Radical Public Service: The Chattanooga Urbanist Society

Editor’s Note: This article uses the pseudonym ‘Bill Johnson’ in place of the CUS founder’s actual name in order to maintain anonymity.

Written By Sarah Chesek

Bill Johnson of the Chattanooga Urbanist Society drops off a new bench at a bus stop on Main Street in Chattanooga, TN. Monday, February 20, 2023. (Photo By Seth Carpenter)

Anonymous. Urgent. Civic Action. Under no authority but their own citizenship, the Chattanooga Urbanist Society dropped off “illegal” benches and repaired bridge guardrails. Tired of watching the city’s infrastructure go unaddressed, the founder of CUS realized the cost of inaction—someone possibly falling–—was far worse than possibly being caught. 

“Chattanooga Urbanist Society is a group that exists to take direct action to protect and uphold the rights of pedestrians, cyclists, and make the public realm a better place to experience in Chattanooga,stated Bill Johnson, founder of Chattanooga Urbanist Society.

Walking under the Dodds Avenue overpass, the group’s anonymous founder noticed the city of Chattanooga patched a missing concrete guardrail with caution tape. Johnson thought, “[it would be] easy to just add a wooden guard rail here.” Although they knew it would be illegal to do so, they felt obligated to fix the guardrail after seeing the damage.  

The CUS first appeared on social media on Dec. 6, 2022, with a logo on Instagram four days later, they began posting photos and TikToks of the bridge on Dodds Avenue, and their work to fix the railing. 

Bill Johnson sets out materials in a backyard he is using to construct benches for the Chattanooga Urbanist Society. Saturday, February 4, 2023. (Photo by Seth Carpenter)

Focused on collective safety, rather than their own, Johnson explains that their work is “good vandalism.” Not long after their initial act, the City of Chattanooga fixed the bridge and replaced the group’s wood railing. 

The next big project that the group took on was adding benches throughout downtown, spurred by the mayor’s office removing them. Without the benches, Chattanooga’s unhoused had fewer safe places to sleep, as the cold concrete ground saps their body heat. 

The Chattanooga Urbanist Society sprung into action, and with permission from construction sites, they dove into dumpsters for materials and built benches out of scrap wood. However, they felt it would be patronizing to give Chattanooga the bare minimum, so CUS asked local artists to paint the benches they built. Thus, they’re giving the city not only a bench, but art. 

“The bench project is a good example, as it’s meant to do two things. One, they make statements wherever they’re placed,” Johnson stated. “The people who take public transit don’t have a place to sit, even though they may be waiting upwards of an hour. But then, two, it’s also practical. Our short-term goal is for everything we do to stand out and to be practical, to add to the environment—not to take from it.”

Despite their good deeds, scavenging for wood and “good vandalism” isn’t entirely safe, according to the founder’s personal experience.  

Bill Johnson scavenges scrap wood from a construction dumpster near Highland Park in Chattanooga, TN. Saturday, February 11, 2023. (Photo by Seth Carpenter)

“The jumping into dumpsters, technically, if you don’t have permission, you can get in trouble for that. You could step on a nail. You’ve got to be careful,”  Johnson explained.  “Anyone who has worked for the organization so far has done the worst work. Like anyone who’s leading a group activity, that leader is doing the worst work of anyone. We’re not asking anyone to do something we wouldn’t do ourselves.

The founder hopes the city will participate in their civic action.  Even though CUS will continue to call out the city for its negligence of the community, they are still willing to work cooperatively at any time. 

“If the mayor says something or does something that we feel like is out of line with pedestrian or cyclist safety or accessibility, we’re going to call that out,” Johnson clarified. “But if the mayor wants to work on certain projects and we can help contribute towards that end, we’re happy to work and can do that.”

Made up of six core contributors, another twenty individuals occasionally step in if CUS needs extra help. In the future, the CUS would like to focus on cyclist safety, the benches, trash pick-up and getting the community involved with the city.

“We don’t feel like we need to work in the shadows, the city could work with us on these projects, but the biggest thing about anonymity is we don’t want this to be built around a personality,” Johnson explained. “We don’t think any one person deserves credit. It’s been a collective effort so far, and we want people to see these videos and imagine themselves doing that work.”

Video By Jules Jackson.
Lindsay Mims, an artist working with the CUS, talks about the intersection of art and action. (Audio By Elizabeth Wynne. Music By Tokyo Music Walker.)

Statistics & Support: Chattanooga’s Unhoused Population

Written By Mason Edwards

Crystal Night and Walter Hairston, both of whom have difficulties walking due to health issues, sit in their home, a camp of tents on East Martin Luther King Boulevard. Thursday, February 16, 2023. (Photo By Seth Carpenter)

Not far from your home, grocery store, work, park and church, nearly 1,500 people sleep on benches and in abandoned lots in the greater Chattanooga area, according to data from the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Foundation from 2020 to 2021.

Without a secure place to sleep, Crystal Night, 45, sits in a wheelchair off East Martin Luther King Boulevard with several other camp members. They rely on local churches for water, good Samaritans for food, and burn hand sanitizer to warm themselves. Unfortunately, the city of Chattanooga seems more interested in dispersing them.

Stores of food, including perishables such as lettuce, sit in open-air baskets in a homeless camp on East Martin Luther King Boulevard in Chattanooga, TN. Finding a safe place to store their possessions was an overlooked but universal issue that came with being unhoused. Thursday, February 16, 2023. (Photo By Seth Carpenter)

“It gets old, if we can’t build no foundation,” Night gestured at the camp. “They’d rather look away than listen to our stories. They separate all of us from each other… if we become one, we can get something done.”

According to her, Chattanooga Police have asked them to move six to seven times within the past six months– without telling them where they can go. Night’s complications from her untreated diabetes and other health issues leave her feet numb, making it difficult to walk.

Across Chattanooga, unhoused people like Night pitch tents when disability checks can’t sustain them. According to the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition, from 2020 to 2021, the Chattanooga region experienced a 278% increase in unsheltered, unhoused individuals. 

Mackenzie Kelly, the coalition’s director of community engagement, believes that relocation policies and limited affordable housing keep people from finding permanent homes. 

“People still have to sleep somewhere, so clearing out an encampment does not reduce or end homelessness,” Kelly said. “…we’re removing people from their ability to get to their services as quickly and as easily… because downtown is where a majority of the service providers are.”

Talisha “Little Bit” Whittaker and Rick MacDonald, who has difficulties using his legs due to health issues, rest in their home off East Martin Luther King Boulevard. Thursday, February 16, 2023. (Photo By Seth Carpenter)

While Kelly explained that low-barrier emergency shelters, which do not have prerequisites, help people in immediate need of shelter, unhoused people who can’t afford to live need more permanent help.

“We have a huge population of folks who have been experiencing homelessness for a number of years,” Kelly said. “Permanent supportive housing is the model that kind of helps that chronically homeless individual find success in housing.”

Until the city finalizes plans to renovate the former Airport Inn and more permanent supportive housing becomes available, people without permanent housing rely on support from each other and community members willing to lend a helping hand. 

“We’ve become a family, that’s all we have out here,” Night said about her campmates. “They call me mom out here. I adopted them, just like my own.”

Meet The Storytellers

Seth Carpenter is a photojournalist and the photo editor of UT Chattanooga’s student-run newspaper, the University Echo. Seth has covered stories on a nurse working through COVID-19, the life of a former prisoner, the backslide of LGBTQ rights, and much more. Seth hopes the stories they tell will make a difference in the lives of others, and they will be graduating with a B.A. in Communication at the end of this semester. If you have a story that needs to be told, reach out to Seth at Sethcarpenter101@gmail.com.

Jules Jackson is a passionate Chattanooga-based filmmaker who sees film and video as profoundly important, thought-provoking artistic mediums to share stories.When he isn’t out with a camera or in his painting studio, he serves local artists through his work as ArtsBuild’s Programs Assistant. If you have an idea for a story you would like to share through film, email Jules at julesjacksonartist@gmail.com.

Sarah Chesek is a senior Communication major at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Currently, she holds the title of Head News Editor for The University Echo, UTC’s student newspaper; she also focuses on writing for Rising Rock Media. Sarah is a hard working and compassionate individual, who is passionate about civil rights issues and hopes to bring light to them through her writing. To contact her, email vxw726@mocs.utc.edu

Mason T. Edwards seeks unity and commonality through his writing. A junior Communication major, he’s known for his human-interest storytelling, investigative work, published creative writing and cheery personality. Mason writes for UTC’s student newspaper, interns with the Rhea County Herald-News and volunteers in two of his school’s student support programs. He’s always ready to schedule a meeting, so contact Mason at zsp239@mocs.utc.edu.

Keslin Moore is social media savant, ready to bring your organization exposure and engagement. A senior at UT Chattanooga,  Moore studies business marketing and a minor in communication. She serves as UTC’s AMA President and works for UTC’s Campus Recreation’s social media team and UTC’s Marketing and Communications Department. Passionate for communication, her unique combination of creativity, storytelling and social media excels at bringing people together. For questions or collaboration ideas, contact her at vlz857@mocs.utc.edu 

Elizabeth Wynne is a senior studying Communications and Promotion at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She is a visual storyteller through writing and photos, and in addition focuses on audio pieces for Rising Rock media. Elizabeth is passionate about shedding light upon social issues and inequality, and also enjoys photographing landscape. Outside of media, she is very interested in pursuing a career in the music industry as a promoter or manager. To get in contact with Elizabeth, you can reach her at zbc439@mocs.utc.edu

Matthew Cook always snaps the perfect moment as a photographer, and he’s recently tested his skills in audio and videography. A senior Communication major at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Matthew looks forward to working in Automotive Photography. To contact him, please reach out to matthewcook444@gmail.com.

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