Cultivating a Green Zone
With a bold new plan for environmental revitalization, Alton Park is re-positioning its rusty industrial footprint as a model for Regenerative Agriculture.
Story by Melissa Turner
Photography courtesy of the Alton Park Development Corporation
Chattanooga’s Alton Park community is emerging from the city’s industrial “ground zero.” Once home to workers who spent their lives working at nearby foundries and chemical plants, generations of Alton Park residents have endured the long-lived aftermath of the area’s environmental contamination and its impact on their health. After decades of environmental remediation attempts and more recently the development of the new Hope VI-funded housing, called The Villages—today the Alton Park Development Corporation is moving forward a bold new plan to complete the revitalization loop.
Regenerating a Community Through Agriculture
Once again Chattanooga citizens are meeting and planning. Residents are sharing their hopes for the community. Public-private ventures are poised for action. This time, the subject at hand is the future of this little-known and rarely considered neighborhood.
“There are some big plans underway for this forgotten community,” says Elenora Woods, D.D.S., who serves as Executive Director of the Alton Park Development Corporation.
One of the greatest needs in Alton Park today is access to fresh, affordable food. “There are no grocery stores. This is a food desert,” Dr. Elenora Woods says. “Rather than dealing with the symptoms, we need a cure. It’s like the analogy of teaching a man how to fish. If you bring a community food, they will eat and then they will be hungry again. But if you teach the children and their parents how to grow crops, then they won’t be hungry.”
Alton Park Development Corporation is working with permaculturalists Jason Hurd and Rushelle Frazier who are currently studying the 8-acre site surrounding the Alton Park Development Corporation building located just off Workman Road. Hurd and Frazier are developing a master plan—what they are calling “Regenerative Agriculture”—which will focus on community gardens, parcels of land for cash crops and fruit trees, and infrastructure for an aquaponics program—where fish like tilapia are grown in indoor tanks that also grow aquatic plants, a two-fold source of nutrients.
“In 2011, I hiked the Appalachian Trail and my whole world shifted and opened up,” says permaculturalist Rushelle Frazier. “I was looking for an opportunity to take what I had learned and gift it to a lower class community. This whole project spoke out to me and I wanted to get involved. It’s about planting the seeds for people to cultivate opportunities for themselves.”
Frazier says initial work begins in Spring 2014 and will focus on developing the community gardens along with planting fruit and berry trees. “We want to make it where there is food everywhere,” Frazier says. Accessibility is a primary goal on all levels and will even include garden paths that provide easy mobility for wheelchairs and senior gardeners.
Free classes open to the community will teach the basics of permaculture and regenerative agriculture, Frazier says, and other partnering organizations are coming to the table to offer education, leadership, and business training. The nonprofit Global Action Initiatives Alliance (GAIA) is working with Alton Park Development Corporation to provide literacy building and gender-specific leadership programs for youth. And the Small Business Association will offer classes on starting a business and how to develop a business plan.
Ultimately, Alton Park Development Corporation wants to, not only address the pressing need for fresh food to improve the lives and health of its residents, but also provide opportunities for “green collar” job training in the areas of agriculture and aquaponics, and making a living from growing and selling food.
Learning from Sustainable South Bronx
In 2009, Majora Carter, a national environmental justice leader from the South Bronx, visited Chattanooga as a participant in the Benwood Foundation’s George T. Hunter Lecture Series. Carter’s first stop in Chattanooga was a tour of Alton Park where she engaged with city officials and community stakeholders during a roundtable meeting. Carter shared her experiences redeveloping the South Bronx with green spaces and opportunities for “green jobs.” She listened to Alton Park residents and community leaders as they shared their hopes, dreams, and concerns.
“The possibilities that I saw here, and the level of openness to discuss it, was incredibly thought-provoking,” Carter reflected on her visit to Alton Park. “I thought—some really amazing things can come out of it.”
Majora Carter was born and raised in the South Bronx—a community much like Chattanooga’s Alton Park—which carried the environmental burden as wasteland of New York City. “The issues that are there don’t just stay in those communities,” Carter shared during a video interview for the George T. Hunter Lecture Series. “We all pay the price of poor health and the poor communities that suffer from it, and the illnesses associated with it. We pay when there is a lack of opportunity.”
Carter’s work as a young activist led her to create Sustainable South Bronx, an organization that has implemented community greening through riverfront parks and buildings with green roofs, as well as providing “green collar” job training for residents.
“Just imagine if we trained people to provide those environmental services that we need,” Carter shared. “That keeps people off of our public welfare system, that actually keeps people gainfully employed, so that they’re not just easy members of the illegal economy, you’re actually get a “two-for.” You’re getting people who were once tax burdens and helping them become tax payers which is a much better place for our country to be in, when you think about it.”
From “Dirtiest City” to the “Last Frontier” of Chattanooga’s Revitalization
The mention of newsman Walter Cronkite in Chattanooga, Tennessee has become one of the most persistent clichés since the city cleaned up its act following his “Dirtiest City in the Nation” proclamation in 1969. The phrase has become a touchstone for a collective past and a longing to be released from its harness.
Over the course of four decades, Chattanooga has picked itself up by the bootstraps through the might of its people, drawing worldwide attention for its methods of community-based planning, citizen charettes, and unprecedented public-private ventures.
Older Chattanooga citizens remember the cost that came with being the “Dynamo of Dixie,” and the community of Alton Park might be called the last frontier of Chattanooga’s revitalization.