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Elizabethton Library exhibit presents before and after urban renewal in downtown Elizabethton

John Thompson • Sep 4, 2018 at 8:49 PM

ELIZABETHTON — Two little words, urban and renewal, still carry an emotional punch for many people in Elizabethton. For those people, urban renewal caused the removal of neighborhoods in Cat Island and the loss of the iconic Lynnwood Hotel.

For those people, those emotions will likely be triggered by a new exhibit at the Elizabethton/Carter County Library through the month of September. The exhibit, titled “Renewal” is coming to the library after its debut at the Reese Museum at East Tennessee State University earlier this summer.

The exhibit is a classic “then and now” presentation of photographs taken in downtown Elizabethton before urban renewal started and the way the same location looks today.

The “before” photographs were black and white photographs taken by the Elizabethton Department of Planning and Development as part of an effort to qualify for federal funding for an urban renewal project in the downtown areas.

As part of the process for the early 1970s application, every property in the proposed renewal area was photographed. The file of photographs became an unplanned time capsule that was only recently opened when Elizabethton Planning Director Jon Hartman transferred them from the active files to City Archivist Joe Penza.

Penza said the photographs were small, only about 3-by-5 inches. They were initially inventoried by archives volunteer and local historical author Ruth Knight Bailey. In all, there were about 250 photographs in the file.

Penza knew these files would have sentimental value to citizens who grew up or were young adults during this time. He also knew it would be a way to show young people what the city looked like just a few years or decades before they were born.

“I knew this would make for a great ‘Then & Now’ photograph display if we could just get the images digitized and partner with an experienced photographer to create the ‘Now’ photos,” Penza said.

He contacted Katie Sheffield at the ETSU Art and Design Department. Penza knew she had an interest in urban and black and white photography. When Penza showed her what he had, she was pleased to work on the project. She began digitizing the 40-year-old photographs.

After the job of scanning and digitizing all the photos, the next job for Sheffield was to painstakingly take photographs of the same locations from the same vantage points

With that, the then and now was accomplished, showing how much downtown Elizabethton has changed over the last 40 years. Some of the photos show complete change, such as the Old Lynnwood Hotel, which is now a parking lot.

The densely crowded neighborhoods of Cat Island have been transformed into parks and playgrounds. Many of the downtown stores have only slight changes, while other buildings have been transformed. The downtown canopy has become an accepted part of the landscape.

Penza said one of the things the early photos show is a downtown with a wide variety of businesses. The downtown area was a viable economic zone with interdependent parts. He said it also had two-way traffic and angled parking.

That contrasts with the present, in which antique shops are a dominant type of business. There are not many shops selling the items that Walmart features. The one-way traffic also discourages westbound traffic by routing it onto Broad Street, Penza said.

“I don’t think they were thinking of destroying businesses when the City Council diverted that traffic onto Broad Street,” Penza said.

But the Then and Now exhibit did not have any way to publicly display the time capsule. That was accomplished through more partnerships, Penza said.

Karlota I. Contreras-Koterbay, director of the Slocumb Gallery at East Tennessee State University and the Reece Museum, loaned easels and frames in order to display the time capsule.

“Without all those partnerships, this exhibit would not have been possible,” Penza said.

Although the before and now photographs do not require any words, especially for the people of Carter County who have strong memories of the sites, Penza has included a display of old newspapers from the 1970s that ran stories and editorials on urban renewal.

The words of promises and federal largesse add to the photography to continue a decades old debate on the impact of urban renewal.

Penza has thought a lot about the debate as he put together the exhibit.

“It must have been really hard for someone on City Council,” Penza said, thinking of the displacement of neighborhoods and the destruction of the Lynnwood. “There were a lot of people saying they did not want to move away.”

He then thought of the editorials and the pressures from a different direction. “How could you justify leaving $4 million of federal money on the table?”

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