• Population: 145,000
• Median Annual Household Income: $33,008
• Median Home Price: $119,500
• Climate: Come summer, move slow or head for the hills
Chattanooga's darkest hour arrived in 1969, when Walter Cronkite dropped a bombshell on the six o'clock news: The EPA had ranked the nation's worst cities for air pollution, and Chattanooga—an enviably scenic town ringed by mountains and split down the center by the meandering Tennessee River—topped the list. "I about dropped my fork," says Jim Brown, a native who now runs the Tennessee River Gorge Trust, a conservation nonprofit. "That woke everybody up. From that point on, things started to change." Now change is the civic mantra—well, one of them. Enter the city and you risk attack by a swarm of progressive buzzwords: sustainability, greenways, revitalization, strategic revisioning. In practice, those translate into nearly half a billion dollars sunk into lifestyle upgrades. The downtown banks of the Tennessee lure locals with arts and bluegrass festivals, miles of riverfront walkways, and seven-acre Coolidge Park. The next phase calls for a 75-mile web of creekside trails linking parks, neighborhoods, and protected green space. Careful—the boosterism is contagious.
Ironically, Chattanooga would probably still draw outdoor jocks even if the smog had never cleared. In the hills just outside of town, the Cumberland Plateau offers a jackpot of rock- and water-based diversions—dense hardwood forests, trailheads, put-ins, and caves—all close enough for junkets before or after work. If life in a city reinventing itself sounds appealing, you won't get many chances like this.
PLAYGROUNDS: Whitewater is the marquee attraction. The Ocoee River, 50 miles east of Chattanooga, hosted '96 Olympic paddlers, and many creeks, such as North Chickamauga (a mere five miles from town), run up to Class IV when it rains. A 46-mile "blueway" trail was just christened on the Tennessee, where bird-sanctuary islands attract herons, sandhill cranes, and bald eagles. Just outside city limits, Prentice-Cooper State Forest has a vast network of singletrack and hiking trails. Climbers go to Sunset Rock on 2,135-foot Lookout Mountain; cavers have a few limestone caverns right in town and abundant choices north toward Kentucky; and fly-fishers wade the Hiwassee River or drive 90 minutes northeast to the Great Smoky Mountains' countless trout streams.
WORK: The crossroads of interstates, rail lines, and a major river keeps transport and warehousing high on the list of mainstays, along with health care, insurance, and factories that make everything from industrial gases to nanofibers to Moon Pies. Headquarters for the Tennessee Valley Authority and Olan Mills photography are here, too, as well as Litespeed titanium bicycles. The amount of clean, green industry hasn't caught up with the rhetoric so far, but the paint's not yet dry on the renaissance.
NEST: North Chattanooga is a hot ticket, with 1920s Craftsman-style two-bedrooms along winding, magnolia-lined roads, just a stroll from the riverbank, selling fast for around $140,000. Bargain hunters shop precincts on the upswing like St. Elmo and Highland Park, where $60,000 to $100,000 buys a historic cottage badly in need of TLC.
NEIGHBORS: Whitewater junkie who became a firefighter for the generous time off; thirtyish refugees from Atlanta buying and rehabbing sickly old bungalows.
HOW TO GO NATIVE: Employ the verb "to creek," as in "We went creekin' off Highway 27 yesterday." Get jiggy on Bessie Smith Strut Night, a bluesy street fest outside the African American Museum. Curse Atlanta traffic but brave the hour-and-a-half drive (on a good day) for concerts and shopping anyway.
WATERING HOLES: The Big River Grille, a brew house in an old trolley barn, is the nightlife epicenter. The IPA goes down easy.
THE PRICE OF PARADISE: Some ghosts of the downbeat past—Superfund sites, polluted streams, vacant storefronts—still linger.