The powers ruling Chattanooga (corporations, the state, and the nonprofit industrial complex) are intensifying the city’s trajectory toward becoming a model of neoliberalism for midsized cities in the South: an international tourism hub, the “Next Silicon Valley,” and a resurgent manufacturing center promising cheap and unorganized labor.
Chattanooga’s political and economic leaders are feverishly expanding a Downtown playground for the wealthy, complete with a “Best Town Ever” tourist district and “Innovation District” for predominantly young, white professionals. Spearheaded by the Berke administration and praised by President Obama as a “Tornado of Innovation,” this ongoing process empowers and greatly profits political leaders, real estate developers, financiers, and large corporations. The process relies on gentrification and the displacement of generational Black communities; an extractive, low-wage service industry; and the mass-criminalization and incarceration of Black and working class people.
This is an arrangement that is good for rich financiers and developers and bad for Chattanooga’s working class and oppressed majority; one that is increasing state violence and social control to enforce and quicken the transformation.
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Gentrification and Displacement
This downtown expansion has always required gentrifying longtime Black communities through displacing masses of working class Black people while drawing in new middle class white residents, much like the now-branded North Shore and Southside. In the face of a housing crisis, the destruction of public housing continues to be a strategy in gaining control of land, with Eastlake and College Hill Courts planned for demolition within the next 5 years. The destruction of these communities displaces working people into fewer impoverished areas, increasing tension over already scarce resources.
- The City and Housing Authority’s primary false-solution to Chattanooga’s policy-driven housing crisis is to fund private landlords through Section 8 vouchers. We know that this is inadequate, inaccessible to many, and unsustainable as it does nothing to prevent the rising rents central to gentrification.
- “Revitalized” Chattanooga has some of the fastest rising rents in the country, accompanied by some of the quickest racial shifts.
- The City is escalating its attacks on historic Black communities like Lincoln Park and the MLK/8th Street area through infrastructure and branding projects, and continuing the city and non-profit subsidized gentrification of areas like Highland Park and Glass St.
Despite the City’s hype around creating high-paying tech jobs as it recruits people and capital investment from outside the region, the majority of development downtown expands the exploitative low-wage service sector through hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions. To encourage this development, the City, County, Chamber of Commerce, and River City Company have orchestrated hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate welfare through tax forgiveness agreements known as PILOTs (26 million in uncollected taxes in 2014 alone). This strategy is worsening Chattanooga’s poverty rate of 27% (almost twice the national average and disproportionately impacting Black people) and explains, in part, why the city has the highest concentration of low-wage workers in the country. Structurally denying access to living wage jobs creates the necessity for non-traditional and potentially illegal sources of income.
- Chattanooga has the highest concentration of minimum and low-wage workers in the country.
- In Hamilton County, 60% of Black children are living in poverty; and according to the Times Free Press: “The wealth among white households [in Chattanooga] was 13 times the median wealth of Black households in 2013.”
- In a 2014 study of economic inequality in 102 metropolitan areas, Chattanooga was ranked in the top 10.
Mass-Criminalization and Over-Policing
Instead of addressing the root causes of crime and violence in communities, the City of Chattanooga is attempting to address these symptoms of economic and political inequality through arresting and locking up our neighbors. The city government has dedicated almost a third of this year’s budget (31%) to the Police Department, with over half a billion invested since 2005. Through supposedly colorblind strategies like “data-driven policing” and the expansion of the CPD’s role in city codes enforcement, the city is increasing its criminalization and over-policing of Black, working class communities and for wealthy developers to “revitalize” neighborhoods.
- CPD and CHA Police use the Criminal Trespass List to racially profile residents. It includes over 5,000 people who can be arrested on sight for visiting their families.
- Chattanooga Police arrest Black people at over twice the rate of non-Black people, while in nearby Red Bank and East Ridge the disparity exceeds four times the rate. These disparities would be even greater if the linked study had compared Black to white arrest rates as opposed to all non-Black people.
Increasing and Profiting from Incarceration
Through displacing people from their communities, a low-wage economy, criminalizing and caging thousands of people, City and County decision-makers are creating the environment for crime and violence, while increasing incarceration to maintain and profit from this exploitative arrangement. The Hamilton Co. Commission is looking to privatize all its remaining “Corrections” facilities. This plan would sell Silverdale Correctional Facility (aka “The Workhouse”) outright to Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) which currently manages the facility. Silverdale has the dubious distinction of being the first county facility to sign a contract with the private prison giant and the deal brokered in the 1980s by the current county auditor has been used as a model for outsourcing corrections across the country. The County would then close the County Jail downtown, which sits on prime real-estate in Chattanooga’s “City Center” and on the edge of Mayor Berke’s new “Innovation District, and pay CCA to build a new and roughly 20% larger facility outside of the urban area. Those incarcerated in these expanding cages will continue to be disproportionately poor, Black, non-violent, and heavily burdened by fees and fines.
- City leaders prioritize the Police Department with a 3rd of the budget ($60.7 million), while just $9 million is spent on all of the city’s Youth and Family Development Centers (formerly Recreation Centers).
- Hamilton County is planning to sell Silverdale and all corrections responsibilities to Corrections Corporation of America and build a bigger jail to lock up and profit from community members.
- In 2013, Black people made up 17 percent of the Tennessee population, but 44 percent of the prison population. With a 20% share of the total population of Hamilton County, Black people represent over 40% of the Silverdale population, according to open records information obtained by CCJ.