Walking the Safewalk—Land&People

Even before the sun burns off the morning fog that shrouds the Tennessee River and its urban tributaries, early risers have taken to Chattanooga's rich web of new waterside greenways. Along the downtown Riverwalk to Chickamauga Lake, six miles away; on trails and canoe traces that stretch along creeks toward the city's Smoky Mountain sentinels, dawn's aerobic enthusiasts find their rhythm and make their daily peace.

Just ten years ago, the only greenway in this midsized Southern city was a levee. The concept of greenways was foreign. Now, most Chattanoogans take their growing greenway network for granted, as natural as their stride, as easy as their paddle stroke.

That has not been the case in Alton Park, the city's largest and most neglected neighborhood. By the mid-1990s–five years into Chattanooga's aesthetic and environmental revival–it was painfully conspicuous to the city's greenway coordinating committee that Alton Park was being left behind once again. A handful of determined Alton Park residents noticed as well. Together they resolved to reverse the neglect that deprived inner-city families of the region's environmental wealth.

Lying near the foot of the leafy, affluent Lookout Mountain district, Alton Park occupies the old, industrial south side of the city. Its name, a relic of a lost past, might have been seen by residents as cruelly ironic, for there was not so much as a remnant of a functioning park in Alton Park. There were plenty of industrial brownfields–ghosts of defunct foundries and creosote, cellulose, coke, chemical, and glass plants. Decrepit housing projects, weedy vacant lots, and boarded-up stores were just as common. But parks? Residents of the neighborhood's prewar bungalows and decaying projects had none.

Even the substantial creek that flows to the Tennessee River through the depressed neighborhood–the city's namesake Chattanooga Creek–was proving in the mid-'90s to be uniquely unfit for a greenway. As volunteers began studying greenway options in Alton Park, tests by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed what neighborhood activists had long suspected: decades of industrial dumping had left a thick sludge of stunning toxicity along the creek bottom. Chattanooga Creek was soon designated as the most polluted waterway in the Southeast, earning ranking status on EPA's national Superfund priority list. No greenway would go beside the creek until $12 million was allocated for dredging the lethal creek bottom.

A decade earlier, the symbolic weight of the Superfund listing might have crushed the fragile hopes of Alton Park activists. Certainly, hopes for building something as novel and unprecedented as a greenway would have been dismissed. But in 1995 it motivated a core group of Alton Park residents who banded together to rejuvenate the neighborhood. Environmental improvement was high on the list.

Activists Re-imagine a Greenway
One of the leaders was Milton Jackson, a recent retiree who had moved back to Alton Park and almost immediately helped organize STOP (for Stop Toxic Pollution). That grassroots organization was working for the clean-up of Chattanooga Creek, and Jackson had traveled to Washington several times at the request of Chattanooga's Congressman Zach Wamp (R-TN), to testify before a congressional committee. He also lobbied EPA Administrator Carol Browner and Justice Department chief Janet Reno for help. He found that officials, locally and in Washington, were recognizing the discriminatory effects of unremediated pollution in inner-city neighborhoods. The creek clean-up would be approved. The experience convinced Jackson that the personal commitment of even a few people could foster change, and he plunged into the greenway challenge.

Other key members of Alton Park's ad hoc greenway committee were equally determined to create a greenway in their neglected neighborhood. Betty Williams, then principal of Calvin Donaldson Elementary School, offered the school for organizing meetings. She knew firsthand that neighborhood children–especially those from the seedy, 600-unit Spencer J. McCallie housing project, six blocks away–rarely left the impoverished neighborhood or enjoyed a park outing. She ached for a place for the children to enjoy natural beauty and learn to appreciate it. Another passionate greenway advocate was Helen Kelley, a scrappy foster grandmother and volunteer tutor at the school. She had spent a lifetime tending her flower garden and recognized children's need for outdoor sanctuaries.

Each saw the community's desperate need for a greenway that could fulfill multiple purposes. Adults needed an aesthetic place safe from traffic for walking and recreation, sitting and socializing. They also needed a convenient pedestrian connection to the grocery store and pharmacy at the edge of the adjacent, reviving neighborhood of St. Elmo. Alton Park's children needed not just a safe park to play in but also a safe way to get to ballfields near the edge of St. Elmo.

But Alton Park's neighborhood design–a typical prewar grid with bungalows packed together on small lots–offered no contiguous parcels of vacant land that could serve as a greenway to connect the community to playgrounds, schools, and shopping. Mulling over the problem with Chattanooga's first Trust for Public Land advisors, Amy Conley and Will Abberger, Alton Park's greenway advocates developed the idea of utilizing existing alleys and sidewalks. They thought they could pave some alleys and widen some sidewalks into the street to make an urban greenway. It could be landscaped and embellished with benches, old-style lamp lighting, and places for flowerbeds and adopt-a-spots.

Because it essentially would be layered on existing sidewalk and street rights-of-way, it didn't fit the image of a park or a greenway. It needed another name. A group in Nashville, considering a similar proposal, had adopted the name "Safewalk." That fit, and the idea jelled. Alton Park's greenway group now had a plan–for Chattanooga's first Safewalk.

Excited about the concept, the group turned immediately to larger hurdles: selling the idea in the neighborhood and finding funding and design aid. As the greenway advocates explored potential routes and talked to neighbors, they encountered predictable anxieties. Some feared the walkway would attract loitering and vagrants. Residents were particularly fearful of street crime, which had plagued Alton Park.

"Sure, some people at first were afraid to have the Safewalk come by," recalls Milton Jackson. "They'd never heard of a safewalk, and nobody had seen one. But when we explained it, and told them how it would make them safer by bringing good people out more, they all agreed, except for one. And we changed the route so it wouldn't go by her house." He pauses. "And now she wants it."

Safewalk Becomes a Safety Net
The biggest challenge was funding. Organizers first sought federal funds granted to the city under the Intermodal Surface Transportation and Efficiency Act (ISTEA). That effort stretched through 1996 and 1997, and finally failed. Though discouraged, Alton Park's advocates found new impetus when the public school district, in a budget crisis, announced plans in 1998 to cut school bus service for children from the McCallie Homes to Calvin Donaldson Elementary. That justifiably alarmed the housing project's mothers.

Sheila Cox, a project resident and mother of two young children, recalls their concern. The school board decision would force children to navigate around or through a large, unsafe, wooded area in a vacant block just two blocks away from the school. Known by residents as "the jungle," the spot was a haven for drug use, and dealers hawked their wares to motorists at all hours. Mothers didn't want their young children walking near the woods.

"It wasn't a matter of laziness, or that we didn't want our children walking to school," says Cox. "It was the safety issue. A lot of parents were concerned. It just wasn't safe, but there was no other way for them to get to school."

Cox and dozens of mothers organized a protest to the school board and city council. And, energized by the prospective Safewalk and the clean-up of Chattanooga Creek now under way, they mounted action on two other fronts. One was an initiative to convert the woods into a safe playground. The other was a proposal to extend the anticipated Safewalk from the elementary school to McCallie Homes. Originally planned to extend just from the other side of the school to the ballfields and the St. Elmo shopping district, the Safewalk would begin at the McCallie Homes–doubling its planned length to 1.2 miles. That would put Calvin Donaldson Elementary in the middle of the route, as well as making the shopping area accessible to McCallie Homes residents entirely by the Safewalk.

Greenway advocates greeted the idea enthusiastically. Just beyond the shopping area lay the Guild Trail, a new greenway that another group was developing up Lookout Mountain. This hooked up with a complex of trails on the side of the mountain built by New Deal-era WPA workers. Those trails wound through a section of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga Military Park, which commemorates the Civil War's "Battle Above the Clouds" and encompasses 3,300 acres around the flanks of the mountain. Thus the Safewalk would connect the inner-city neighborhood not just to school, playgrounds, and shopping. It also would connect them to the mountain's rich historic trails and scenic overlooks of the city and river.

With the community's energy now fully behind the Safewalk, things suddenly moved faster. News accounts publicized the cause of clearing the dangerous woods, and on a scheduled Saturday hundreds of volunteers from across the region showed up. Corporate sponsors brought in heavy equipment. The frightening woods became a safe, cleared playground virtually overnight. Within weeks, a portion was fenced and filled with new play equipment.

And with renewed efforts by the Chattanooga Housing Authority and a newly elected mayor and City Council, the Department of Housing and Urban Development stepped forward with a grant to fund the Safewalk to improve the safety of McCallie Homes' residents. Chattanooga's TPL project manager, Bobby Davenport, coordinated design and easement work on the final Safewalk route. But it was the newfound cohesion and determination of the neighborhood's citizens that moved a new–and newly sympathetic–city government to consider a range of other improvements in Alton Park.

By the time workers in 1999 began pouring pastel-colored concrete for the Safewalk in the alleys and new sidewalks and planters, the Safewalk–from concept to reality–had taken four years. The project cost of $520,000 included specially designed lamps, to be installed this fall, which added significantly to the cost. But far from being frustrated by the struggle to achieve the Safewalk, residents are energized, grateful, and more hopeful. Now they anticipate renewal on a much larger scale.

Sparking a Neighborhood Renaissance
Well they should. The effort to improve Alton Park that began with the Safewalk and creek clean-up has ignited a virtual explosion of planned projects. By the ballfields near the St. Elmo terminus, the city will soon erect an $8 million recreation and aquatic center and install a police precinct. The Safewalk will be extended at the other end by a mile to another isolated housing project, the Emma Wheeler Homes. And a greenway project along the reclaimed Chattanooga Creek will at last be built, connecting the Safewalk to Alton Park's Franklin Middle School. From there it will extend to Crabtree Farm, a community organic farm opened this year in a collaborative conservation effort–arranged by TPL–between the city and heirs of the old, dormant farm.

With a $35 million grant from HUD, McCallie Homes will be demolished in phases, to be replaced by a seniors village and new dispersed housing in Alton Park. And the neighborhood's biggest brownfield will be reclaimed by the city and used for community purposes.

City Councilman John Taylor attributes the heady influx of nearly $200 million in development funds to the initiative seized by Alton Park's residents and the partnerships they have built. "I see it as citizens taking control of their neighborhood and making a difference where they live," he says. "The Safewalk was a start in moving down that road."

"If we want to revitalize cities, we have to rebuild neighborhoods," Taylor explains. "Too many people have been left out of our cities' progress, and they shouldn't be. People shouldn't have to leave their neighborhoods to enjoy nice things. But to bring about improvement, we have to have citizens involved and willing to build partnerships," he adds. "And here, the citizens made a difference."

Indeed, Alton Park's embrace of the Safewalk is readily apparent. It draws frequent use by elderly walkers, by people who sit and chat, who go off to shop, and by children heading to and from school or the ballfields at the far end. Its value is found in the cooperative spirit of parents like those who last winter organized a safety patrol–identified by their group's hats and shirts–and formed a flashlight brigade to escort elementary students from the McCallie Homes to the school when the Safewalk's lamps were not yet installed.

The Safewalk's value also is evident in a palpable change of attitude, a new spirit of hope, in Alton Park. Just as the Safewalk became a community project–embraced by children in a contest to design a logo, adopted by adults who are putting in pockets of flowers–it also has become a symbol of the potential for Alton Park's renaissance. "People are already starting to feel more positive, because they can see we have something," notes Milton Jackson. "We can improve the neighborhood, and that gives them something to look forward to. And we have a lot of things in mind. We want to have an entry arch on Alton Park Boulevard, where you come into the neighborhood, and landscape the street and open up a shopping area with little stores right here in the middle of Alton Park." Helen Kelley agrees: "This is the first nice thing that's happened in this neighborhood in a long time, and it's given people a lot of hope."

Sheila Cox, empowered by her work in organizing support for the Safewalk, is now working as a teacher's aide and has moved out of the projects into a house. She sees the Safewalk as "a good example of what can happen when a community comes together."

"It's something to be proud of. It makes you feel good, because you're supposed to be proud of where you come from," she says. "I'm beginning to believe we can be proud of Alton Park again, and you don't know what that means out here."

Land & People, Fall, 2000

Harry Austin is editorial page editor of The Chattanooga Times and writes often about environmental issues. He is a member of the Chattanooga TPL advisory council and is an avid outdoorsman.