Introducing our new column about Knoxville's untidy corners

"A Living World" is a column highlighting the lovely, untidy corners of Knoxville: the alleys, cow-paths, vacant lots and inspiring structures that make Knoxville a living place.

The title paraphrases the architect Christopher Alexander who writes that a living world allows citizens to be free to take care of their own development. A living world is full of rough comfortableness, people responding appropriately to the world around them.

The purpose of this column is to generate interest in restoring life to parts of Knoxville that are sterile, polluted, and full of despair, and to celebrate human-sized spaces—to create places worth caring about.

I came up with the concept on a walk from my apartment in Fourth and Gill to my as-yet-unlivable house in Parkridge less than a mile away. Most of this walk is scary and uncomfortable with few structures to accommodate people. I cross an overpass with a narrow walkway, stumble down a hill with broken sidewalks, and plunge into a dark underpass. I make a left at a massive electrical station, hop over railroad tracks, and emerge into an abandoned lot strewn with rubble.

This huge, empty lot with a scrim of trees rising up against the old brick and broken glass of the Standard Knitting Mill is in a state of beautiful decay. There is an awesome reverence in this place. The mill tangibly connects us with a past where people made things. When people neglected it, nature crept back in, softening the edges.

For the good of the community I will advocate to see this old Mill as a artist's co-op like the Flying Monkey Arts Center in Huntsville, Al. or an indoor local food market, or something useful that gives back to the people. But in my heart, I love it exactly how it is. It is a place to breathe easy after scurrying through the dark, blank-walled, trash-filled underpass. Sometimes people scrawl words on the walls. Words like, "Don't follow the rules!" But city workers quickly paint over them, leaving empty gray squares. The message is: This is not a place for people.

I know I am not the only one who walks this way, because in places where no sidewalk exists there is a dirt path made by the daily tramp of human feet. This route down Glenwood and up Washington Avenue is actually the most pedestrian-friendly connection between Parkridge and the neighborhoods of Fourth and Gill and Old North Knoxville.

The city has done some things to try to facilitate pedestrian use. A wide asphalt sidewalk (part of First Creek Greenway) runs along Glenwood for a few yards, but peters out before it gets to Washington. A token sidewalk on the overpass crossing Hall of Fame is better than nothing. Nevertheless, it is mostly a hostile, stressful journey for people on foot. There has been a lot of talk about improving Henley Street to make it more pedestrian-friendly. But Henley is a stately boulevard compared to the massive wall of traffic and concrete that blocks East Knoxville from the rest of the city.

People feel that they are not allowed to affect the built environment around them. But if you walk it every day, it is yours. Fourth and Gill is a lovely neighborhood. Parkridge is full of life. How can we nurture the neglected corridors between our neighborhoods and make every part of our community a place worth caring about?