Travel-Chattanooga 5/22

Sunday, May 22, 2005

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- Back in the 1960s and '70s, Chattanooga had a deserted downtown on the Tennessee River and was smothered by soot from its foundries.

But in recent years the riverfront city has transformed its skyline along with its reputation. No longer the city known for America's dirtiest air, Chattanooga has been reborn as the Scenic City.

Nothing symbolizes that change better than the grand openings the city is celebrating this spring as part of a three-year, $120 million redevelopment of the Tennessee River waterfront.

The Tennessee Aquarium, which pioneered the downtown revival and has attracted more than 1 million customers a year since 1992, added a new saltwater wing.

The redevelopment also includes a sculpture garden with a walkway linking it to an expanded Hunter Museum of American Art on an 80-foot high bluff over the river. An incline transporter -- which is a wheelchair-accessible cable car on a track -- also runs along the walkway's steep path.

The children's museum, Creative Discovery Museum, has just added a new rooftop exhibit on simple machines and is opening a new arts-themed exhibit this summer.

There's also a new 160-foot pier, with lights designed to create a prism effect during the day and a top-to-bottom glow after dark, providing closer access to the river.

On May 13, the city dedicated a pedestrian passage beneath Riverfront Parkway that commemorates Cherokee culture and the tribe's forced removal on the Trail of Tears. A team of American Indian artists from Locust Grove, Okla., designed huge clay medallions for the passage.

Chad Smith, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Okla., said the ceremonies and project should boost public awareness about real American Indian history, instead of what people "see in sports mascots and old John Wayne movies."

Smith said Chattanooga's birthplace by the river, Ross' Landing, was a "central point of dispatch" for Cherokees forced to leave the region in 1838 on the Trail of Tears.

"It was a gate from our homeland to Indian territory," Smith said. "This is still our homeland, and we are coming back through that gate."

Former Mayor Bob Corker, who coordinated the city's 21st Century Riverfront project and fund-raising, describes it as a true partnership between public and private sectors.

A hotel-motel tax provided $56 million for the project, and private donors contributed $51 million. The state provided some additional funding and gave the city Riverfront Parkway, the street that runs along the waterfront.

"I don't know of a community in America that could come together the way ours has," Corker said. "We have this vital urban area that has been transformed, and all these God-given amenities around us.

"It truly feels very different than even a few years ago, despite all the success we have had in the past," he said.

A 1969 federal government report identified Chattanooga as the most polluted city in the United States because of the smoke, ash and dust that was trapped by a perimeter of mountains.

But foundries and smokestacks gave way to high-tech industries. Changes in emission standards and the use of unleaded gasoline were also major contributors to the cleanup, said Kelley Walters, a spokeswoman for the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau. Coal-burning power plants in the region also are "slowly cleaning themselves up," she said.

Now, Outside Magazine rates Chattanooga as one of America's Top 10 Dream Towns, with an outdoor recreation lineup that includes hiking, camping, hang gliding, rock climbing and nearby whitewater rafting.

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