an extension of Central Avenue, represent as part of Chattanooga’s history?

A: That is a very complicated question to answer. What Lincoln Park and the Central Avenue extension project represent depends on with whom you are talking. From an institutional perspective, the park’s origin story is one of liberal benevolence and rational planning.  An all- white City Commission, with an explicit intent to provide open space and recreational access to Chattanooga’s growing Black community, approved the park’s construction in 1917.  Over the next several decades, the park evolved into a major destination for Black people living across the region. The city was awarded WPA funds to construct an Olympic- sized pool in the 1930s, and by mid-century the park boasted an amusement park with rides, a small zoo, lighted baseball fields (where Chattanooga’s Black professional baseball teams practiced), a dance pavilion, and picnic grounds.

For generations, the park’s patrons referred affectionately to it as Black Chattanooga's collective ‘backyard.’  But following the delayed integration of municipal facilities in 1963, the city began to direct funds away from Lincoln Park's maintenance, and into nearby Warner Park—a space that had previously only been accessible to white residents. This was a rational move from a management efficiency perspective: why invest in two parks so close to one another, when Black residents may patronize an integrated space? Actual integration, however, proved easier said than done.  It was around this time that preliminary plans and sketches for a road extension connecting Central Avenue to Riverside Drive appeared in local and regional transportation planning documents. Following a land swap between the city and county hospital authority in the mid-1970s, the historic Lincoln Park site became just another publicly owned, mothballed property.

Fast forward to 2012, and the rapid pace of development and gentrification in Chattanooga had created pressure to revisit the Central Avenue extension idea, in part because doing so would unlock the economic development potential of large properties adjacent to the neighborhood. In response, some local residents, organized under the name Coalition to Save Lincoln, rejected the city’s proposal to extend Central Avenue through the historic park site. Lincoln Park is a public space holding deep community and cultural significance for most Black Chattanoogans born before the mid-1960s. In addition to its historical significance, local activists see potential to use the site in catalyzing future economic and cultural empowerment in Chattanooga’s Black community.

For coalition members, and indeed for many working-class Black residents in the city, the Central Avenue extension project represents the culmination of a history of institutional paternalism, conditional support, and ultimately, neglect. The Central Ave extension threatens to bisect an historic site, but it also threatens to unlock new waves of unmitigated gentrification and displacement across several working-class Black neighborhoods. Fortunately, the Coalition has been reinforced by the solidarity of local Native American activists, who argue the extension project would further desecrate what remains of the Mississippian-era Citico Mound and town site.  For these actors, the campaign to save Lincoln Park and Citico Mound represents more than an effort to preserve key historic sites for Chattanooga's Black and Native American communities. It represents an existential struggle over the present and future right to the city; namely, who will have access to share in the benefits of new opportunities opened up by Chattanooga's impressive revitalization, and who will be excluded.

Photo by Courtney Knapp

Q: What is diasporic placemaking, and how does it address challenges like those facing Chattanooga?

A: The term ‘diaspora’ refers to the movement and migration of people.  Although the term is often associated with displaced populations, scholars Carole Boyce Davies and Babacar M’Bow remind us that diasporic migration may be forced, induced, or voluntary.

Understood in this broader way, diasporic movement is at the nucleus of Chattanooga’s historical development. Chattanooga is a city with deep Native American roots that evolved into a central site of subjugation—and resistance—during forced removal and the Trail of Tears.

The city went on to become a center of Black cosmopolitanism, community development, and anti-racism resistance in the face of Jim Crow.  These traditions—of subjugation and displacement, and of resistance and alternative world-building— continue into the present day.

I find the term ‘diasporic placemaking’ useful because it allows me to see how spaces and places are produced through collaborations and conflicts between different groups of people, whose uprootedness may be forced, induced, or voluntary.  In Chattanooga, these interactions involve relationships between Native Americans and African-Americans, Native Americans and whites, whites and Blacks, Blacks and Jewish immigrants, and so on.  The ‘diasporic placemaking’ frame allows us to see how racialized structures and institutions exacerbate inequality, but it also challenges us to account for how ordinary people caught up in those racist and colonial structures defy and build alternatives through their daily labor, lives, and social practice. By accounting for the multiplicity of this dynamic, ‘diasporic placemaking’ may allow us to think and talk about race, development, and placemaking in terms that avoid “naturalizing racial difference in place” (McKittrick and Woods 2007).

Q: How does the theory behind diasporic placemaking change the narrative around how people get involved in shaping their cities?

A: Practitioners realized that placemaking is most successful when “ordinary” people engage in discussions alongside their elected and appointed leaders, and actively shape visions for their communities’ futures. In a sense, Chattanooga has been highly successful at citizen-driven planning and placemaking. Indeed “the Chattanooga Way” is a term used to describe locals’ abilities to bracket personal and political differences in order to realize community goals. But this success is relative, particularly when one acknowledges that many poor and working-class residents have been absent from these civic arenas.

Local history shows that their absence is the result of both intentional and unintentional marginalization and exclusion, forces that have exacerbated political rifts and mistrust between Chattanooga’s most socially vulnerable citizens and local government for decades. The ‘diasporic placemaking’ frame acknowledges these histories and uses them to contextualize contemporary political and development trends, but it also provides an analytical window into the other nontraditional civic spaces, where everyday placemaking and community-building naturally occurs. Doing so may help contemporary social movements locate themselves within broader constellations of local and regional resistance and alternative world-building.  In these ways, ‘diasporic placemaking’ can be useful for planners and placemakers living and working in diverse communities, who want to do community engagement in historically and culturally sensitive and responsible ways.

‍Photo by Courtney Knapp

Q: What is the Planning Free School of Chattanooga? How did it get started?

A: The planning free school was a community planning action research partnership that evolved in response to the limitations of mainstream planning and engagement in the city. The initiative was a social experiment, and we sought to bridge two models capacity building models: the skills-based planning school model found in some planning graduate programs, and the more common Anarchist free school model of popular adult education.

After about six months of ethnographic field work, I had heard from many people that engagement and revitalization had not produced more equitable development outcomes.  Mistrust was rampant.  In response, I worked with community organizers from Chattanooga Organized for Action (COA), along with the Chattanooga Public Library, to launch an alternative community planning space where historically under-represented and excluded residents might join a process of studying, diagnosing, and re-envisioning their city in their own terms. We were driven by two goals: first, to develop a learning community where people could build technical and political capacity to enter into institutional processes, and secondly, to create a forum where new skills would be applied to independent neighborhood and community driven planning initiatives.

Photo by Courtney Knapp

Q: What new tools or community narratives have emerged from the Planning Free School? 

A: We organized the Planning Free School curriculum was into four types of sessions: issue-based discussion groups, skill shares, transformative placemaking workshops, and critical conversations. Within that framework, participants prioritized specific topics and skill sets. In a series of skill share workshops, for example, a diverse group of attendees collaboratively developed a comprehensive neighborhood assessment template, which they used in their own neighborhoods to assess local infrastructure and development opportunities.

In total, we organized more than 50 workshops over a five-month time span. In these sessions, participants developed new tools, forged personal and political relationships, and created a space where uncritical narratives of Southern exceptionalism and revitalization were collaboratively deconstructed and recast to capture the tensions and insecurities that undergird Chattanooga’s success story.  If folks are interested in learning more about this experiment, I published an article in the Journal of Urban Affairs (2017) about the school.

Q: How does the Planning Free School foster collaboration across departments/sectors?

A: It is critical to understand that because of the long history of forsaken promises and uneven geographic development, we thought it critical to create a forum open two public sector actors, but not managed or facilitated by them. City and regional planners, foundation representatives, and local development actors were invited to participate alongside the ordinary people whose lives were affected by institutional planning decisions. We tried to create intentional horizontality, but used Ken Reardon's idea of ‘bottom up-bottom sideways’ planning to integrate the technical expertise of planners, community organizers, and other professional actors in order to expand the political capacity of residents without formal training in these fields.

With that said, some very interesting and unexpected collaborations emerged from the Planning Free School. I am most struck by the conversations and community organizing that took place between diverse placemakers, including artists, planners, cultural organizers, students, journalists, neighborhood activists, and others. The Planning Free School also unlocked a new space for collaboration between planners, librarians, and social workers. Each of these fields is crucial to transforming cities like Chattanooga into more informed, empowered, and equitable places.

Q: What have been some of the successes of the Planning Free School?

A: We wanted to work with ordinary people to build capacity to enter institutional conversations, but we also wanted to develop capacity to launch independent planning initiatives. I believed that we achieved both of these goals to different degrees.

Here I return to Lincoln Park. The Coalition to Save Lincoln Park has its roots in the Planning Free School of Chattanooga. In March 2013, a local business owner with shop on Central Avenue attended a Transportation Discussion Group, and presented that day’s copy of the Chattanooga Times Free Press.  The newspaper had announced the city council’s plan to vote on the Central Avenue extension. This workshop quickly transformed into a power mapping exercise, which community organizers used to begin identifying a coalition of stakeholders living in neighborhoods adjacent to Central Avenue. Over the next two months, this coalition organized direct and indirect actions, including using the ‘neighborhood assessment tool kit’ described above to map their communities assets.  Coalition members replicated placemaking techniques from the planning free school in their own neighborhoods, and translated the results into a plan for the first annual Lincoln Park reunion.  The pressure placed on local and regional planners by the coalition compelled Mayor Andy Berke to announce that Lincoln Park would be returned to municipal control, and placed into public trust to ensure the physical and cultural preservation of the site. Five years later, the coalition that emerged from the planning free school experiment continues to resist the city's plan to extend Central Avenue, while demanding greater accountability from elected and appointed officials, and presenting their own visions for a just and sustainable city.

Read more: Additional articles from Courtney Knapp are available about diverse and multicultural public spaces.

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