Not for Sale!
“The Westside is NOT for Sale!”
Those were the words that came from members of the Westside Community Association when developers, business-types, and Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield decided to set their sights on one of the last remaining public housing communities in Downtown Chattanooga. “The Westside, public housing, our homes and our communities are NOT for sale!” Armed with petitions, vision, demonstrations, marches and determination, the people of Westside community, together with Chattanooga Organized for Action, turned what very well could have been the death knell of an historic community into a renaissance full of action, organizing, and hope.
From Food Deserts to Community Association: Organizing Begins
Gloria Griffith, Rev. Leroy Griffith, and their grandson, Caleb George, from the Westside community.(photo by Jared Story)
For over a year and a half, organizers with Chattanooga Organized for Action have been working with residents of the Westside community to train grassroots leadership and promote the creation of strong community organizations to foster community self-determination and win back power for marginalized and oppressed people, particular people of color. Home to the historic College Hill Courts, the city’s largest public housing site, the Westside is a predominantly low-income, racially diverse, and one of the city’s oldest and proudest communities.
In the fall and winter of 2010, the Reverend Leroy and Gloria Griffith, both longtime civil rights activists based out of Renaissance Presbyterian Church in the Westside, invited members of Chattanooga Organized for Action to organize in the Westside. Among the first campaigns was a successful effort to win back a grocery store to relieve the food desert crisis plaguing the community ever since its grocery store closed. COA organizers worked with residents to organize “The Food March” to show the city and elected leaders just how far residents of the Westside had to walk, rain or shine, to get groceries and basic living supplies.
Over one hundred people, both residents and allies, walked over three and a half miles, round trip, to the nearest grocery store, and raised over $700 dollars to provide Christmas dinners for local families in need.
“The people on the Westside need a place to go where they can get food, good food. Children need a place to go buy their candy bars whether we like it or not. We need a store because a store creates a community. Everyone who grew up in rural Tennessee knows that that little store with the bench in front is where the whole world takes place…and where change is made for the good.” - Reverend Leroy Griffith
Out of the march came the realization of the urgent need for more organization in the Westside, and residents soon approached COA organizers and asked for help in developing Resident Councils and community-wide tenants’ associations to promote the self-advocacy of the Westside’s public and subsidized housing residents. In the spring of 2011, residents of one Section 8 housing development in particular took the call to action and worked with organizers to elect officers and form a Resident Council.
Dogwood Manor residents cast their votes for Resident Council officers.
Leaders such as Roxann Larson and Adair Darland organized the Dogwood Manor Resident Council, which has been instrumental in fighting management harassment and intolerable living conditions such as bed bug infestations. The Council’s efforts to defend the interests of its residents won Roxann Larson, the Resident Council President, a spot on the Board of Directors for the National Alliance of HUD Tenants to represent the entire Southeast region.
In the summer and fall of 2011, COA organizers worked to expand the resident leadership and capacity for community self-determination by working with residents to create the Westside Community Association. This association of Resident Council leaders and interested residents now represents the over 2,400 people that live in the Westside community.
Westside leaders and COA organizers at the founding meeting of the Westside Community Association. (photo by Times Free Press)
Among the first projects undertaken by the Westside Community Association reached back to the very beginning of COA’s presence in the Westside. Fulfilling the work of The Food March, WCA members and COA organizers worked with interested small business owners to create and sponsor a forum to recruit a grocery store for the Westside.
Out of the forum came the commitment by Westside residents to work together with business owners to develop community-wide conditions and partnerships by which a store could be successful. Residents worked together to circulate a petition signed by several hundred residents saying that they would gladly support a grocery store. The petition and the public forum worked. New business owners signed a deal to bring a “One Stop Shop” to the Westside area. The store will come with everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to daily living supplies.
With their first victory under their belts, the Westside Community Association and Chattanooga Organized for Action settled into what all expected to be a calm and restful winter. Chattanooga’s elite, though, had other plans.
Purpose Built Gentrification
In the closing days of 2011, Resident Council leaders received a letter from a group called Purpose Built Communities. The letter, signed by the Mayor and the Vice-President of Purpose Built, invited Westside residents to attend a meeting to plan for the “future” of their community, but when residents and COA organizers arrived, the scene was disturbing. A room full of businessmen, developers, politicians, and land dealers in suits and ties walked from table to table, making plans about the future of their community without their consent!
Westside residents found themselves out-numbered: out of the hundred or so developers and businessmen present, only three Westside residents were in the room.
As the meeting got underway, Purpose Built representatives introduced themselves as housing redevelopers. Their idea – to demolish the historic Westside community and tear down its public housing and replace it with mixed-income developments, was met with applause by the businessmen but immediate indignation and resistance by the few Westside residents present. The development would cause massive displacement and result in the destruction of this community of color, they said, and they would know. Purpose Built’s plans for the destruction and privatization of public housing are a familiar tune to the poor and working people of Chattanooga, Tennessee.
After, they’ve only lived through it for decades.
A Trail That Never Ended
Chattanooga is a tourist town, and like all tourist towns, there’s a few sides to our story that don’t get told often. One of the historical incidents that Chattanooga makes known is the removal of the Cherokee Nation, which began here on the banks of the Tennessee River. The city became one of the first drop-off and transport points for the Trail of Tears, but what they don’t tell the tourists is this: the trail never really ended.
Beginning in the 1950s and lasting through the early 1970s, Chattanooga’s black population suffered one of the largest multi-decade and multi-generational thefts of wealth ever. It was called Urban Renewal, or locally, the Golden Gateway Project, and its programs of displacement and wealth transfer that reached all across the nation finally sank its tentacles into the homes and communities of poor and working people here in Chattanooga.
Its first target? The little village of the Westside.
As Urban Renewal ravaged through Chattanooga, destruction and diaspora followed. Once a peaceful community of black-owned businesses, homes, and restaurants, the Westside was razed to the ground by bulldozers backed by the greed of industry and business. Over 1,600 families and individuals were displaced. Over 1,000 structures were destroyed and 96 businesses were demolished. What’s worse, land stolen from the black community by eminent domain was sold back to private enterprise for millions of dollars. Where once stood the homes of people color now stands the Bank of America tower, downtown hotels for tourists, football stadiums and industrial plants.The resulting displacement saw the need for the local housing authority to create public housing in other areas of the city just to house the former Westside residents.
As the dust settled on Urban Renewal in the Westside, private enterprise realized that they wanted more. In the next four decades, public housing communities fell, one-by-one, to mixed-income housing developments and demolition. The most recent decade included the worst losses for public and subsidized housing, including the loss of over half the city’s public housing stock, the demolition or sale of ten public housing communities, and the thousands-long waiting lists for housing that keep growing and growing.
The residents of the Westside, fully aware of the history of oppression against their community, saw in Purpose Built Communities the same old foe, and they knew what they had to do…stand up and fight back!
The Petition to Save Our Homes
“We, the poor and working class people, the people of color, the elderly, the youth and disabled of this city have been uprooted, moved, and marched around this city for far too long…It stops here. We will not allow it anymore.” - Gloria Griffith, resident of the Westside.
Westside residents left the Purpose Built Communities meeting with a mission. Not only was the Wetside’s public housing threatened with destruction, all of Chattanooga’s public and subsidized housing was under attack, and in order to save their community, all of Chattanooga’s public and subsidized housing residents had to be mobilized and organized together to fight back!
The Westside Community Association, together with COA organizers, announce the “Not for Sale” campaign to save Chattanooga public housing! (photo by Nooga.com)
Residents and COA organizers launched the biggest local housing rights campaign in decades, and it could all be summed up in just one sentence: “The Westside is NOT for sale!” With the resources and support of Chattanooga Organized for Action, the Westside Community Association developed a list of demands, picked targets, and developed a strategy for winning real and lasting change. Resident leaders both old and young sat down together and drafted a series of demands and developed a petition, “The Petition to Save Our Homes”, which called on Chattanooga City Hall and the City Council to make the right to housing a key legislative priority for poor and working people.
The Westside’s first attempts to speak to the City Council were met with opposition from some City Council members and the Mayor. When Purpose Built Communities made their presentation to the City Council, Westside residents were promised a chance to speak but were abruptly denied their chance. Realizing that their rights were being taken from them, Westside residents disrupted the meeting and held an immediate press conference outside the Council chambers.
In later speeches to the City Council, residents made it clear that if any redevelopment of public housing was to happen in their communities, it must happen on their terms. Residents modeled demands off similar housing struggles all across the nation and included a demand for a direct, one-to-one replacement of any public housing units torn down within city limits, a commitment from the city to replace all public housing units torn down in the last decade, and new inclusive zoning ordinances that require all new housing developments within city limits to have guaranteed spots of low-income residents.
Westside residents held a series of meetings where they invited public and elected officials to learn about the state of public housing to hear from directly-affected residents about their stories of dislocation and displacement as a result in policies promoted by Purpose Built Communities. Not content to let the Westside have their say, the Mayor, the chief proponent of Purpose Built’s gentrification plans, called his own meeting in the Westside, but instead of truly allowing for residents to have their say, the Mayor quickly shut down dialogue and insisted that Purpose Built was on its way, with or without the Westside’s approval.
The Mayor’s meeting about Purpose Built was a sham, and the Westside quickly exposed it to the City Council and the press. Not only did most people in the Westside not receive a notice about the meeting, but the City Council was deliberately kept out of the meeting!
“They put you out here knowing you can’t answer all the questions.” - Joe Clark, a Westside resident, speaking to one of the Mayor’s representatives about Purpose Built.
Later that evening, the Westside addressed the City Council and exposed the Mayor’s meeting as a set-up intended to make it look as if Westside residents were truly involved in the decision-making process.
Westside residents and COA organizers speak to the City Council about being shut out of the Mayor’s Purpose Built Communities meeting.
With the Mayor’s attacks amping up and with Purpose Built holding secret meetings all over the city, Westside residents like Gloria Griffith decided that it was time to hit the streets. Ms. Gloria, along with other Westside residents, organized weekly canvasses of all the major public housing sites in the city. Every week for four weeks straight, Westside residents and COA organizers recruited volunteers and walked door-to-door with the “The Petition to Save Our Homes”. As leaders like Ms. Gloria went from East Lake Courts to Emma Wheeler Homes to old Harriet Tubman and Alton Park, they brought with them the urgent message to mobilize, organize, and defend your homes!
Even the littlest Westside residents joined in the fight to save Chattanooga’s public housing. This children signed the petition to save public housing…even if they had to help each other spell their names!
Never before had the city seen grassroots resistance quite like this. In the past, there was very little documented resistance against the destruction of public housing. Now, with the sustained help of Chattanooga Organized for Action, resistance is to be expected.
Putting the Westside front and center, organizers worked with residents to turn the media tide in their favor. Newspaper articles and columns came out against Purpose Built and the Mayor and for the Westside and public housing. Leaders like Ms. Gloria and Karl Epperson, a one-time city mayoral candidate, became the voices of public housing residents all throughout the city and appeared on all the major local television stations and made numerous appearances on commercial talk radio and community talk radio stations to make their case. The struggle, the petition, and the dedication of Westside residents brought public housing back into Chattanooga’s public consciousness…so much so that, upon the insistence of the directly-affected Westside residents, the City Council held a hearing on the state of public housing.
The struggle even reached all the way to the White House, as the Westside Community Association sent a petition to President Obama calling on him to issue a federal moratorium against any proposed demolition of public housing in Chattanooga.
As residents went door to door all throughout the city to gather signatures for the petition to save public housing, the Westside set a date for the “March to Support the Right to Housing”. The march, sponsored by both the Westside Community Association and Chattanooga Organized for Action, invited public and subsidized housing residents and their allies to meet in the Westside and march all the way to City Hall to present their demands to the City Council.
As the date came closer and closer, the Westside gained allies in the struggle. Both the local Progressive Student Alliance and the Women’s Action’s Council, based out of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, volunteered to go door-to-door, gather signatures on the petition, and spread the word about the march. Together with volunteer members of COA, the four groups knocked on thousands of doors, spoke with many more residents, and gathered the stories of the marginalized and oppressed peoples of Chattanooga. For the first time in many years, popular resistance from directly-affected communities against the will of the city’s elite was erupting and being organized to act for real and lasting change.
“The March to Support the Right to Housing”
The day of the march, Tuesday, April 4th, 2012, finally came. On that day, over one hundred residents and supporters of public housing came to the Westside. In the presence of all three major local television stations and the city’s newspaper reporters, Westside leaders rallied their folk, made speeches, prayed, and marched on in support of the rights of oppressed and marginalized communities in Chattanooga to have a home, a community, and to be self-determining and free. The path winded down through the old Westside community, down old Martin Luther King Boulevard, past Market and Broad and blocked intersections at rush hour traffic, and brought the city to standstill.
From the Westside to City Hall, marchers from all over the city join together to support the right to housing! Once again the streets of Chattanooga belonged to those who truly owned them.
They walked into the Council chambers and filled all the seats, leaving a standing room only crowd. To put the needs and voices of the directly-affected front and center, the COA organizers who had, so many months ago, treaded into the Westside with the simple idea of winning a grocery store back, gave up their seats and watched as the fruits of organizing labor shone brightly for all the city to see. And when the residents of the Westside walked into the Council chambers, they delivered over 1,200 signatures in support of the right to housing.
The first to speak was Michael Hutchins, a longtime resident of College Hill Courts, the prime target of Purpose Built’s gentrification plans. Michael, a member of the Westside Community Association, had attended the Mayor’s meeting about his plans for the Westside where the Mayor silenced him and refused to allow him to air his concerns and wishes for his community. Now, with the voices of over 1,200 people behind, Michael Hutchins finally had his say.
“I want our right to housing defended. The people of public and low-income housing are organizing to protect our homes. Chattanooga supports the right to housing, we ask that you do the same.” - Michael Hutchins
And then came Karl Kendrick. A Resident Council president charged with defending his fellow neighbors, Mr. Kendrick reminded the City Council that government can do something to help protect the right to housing. Hearkening back decades and decades, Mr. Kendrick told the story of how the Chattanooga Housing Authority, which saved countless poor and working people from the slums, was created by a petition of the people and with the will of elected leaders.
“If the old City Commission acted on the voices of fifty residents decades ago, what will this City Council do in response to the voices of over 1,200 who have signed this petition?” - Karl Kendrick
Gloria Griffith, elder of her church, a long-time civil rights activist, and grandmother to the whole Westside, walked to the podium to close the event. With her came six-year old Hezekiah McDonald, her grandson. Speaking beyond just need for housing, Ms. Gloria reminded the Council that there was another Chattanooga, one that was being left behind in the streets and poor neighborhoods, a Chattanooga long excluded, marginalized, and oppressed. And she was there to remind them that they were Chattanooga, too.
“…before you leave here today, I want you to remember all these faces here behind me. These are the faces of the poor and working, the oppressed and marginalized. They are Chattanooga, too. And they are taking their city back again.” - Gloria Griffith
At the end of his grandmother’s speech, little Hezekiah took the microphone and turned to the audience and told them to stand up if they supported public housing.
To his delight, his words were heard.
The entire room stood.
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. All over the Westside, I’m gonna let it shine!” - Hezekiah McDonald, Gloria Griffith’s grandson, leading the march. (photo by Jared Story)
Renaissance at the Westside
The march was an immediate success. The Westside’s efforts made the next day’s front page news of The Chattanooga Times Free Press, and was covered by all the major local news broadcasters. Mayor Littlefield, still defiant to the very end, invited Purpose Built Communities down for another meeting, this time to meet with the Chattanooga Housing Authority’s Board of Directors, in an effort to pitch their gentrification plans one last time.
“I’m going to continue to push it because I know it’s an absolute necessity. I’m not backing off at all.” - Mayor Littlefield, responding to the push back against Purpose Built Communities
This time, however, the Mayor’s harsh tone and relentless pursuit of the destruction of public housing was met with defiance by the CHA Board of Directors. In a major public split, the CHA Board reminded the Mayor that they had the final say. Since then, the Mayor has all but abandoned his plans for bringing Purpose Built Communities to Chattanooga.
Following the march, Westside residents held meetings with the CHA Executive Director, where they won assurances that they would be included in all decision-making processes and that the Westside’s senior citizen public housing would be left untouched. Several City Council members also met with the Westside to begin work on translating the petition’s demands into actual legislation. Westside residents drafted several inclusive zoning ordinances, drawing upon progressive models of housing legislation found all across the country, and are currently working with Council representatives to get their demands made into law.
The full measure of their success, though, is even greater. The “Not for Sale” campaign spurred on the full development of the Westside Community Association and the empowerment of its grassroots leaders. With the confidence and ability to undertaken a massive, citywide social justice campaign, the members of the WCA are making their organization stronger in order to increase the capacity to make real and lasting change possible. Now, the organization is busy meeting once a week to draft by-laws, get registered as an official city-recognized Neighborhood Association, and apply for 501 (c)(3) status.
More important than solidifying their organizational structure, though, is the life and activity that the Westside Community Association is bringing back to their community. From getting baseball equipment for the local College Hills kids’ team, to hosting dinners, to regularly attending City Council meetings, residents are combining the need to seek justice for their people with the blessings of enjoying community life.
Taken together, the lesson that the Westside can teach us is this: organizing works. Community organizing picks up where the experts leave off and where dollars and cents and an endless parade of nonprofits fail to deliver the results. Community organizing provides oppressed and marginalized people the space to be who they truly are: the true and rightful owners, creators and sustainers of the world as it should be.
So, why does community organizing work?
It’s because everyday people work!
Everyday people are good enough, smart enough, and ready and willing to make the world as it is into the world as it should be.
At Chattanooga Organized for Action, we’re doing just that.
The Westside Community Association and allies, after a City Council meeting.
From the left: Roxann Larson, Fred Brown, Michael Hutchins, Adair Darland, Rev. Leroy Griffith, Gloria Griffith, Beulah Washington, Perrin Lance (COA organizer), Karl Epperson.
The work of grassroots community organizing would not be possible without the support of the countless individuals who believe in the mission of social justice in Chattanooga. We wish to thank all the individuals and organizations who have supported COA’s organizing work in the Westside. Also, we wish to thank the Resist Foundation for contributing to our organization and for believing in the everyday people of our city and their ability to make change possible.
Most importantly, to the grassroots people of Chattanooga, this is your moment and your victory. Always remember, Chattanooga belongs to you. Always has, and always will.
And to all of, thank you.