Photo by Stephanie Swart
By Jillian Waterhouse, Staff Writer—
On January 29th 2021, Andy Berke delivered his final State of the City Address as the mayor of Chattanooga.
The event, streamed live on Facebook and YouTube, was available digitally to the public in order to maintain Covid-19 safety guidelines. While Berke began the address by playing a clip from his inauguration speech on April 15th of 2013, in which he detailed his goals and plans for the city of Chattanooga, his focus quickly shifted to the hardships of 2020.
Since March of 2020, almost one in every ten Hamilton county residents tested positive for Covid-19. In the Chattanooga area, over 350 lives have been taken by the pandemic. Berke confirmed that the pandemic has emphasized and worsened the struggles faced by seniors, people of color, and individuals with pre-existing conditions.
“The pandemic has bolded inequality,” Berke said.
Many small businesses have been forced to permanently close their doors, and Chattanoogans once working jobs in the hospitality and service industries have seen firsthand the detrimental effects of Covid-19 on local employment.
As for the economic crisis many Chattanooga residents find themselves in due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Berke had a sobering response.
“So many people who have barely been holding on to the edge are now falling off,” he said.
While many Chattanoogans struggle to afford rent, groceries, and the cost of basic necessities, the cost of housing is on the rise. However, Berke had an optimistic perspective on the development of city communities.
“Our city is in outstanding fiscal shape,” he said.
Berke made specific reference to the development of East Chattanooga. In an article published by NOOGAtoday in August of 2020, it was declared that nearly 20,000 Hamilton County renters were at risk of eviction.
Berke touched on the protests which dominated the summer of 2020, as community leaders took to the streets demanding racial justice in Chattanooga and the world. He offered explicit support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We will never solve problems in silence,” he said.
While Berke expressed the importance of political protest in the fight for social justice, nearly 20 protestors were still facing criminal charges from their attendance at the summer gatherings organized by advocacy groups such as Concerned Citizens for Justice.
Berke also commented on the topic of the rise in political partisanship across America and in Chattanooga.
“We sometimes catch ourselves in a political debate where it sounds like, ‘If you win, I lose.’—Well, I just don’t believe that,” he said.
In a time plagued by economic struggle, social injustice, and political divide, sentiments embracing unity without calls for accountability fall short in the eyes of many. Though protestors are not flooding the streets every night as they once did, political discourse has remained a constant for Chattanooga advocacy groups and journalists alike on social media, including campus organizations such as the Student Government Association and the UTC Young Democratic Socialists.
While Chattanooga is not unique in its struggles, Berke’s final address revealed a city straining in need of economic relief, racial justice, and accountability. Though the challenges of 2020 highlighted Chattanoogans’ struggles against citywide injustices such as gentrification and insufficient police reform, it did not create them. The rise seen in political discussion and protest over the past year assisted Chattanooga residents in identifying what they wish to change in their communities, as seen in record turnout to city council meetings. With an upcoming mayoral election and renewed hope stemming from the Covid-19 vaccines, change may be just around the corner.
In Berke’s words, “A city divided against itself cannot rise.”