published Thursday, July 4th, 2013

The pursuit of happiness lives on at a Chattanooga bus stop

THE SHIFTING AMERICAN DREAM

• It's not all about home ownership anymore, an April study by Hart Research Associates discovered. Three in five adults believe that renters can be just as successful as owners at achieving the American Dream.

• It's not all about education, either. More than 75 percent of Americans believe you can achieve the American dream without a post-graduate degree, and 65 percent say you don't need a college education, according to a 2011 study by MetLife.

• About 45 percent of Americans named "A good life for my family" as the most important or second-most important part of the American Dream in a study by Xavier University. Financial security was the next most highly-ranked factor.

• About 70 percent of Americans think the American Dream can be achieved without being married or having children, MetLife reported.

Sources: Hart Research Associates, 2011 MetLife Study of the American Dream, Xavier University Center for the Study of the American Dream

On a muggy Friday afternoon, a dozen people waited at a Chattanooga bus stop. A 66-year-old Army veteran who ran away from a Kansas farm at 17 and is still running. A mother in a striped blue-and-gray dress who moved across the country for her newborn son.

A 16-year-old junior at the Howard School who is working a summer job at a thrift store.

A woman who is about to start a new job after a year out of work.

Each is a dreamer -- dreaming the American Dream at a Market Street bus stop as they prepare to celebrate the most American of holidays today -- America's 237th birthday.

They know they don't have the conventional American Dream, and say that's OK. In fact, that decades-old American Dream -- owning a home, owning a car, upward mobility -- isn't as deeply entrenched in the American psyche as it was at the turn of the century.

But the bus riders aren't looking for a big house, white picket fence and two kids. Their American Dreams are fiercely personal, and boldy optimistic.

These are their stories: bus stop American Dreams.


Kyndra Bell, left, holds her daughter Shynella, 3, as she and her partner Tia Robinson wait for the bus at a stop on Market Street in downtown Chattanooga on Friday.
Kyndra Bell, left, holds her daughter Shynella, 3, as she and her partner Tia Robinson wait for the bus at a stop on Market Street in downtown Chattanooga on Friday.
Photo by Doug Strickland.

Tia Robinson, Bus 9

Tia Robinson was kicked out of the house she was staying in a couple of weeks ago and spent the week at the Chattanooga Rescue Mission.

But, she explains, after about a year of unemployment, she just landed a job at the Delta Queen and started Tuesday.

"Thank God," her 16-year-old daughter Aliyah Robinson interjected, smiling. The whole family -- Tia, her partner Kyndra Bell, Aliyah, and 3-year-old ShyNella Bell -- are piled on one bench at the bus stop.

ShyNella is not shy. She wanders the bus stop, giving out hugs and proudly waving an unopened bottle of bubbles.

"The perfect situation would be to have a decent home, a place for my children to grow up and be safe," Tia said, sitting between her daughter and her partner. "To teach them to be good citizens and strong, independent women."

She's in school for sociology, and Aliyah is in the marching band at Brainerd High School. The kids have been staying with her partner until Tia can get her feet under her again.

"She's a hard-working person," Aliyah says about her mom. "There are some people on the street, not trying, who give up hope -- but she's living proof you can live on the street, go to school and get a job. I wish people could see that you can have a dream, and all you need is a little push."

Kyndra and Tia have been together, on-and-off, for almost three years. Kyndra said she wants her daughter to know that if she works hard, if she stays in school, she can achieve anything.

"What we have together is not the typical American Dream," Kyndra said. "It's our dream."

"And," Aliyah adds, "Some people wish they had our dream."

The idea of the American Dream is rooted in the Declaration of Independence penned in 1776, which proclaims that people are "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights" including "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

But the 20th century idea of the American Dream of home ownership and upward mobility has been challenged in the 21st century by the Great Recession and its fallout. Income disparity has increased in the past generation while home ownership has decreased in the past eight years for the first time in the post-World War II era.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 69 percent of households in 2005 were in owner-occupied housing, but that dropped below 65 percent this year and, including homes in foreclosure, could drop soon to 61 percent of all households.

The American Dream of each generation living better than the one before also is being questioned by some after a decade of relatively stagnant growth.

A May survey by the Times Free Press of 396 college graduates in the Chattanooga area found that one in four thought they would have a lower standard of living than their parents and another third thought they would have about the same standard of living. Even among college graduates, only 43 percent thought they would live better financially than did their parents.

But the stories of those traveling aboard a CARTA bus show that the American dream is made of more than money.


Conrad Edwards, Bus 9

  • photo
    Conrad Edwards waits for the bus at a stop on Market Street in downtown Chattanooga.
    Photo by Doug Strickland.
    enlarge photo

Conrad Edwards was flying a CH47 Chinook helicopter back in the 1980s about 80 miles off the Panama Coast when the weather took a turn for the worse.

"I'm wondering if we're going to make it in," Edwards, 66, remembered, sitting on a green bench next to the bus stop. "We just kept getting lower and lower and lower until we were about 10 feet off the waves. That was scary."

But he did make it -- and in fact spent 32 years as a pilot in the U.S. Army, until he hit 60 and the Army turned him out. Then he put his stuff in a storage shed, took his $1,400-a-month pension and started to wander.

He traveled through Texas, Arkansas, Oregon -- all over, really -- mostly by bus. He sleeps where he can and doesn't pay rent, or a car note. He's been in Chattanooga for a few weeks, staying at a shelter. He keeps his bushy white beard carefully groomed and wears a floppy hat.

"I was born 200 years too late," he said. "I should have been with Lewis and Clark, exploring America when it was still young."

He was married for 25 years, before she left. He has three kids, two boys and a girl, but hasn't seen them for 30 years. And he doesn't want to.

"I'm not a father," he said. "I just never was."

Poll
Have you achieved your American dream?

But he's already lived his American Dream, he said.

"That 32 years in the Army was my dream," he said. "That was the high point of my life. That was the ultimate."

He would enjoy getting back into flying, just for fun. But he said he'll never settle down.

"I'm never going to stop moving around," he said. "There's a lot of things to see. There's a lot to do, you know?"

"I'm happy," he adds. "I'm free, for one thing."


Akita Johnson, Bus 9

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    Akita Johnson waits for the bus at a stop on Market Street in downtown Chattanooga.
    Photo by Doug Strickland.
    enlarge photo

Akita Johnson is a short 22-year-old woman with an obvious punch of spunk. She lived on Chicago's Westside until she was several months pregnant.

Then she packed up and traded Chicago's cold winds for Chattanooga's sticky afternoons.

"I wanted to move for a better life," she said, standing next to the bus stop's scrolling digital screen. "They do a lot of killing up there and I was about to have a baby. I didn't want my baby to live around that. I wanted a better life for my baby."

She's been in Chattanooga with her aunt for three months now, and her son is just that old. She's in school at the Health Careers Training Center to become a certified nursing assistant and hopes to follow that by becoming a registered nurse.

Bus 9 will take her to her aunt's house to pick up the baby. Then she'll go home, feed him, cook dinner and spend Friday night studying.

Her American Dream centers on safety and carving out a better life for her son. She thinks she's already done better than her mom, who had two kids by the time she was 16. And she hopes her son will do even better.

As the CARTA bus rumbles up, she adds that she's glad she made the 600-mile move from the Windy City to the Scenic City.

"It's too hot, compared to Chicago," she said, laughing. "But it's more quiet and less killing."


Maliek Ray, Bus 21

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    Maliek Ray, 16, waits for the bus at a stop on Market Street in downtown Chattanooga.
    Photo by Doug Strickland.
    enlarge photo

Maliek Ray is a lanky 16-year-old, a junior at the Howard School who moved to Chattanooga four years ago from Brooklyn, N.Y.

"It slowed me down," he said about the move. "We move fast up there."

He's waiting for Bus 21 so he can head home after a shift at his summer job at the Bethlehem Thrift Store.

He hasn't thought much about the American Dream, really, but he guesses it centers on family.

"To have a structured, organized family, that's what I call the American Dream," he said. "To have a support system and a structure."

Raised by his mom, he hopes to join the National Guard after graduating from Howard and wants to go to college to study engineering.

He thinks he'll live better than his parents.

In the meantime, he's keeping his head down.

"I just go to school and do what I do," he said, then dashed off as Bus 21 rolled in.

about Shelly Bradbury...

Shelly Bradbury covers police and crime in Chattanooga and Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She's been with the paper since 2012, working first as an intern and then as a business reporter. She is from Houghton, New York, and graduated from Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minor in management. Before moving to Tennessee, Shelly previously interned with The Goshen News, The Sandusky Register and The Mint ...

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