In case you were distracted last year during the still-ongoing coronavirus pandemic, you might not have taken note that it has now been 50 years since the 1970s began.
Although that conjures up different meanings to different people, for younger Baby Boomers like me, the 1970s was the decade when we went to high school and observed a world that was perhaps not quite as intense as the 1960s.
We also took part in some unusual, short-lived and maybe hideous cultural experiences that had fun memories.
For the latter, do you remember bell bottom jeans, snacks made in fondue pots, CB radios, lime-colored polyester leisure suits, stack shoes, shag carpet, lava lamps, and, yes, disco dancing under the mirrored ball?
And what kind of hairstyle did you have? It became mainstream and accepted for young males to wear long hair for the first time since maybe the 1800s, after being influenced by the hippy movement of the late 1960s. And girls often styled theirs like TV angel Farrah Fawcett or Olympic skater Dorothy Hamill.
We also nervously watched motorcycle jumper Evel Knievel try to cross a canyon in what was more rocket than motorcycle, enthusiastically celebrated the nation’s bicentennial on July 4, 1976, and watched aging and boastful tennis star Bobby Riggs lose to Billie Jean King.
The latter showed that women were definitely on the rise in their long road to breaking glass ceilings. As Helen Reddy proudly sang, “I am woman, hear me roar.”
The decade was uplifting and enjoyable through other observances and experiences, too. In many ways, living in the 1970s was like being with that popular and easily approachable uncle that you love, in that the experience was usually fun and laid back.
The decade also produced a lot of sappy love songs, from “Loving You” by Minnie Riperton, to the heartfelt ones by Barry Manilow, to those found on “Soul Train.” And Lynyrd Skynyrd, Boston and Foreigner made us want to keep rockin’ and rolling, too. This decade that started with Carole King’s popular “Tapestry” album of 1971 and ended in discotheques also produced icons Elton John and Bruce Springsteen.
Of course, the 1970s still had its serious side, from the Vietnam War winding down at the beginning of the decade with the release of the POWs, to the Watergate scandal that forced out President Richard Nixon, to President Gerald Ford avoiding two assassination attempts within a month.
And then Elvis Presley died in 1977, creating a national period of mourning, especially among women of a certain age.
And beginning in the early 1970s, marijuana also crept into high schools in the Chattanooga area and did not really ever leave. The drinking age was also still 18.
The 1970s also saw some positives. Along with the women’s liberation movement, Blacks began to reap some rewards of the civil rights battles of the 1960s with better opportunities. And at virtually every formerly all-white high school in the Scenic City or Hamilton County, Blacks became classmates, teammates and friends with whites.
I am 61 now, and I certainly remember the decade well, from being a starry-eyed 10-year-old fifth grader when it began to being a much-wiser 20-year-old college student who still made plenty of mistakes or poor decisions when the decade ended. But through it all, I felt like an up-close observer.
And before heading off to the University of Georgia in the fall of 1978, I witnessed most of the decade right here in Chattanooga. I played football at Baylor and golf at the Valleybrook Golf Club right out my backyard, and I was active in Sunday school and the youth group at Red Bank United Methodist.
And yes, I also spent plenty of time at Northgate Mall, which opened in 1972, a few months before Eastgate decided to enclose its shopping center, too, to remain competitive. Malls were retail kings in the 1970s and beyond.
And the downtown department stores were still hanging in there, and I frequented Lovemans, Millers and even the Leader preppy clothing store. I also ate at the S&W Cafeteria.
While suburban sprawl and urban flight occurred, the 1970s showed downtown was not ready to go quietly into the night. In fact, some moves were taken that set the stage for the downtown revitalization of the early 1990s and the opening of the Tennessee Aquarium.
That included the opening of Yesterday’s and the Brass Register restaurants/bars in 1973, the opening of the Chattanooga Choo Choo tourist and meeting space, and the unveiling of Miller Park, water features and all. Fehn’s Restaurant and the Hunter Art Gallery also taught us how to enjoy the downtown riverfront – without a Riverwalk.
And a small group of people formed Landmarks Chattanooga – the forerunner of Cornerstones Inc. -- to save local historic structures. Among those places eyed for preservation was the Walnut Street Bridge, which was closed to vehicular traffic in 1978.
The 1970s even had its own contemporary architecture as well, although it was not as distinctive as the mid-century modern style of the 1960s. In Chattanooga, this included the flat and large stones on suburban buildings, the concrete “brutalist” style on everything from the Chattanooga Public Library to First-Centenary United Methodist Church, to the mostly uninspiring tall glass buildings. The latter included the former Commerce Union Building (now Republic Centre), still the tallest structure in Chattanooga.
And don’t forget the mostly wood-frame suburban apartment buildings that started popping up in Mountain Creek and elsewhere when singles in their 20s started becoming more independent.
High school and college students and others had plenty of diversions during the decade, too. The public and private schools still played each other in all the sports. Also, the UTC Mocs basketball squad under Ron Shumate and the football team under former NFL standout Joe Morrison drew crowds and excitement at Maclellan Gymnasium and Chamberlain Field, respectively, in those days before college TV sports saturation.
And on those rare days when the Mocs were on TV, who can’t forget a teary-eyed Darrell Patterson of Channel 9 calling the last few moments of the basketball Mocs’ Division II national championship in 1977!
Outside Chattanooga in sports, Muhammad Ali boxed his way to immortality, and the Dallas Cowboys and upstart Pittsburgh Steelers were always near the top in the NFL.
Memorial Auditorium offered a steady schedule of good shows for the young people and others, despite talk that a larger music venue was needed. And movies could be enjoyed at places like Eastgate, Northgate and Showcase Cinema.
FM radio stations also started replacing AM ones in popularity, due in part to the lack of night-time static. On TV, viewers watched such popular shows as “M*A*S*H,” “Happy Days,” “The Carol Burnett Show,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “All in the Family,” “Sanford and Son,” and my favorite, “The Waltons.”
Also, station wagons were still quite in vogue, although Ford Broncos and Chevy Blazers were hinting that SUVs were on the way.
Fast-food chain restaurants were starting to become more popular, with Wendy’s and Hardee’s among those starting to appear locally in the 1970s. I have not forgotten driving over to Brainerd Road to eat at the first local Wendy’s, which had a new concept called the drive-through window, or frequenting an early Hardee’s on Highway 58 long before the chain became known more for its made-from-scratch biscuits. I remember always ordering the Husky Jr. burger.
Cigarettes, meanwhile, were starting to be on the way out as their health effects became more publicly known – even though a lot of people from all cross sections of society still smoked. And you also did not get banished outside if you had a “nicotine fit” and needed to light up. You smoked right in front of a colleague who had not learned to tell you to take your smokes elsewhere.
But overall, this decade that began in a serious way on the tails of the 1960s and ended on a lighter note was a fun and unusual period, despite the occasional times of heartbreak and collective reckoning that come with all decades!
As a result, I hope – as time and opportunities allow -- to make this an ongoing series looking back at events or trends from the 1970s, at least as the decade was seen in Chattanooga. Some might be remembrances of events on actual 50th anniversaries, while others might look at the decade in a general sense, such as the mentioned trends going on in downtown Chattanooga.
So, let’s get ready to relive that decade a little, or hopefully a lot!
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