I grew up next to Kingsport, Tennessee. Kingsport has had several lives, the most recent being a period of industrialization, growth, expansion, and relative decline. This period was much touted at the beginning as the town became known through the moniker “The Model City.”
This period of development was marked with a group of visionary leaders who worked in tandem with industrial interests to bring several compatible industries to the river banks of the Holston River, and decided they should work with a city planner to draw up plans for a city that could grow to 100,000 residents. They hired John Nolan, who had planned several other communities across the nation, and Nolan’s plan for Kingsport was laid out, and the community grew. Thus, “The Model City” was born.
A few days ago one of Kingsport’s post-modern leaders opined that “if you work in Kingsport, you should live in Kingsport.” This is probably not the first time some frustrated leader has said as much, but it is the opposite of the concept that gave the city success.
Kingsport grew up in an era when most of East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia in the Holston Valley at least, was agrarian. Small farms dotted the hilly land, and most residents were providing well for themselves with hard work, growing food and managing small herds of cattle, sheep, and horses. As the big town began to take shape, some of the sons and daughters of farm families found that the lure of cash was too strong, and they left the farm to go work in the city. The success of Kingsport as a community came from the willingness of these workers to go work a shift at the Eastman, Meade, or Press, and go back home to their garden spots and milk cows at night.
Today’s problem is different because people’s lives have changed. Much of the farm habits of previous generations have been abandoned for the commodity-driven consumerist and materialist culture that is modern America. People depend now on food being brought in from far away, some from third-world and developing nations, and worked by migrant farmers, while they shop for it in the comfort of air-conditioned grocery aisles in big-box stores, and then drive home to their two and three car garages and 2,500-3,500 square feet homes. The habits of the present generation will not be sustained as fuel resources run out, but we’re told we won’t have to worry about that for a little while longer. Thus, people in Johnson City now work in Kingsport, and people in Kingsport work in Johnson City, or Bristol, or even Greeneville, or the coal fields of Wise County, or elsewhere around the region where they can make the money they need to sustain their lifestyles.
While the city leader’s statement about living and working in the same community makes sense, it isn’t what folks are going to do. They invest in homes in the community where they choose to live. They seek work related to the financial needs they have to sustain their lifestyles, and some may drive over an hour away for work. Gone are the days when a community like Kingsport can be its own closed economy.
The history of the success of the Tri-Cities region has always depended upon regional cooperation. We are at our best when we work together. It doesn’t happen often, because folks who lead one community do not usually get votes from people who live somewhere else. The political process is what is broken. But no one is going to invest in living somewhere if they don’t have a desire to live there.
While there are many signs of new life in the Model City, it has definitely experienced decline as a community. Housing has deteriorated throughout the area, and landlords haven’t been very helpful in changing that. Expansion of the city’s treasury through annexation has not proven to be the right solution either. While many of the city’s past workers have moved just beyond the borders of the city, in places like Colonial Heights and Church Hill, there is a new trend of people moving all the way to other cities like Johnson City. This has left a perception that all that remains is a population of entitlement-dependent folks who cannot pay for the city’s very expensive programs and amenities.
The solution isn’t to gripe about how folks choose to live. Instead, the city should work to redevelop decaying neighborhoods, as they did recently in the Eastman Road redevelopments from Stone Drive to Fort Henry Drive. Encouraging redevelopment in older neighborhoods will bring new life to the Model City. Younger people, folks who haven’t reached the top of their careers yet, will move back if some of these areas are renewed, not only in business development, but in rehabbing housing.
Then another important area of attention the city needs to come to terms with is the whole area of drug abuse. Many folks have missed the economic life of the city and have fallen into patterns of drug use and related criminal problems and deterioration of family life. The city needs to give some attention to this and develop effective programs aimed at helping people find ways to break the cycle of addiction and related poverty. If this isn’t addressed, it doesn’t matter what happens with jobs, folks won’t even drive in there due to the crime that will continue to grow.
The best thing the city has done in the past forty years is develop the downtown higher education center, where area colleges have come to teach classes. Someone suggested the city should give two years of education to any city resident who graduates high school. I laud that idea, but it should be combined with some civic duty, since, “to whom much is given, much is expected.” Students in the downtown center should have to return to the city some form of community service that addresses the needs of the community. Many new ideas flow from the brains of the young. Let them loose to form some new ideas and generate some new energy into the life of the Model City.
I was born in Kingsport, but lived in the area between that town and Weber City, Virginia. As was typical of folks around the area, my family shopped, used doctors, dentists, and other professionals, and my dad worked in the city. We lived outside the limits because that is where my family’s farm was. We had been there since 1807, in fact. So it was hard to leave it. But, Kingsport is still important to me, and I hope the city will find ways to address the problems while continuing to aim high with cultural, educational, and developmental projects. In so doing, and with the hard work of redeveloping this great city, it can once again earn the title “Model City.”