A letter from the Mayor of Chattanooga

I’ve been previously discouraged from making public this email from Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, but I feel like it needs to be shared. It was a response to a request to make the Purse Building at E. 10th and Lindsay Streets into a much-needed venue for Chattanooga history. In August 2018 I wrote an editorial about the building and the possibility of turning it into a place for local history. It was in response to another editorial about City surplus buildings and how one should be earmarked for a museum. Eleven months later, I wrote Mayor Berke about said surplus buildings and received this reply.

Sep 17, 2019, 6:39 PM

Hi, David, and thanks for this thoughtful email. Picnooga is a wonderful resource and you are to be commended me for the immense hard work that you’ve put into developing it over the years.

Regarding the specific properties you mention, I’m afraid that a private use for any city-owned facility could only come about through a fair, transparent, and equitable RFP process; I can’t make any assurances or guarantees to any private entity about if or how they could end up owning or leasing property that is currently in the city’s possession. We do this for ethical reasons that I hope you’ll appreciate. Furthermore, at this point in our fiscal year, we simply don’t have the discretionary funds in our capital budget to redirect to a project like this, however admirable and worthwhile.

I’m happy to keep an eye out for other nonprofit facilities or other local partners that might be a better fit for what you’re hoping to do.

Again, thanks for your dedication to and love for our great city.

All the best,
Mayor Andy Berke
City of Chattanooga

The rejection from the Mayor didn’t make me mad as I’m quite used to rejection by now. But I was severely perplexed. I certainly didn’t ask for an unfair acquisition of a building or a shady deal. I think it was a fair request, after all the City of Chattanooga in 2017 donated the old Ross Meehan Foundry building on Reggie White Blvd to Cornerstones Inc., another privately operated historical nonprofit. Also, the Purse Building had been previously used by a nonprofit for teaching kids computer skills. I suppose I was looking for a legitimate path to making a underutilize public building useful again for a public benefit. Instead, I got, “Yes, there is a path, not for you, and the City is not the right “fit” for supporting its local history.” BTW, I didn’t ask for City funding.

My perplexion was also compounded when a month earlier a friend emailed the Mayor with concerns about Chattanooga not having a history museum, and the Mayor offered him to meet with his staff about it. I’m not sure where that went?

This all being said, this airing doesn’t come from an opposite political position. The Mayor and I share similar politics. But I do hope whoever is elected in 2021 as Mayor of Chattanooga has a deeper appreciation for the past and can be fair in the application of opportunities and available City resources.

And by the way, both buildings (from my understanding) remain underutilized for the past two or more years.

Below is my initial email.

Mr. Mayor,

About five or six years I emailed you about supporting local history. Five or six years later, and over 4,000 items collected, I’m asking for help again.

Allow me to reintroduce myself. My name is David Moon and I’m not a resident of Chattanooga, although I previously lived in the area for seven years. My interest in Chattanooga history came about when I saw a photograph of the old Rivoli Theater in East Chattanooga, which sent me on a hunt for its history. At that time, online historical resources were scarce and I created a Facebook page called Picnooga to help fill the gap. Little did I know it would become something more important than posting a few borrowed fuzzy images and fill a huge part of my free time.

Since 2014, Picnooga has shared over 20k historical photographs and artifacts online. And we’ve crowdsourced and funded over 3k of physical items for our own collection. Chattanoogans and former Chattanoogans have helped fund our small project and are responsible for just about every photo and artifact we’ve brought home. These are items that were either to be trashed or go into private collections with little to no public access. It’s a compressive collection with some significant finds that would otherwise have been lost.

On our Flickr account, we have over 7.1 million photo views over the last three years, and our social media following on Facebook alone is over 40k users. Our social media footprint is comparable to the size of the Atlanta History Center, and we’re often better engaged.

A few years back we also digitized a little over 30k (pages of) historical newspapers with the help of the State Library and Archives who provided copies of master microfilm. These public domain newspapers are available for search online for free for anyone. The value of this task was quoted to be several hundred thousand dollars to the Public Library a few years back, and we did it for a few thousand with very similar results.

Over the past six years, we’ve kept local history top of mind, along with other dedicated local amateur historians.

I’m writing because Chattanooga history needs a home under the direction of a proper historical society or group. And eventually, Chattanooga needs a place to exhibit and interpret its history. The city has two properties that are being underutilized. One is at 1001 Lindsay Street. Another is at 2440 Glass Street in East Chattanooga. The Lindsay Street property has far fewer challenges than Glass Street and would be a more desirable location for sustainability over time. Our collection has grown exponentially over the last two years and storage will eventually become an issue. We have tried to work with the Public Library and UTC Special Collections sharing resources, but their missions and priorities do not fit with an active collecting initiative like ours. Libraries focus as repositories for collections and make little effort beyond self-service research services. Chattanooga needs more, and there’s a huge gap in historical programs and activities that most cities the size of Chattanooga have never let lapse.

I don’t think government should carry every organized effort that comes along, but historical representation is such a fundamental responsibility at the highest levels… much like arts and culture. I and others are willing to do the additional work beyond what’s already has been accomplished but just need a sandbox to begin, with possible room to grow. Local government support is essential for this growth. Your confidence in history will set a tone for public confidence in the future.

The failure to launch a history center has left a big hole, and also burned bridges that we have to (carefully) cross every day. We’ve worked very hard to overcome these objections even as a different group and smaller initiative. So again, confidence from local government is essential in starting anew.

Please look at this proposal from last year at http://chattanoogamuseum.org. This is a possible direction endpoint that I feel best suits Chattanooga’s future in history. Hopefully, you can see that history can be innovative, new, and better tailored to serve everyone.

Chattanooga’s historical footprint and its story is so dated and does not reflect the diversity that the City projects. That’s one reason why collecting new things is important in rounding out dusty old collections that come from very select and narrow vantage points.

I appreciate your time and hope we can make some kind of partnership with the use of an underutilized space?

David Moon

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Frederick Newman

This mayor is not very interested in the opinions of those outside his circle, only those in his circle. I guess it is more in his interest to say look at what I am doing.

Denise Miles

Sad to say I am not at all surprised with the response of Mayor Berke to your request. He has been a huge disappointment to me and many other citizens throughout his “reign”. Your Picnooga Facebook page has provided me with so much information, entertainment and joy over the past few years and I agree with you that Chattanooga should have and deserves to have a museum showcasing our history. If today’s events teach us anything, it is surely the importance of protecting our history’s truth and the artifacts that come with it. I hope our next mayor will be… Read more »

Tim Kelly

Disappointing, to be sure. Chattanooga’s history is the foundation of our collective identity, which we need to bring into sharper focus for a number of reasons. As a mayoral candidate, I have an agenda to promote, and it would not be honest for me to pretend otherwise. But someone who’s been a non-partisan localist for years, nothing’s more important to me than preserving and promoting Chattanooga’s history. As Mayor, I’d make it a priority.

Emma Azcona

You should consider making a petition. We could spread it easily through social media. We definitely need a place to learn and cherish our city’s history.

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