Best Addition to Knoxville: Strangers

Okay, Knoxville's not exactly a stranger to strangers, and hasn't been ever since Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand showed up here looking for material for his novels and a refuge from the guillotines of Paris. Ever since Ambrose Burnside rode into town with 15,000 similarly dressed friends in 1863. Ever since Jean-Paul Sartre checked into the Andrew Johnson Hotel in 1945. But it's been rare, in my lifetime, to see so many of them in my hometown.

It's always been fine to go to a street fair or restaurant grand opening or jazz concert and see all your old friends. It's cozy and familiar. But after a while, you do start to worry. Are we just swapping our time and money within a closed circle? After a decade or two of seeing the same 60-odd faces at every show and party and forlorn festival, it starts to seem like a game of Monopoly that's gone on too long. Knoxville's not like that anymore. We've got lots of strangers now, and strangers are good.

Strangers prove there's something real and growing. They bring new money. When they give you a $1 tip, you don't recognize it as the bill you spilled salsa on two months ago. Sometimes they also bring new ideas and talents.

I look around at the hundreds on Market Square on any Friday evening: kids, teenagers, dogs, octogenarians. I know six or seven of them. A few others are plausibly familiar. About 90 percent are people I'm sure I've never seen in my life. It's hard to guess what brought them. Maybe they're curious suburbanites from all over our deceptively huge metropolitan area. Maybe they're friends and relatives of the few dozen who were hanging out on the Square in the '90s. Maybe they're tourists from other parts of the country, prompted by the Times' 36 Hours article a couple of years ago, or a reading of Cormac McCarthy, or that Fodor's blog.

Whatever, the almost sudden presence of lots of strangers seems like a good thing to me. It's a positive vital sign for a city, and a primary source of nutrition.