Thursday, April 28, 2011

Chattanooga vs. Knoxville Smackdown Finale: The Differences and the Verdict

Chattanooga AquariumImage by (aka Brent) via Flickr

In terms of tourist star-power, Chattanooga will probably always have the advantage. Their aquarium is extremely well known and is adjacent to an IMAX theater. Both sit near the river and on the riverfront, visitors may choose between a riverboat ride or a ride on the more adventurous Duck tours. They also have a minor-league baseball stadium downtown and, while not downtown, the specter of the Chattanooga Choo-choo, Ruby Falls, Rock City and Lookout Mountain loom large.
What does Knoxville have to answer the above? I'm afraid, not very much. Each of those attractions bring people to Chattanooga who otherwise would not have made the trip. What brings people to Knoxville? Well, the Vols, of course, but those are prescribed dates. We have conventions and events, but they have those, as well.

Knoxville Riverfront definitely needs work.
Riverfront development seems farther along in Chattanooga. I read a comment on a blog recently in which the writer mentioned that Chattanooga has a tremendous advantage over Knoxville because Chattanooga has a river. It was a telling comment because, of course, not only do we have a river, we have the same river and it comes to us first! So how could this person be so confused? I think it’s because we are so high on the bluff above our waterfront that there is no easy, clearly marked way to get there from downtown for an out-of-town visitor. This is an important problem that Knoxville must tackle in order to fully exploit the potential that sits just at the bottom of that very steep hill. Chattanooga also has extensive trails along the river accompanied by a sculpture garden within walking distance of downtown.

There are other differences that seem to counterbalance: We have a dog park and they do not. They have very cool, free, electric shuttles. Compared to our noisy gasoline-powered trolleys, they have a very clear edge. Why can’t we go electric?
Downtown Grocery Store, Chattanooga, TN
Downtown Chattanooga has a grocery store and a Dollar General Store, but no wine or liquor store that I could see. The grocery store, however, looked almost dilapidated and would we want a Dollar General Store on Gay Street? As for the wine and liquor store, I think most people would agree that’s an asset for our downtown.
Family Dollar Store, Downtown Chattanooga, TN
But if you want to visit a city, not as a tourist, but to enjoy an urban experience what do you want? You want to eat at excellent or cool restaurants, you want a good cup of coffee in an independent coffee shop, you want some entertainment and you’d like to shop. This is where the distinction between the two downtown areas becomes a stark contrast.
212 Market, Chattanooga, TN
I was shocked to find such a small number of quality restaurants available in downtown Chattanooga. We ate at 212 Market several times during our visit simply because it was the primary option for better dining – and it was excellent. They emphasize local produce and fresh food and I’d be delighted to eat there again. We did, however, eat on their outside deck and realized that there were very few people to watch and we had to speak over a constant roar of traffic. We missed the great people-watching and pleasant sounds of pedestrian traffic on Market Square.
There were two barbecue restaurants and one of these, Sticky Fingers, is a chain. I’ve enjoyed it before, but on this trip it was not so good. There are a couple of Mexican restaurants, one of which is a much smaller, slightly lower quality version of our Blue Coast Burrito. Other options include Panera Bread and Applebees. I spotted one deli and they do have a vegan restaurant.
Closed Hair of the Dog Pub faces Applebees, Sign Reads "Eat Local/Drink Local"
Do you realize there are currently ten different restaurants on Market Square along with two delis, two ice-cream/Shaved Ice spots and two more restaurants on the way? That will make fourteen places to eat a meal on Market Square. Only two of them, Subway and Blue Coast Burrito, are chains. This is not to mention all the places to eat on Gay Street or surrounding blocks and the Old City. There is no comparison in quality of food and quantity of choices. And as for entertainment, I saw one pretty cool looking bar, but no more. Again, compared to our Old City alone, what can you even say?
Recently opened club at 807 Market St., Chattanooga, TN
And where are the cool coffee houses? Outside of Starbucks inside the Read House, there is no place downtown to get a good cup of coffee. I remember a small place there years ago with excellent coffee and numerous chess boards. I loved that little shop. Now it is gone and nothing has replaced it. This is simply not civilization, people. With multiple choices of locally owned shops in which to purchase a very fine cup of coffee in downtown Knoxville, this category – which is very important to me – is easily one that Knoxville wins in a no-contest ruling.
Hallmark Store, Downtown Chattanooga, TN

As for shopping, they have a Hallmark that closes at 5:00, a couple of high-end men’s clothing stores which also close in the afternoon and one very small dress shop. That’s it. Mast General Store alone overwhelms those meager offerings. When you add all our other downtown shops such as Rala, Fizz, Bliss, Bliss Home, Earth to Old City, The Fortunate Traveler, Unarmed Merchants, The Art Gallery and Union Avenue Books, the comparison is simply overwhelming in Knoxville’s favor.
Which brings up the most damning comparison of all for downtown Chattanooga: As far as I can tell, no one lives there and no one local goes there. After nightfall the streets were dead. I could not spot anything that looked like apartments or condos. Nearby areas have some limited housing, but I saw nothing downtown.
So the major difference is that we have people downtown. Knoxville is a fun place to visit, not for an attraction, but for the entire urban experience and it is because our downtown is full of life. That never gets old. After you’ve visited Chattanooga’s tourist attractions, what reason is there to return? I won’t hesitate to return to Chattanooga when there is a conference or concert I want to attend, but for my urban delight, I’ll happily stay in downtown Knoxville.
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At April 28, 2011 at 8:14 AM , Anonymous Cathy Tyner said...

Yay Knoxville!! Totally agree with this post.

At April 28, 2011 at 8:45 AM , Anonymous Greg said...

Well written post. A downtown where people choose to live is certainly more valuable than a few tourist attractions.

I wouldn't be too concerned about the riverfront issue. Only one American city has done a great job with a riverfront (San Antonio) and it's not much more than a small stream so it's far easier to work with.

Comparison with Asheville next?

At April 28, 2011 at 9:37 AM , Blogger Andrea said...

I for one would LOVE a Dollar General within walking distance of my apartment on Gay Street. Or at the very least an independently owned and operated shop that carries pretty much the same items for about the same price. I always prefer indie when I can get it, but I seriously cannot afford to buy things at twice the price I could get them at Dollar General, despite the inconvenience of having to drive to get there. And hopefully that last sentence makes sense.

At April 28, 2011 at 12:34 PM , Blogger tthurman said...

All that, and we are the pollen kings too!

At April 28, 2011 at 1:26 PM , Blogger Knoxville Urban Guy said...

Thanks, Cathy. Thank you, Greg. You are probably right, it is more difficult than most of us appreciate to develop a river-front. I'd like to see us at least connect it up better to downtown, though. Asheville? Oh man, you are killing me. It took me forever to get these posts down! Do I get an expense account? Andrea, you bring up a very good point I should explore more in the future: How much extra is it worth to support a local business? Is it straight ecconomics? I struggle with that, too. And finally, tthurman, here we are dancing in the Chattanooga endzone celebrating a little victory and you have to bring up that little yellow powder that coats our city! Dance in the endzone for a minute, man!

At April 28, 2011 at 2:09 PM , Anonymous monad said...

Chattanooga's downtown proper is dead dead dead, but the North Shore is functionally part of the city's downtown, and has quite a few restaurants, plus a CVS and a large hoity-toity grocery that cleans the clock of any grocery in Knoxville. And the vast riverfront parkland provides huge amenities to the locals, while Knoxville essentially has nothing at all. But, yeah, even given all of that, there's still tons more reason to go downtown on a regular basis in Knoxville than Chattanooga, and it's hard to see Chattanooga ever catching up with us there.

At April 28, 2011 at 2:11 PM , Anonymous monad said...

Only one American city has done a great job with a riverfront

Huh? Have you been to Chattanooga in last 20 years?

At April 28, 2011 at 2:49 PM , Blogger Knoxville Urban Guy said...

Hey Monad,
Interesting point about the norhern shore. As I said in my intro, I didn't cross the bridge to that side and it sounds like I would have enjoyed it. The last time I was on the north side was probably six or eight years ago and it is probably very different, now. Do people live there? Are there crowds of people at night? I'll have to check it out the next time I go there.

At April 28, 2011 at 3:01 PM , Anonymous monad said...

There are some apartment buildings (I'd guess somewhere around 10-20% of the units in downtown Knoxville), and a large adjacent neighborhood which is basically equivalent to 4th & Gill. It's fairly busy at night and on weekends -- the very heavily used and quite nice Coolidge Park drives a lot of this -- but not quite at the level of Market Square when it's really hopping.

You definitely need to check it out next time you're there. It's what I hope Central Ave trans-Broadway can be turned into in a few years. Unfortunately, despite the good work by Bill Lyons & many others in the City of Knoxville over the past 10 years, Chattanooga's government takes planning (and more importantly, the *execution* of plans) much more seriously than we probably ever will.

At April 30, 2011 at 9:25 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Plus you toss in some little jewels like WDVX, Bijou, Square Room, name a few, and Knoxville is a sweet spot for dinner and a show.

At April 30, 2011 at 9:44 AM , Blogger Buzz Chattanooga said...

Missing a few key points, Chattanooga has a downtown wine & spirits store, Jack's just a couple of blocks north of Buehler's grocery on Market. We have a dog park on the Southside beside the Chattanooga Market's pavillion and adjacent tot the skate park. Plus, you missed several coffee shops, most notably Greyfriar's on Broad Street. And now, we also have Pedicab service - check out

At May 2, 2011 at 10:21 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with all of this. As a Georgian, I find Chattanooga to have a very beautiful surrounding, but is very boring. Knoxville, which benefits from the university big time, is much more lively. I alway thought that if Knoxville could add some greenspace on the river front and make it more usable recreational area, it can easily rival any other city of it's size. That being said, both have a similar feel that I associate with several Tennessee cities from Nashiville eastward.

At May 3, 2011 at 12:07 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good gosh, this is a horrible review. This is not a review of what's available in downtown Chattanooga, but rather a review of your inability to find things. For example, there is a great coffee shop (Chattz) located just a couple of blocks away from the Read House. And you didn't even go to the north shore, Bluff View Art District, or, apparently, south of MLK? I could go on with further examples of bars and restaurants, but I have a feeling there's a huge amount of confirmation bias at work here (as is usually the case with downtown Knoxville acolytes). So what's the point, really? I will add that if one has kids, then downtown Knoxville vs Chattanooga really is night-and-day.

I have lived in both Knoxville and Chattanooga. They have their good and bad points. Market Square is a nice feature in downtown. I'm there pretty much everyday, but outside of Tomato Head, I could take-or-leave most the other restaurants. Judging from the average business levels, so could everyone else. When you are talking about downtown Knoxville, what you really mean is about 4-5 blocks of downtown. The rest is a damn no-mans land most of the time, and you know it. Hell, even in that 4-5 blocks it gets pretty slim. (Don't believe me? See David Byrne: But it is convenient if you live or work in that area. I like downtown for that reason, not much walking to get good food, coffee, and beer.

Chattanooga has its issues: gangs, mullets, lack of good concerts (nobody plays there), downtown is more spread out, and there always seems to be more annoying-type hipsters. Even with all that, I give the edge to Chattanooga. I don't consider the lack of a giant, tier 2, cow college chock full of ignoratti as a drawback. There just really is more to do in
Chattanooga, it's cleaner, and there are way less buildings that look like they're about to fall in.

At May 3, 2011 at 3:27 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Serious question, what is there to do in Chattanooga? From my tourist perspective, I really like the river front and surrounding hills in Chattanooga, but there is no style in Chattanooga. They seem to have taken a portion of the blueprint from my home town of Atlanta that cultural attractions would equal having culture, but its not true. The downtown feels forced. To be fair, I have heard from many people that Chattanooga is a great place to live (I really like the pedestrian bridge). That may be true, but I can assure you that it is a pretty boring place to visit. I really enjoy a weekend trip to Knoxville to listen to live music and love the potential of the central part of the city. Maybe it is the old buildings, but I always feel that I have traveled back in time when I am in Knoxville. There is a cool river town vibe, with a small but strong grassroots community of musicians there. In my opinion, Knoxville needs to make a riverfront recreational area a focus. There is plenty of beauty in that area, but Knoxville doesn't show it off like Chattanooga and Asheville do (the billboards on the interstate are out of control). Both have a long way to go, but as someone that travels in the south often I think they have both started to draw more attention from tourists (Chattanooga advertises heavily in Atlanta) . One last question,"giant, tier 2, cow college chock full of ignoratti"? Is a contradictory statement? Ignoratti usually means someone of elite status, which isn't a word often associated with tier 2 cow colleges. Just to clarify, are you saying ther are many elitists AND below average college kids at the same time? Also, Is that David Byrne blog from 2007... and from a Sunday night concert?

At May 3, 2011 at 7:14 PM , Blogger Knoxville Urban Guy said...

Thanks for all the comments. I'm going to address just a bit of it all. I appreciated the comment above from buzzchattanooga, though I had hoped the site referenced was similar to mine but it's a commercial blog.

My original comparisons remain valid in the sense that I acknowledged the area I compared in Chattanooga was limited. It is the area that used to make me feel like Knoxville was far behind. As such, the comparison is correct.

It's difficult to respond to so many people who use the "anonymous" default and to remain clear which person I'm addressing, but I'll try.

The anonymous poster above who indicated that my review was horrible and indicative of my inability to find things was pretty intense. I got confused though. To travel to all the areas he mentioned would have required a good amount of traveling and, in that case, I could have included other sections of our city, as well.

I followed the link and don't really understand its relevance. David Byrne (who I really appreciate, btw) ate dinner on Market Square several years ago and read a copy of "Skirt" magazine, which I don't care for and pronounced a judgement on Knoxville. Ok.

The message above concludes with a discussion of how convenient downtown Knoxville is and how riddled Chattanooga is with gangs and other undesireable elements. Are we agreeing, now?

I didn't go to Chattanooga intended to compare and contrast, I went to enjoy myself. This clearly is an opinion question. I gave mine and tried to explain how I got there. Based on the poll at the top of this blog, more people think Chattanooga has the edge. That's cool.

Keep it going.

At May 4, 2011 at 12:49 AM , Anonymous ex-chatt said...

The free CARTA electric shuttles will take you from the Aquarium to the Southside, where St. John's has better food than anywhere in Knoxville. If you had walked a couple of blocks up past the aquarium to the arts district, you would have found great coffee and pastries - way better (pastries, at least) than any in downtown Knoxville - at Rembrandt's. If you had walked from the arts district across the river on the pedestrian bridge, you would have discovered all kinds of other shops and restaurants on the North Shore. Knoxville totally has more going on than Chattanooga as a city, but Chattanooga's downtown is so much more well planned and tourist-friendly than Knoxville's, it's not even funny. You clearly didn't bother venturing past Broad or Market Streets - or past the central downtown district - which means you missed out on all the best stuff - all of which you could have gotten to on a free shuttle. From a stylish bus stop designed by an artist. LAME LAME LAME. Try planning your trip next time.

At May 4, 2011 at 11:15 AM , Anonymous ACM said...

As a Chattanoogan who also lived for a time in Knoxville, I have to say that what you have written isn't really a fair comparison. You compared a town you know intimately well with what seems like about 3 blocks of Market and Broad Street in Chattanooga. Those three blocks were, admittedly, the focus of the revitalized downtown Chattanooga of 20 years ago, but much has changed since then.
As others have noted, there is a liquor and wine store downtown, actually it is just next to 212 Market. Speaking of 212 Market, compared to places like St. John's, Meeting Place, Alleia, Public House and Easy Bistro, 212 Market is not even in the upper tier of Chattanooga restaurants.
Knoxville definitely has a better bar scene, probably because of the huge student population, but Chattanooga does have some quality bars, Hair of the Dog is decent, as is the new Honest Pint and the Chattanooga Billiards Club has made great improvements. If you like smaller, dirtier places there is JJ Bohemia.
Also, there are plenty of living spaces downtown, they just are not in the Market St, Broad St area.
Plenty of local coffee shops as well, although I'm disappointed that Greyfriar's is no longer open late.

The problem with your review is that you just don't know where to go in Chattanooga anymore. Twenty years ago, even 10 years ago, you would have been in the right spot. But that section of downtown has been taken over by tourists, chain restaurants and parking lots. The locals are now on the North Shore and the Southside.

As someone who has lived in both cities, I prefer Chattanooga easily, but I can see why some would prefer Knoxville.

At May 4, 2011 at 11:22 AM , Anonymous ACM said...

And I understand, as you wrote, that you were just comparing the section of Chattanooga that you visited on a trip for enjoyment. I'm not trying to attack your post (really I don't even care about the comparison aspect, everybody has their own valid opinions) I just want you (and any other visitor) to have a good time when you come to Chattanooga and find the good places on your next visit.


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