Let’s get something straight — I bear the citizens of Chattanooga, Tennessee, no ill will. Even though I’m an a-religious New Yorker of Hebraic descent, I like and admire Chattanooga and wish nothing but the best for its people. If it is imperfect, it ought to go without saying that it is not unlike cities anywhere else.
I feel compelled to share these observations and personal notes because a recent column I wrote about the new Passat (“The Not-So-Sweet Smell of Success,” September 2011) took the site of Volkswagen’s new U.S. factory to task for the olfactory assault occasioned by inadequate sewage treatment, observed firsthand and explained to me by Chattanoogans I met.
I mention my geographic and ethnic coordinates because, curiously, both arose frequently after Mike Pare, deputy business editor for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, called to interview me for a story about my column. Before long, his piece (read it at www.timesfreepress.com/news/2011/aug/04/citys-downtown-not-so-sweet-writer-says) was picked up by local TV, the AP, and the Wall Street Journal, and today, the ensuing brouhaha claims some 12,500 references in a quick Google search.
The response to Pare’s evenhanded report was split between those who acknowledged the problem — which is worse than I’d realized — and those who denied it or attacked the messenger.
There was, for instance, Bill Mish, general manager of the Doubletree Hotel Chattanooga (where I hadn’t stayed), who no doubt thought he’d scaled the heights of wit when he assailed my domicile, telling Pare, “Not everybody likes the smell of corned beef wafting through the air.” Commenter “Rolando” would soon outdo him, chiming in, “To say nothing of the smell of boiled cabbage. And that’s on New York City’s good days…[I]ts denizens are animals who have no concept of personal and public hygiene.”
Perhaps. Personally, I’d take the smell of corned beef over that of fetid human waste any day, but, hey, that’s just me, a New York Jew, and one can’t help wondering if that was Mish’s point. Pare quoted me saying that living in New York was what made me an expert on bad smells, yet many took issue with a New Yorker pointing out odor-management issues anyway. One suggested that my remarks, while true, could be driven only by a personal vendetta against VW.
In their anger, affronted Chattanoogans overlooked a few salient points. Most important, the city is aware of the problem, which is the result of an antique sewage system that relies on rainwater to keep it moving. As Richard Beeland, spokesman for Mayor Ron Littlefield, bravely told a local TV station, “Chattanooga is just like dozens of other cities around the country. We’re dealing with an aging infrastructure. We have seventy-plus miles of a combined sewer system that was built in the late 1800s and early 1900s.” Officials estimate necessary upgrades would run $400 million.
The problem is so bad that city workers routinely place twenty-pound blocks of deodorant — giant urinal cakes — in sewers, which “tends to mask the odor.” But not always.
Then there is this: not long before I arrived, the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation fined Chattanooga $384,500 for ongoing pollution violations pertaining to its sewage-treatment system.
So, case closed. I wish I hadn’t offended people. But this sort of thing — and failing bridges, sketchy water supplies, lapsed emergency preparedness, to name a few — is what happens when you starve government and forego infrastructural investment. It’s also what happens when you give away the store to attract investment. It turns out that Volkswagen, which has created fewer than 2100 jobs so far, got the largest subsidy package ever given to a foreign manufacturer — 1350 acres in free land, a reported $577.4 million in tax breaks and assistance, and $40 million for training workers. For that kind of money, you could’ve modernized the sewers, creating thousands of jobs in the process, and still given away almost $200 million to attract corporate investment. Then again, as any corporate siting expert will tell you, nothing smells sweeter than more money.