If you mention Montgomery, Alabama, to anyone outside the South, you’ll probably get a response that includes Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King. People know Chattanooga, Tennessee, best for the Glenn Miller song about a choo-choo, and others because they are Civil War buffs.
These two Southern cities, rich in history, now have something crucial in common: they’ve become car towns. Along with their places in America’s past, Montgomery, and Chattanooga can now share industrial futures, one thanks to Korea‘s Hyundai, the other to Germany‘s Volkswagen.
And boy, are the movers and shakers happy to have their auto factories, probably no one more than Chattanooga’s mayor, Ron Littlefield. “It’s the Holy Grail,” says the mayor.
His office on the third floor of Chattanooga’s stately city hall is full of memorabilia related to the city’s efforts to land the VW plant that dominates the site of a former TNT plant, just south of town.On one wall, Littlefield shows off a framed copy of the lyrics to Chattanooga Choo-Choo, loosely translated into German. Another wall boasts the front page of the Chattanooga Times Free Press on the day the city landed the plant. Chattanooga has enthusiastically embraced Volkswagen’s German home base, Wolfsburg, and Littlefield hands out medallions to visitors bearing both cities’ seals.
For Chattanooga, the VW plant is icing on the cupcake for a city that’s been fighting to remake itself since the 1970s, when it was said to have the dirtiest air in the United States. Here, VW isn’t the lynchpin to revival; the revival was what clinched the factory.
I’d only driven through Chattanooga on the way to points farther south, and by doing so, I missed a lot. Even if you don’t arrange a tour of the VW plant, there is plenty here to see, starting with the Aquarium downtown, which is modeled after the one in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
Chattanooga has a stunning art museum, beautifully restored downtown buildings, one of the country’s first parking garages built specifically as a parking garage, new schools, and a thriving food scene. In two days, I dined at St. Johns, which could easily compete in New Orleans, visited one of the city’s daily farmers markets, and paid four (!) visits to Niedlow’s Bakery, where I sampled probably the best chocolate croissant I’ve ever eaten.
But those things wouldn’t necessarily lift Chattanooga above other similar sized Southern cities. VW, however, does. “Volkswagen is close to iconic for people my age,” says the mayor, who was born in 1953. The Beetle is “my generation’s vehicle.”
He admits his city “stole ideas and learned from mistakes” made by other places, as it moved along its reinvention path. Downtown came first, along with white-collar jobs at places like Krystal, the fast food chain whose headquarters is there, and Blue Cross Blue Shield, which has a huge office building. “What was lacking was industrial jobs,” Littlefield says.
Chattanooga watched as cities all over the South landed their car plants. It tried particularly hard to get the Toyota plant that went to Tupelo, Mississippi, but lost it because too much leaked out about the negotiations. Littlefield was at the Detroit Auto Show when he heard VW might be searching for a plant site.
The city quickly put together a proposal only to hear back that VW wasn’t impressed with the way the proposed location looked. “We like Chattanooga, but we can’t tell much about this site,” he recalled. The city, county and state jumped into action, clearing away trees and debris (there was even a webcam showing the progress) and a month later, the location was ready.
Littlefield knows he’s hit the “biggest industrial home run in the history of Chattanooga.” But he doesn’t just want to be on a list of the South’s car cities. “Wouldn’t it be great to be on the short list of progressive cities?” he says.
Progressive and Montgomery have probably never been used in any historian’s sentence.
Montgomery is a city with kind of a spooky history, to those of us from up North. Our view of it is formed in old newsreels and classes on African-American history, and the perception we get isn’t good.
I was reminded of that when I visited the Rosa Parks Museum, where her decision to keep her bus seat is depicted through a dramatic hologram reenactment. I took a drive by King’s Dexter Avenue church, which is directly across from the state capital, where George Wallace served when he vowed to fight school integration.
Nobody in Montgomery ducks this history – in fact, civil rights sites are well labeled for visitors. But for Randy George, the head of the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce, Hyundai gives him something else to talk about and most important, something to sell to prospective businesses.
“It redefines largely who we are,” George says of the Hyundai plant that sits just south of the city. “The dichotomy is really a remarkable thing. It proves that we have come a long way.”
Beyond the civil rights movement, George thinks the presence of Hyundai, and the other car companies and auto suppliers who’ve set up in the South are changing the perception of the South for the nation. “Our time’s come,” he says, simply.
Micheline Maynard is a writer and author based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She previously ran the public media project Changing Gears, and was Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times.