St. Elmo Spirit

BY ADRIENNE SIEGENTHALER

In an eager voice crackling through a megaphone, the names of this year’s prizewinners are read: Candy, Charlie, Jackson, Scout. The list goes on, each name followed by the category it won: “youngest,” “best ears,” “best coat,” or “best face.” Everyone gasps as they hear who traveled farthest for the day: Einstein, all the way from Macon.

The grand prize, an award of great prestige, is Queen of the Parade. It is announced last, right before the parade begins. This year, the award goes to Thistle MacDougall, one of three sisters, all of whom are wearing artificial autumn leaves in garlands around their necks. On her tiny legs, Thistle moves to the front to start the procession. Behind her, the grand marshal, Bob Wright, holds a sign: St. Elmo Corgi Parade.

Amusing in its specificity, the St. Elmo Corgi Parade brings all of the St. Elmo corgis and their owners into the streets of the neighborhood each fall. Spectators watch as corgis usher in the season with waddling steps, parading barely half a block from a St. Elmo flower shop to the base of the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway and back again. The parade keeps its shape on the first leg as the corgis, bemused at their sudden fame, walk to the Incline. On the way back however, it is interrupted and scattered as children rush in to pet the corgis, unable to resist.

This is my first time at the Corgi Parade, though I’m entering my second year as a resident of St. Elmo. I fell in love with the neighborhood in college, as I would drive through its wide streets on the way from my college campus on Lookout Mountain to downtown Chattanooga. It is charming in an unpolished way, and the houses reflect the variety of its residents. A gracious Tudor-style cottage with trimmed hedges and blooming wisteria lives beside a jarringly purple-painted folk-Victorian with underwear hanging out front on the line. If character is desired, St. Elmo provides that in abundance.

Neighborhood character is desirable because it can’t be manufactured. Unlike the paint-fresh housing developments springing up steadily in Chattanooga, St. Elmo’s homes have had decades to absorb the personalities of their many owners. Some would argue that new developments are necessary as Chattanooga attracts new residents, and splashy titles for the city like “The Best Outdoor Town in the Country” and “Gig City,” match well with shiny new homes. This is the newest incarnation of a city that has undergone many, and in all of them, St. Elmo has played a part. Cradled in the dip between Lookout Mountain and Hawkins Ridge, this neighborhood was born from yellow fever, and lives because of corgis.

During the yellow fever epidemic of 1878, residents of Chattanooga fled the city proper to avoid infection. Among the 12,000 that left the city, many moved up Lookout Mountain, necessitating a short route from the mountain to the city. The St. Elmo Turnpike was built in 1879, and a neighborhood began to grow in this space between sickness and health. Eventually, fever abated, and the city returned to normal, but St. Elmo remained and kept growing. Around this time, Chattanooga began to develop as an industrial center. Unlike other cities in the South that were based on agriculture, Chattanooga was a hub of manufacturing. The city enjoyed this status for decades, and many who worked in these growing industries made St. Elmo their home. Unfortunately, manufacturing grew too recklessly, polluting the Tennessee River at Chattanooga’s heart. This time, infection hurt St. Elmo as it radiated outward from the river. Families left and paint peeled off of the homes’ Victorian exteriors. By the 1970s St. Elmo was only a sad suburb of what Walter Cronkite dubbed “The Dirtiest City in America.”

My parents went to college on Lookout Mountain in the eighties. Whereas I, 20 years later, would meander through St. Elmo’s streets, they would speed through the neighborhood quickly, doors locked, on the way to the Pickle Barrel for burgers. The eighties were not a good time for St. Elmo. Resident Andy Mendonsa shares what the neighborhood was like at the time, saying, “When my wife Gloria and I moved to St. Elmo in 1985, this was a neighborhood that was more than struggling. The average cost of a house was between $30,000 to $35,000. There was one slumlord that owned about forty properties, some of which were the largest and oldest houses in St. Elmo, which he divided into as many apartments as he could fit into them. In one particularly beautiful house that used to sit on the corner of Alabama and 45th Street, he just rented individual rooms out by the week with a common shared bathroom.” The neighborhood had a high crime rate, and the historic homes were in disrepair. But people like Andy moved in nonetheless. A dangerous, dilapidated neighborhood had at least one advantage: cheap houses. People like Andy could also see potential. He says that he was drawn to live there because he wanted to raise his children in a neighborhood that was “incredibly diverse,” and he saw the potential for restoring one of these historic homes.

Thankfully, Andy wasn’t the only one. Though a group called the St. Elmo Improvement League had existed since the 1960's, the efforts of this group, now called the Community Association of Historic St. Elmo (CAHSE), began in earnest is the late 80’s and 90’s to bring life back into the neighborhood. Chattanooga was starting to heal as city leaders cleaned the polluted river and sought renewed business interest. By focusing on cleaning the river from pollutants, and building a 22-mile greenway along the river, downtown Chattanooga was transformed. More people walking along the river brought more development, which brought more jobs and more people. Though downtown was improving, St. Elmo still had a reputation as a dangerous stop on the outskirts of town: a place where burglars often took advantage of the easy-to-shatter Victorian glass windows, and gunshots weren’t uncommon. CAHSE wanted to change this perception of the neighborhood, so they started a cheerful, family-focused Fall Festival where kids could get their faces painted and parents could shop for hand-woven baskets and pottery. One of the members of this association was Bob Wright. Though he loved St. Elmo, Bob still couldn’t muster excitement over what he describes as “the boring meetings about trash cans and barriers.”

In the midst of one of these meetings, Bob had an idea. Bronwyn, Eddie, Bowtie, and Blue, his beloved corgis, were not the only corgis of St. Elmo. In fact, Bob knew of quite a few. After that, it was simple: “I thought, let’s just have a parade! It would be kind of funny to have a lot of corgis in a parade, and it would educate people about corgis.” The Corgi Parade, a grandiose centerpiece of the St. Elmo Fall Festival, was a hit. Not only did it educate people about corgis as Bob wished, but it turned St. Elmo into a little corgi mecca.

More importantly, the Fall Festival and its corgis brought people into the neighborhood, and some of them stayed. The 1990’s were a time of rebirth for the neighborhood as families moved into its old homes to raise children, plant gardens, and get to know their neighbors. Slowly St. Elmo became a place where families could go on long walks at dusk and leave their fragile Victorian windows open. This change is good. It is good for women who want to go for a run alone and not be afraid. It is good for kids who want to leave their bikes outside overnight and find them untouched in the morning. A decrease in crime is good for everyone. But the implications of this are more nuanced because when a neighborhood with beautiful, historic homes and tree-lined avenues loses its One Big Problem, suddenly everybody wants a piece, and the pieces get pricey.

I still get the occasional “Isn’t it dangerous?” when I tell longtime Chattanoogans where I live. Yes, I do know more than one neighbor whose house and car have been broken into, and even one who was attacked at her door when going in at night. Those who are new to Chattanooga, however, usually ask me how I can afford rent. I pay triple on my apartment what a friend of mine paid when she lived here five years ago. This hints at the next epidemic that could harm St. Elmo. As gentrification levels other Chattanooga neighborhoods, bringing in fresh new buildings and new people, St. Elmo neighbors are fighting to protect their home. In fall of 2015, St. Elmo neighbors attended a city council meeting to protest a building project that would replace all the trees on Hawkins Ridge, pine, poplar, birch, and catalpa, with mass-produced “green” homes.

I followed this story with interest, and a surprising amount of emotion, through the St. Elmo email list. The email list is a digital space for St. Elmo neighbors to share life with each other, whatever that looks like from day to day. Often it is through emails with titles like, “Free mattress on curb” and “Just baked cinnamon rolls if interested.” Also ones like “Suspicious man near 45th and Tennessee Ave,” and “Mail delivery issues.” When the neighborhood is threatened however, the emails are more urgent. Recently, one titled “Terrorism on Old Mountain Road and 39th” included pictures of neighborhood trees destroyed by developers, and gave instructions on how to contact the mayor with complaints. There were over fifty replies.

While the neighborhood clearly cares about self-preservation, gentrification is a powerful force. In the fall of 2016, the St. Elmo Body Shop closed its doors and hung up a huge sign: “After 70 years of business, we are being FORCED to move.” The neighborhood grocery store just underwent a facelift, and now includes a salad bar and all-organic produce options. The prices are higher. Neighborhoods change, that fact itself is not sad. The problem is when residents have to leave homes they love because they can no longer afford them. Andy Mendonsa believes that as long as neighbors talk to each other and preserve their shared history, the neighborhood will survive. He says, “Sadly, one of the things that has happened in St. Elmo today is the absence of any ongoing dialogue about its historic significance and the ways that we, as her residents, should be preserving it rather than being almost solely focused on preserving our own personal ways of life regardless of how it affects our neighbors and our neighborhood both now and for future generations.”

There were many people at this year’s Corgi Parade, most of them proud St. Elmites celebrating their neighborhood mascot. Midway through the parade route, the bedecked corgis passed a sculpture that was recently erected outside of a St. Elmo restaurant. The sculpture is a large bronze circle, with small figures around the circumference telling the history of the neighborhood. Among the fifty key figures represented on the statue, one is a corgi. I hope that gentrification does not harm St. Elmo, but I believe that my neighbors will fight for their home. They will do it through lobbying and petitioning and voting and planning, but also through corgi parades.


Adrienne is a Florida-born and Alabama-raised resident of Tennessee. Her life, so far, has been a slow journey north while still remaining in the South. She is currently a first year masters student at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. When she is not in class, she is either tutoring writing, teaching it, or doing it herself.

Catalpa