Chester Martin Remembers How I-24 Wrecked The Old Neighborhood

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Not a complaint - just a description!  All the pain is long past now, yet there was a time when it hurt a lot both emotionally and physically to contemplate moving from that good old neighborhood.

My dad had bought the Brainerd property in the late 1930's and figured it would be his home for life. He had selected it because it was inside the city of Chattanooga, directly bordering on the county to the south; the lots were spacious, many stood vacant, and there were woodlands in the area.

Also, we were approximately half way between the noisy Brainerd and Ringgold Roads. Our lot extended from the "old" South Terrace Avenue up to Anderson Avenue which WAS the county line; how could he have ever imagined that a superhighway would one day come through, leveling every building, tree, shrub, and blade of grass?

I cannot remember exactly when the earliest rumblings started, but perhaps as early as 1953 or '54 we began to hear that some big project was going to come through and claim our property. The idea seemed so unreal and remote that we and all the neighbors were in a state of denial about it and simply ignored the thought.

I was in the Air Force during those critical years, stationed near Nashville, so I got back to Chattanooga rather often. My parents were aging, and yet the rumors persisted that the whole neighborhood was going to become part of a new superhighway. Rumors turned into reality and the state of Tennessee started notifying all residents that they should begin planning their move. Properties were bought up and a date set for mandatory evacuation. We actually knew the state agent through a church connection, and I was interested in wood sculpture, wishing to cut down one particular walnut tree for eventual carving. We contacted the agent and he denied me the privilege of cutting the tree down, as all the trees possible were to be "spared" so as to "beautify the approaches" to the new highway.

My parents bravely accepted the dreaded task of looking for a new place, purchasing a nice brick house several blocks away, and had moved into it before I was discharged from the Service. They had been told that no one would be permitted to re-enter their former house once they closed the door. Very soon, though, we noticed a simple curtain over the large front window which indicated someone was living there, and at Christmas some of our evergreen shrubbery went missing. We felt violated even though the property no longer belonged to us! When the bulldozers and other earth-moving equipment finally came, they leveled EVERY bit of vegetation they could reach. Tree trunks were piled together and burned, simmering for days. My prize walnut tree was somewhere  among them.

A goodly number of houses in the neighborhood had been designated for removal to nearby vacant lots, while others were bought up and removed to greater distances. It was interesting to follow where all the various "removed" houses were re-located to. A house that once faced north now faced south, and a house that looked "at home" in its original location now looked totally out of place on its new site. Stranger yet, was to drive south on Oriole Drive, for example, where nothing had been touched, until you reached the corner of my old street, and suddenly there was just an ocean of raw, plowed dirt and emptiness. The raw dirt and emptiness have, of course, long been replaced by pavement and speeding automobiles, but I can still drive to that spot - on occasion - for the fun of it, and it is always a very nostalgic "sentimental journey" for me.

I am a creature of habit and do my best thinking and work when I am in familiar surroundings. So it is no wonder that when I got married my new wife and I moved into the Belvoir area of Brainerd, about one mile from where I grew up. This was partially because of my aging parents ( I was to be their 911),  and partially because I liked being in a place that was relatively familiar. The Belvoir area of Brainerd has always been a desirable place to live and raise families. We located a nice place about three blocks from my parents, and my wife, a former Red Bank girl, has had no problems with the move. We have lived here over 50 years.

As for the wrecking of my old street: that agony is long past, and in my opinion President Dwight D. Eisenhower's "Project '66" program to construct an Interstate highway system across America is one of the best uses of Federal money created in my lifetime. We could not live without it!

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net )

Chester Martin
Chester Martin

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