Like many who would follow us over the next fifteen years, my daughter Lindsey and I moved to North Chattanooga in the summer of 1999 because of a school. She was beginning her eighth grade year at GPS, and our new home on Graham Street gave her a two block commute and easy access to friends and extracurricular activities. Though it was an unexpected and wonderful surprise, our move to North Chattanooga also gave Lindsey and I a second family of sorts – in our new neighborhood, we found a tight-knit community of spirited young families, couples, and characters of all sorts joined by a shared love of our quirky, still-transitional neighborhood. As committed to the richness of urban living as to the renovations of their beautiful bungalows, these new neighbors became as intertwined and indispensable in the mundane of my family’s daily life as they would soon become in the renaissance of our community.
As I settled into my new neighborhood, I began to notice that conversations on front porches and in living rooms turned again and again to the need for a neighborhood school. My neighbors – the first new wave of North Chattanooga community catalysts and activists – were having children and were beginning to dream about what it would look like to have an innovative, excellent public school within walking distance of home. In 2002, these porch conversations and pioneer dreams became Normal Park Museum Magnet School.
In its remarkable success, Normal Park has changed North Chattanooga more than we could have imagined at its beginning. As a realtor and owner of the North Shore’s Live It! Realty, I’ve enjoyed a unique perspective on the evolution of my community. As parents began to seek out the coveted school zone, property values soared. Even as the housing market collapsed in 2008, demand remained strong, insulating neighborhood property owners from the lowest ebb of the downturn. Normal Park did not create North Chattanooga’s renaissance, but certainly by driving continued interest in the neighborhood, the school has helped to sustain the community’s rebirth and to gird an ever-stronger real estate market.
Of course, no renaissance is without controversy. As a parent, I hate that my daughter’s young family now feels priced out of the neighborhood she grew up in and loves. As a North Chattanoogan, I worry that my quirky neighborhood is losing its urban spirit and vital diversity. Much has been gained, and much stands to be lost. Still, I wonder if in other neighborhoods and on other yet undiscovered porches in St. Elmo and in Highland Park new pioneers are beginning to imagine what it would look like to have an innovative, excellent public school within walking distance of home. In North Chattanooga, we have a powerful example of the impact of such dreams, a learning laboratory in which to study what happens when parents demand a better school, build a better neighborhood, and create a stronger city. It is a story to tell again and again, to celebrate, and to shout from our ancient and ever-so-carefully renovated rooftops. It is an example to study, savor, and share.