Revival on Glass Street
Like many large American cities, Chattanooga, Tennessee has pockets of poverty and high crime. Many of these areas started out as places where businesses succeeded and residents enjoyed living in the area. Glass Street, located in East Chattanooga, was a thriving community from the 1940’s to the 1970’s. “Glass Street was vibrant and self-sufficient,” said Gail McKeel, resident of the area and member of the Good Neighbors Network. Banks, grocery, drug and clothing stores could be found in this thriving community. Unfortunately, said Gail, in the 1980’s many migrated to the suburbs, resulting in decline and disinvestment, boarded up properties and high crime. All that was left were liquor, barber and beauty shops. Residents of other areas of Chattanooga avoided the neighborhood, fearful of becoming the next crime victim. Fortunately, life is changing on Glass Street. In 2008, Volkswagen located one of its plants in Chattanooga. As the plant grew, more than 12,000 cars per day drove through the Glass Street neighborhood to get to work. The Glass House Collective, a group of interested citizens started to do studies to determine if there might be enough interest in bringing Glass Street back to life. A gift of $300,000 from Artplace America was vitally important in starting the process of revitalization. The gift was used to sponsor summer camps and to purchase five sets of benches. The city of Chattanooga also provided funds, built sidewalks and provided street lamps and built three bus shelters for residents who used buses for transportation. Tia, Mikayla, Jada and Cari are four young ladies who have benefitted from the positive changes made on Glass Street. They are taking a ballet class taught by Monica Ellison. “I like how we move,” said eight-year-old Cari. “I’m learning how to dance!” A student of Chattanooga Charter School, Cari said she likes to be challenged, and learning ballet has provided a new challenge for her. In addition to Monica Ellison, Rebekah Mawuko, a former public school teacher, teaches dance and runs the Moving Forward Dance Studio on Glass Street. In addition to ballet, there are also other classes, including African Dance, Creative Movement and Hip Hop. “It’s been fun,” she said, “The kids and community are enjoying it and learning from it. I’m reconnecting with some of the kids I’ve taught in school.” In addition to dance classes, several resident artists are teaching skills that will help community members to improve the appearance of their homes and the neighborhood. Eric Finley , was given an award to work for one year as a resident artist. In addition to having studio space, he teaches acrylic painting, street art workshops and dance and poetry classes. “I’m always learning,” he said. “I’ve benefitted from being involved.” A graduate of American Intercontinental University in Atlanta, he taught middle school for seven years before becoming a resident artist. Rondell Crier runs Studio Everything, a creative resource studio for the neighborhood. “People can come and and consult with me and the other artists about their ideas,” he said. He also teaches young students who want to learn skills such as carving and working with drills and saws. One group of students, a four-year-old and his siblings works with a small drill and puts screws in wood. Seven has also helped an eighteen-year-old build a hat rack. Another project he is tackling is called the Grow Hope Farm. “We are responding to food injustices and teaching kids how to farm,” he said. Rondell also mentors students in other areas when time allows. The Good Neighbor Network has been instrumental in the successes of the Glass House Collective. Some of their activities include the Sausage Fest, a Christmas party and the Etiquette Dinner in which a five course meal was provided to youth and they were taught proper etiquette, dressing for success and how to handle job interviews. Each student was provided with an etiquette booklet to take home. The Network also has provided a community bulletin board so people can post job openings, events and other items of interest. Interested in providing access to books, the Network built a Little Free Library in the form of a train. Readers can borrow and return books from this centrally located spot. An activity used to improve the appearance of the neighborhood was Party Gras. One alley contained crack lighters and trash and needed a makeover. “Ten trailers of trash were taken away” said Gail McKeel. Planter boxes were used to make it possible for residents to beautify the area. Party Gras participants built a float and provided music, belly dancers and jambalaya to celebrate the transformation of the badly littered alley. The Network has also published a booklet that lists many organizations in the area that help people meet their transportation needs, find medical care and learn how to deal with problems like domestic violence. Other categories covered in the booklet include community events, parenting, home ownership and education and employment. What other types of changes are taking place? “Relationships are building, there’s more trust between people, and they are checking on one another,” said Gail. “People rallied around a boy hit by a car.” Other organizations that have become involved include Girls, Inc., Big Brothers/Big Sisters and some of the eighty churches in the area. Next year, the East Chattanooga Academy of Arts and Social Justice will be moving into one of the vacant buildings, and a ten-year lease has been signed. A tuition-free, accredited Master of Fine Arts degree will be awarded to students who are accepted into and finish the program. There will be an emphasis on using art to promote social justice. Excitement is in the air on Glass Street as changes are made to improve residents’ lives. A sense of purpose, a desire to see this small community meet its potential and work on the problems that have contributed to its decline and the sense of accomplishment that is seen in artists, dance teachers and their students all make a visit to Glass Street a positive experience. “I don’t want to be any place else!” said Gail McKeel.