Monday, June 7, 2010

My First Date with Chattanooga

I finally met my new home. Dan and I drove down to Chattanooga, TN on Thursday evening and stayed until yesterday morning. Part of me is relieved to finally know for certain that I really do like this place. Another part of me is, of course, unnerved at the prospect of packing, moving, leaving my friends and starting a new job in a city quite far away. I have many feelings to sort, so forgive me if this post is a bit disjointed.

I think that the most exciting thing about my new home is the terrain. It suits me perfectly. Chattanooga straddles the steep banks of the Tennessee River just east of Lookout Mountain, which is this adorable, tree-covered peak that seems to pop out of nowhere. Boing! Some of the city is quite flat but the surrounding area is hilly and verdant. Being able to see so much green at so many elevations is my definition of paradise. You just can't escape the natural beauty of that region.

We spent a lot of time driving through various neighborhoods, just trying to get a feel for each one. Our sources told us that the North Shore is the hippest part of town, and it definitely reminded me of Ann Arbor. During our brief drive by on the way to our first rental viewing, I spotted several boutiques, a handful of restaurants with outdoor seating and the obligatory yuppie pet store. This is also the side of town where you find the groovy organic groceries and the hipster coffee shop, as well as houses that sell for twice as much as anywhere else in town. It's expensive and pretty and I'll probably shop for food there. The apartment we viewed was solid and had its own washer/dryer, but my favorite thing about it was that it rested on the side of a wooded hill, and that too reminded me of Ann Arbor. In both places, I'm not crazy for the overpriced downtown, but I do love those woodsy neighborhoods. Unfortunately, the landlord was looking for immediate occupancy and we just aren't ready to start paying rent.

While the North Shore is the current cool neighborhood, the Southside (adjacent to downtown Chattanooga) is the up-and-coming neighborhood that is currently experiencing it's great gentrification, and it's a little creepy. Gentrification is so different in a place like Detroit where available, affordable spaces far outnumber the people who want them. Anyone who is willing to face the hazards of Detroit living are generally appreciated for any sort of positive financial impact they can bring. But in so many other cities, neighborhoods like this one seem to "advance" from ghetto to upscale mall so rapidly that there isn't time for the old and new communities to really merge. And then you just end up with the upscale mall and a lot of displaced poor people. I don't know enough about the Southside to assume that this is exactly what is happening, but it just didn't feel quite right. It also lacks the natural prettiness that makes the North Shore special.

About halfway through our visit, I started getting nervous, not just because we hadn't found a place, but because I couldn't tell if I would really fit in this town. Dan and I were sitting in our room at the B&B, looking up Craigslist ads, when I turned to him and said, "So, Dan, I've never moved far away from everyone I know. What's it like?" but I started crying before he could answer. He reassured me that it would be okay and that I would make friends. He said that when he first started his grad program at UM, he spent a lot of lonely nights walking the dog on Vaughn Street in Ann Arbor before he befriended his downstairs neighbors (who remain such kind and generous friends that they took Dulce in while we were in Chatt). "Eventually you'll meet people who show signs of being into the same stuff that you like, and then you'll give them signals that you want to be friends."

I don't mind spending some time alone when we move. I'm pretty good at being a loner, or as my shrink says, "Being good company for myself." I take pride in that ability. I guess my bigger fear is that I would have to compromise a lot to fit in, because honestly, I also take pride in being a bit of a freak. And Chattanooga seems to have a shortage of the weirdo kind. During my breaks from apartment-hunting, I found myself googling things like, "Chattanooga freaks" and "Chattanooga freakshow". When that didn't turn up anything significant, I started looking up info about the gay community and atheists. There is a small gay community (which is fine, and a harbinger of good things, though I'm not gay), as well as a Free Thought Association chapter, but the Facebook participants in that latter group seemed almost religiously vehement about their non-faith, which made me feel weird, too. The truth is, I like having unusual people around me, but I don't gravitate toward such specific communities.

I guess I felt afraid that I would have to conform to something just to get along and make friends. And yet, as I interacted more with locals, I noticed that people seemed more mellow than conformist. And I think it has so much to do with the weather. How can we northerners not be so cranky and sarcastic when every November, all the leaves disappear and we have to brace ourselves for months of cold and depression? Or I think about Dan growing up in that always-sizzling-hot fantasy resort known as south Florida; is it any wonder that part of the world is home to so many disaffected young people? In a place like Chattanooga, where the weather is always "not that bad", I swear that the lack of extreme weather keeps people calm. And I can dig that. I could stand to be a little calmer.

Beside that, I doubt that I'm as unusual as I may think. Obviously many Chattanoogans have similar values, like wanting to live in a walkable neighborhood and buy organic groceries and look at pretty trees. I think the only thing that sets me apart is my almost complete lack of interest in what I like to call "stuff and things" (material possessions such as cell phones and other techno-gadgets, new clothes, new furniture, shit you have to dust and move around, etc.), but that makes me a freak pretty much anywhere I go in the USA.

We did find a neighborhood that we both loved. It's called St. Elmo (so now I get to have that terrible song stuck in my head instead of "The Chattanooga Choo Choo"). It's way on the southwest side of town, at the foot of Lookout Mountain. It's a haul from downtown, but having once been its own little town, it has a sleepy little business district with a coffee shop and an expensive restaurant, as well as a couple cheap ones. And since Chatt is such a great biking town, with great weather year-round, the distance to the city center is still doable without a car. And it's gorgeous. So that's where we're going to look for a place the next time we go back, in about a month.

Mostly, I feel really excited. As I said, the terrain in that region is exactly my style, and I'm looking forward to being around it all the time. It isn't the worst place to take the dog for a lonely walk.


  1. Wendell:

    This post speaks to me on several levels. I've often felt a little different than most people around me in Michigan, and I think my geographical origin has a lot to do with it. You'd have to pay me all the money in the world to live in Louisiana again (I've already "done" the Appalachians, too, so not all that sure about it), but I do appreciate that I was able to (possibly) take something special away and put my personality to good use in a relatively strange environment as a result. If I thought there was anything in astrology, I'd say it was like two different but mutually beneficial signs coming together. Something tells me you'll be able to turn your own difference to your advantage.

    For my first nearly three years of life in Ann Arbor, the only people I knew were my roommates and co-workers. It was a very hard place to make "outside" friends, especially if you weren't from the area and weren't a student, and I grew despondent often. Fortunately I hooked up with the Madison House crowd and most of my present friends shortly afterward, but it was a long hard slog for a good while. You'll have a few advantages, I think. Chattanooga isn't Ann Arbor, where most of the population are either self-satisfied yuppies or students, and you're also married. Moving somewhere with someone you love, especially someone as cool as Dan, will almost certainly be a huge improvement on doing it by yourself. I obviously don't speak from experience, but how can't it be? Really great to hear, too, that you've already found some good things to anticipate.

  2. You are definitely right on about this being easier with a wonderful mate. I've been wanting to leave Michigan for many years now, but I never had the courage to do that on my own. I almost moved to Portland because I got so fed up with Ann Arbor-style alienation and the terrible dating scene. But then I met Dan and we quickly figured out that we wanted the same things, including an eventual departure from the mitten state. And it all just fell into place.

    I really admire you for being able to move to new places on your own, and for sticking it out and finding cool friends despite the challenges that this place presents. And yes, your kindness sets you apart from most people here, but probably most people anywhere, too : )

  3. Hi. My husband, 3-yo son and I are considering a move to Chattanooga from HOT Florida. We don't know anyone there, but it would be closer to family in Georgia. Do you still like it, now that you've moved there? What do you think of the North River areas, such as Red Bank, to live (rent or own)? Did you find the gay or free-thinker population to be bigger than you had originally thought? (I have so many gay friends here, it would be strange to move to a place where they're invisible.) Thanks!! - Laura

  4. did a Google search not that different from the one you described. eventually came across your post. likely moving from Chicago to Chattanooga. I know this post is old now. what's the verdict five years later?