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Chattanooga: Choo-Choo on This

By Christine H. O'Toole
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 25, 2005

From my steed on the Coolidge Park carousel, two images spin in and out of focus: a flashy modern metropolis on a glittering river, and an old Southern city. I wobble off and steady myself with the sunlit downtown view of Chattanooga -- a who'd-a-thunk-it dazzle of sharp angles, contemporary buildings, marinas, sculpture gardens and fresh-poured concrete promenades. Behind me, a cozy red-brick shopping district snoozes through a warm fall afternoon.

Chattanooga hasn't undergone a cosmetic makeover. It's received a face transplant, grafting contemporary features onto a clean, green riverbank. But the bone structure -- a friendly, red-brick Tennessee Valley town -- remains.

As my personal gyroscope returns to normal, my guide, Jeff, orients me to the surrounding mountains: Lookout, Signal and Missionary Ridge. I recognize a name. Tomorrow, I tell him, I'm heading just over our heads, to an amateur bluegrass session atop Signal Mountain. Just for a second, he seems to flinch. "Oh," he says dismissively. "That's the Old Tennessee."

Atlanta, two hours south, is hot. Chattanooga (pop. 155,000) is just warming up. Its family-friendly museums for American art, fish and kids are handsome. Its made-over waterfront is fun. But its twang is fading. On a recent weekend I find newly acquired charms competing with old Appalachian quirks to define a changing city.

The future arrived here with the Tennessee Aquarium, my first stop. A draw for more than a million visitors a year since its opening in 1992, it's become a symbol of Chattanooga's reconnection with the Tennessee River. Its original building, River Journey, pays tribute to the river's tributaries, home to more freshwater species than all the rivers of Europe. A second building called Ocean Journey, added this spring, salutes salt water.

I assume that a freshwater aquarium will pale in comparison to sharks and luminous tropical fish. As is often the case, I'm wrong. The River Journey begins at the top of the building with the river's source and winds down a watershed of ramps to the Gulf Coast. Along the way, a trio of river otters plays a game familiar to all parents of small boys (knock brother off perch; repeat), and alligators smile their tight-lipped grins.

The city's history, including the 1863 battle in which it fell to Union troops, has left few landmarks. Historical buildings are missing from the new waterfront lineup (the river-themed Creative Discovery Museum and an Imax theater adjoin the aquarium). But a grand public artwork here recalls Chattanooga's Native American roots. The passage, a new path between downtown and the river, commemorates Cherokee

history -- specifically, the chapter known as the Trail of Tears. A long cascade of water, flowing along steps below the aquarium, evokes the tribe's forced flight from this region in 1838. Seven six-foot ceramic medallions by Native American artists illustrate the tribe's precepts, belatedly resurrected and acknowledged as part of the city's past. The written Cherokee language, full of runic flourishes, adorns interpretive plaques along the steps. The cascade joins the river in a spectacular fountain that vaguely suggests a feathery war bonnet, waving above the water.

Grits are still on the menu in Chattanooga, but they've also been made over. I find them baked and biscuit-y under my shrimp hash with Creole hollandaise at Southside Grill, a stylish Cowart Street bistro. The twilight flash of green I see looming east of the aquarium turns out to be one of the coolest footbridges ever: a luminescent glass walkway, the Holmberg Pedestrian Span (also brand new), that leaps high above Riverfront Parkway and leads me to the entrance of the Hunter Museum of American Art, hugging an 80-foot bluff. With a Gehry-esque addition lashed to the side of a brick mansion, the museum suggests the struggle between the city's aspirations and its genteel past. A huge video screen in the river-view foyer previews the museum's holdings, notably Hudson River School and American impressionists.

The next day I view the city's funkier features. An easy 10-minute drive finds a monument to an entirely different form of Americana: the International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum. The collection of well-polished tow trucks (the first one was invented here in 1916) includes displays such as "Wreckers Go to War" and "Wreckers of 9/11." The one-floor shrine offers premium souvenir-hunting, with many items bearing the museum's proud logo: "Preserving Our Heritage for the Next Generation." The museum moved from its former downtown location in 2003, perhaps acknowledging that its homespun heritage was out of sync with the new neighbors.

"Local Performance Hell!" screams a concert flier on a North Shore telephone pole. Frazier Avenue, flanking Coolidge Park, quietly seduces locals and tourists into an aimless afternoon of outdoor goofing with its bike shops, used-book stores and cafes. Among the Tin Roof Bistro, the North Chatt Cat, Terra Nostra, the NorthShore Grille and more, half the population could get a window seat. Contributing to the relaxed vibe is the Big Much, offering necessities such as jumping beans, magic wands and BeamO flying hoops (Frisbees as big as hula hoops, perfect for the wide-open lawn along the river).

The Incline Railway used to be Chattanooga's big boast, and it's the traditional must-do; I catch the last round trip for a sunset view of the river's Moccasin Bend, cradling downtown. And for a traditional supper, I find barbecue at Porker's on Market Street, its cluttered lunch counter guarded by a stuffed wild boar in Elvis shades.

Eight miles up Signal Mountain, the Mountain Opry, in a wooden country chapel, hosts an all-comers amateur hour every Friday evening. A well-dressed gent is slipping into clogging shoes in the gravel parking lot as I arrive. This looks promising.

The part of the crowd that seems to have known each other for decades is doffing jackets in a popcorn-scentwarmed hall. Pews at the back of the stage are filling, too, with acts ranging in age from 7 to 70-plus. As a group of overalled pickers and fiddlers launch into "Cryin' My Heart Out Over You," a couple rises from the pews and stiffly two-steps behind the music. The Gentleman Clogger joins some spry, smiling ladies for a loose, side-by-side clog contest, and when 80-year-old Rufus Elliott plays a harmonica solo entirely through his nose, the response from the crowd is uproarious.

As the early acts depart, a group of collegians self-consciously climbs onstage. Their attempts at clogging are more like hip-hop, and their interpretation of denim is miles from that of the older generation. They're the new faces in town. But, like everyone else in this warmhearted crowd, they're entirely welcome.

Christine H. O'Toole last wrote for Travel about bass fishing in Pittsburgh.

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