Nurturing Connections: The 6th Avenue Mural Project Lights up a Dark Corridor

The first column I wrote for Metro Pulse in May 2011 was inspired by the profound lack of connection between the Fourth and Gill and Parkridge neighborhoods, especially for pedestrian and bicycle traffic. There are really only two semi-direct ways into Parkridge from the west. One is to cross the wide and intimidating Hall of Fame Drive, then make some weird little jogs through the borderlands. The more feasible entrance is through the 6th Avenue underpass running beneath Interstate 40. The wide asphalt sidewalk ending abruptly after the concrete tunnel is actually part of the First Creek Greenway, although photos of this section would have never made it into a Knoxville Greenways brochure. The tunnel was suicidally depressing—always lonesome, dark, and full of trash. Sometimes homeless people slept on the ledges under the bridge. When someone sprayed graffiti on the gray walls, such as the colorful "Knoxville Haunted: unknown and beautiful" mural, it was a relief to see a sign of life.

Just as a low doorway renders an interior sacred, the underpass marks a deliberate transitional space from one neighborhood to another, and so is not necessarily bad. It neglected humans' need for light, color, and a sense of place, but the potential was evident, and I felt drawn to the concrete tunnel, the gravel lots, and weedy patches around the interstate. The question I ended that first column with obsessed me for years: "How can we nurture the neglected corridors between our neighborhoods and make every part of our community a place worth caring about?"

On July 20th, a group of volunteers put the finishing touches on a huge city-sanctioned mural project under the 6th Avenue underpass, part of a long-term effort initiated by a members of the Parkridge Community Organization. The design was chosen through a contest, and members of the public were invited to vote on their favorite design. Originally called the "Parkridge Mural Project" the name was changed to the "6th Avenue Mural Project" after artist Per-Ole Lind's design was voted in by members of the community in April. Lind's simple design nurtures connections between the neighborhoods of Fourth and Gill, Parkridge, and Old North in the most literal way possible, with huge banners spelling out the names of each neighborhood. A fourth panel reads "Knoxville of the TN."

Due to a reputation for crime, poverty, and other problems, Parkridge has a "little sister" relationship with the other historic neighborhoods, with Parkridgers maybe more eager to establish connections with Fourth and Gill and Old North than the other way around. Members of the Parkridge community secured a grant for the mural project, coordinated it, raised funds, and made up the bulk of the volunteer help, though volunteers from the other neighborhoods helped paint.

I know it made some Parkridgers proud to see the name of their neighborhood written up huge on the wall, big and beautiful, just like the other guys.

The decorative elements surrounding each banner fit the flavor of the different neighborhoods. Fourth and Gill has what looks like wrought-iron scroll work. Parkridge has stylized weeds. The star under Old North seems right, as the star historic neighborhood with the most manicured grounds and fanciest houses. Knoxville's banner is decorated with irises, the Tennessee state cultivated flower.

The mural has transformed the experience of traveling through the underpass, creating a bright corridor, but also a destination—a place where people go to pose for photos in front of the banner of their favorite neighborhood. Any mural would have been an improvement, but Lind's design turned out to be perfect in all kinds of unexpected ways.

I hope the 6th Avenue mural proves to be part of a growing effort to fill up all of Knoxville's blank walls, one mural at a time.