The I-40 Corridor's Unnatural Divide

I'm pulling weeds on the east side of Parkridge when I see a kid approaching shyly.

"Hey, do you have an Allen wrench to fix my bike handlebars?" he asks, his voice barely above a whisper.

"No," I say, "But I know someone who does. The Bike Collective!"

"Where's that at?"

"It's near Hall of Fame," I begin.

"Hall of Fame? Never mind."

"No, you don't have to cross it. It's on your side of Hall of Fame..."

But at the mention of this four-lane flanked by steep man-made cliffs, he had stopped listening. When you are a kid on a bicycle, a road like that may as well be a wall, and the area bordering it a hostile dead zone.

The SmartFIX40 project, which included the widening of Interstate 40 and the creation of Hall of Fame Drive, sharpened the isolation of East Knoxville from the other historic neighborhoods of Fourth and Gill, Old North, and downtown—a divide begun in the 1960s with the construction of the interstate. But SmartFIX40 hurt neighborhoods on both sides of the divide. For some residents of Fourth and Gill, the widening of I-40 resulted in an actual 15-foot concrete wall running through their yards. This wall, meant to alleviate the traffic-noise problems, served to create some pretty surreal situations, such as the scene on the 800 block of North Third Avenue.

Today, North Third Avenue is little more than an alley. Most of the houses were bulldozed in the 1960s when I-40 was first built. The empty lots form a wilderness of Japanese honeysuckle, privet, and mature trees. In that dimly lit forest, the roar of interstate traffic is a constant presence from behind the high concrete wall. Two houses remain, but one is an empty, burned-out shell. The other, a two-story white Victorian, was, until a few weeks ago, home to Eva Hodge.

Hodge, 88, inherited the house from her mother and lived there for many years. In a 2007 News Sentinel story, Hodge expressed reservations about the planned wall. The traffic noise and fumes were terrible, but she worried the wall would block her sunlight. A photo illustrating the story shows her standing on her front porch, a semi truck roaring by on the interstate just beyond.

Today, the wall looms just a few feet to the east of her wide front porch. It did, as she had feared, cast her house almost completely in shadow, blocking the morning light and any kind of view from her porch or front windows. The effect is claustrophobic.

According to a friend, Hodge recently moved into a skilled-care facility. I didn't get a chance to talk to her. But two friends of Hodge's told me they "loved" the wall. One appreciated the wall because it kept Hodge safe from the possibility of out-of-control cars crashing through her house.

They other said it ruefully, "I love that wall," the way you might say you "love" some eccentric, screwed-up thing about your city.

In fact, the design of the wall lessened the need for a larger buffer and prevented the destruction of more historic homes in Fourth and Gill. Maybe one of the houses saved was mine. For the past three years I have lived just a few yards away from the wall. From my top-story kitchen window I can see well over the top of it. I spend a couple of hours every day standing at the sink, washing dishes, and staring at the unbroken string of cars moving down the interstate. Sometimes I see cops pulling people over. Sometimes I see car crashes. As much as I hate that interstate, I am grateful I don't have to face a concrete wall. Any view is better than no view at all.

The wall was built to fix the problems of the interstate, the interstate was built to accommodate motorists. But what's best for motorists is usually not what's best for neighborhoods. The SmartFIX40 project exacerbated an unnatural divide in the neighborhood, full of weird empty spaces and dead ends, wilderness where whole blocks of houses once stood, concrete walls slammed down in places a wall was never meant to go, and a corridor of shadows.