The Arts and Gardens District: Parkridge Still Has Plenty of Room for Dreamers

I've been interested for a while about pinning down exactly what gentrification means, and my last column—a definition and general overview of gentrification—was the result. To review, gentrification is when higher-income people move into an urban neighborhood displacing so many lower-income people that the character of the neighborhood is changed, and neighborhood institutions are lost.

Gentrification, which describes only the movement of people, is often confused with revitalization. Revitalization refers only to the physical improvement of the streets, sidewalks, and buildings, especially the rehabbing of vacant or derelict buildings. The definition of revitalization makes no attempt to address the people in a neighborhood.

It's no surprise that when a neighborhood becomes desirable to people of means, prices go up, negatively impacting poor people, the most vulnerable population.

Still, theoretically, a neighborhood could be revitalized without large-scale displacement of people.

My neighborhood of Parkridge has characteristics of a neighborhood that is ripe for gentrification. Begun as an upscale suburb of Knoxville in the late 1800s, the neighborhood still has a lot of distinctive turn-of-the-century architecture. Since the mid-1900s the neighborhood has been primarily working-class, and many buildings have fallen into disrepair. Today it is attracting attention for its proximity to a revitalized Downtown, Old City, and other desirable neighborhoods like Fourth and Gill and Historic North Knox.

I think—I hope—Parkridge will not gentrify. Already an active, diverse neighborhood with a somewhat eccentric character, I think Parkridge is going to fulfill its promise as a kind of low-tech, DIY "arts and gardens" district—a warm, interesting place for many different kinds of people to live.

Parkridge is unique for its high concentration of George Barber-designed homes. Barber, a Victorian-era self-taught architect, sold plans for buildings in a variety of styles, with flourishes such as turrets, balconies, bay windows, and decorative woodwork.

A George Barber-designed Victorian on Washington Avenue, one of the larger homes in the neighborhood, is 2,800 square feet, and for sale for $220,000. In contrast, one tidy Depression-era house on Woodbine, recently for rent, is just under 600 square feet. Small or large, the older houses are often well-built of good-quality materials. As long as the neighborhood keeps its big and small houses, Parkridge will remain a mix of higher- and lower-income families.

The fairytale quality of the Barbers, the most famous houses in the neighborhood, lends a sense of imaginative whimsy to the neighborhood, word from the top that fantasy is encouraged, experiments are tolerated. The trend of hand-lettered wooden signs in the neighborhood putting a name to a tiny house ("Villa Villa Kula"), a big yard ("Little Farm in the Ghetto"), and a planting verge ("No Dog-Crap Zone") prove that residents are rising to the challenge of making special even their smallest scraps of land.

More formally, a mural is in the works for the dark concrete tunnel of the 6th Street underpass, the western entrance to the neighborhood. In the Parkridge Community Garden, members are building concrete raised beds to replace the old rotten wooden ones. The SHAREhouse, David and Travetta Johnson's art gallery and music venue in a converted carriage house, often showcases the work of neighborhood artists.

The flip side of this eccentric character manifests in the crazy-town underbelly of the neighborhood with its drug markets, prostitution, and fighting in the street. There exists real suffering in the neighborhood that is in no way giddy or fun. But who among us has not smoked weed with friends around a bonfire, or engaged in a front-yard screaming match with a family member? The neighborhood is tolerant and forgives you in the morning.

Parkridge is a work in progress. There is exciting room for improvement. Many derelict historic buildings sit vacant, ripe to be revitalized. Many abandoned lots are available for who-knows-what. When I look around, I see gardens, wildlife-supporting urban wilderness (overgrown lots), public arts and crafts, and impromptu parties everywhere.

Parkridge might be a rare neighborhood that actually could reap the benefits of revitalization—good-quality houses, good infrastructure like pedestrian-friendly streets, an "artsy" reputation—and still remain laid-back and affordable for low-income people.

Maybe I'm feeling optimistic because everything is in bloom and the colorful crocheted tree cozies along Washington Avenue (leftover decorations from the Knoxville Marathon and Parkridge's "Wacky Waterstop") are so cheerful and homey. Maybe this arts district thing is just a stop-over on the way to gentrification. Or maybe in 30 years the whole neighborhood will be razed. But at this point in time, Parkridge is a neighborhood with plenty of room for poets and dreamers, stumblers and wanderers, children, coyotes, skateboarders, songbirds, teenage lawn-care specialists, single mothers, and, as always, architecture aficionados.