The table stretched a full city block, parting only for a single tree. An estimated 800 people lined the street at some point: innovators and machine operators, caretakers and creative directors, tiny toddlers and the disabled, the homeless and a lone self-described hobo.
Everyone across Chattanooga, Tenn., was welcome at One Table, a community-wide Thanksgiving potluck staged for the second year down the center of Martin Luther King Boulevard, a main city road.
Under a clear blue sky Monday, several dozen homeless folks shuffled over from their benches at Miller Park, on one side of the road. The business set walked over from office buildings and the airy Waterhouse Pavilion, on the other.
Good friends Bonita Bishop, 44, and Ziva Watts, 50, arrived shortly after 11:30 a.m., when the two-hour meal started. Watts spent a good hour primping for it. Bishop got her hair done over the weekend.
They were there for the free and tasty food as much as they were for the socializing. Both live in low-income housing a few blocks away, and neither is likely to see family this year for Thanksgiving. Last year, Bishop was homeless for seven weeks, which ended just before the holiday.
“I cooked at home, but it just wasn’t the same because I was basically by myself,” she said. “I knew a couple people, but I was just trying to adjust to being back in a home.”
Across the table, two young women who help run the Tennessee River Gorge Trust introduced themselves.
“You work downtown?” asked Watts, who was homeless herself for two years.
“Across the river,” responded Sarah Quattrochi, the trust’s outreach and development director.
There was a bit of group-wide chit-chat, then Bishop noticed beets on her plate and began scooping them onto her friend’s plate.
The event, “pulls down barriers,” said Quattrochi, 36. “It’s nice to see so many people from cross sections of the community. It’s just nice to be out as neighbors.”
The non-profit Causeway, which focuses on social causes, created One Table shortly before Thanksgiving 2014 to open conversation among the 170,000 residents of this city. “We wanted to make Chattanooga more connected,” said Chelsea Conrad, the organization’s director of creative engagement.
Chattanooga isn’t the only community to shut down a road, and then connect on it through food – but it might have sparked others to do so.
In October, San Francisco artist Hunter Franks organized the closing of a freeway that splits Akron, Ohio, so that 500 residents from different neighborhoods could eat together and plan their city’s future. Franks had been a guest speaker for Causeway, when it drummed up the event last year.
Causeway’s initial success with One Table – 700 people came last holiday — showed him that the idea had power, Franks said.
“The fact that … they were able to do it in a public place entered my database of all these sort of cool projects happening – that there’s a successful model around these events that are used to bring people together,” Franks said. “It’s very hard to sit down with someone and have a meal with them and not talk with them at all. You’re at least going to talk about the food.”
He’s planning a similar event in San Francisco.
Back in Chattanooga: Nearly a dozen local eateries provided food and drinks free of charge, and residents contributed their own dishes too. Causeway paid only the cost for a caterer to supply turkey breast, dressing and gravy. Dish T’ Pass started on the massive turkey order five days early, brining and buttering.
“This is a great way for us to go,” said Dish T’ Pass co-owner Sarah Hooper. “Our philosophy is ‘foodlove,’ and this really is a ‘dish-to-pass’ event.”
Journalist Mitra Malek writes about wellness, fitness and innovation. Follow her on Twitter @mitramalek.
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