Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, September 24, 2021

Rossville Blvd. residents, businesses push improvements

Miss G’s owner Guillermina Solana-Chal, left, and The BLVD executive director Heather Herweyer celebrate the launch of the nonprofit’s Rossville Boulevard taco tour on Sept 18. - Photo by David Laprad | Hamilton County Herald

While stakeholders continue to invest money in the development of Chattanooga hot spots like the Westside and Southside communities, a grassroots nonprofit is shining a light on what its executive director says is one of the city’s most neglected assets – Rossville Boulevard.

“My neighbors and I were aware of the conversations in Chattanooga about improvement efforts in various parts of the city, but we never heard anyone talking about south of the interstate toward the state line,” says Heather Herweyer, founder of The BLVD and a resident of the Rossville Boulevard community.

“But when you cross from Georgia into Tennessee, it’s like, ‘Uh, welcome to Chattanooga. Here are our boarded-up buildings and remnants of auto malls that died out years ago.’

Herweyer is seated outside Miss G’s, a Rossville Boulevard restaurant that claims to serve authentic Mexican cuisine, on a drizzly Saturday evening in September.

Looking north down the 2.2-mile stretch that ends at the Interstate 24 overpass, she gazes painfully at what the occupants of the vehicles that drive along Rossville Boulevard see, including a shabby adult cinema, a plasma donation clinic, several payday loan operations and derelict structures that collectively give off an air of neglect.

“Chattanooga is a great city with a lot to offer, but we don’t build momentum as we head toward downtown,” she laments.

As a resident of Rossville Boulevard’s East Lake neighborhood, Herweyer says she’s learned to look deeper to see what drivers along the corridor likely don’t, including its “awesome people and incredible resources.”

“A lot of traffic comes through here to access the commercial and manufacturing businesses along the boulevard,” she notes. “And our cultural diversity is remarkable.”

Despite Rossville Boulevard’s significance to the local economy, the greater Chattanooga community has largely neglected its surrounding commercial district and neighborhoods over the past several decades, Herweyer contends.

But instead of grousing, she and a neighbor, Jazmine LeBlanc, co-founder and executive director of East Lake Language Arts Library, formed The BLVD in an effort to find ways to “make things better.”

“We certainly didn’t think we could make things worse,” Herweyer quips.

Herweyer developed a vision of what she wanted to see that included landscaping, beautification, improved signage and code enforcement, all of which was aimed at transforming Rossville Boulevard into an aesthetically pleasing thoroughfare.

She also wanted the avenue to be made safer for pedestrians and bikers.

“A lot of pedestrians cross the boulevard, but a lot of tractor trailers fly through here, as well, so we added pedestrian refuge crossings to our wish list.”

Instead of pushing her own vision for Rossville Boulevard, Herweyer spearheaded the formation of an action and planning committee tasked with understanding what the community desired.

Made up of businesses, property owners and local citizens, the group deployed a community survey, the results of which expressed many of the same hopes as Herweyer.

The feedback also emphasized a need to better engage the Rossville Boulevard business community for the benefit of the area’s residents.

“When Jazmine and I started The BLVD, we met at a coffee shop on Main Street because there were no public meeting spaces here,” she explains. “A coffee shop is a very white middle class thing, but it provides a place for people to gather together and network.”

According to the Tennessee Department of Transportation, an average of 29,000 vehicles roll down Rossville Boulevard each day. However, too many of those cars and trucks pass through without stopping, Herweyer says, largely because there’s little reason to.

“We love our Hispanic restaurants, but that’s nearly the extent of our food choices. So, people are always going toward Main Street to eat.

“We’d like to offer more choices to people who are passing through.”

Using grants from the Lyndhurst and Benwood foundations, The BLVD has taken a few small steps toward making its vision a reality.

First, the organization published a community vision booklet based on the responses to its survey. It’s also funded art projects along the boulevard, including murals aimed and dressing up some of its drabber corners or highlighting some of its businesses.

For example, LeBlanc painted a vibrant mural of a Hispanic boy surrounded by blossoms and produce on the side of Tienda el Aguila, a shop where many Latinos purchase food and other necessities.

But to achieve its grander vision, Herweyer admits the Rossville Boulevard community will need to take bigger steps. To that end, The BLVD assembled an advisory board comprised of stakeholders from the area as well as the broader city.

Among the challenges the board faces is battling the perception of Rossville Boulevard as a section of town where drivers “roll up their windows and lock their doors.”

Herweyer is doing her part by bending the ear of anyone who will listen to her trumpet the finer qualities of East Lake.

“I take my kids for walks, and I’m more scared of the stray dogs than I am of the people,” she maintains. “That’s the heart of the work we’re doing. We have good neighbors.”

What’s more, Herweyer says property values in East Lake are on the rise, giving investors and business owners a reason to cast their eyes on this little regarded patch of Chattanooga.

Until The BLVD is able to attract more interest, Herweyer says the nonprofit will continue to elevate the community through homegrown efforts.

One such endeavor is a taco tour taking place on Rossville Boulevard through Saturday, Oct. 2. The tour invites the public to travel to the corridor and try discounted tacos at seven of its Guatemalan and Mexican restaurants.

Details about the tour are located at theblvdproject.com/rossville-blvd-taco-tour.

“We want to give people a positive reason to come to Rossville Boulevard,” Herweyer says. “This is already an amazing community, and we hope people will join us in making it even better.”