Chattanooga: Where Neoliberalism and Creative Commons Meet

First, the basics: Chattanooga is a city of some 171,000 or so people, situated in the southeast corner of Tennessee, surrounded by the Appalachian mountains.  As a key railroad junction, Chattanooga once prospered through manufacturing and shipping, but the vast political and economic shifts of the late twentieth century took their toll on the city.  Deindustrialization drained the city of people and jobs, with local population only recently reattaining peak 1980 levels.

More akin to cities in the ailing Rustbelt of the North and Midwest, the Tennessee metropolis faced an uncertain future in the 1980s and 1990s, while regional neighbors like Charlotte and Nashville boomed through industries like banking, entertainment, and healthcare.  It was not the biggest city in its state—“Nashvegas” benefited from its size, government jobs, and the presence of a major music industry, while Knoxville had the flagship campus of the state university system.  Memphis had FedEx.  What did Chattanooga have?

Well, from my point of view, it is one of few significant cities within a less-than-four hour drive from Atlanta.  It has a branch of the UT system with a stately red-brick campus.  It has the Tennessee Valley Authority, a massive federal agency that not only provides electricity and flood control but good-paying jobs.


Notably, Chattanooga’s early growth and subsequent economic decline have preserved an old downtown distinguished by buildings from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Its hilly, rolling landscape offers a variety of lovely angles and vistas. The city isn’t saddled with the drab, grey slabs of dime-store modernism that one finds in the downtowns of other Southern cities, which experienced crucial growth later.

But what, apart from all this, could help a city prosper in a postindustrial era?

Chattanooga is, in fact, a classic case of contemporary urban branding.  As Miriam Greenberg argues in her book Branding New York: How a City in Crisis Sold Itself to the World, cultivating perceptions of a distinct identity has become a key strategy in urban governance, as cities partner with advertising agencies and consultants to attract businesses, residents, and investment. Jason Hackworth has shown in The Neoliberal City how cities increasingly operate in an environment where investors and bondholders exercise a check on municipal policy, and successfully making a metropolis a “good investment”—i.e., marketing it like sneakers and soap—is often the first and last job of local leaders.

Cities increasingly search for something, anything to set them apart.  For Portland and Austin, the job has been easy.  They have convinced the world that they are hip, desirable, and “livable,” destinations where the “creative class” described by sociologist Richard Florida happily migrate.  The unfortunates—the Rochesters and Detroits of the world—are held up as cautionary tales of places that either failed at branding or never tried (although Detroit has the makings of an incipient hipster colony, even if the enormity of its decline still dwarfs the infusion of “creative” “pioneers”).


Chattanooga has tried many angles, including the standard package of aquarium/museum/shopping attractions.  (Actually, its Riverfront tourist district is a walkable delight, especially for families and kids.) It has charging stations for electric vehicles and an ambitious bicycle transit system, with rows of bikes available to rent throughout downtown for just $6 a day.  It boasts of being “Gig City,” with purportedly the fastest Internet speeds in the world.

The most striking and unusual effort, though, is an essentially private one—well in keeping with the neoliberal emphasis on privatization and public-private partnerships.  In early 2012 Robbie de VilliersJeremy DooleyDJ Trischler and Jonathan Mansfield launched a Kickstarter campaign with the goal of raising $10,000 to create a new font to represent the city, called Chatype.  Although cities in Europe have done something similar, Chattanooga is the first city in the US to have its very own typeface.

The campaign successfully raised $11,476 from 311 donors, and the font was embraced by the city.  It appears on flags and banners throughout downtown, marking the city’s various districts (e.g. the Bluff View arts district).  Chatype’s creators make the font freely available online, in the hope that it will be adopted widely and contribute to Chattanooga’s “brand identity.”

However, there are some strings attached.  Chatype comes with an End User License Agreement (EULA), which specifies that the typeface should not be used for logos or for businesses, places, or products not associated with Chattanooga.  In fact, the creators initially said, “the font will be available without cost exclusively to Chattanooga. We hope to see the font used for the city website as a webfont, for city-associated signage, brochures, logotypes, and even private enterprise projects with a Chattanooga focus.”

In this free-but-not-totally-free approach, Chatype evokes Creative Commons, the movement to allow creators to make their work available with certain criteria and stipulations.  Various CC licenses specify that work can be reproduced and redistributed, remixed or not, used for commercial purposes or not, with or without attribution.  This approach has been lauded for fostering free culture by sidestepping the sometimes stifling aspects of full, traditional copyright.

Unlike many other types of creative work, fonts and typefaces are governed by a confusing amalgam of copyright, trademark, and design patent, which might protect the software program that makes a scalable font usable on a computer but not the actual shape of the letters per se.  The EULA is a way for Chatype’s creators to make their design available for free, while constraining its use for any particular commercial or artistic purpose.  A user has to agree to this arrangement, in the same way one has to click “yes” on the terms-of-service for iTunes or any piece of software.

But is it helpful to limit how people use something that one wants to be used?  If the Coca Cola logo had been redesigned in Chatype, would it hurt or help Chattanooga?  Are people less likely to use the font because they’re afraid of running astray of a license agreement (which in Chatype’s case is actually a video that potential users have to watch before agreeing and downloading)?  And also, was it wrong for Portlandia to use an Atlanta band (Washed Out) for its theme song?  Does that diminish either city’s brand identity?

Chatype is an unusual example of neoliberal urban governance.  Instead of an initiative by city government, it comes from the private sector, an entrepreneurial attempt to invent an identity essentially out of whole cloth.  The city’s texture and feel, its image and agenda are increasingly defined not by government, voters, or even residents of the community in general, but a handful of designers and 300 donors — the creative class that cities increasingly seek to recruit.  (Here we could think of Chatype as the 21st century’s answer to the murals and august post offices funded by the New Deal.)

But it is also an example of an attempt to create a new commons under new conditions: in Chattanooga, the need to invent a salable image in a world of interurban economic competition intersects with a new culture of sharing and free media, where people search for new means of regulating and ordering creativity.

It remains to be seen whether Chatype will succeed in contributing to Chattanooga’s urban renaissance.  It is part of a “radical gentrification plan,” according to the New York Times (no squeamishness about the ill effects of gentrification here) that includes ambitious programs to lure artists, who presumably bring cultural capital and cachet to the city.  But it is also the result of a civic-spirited effort, and a nice-looking font—albeit one I’d think twice about using for anything other than a flyer for Chattanooga’s First Baptist Church.