An Urban Meadow: Wildflowers and Graffiti Under the Interstate

The meadow of the old Standard Knitting Mill, created in the 1990s when the oldest and most beautiful part of the mill was torn down—to make way for a school, never built—stands at a crossroads. It's an open place at the bend of a road. It's on the wrong side of the tracks. Along one edge are the banks of a creek, and a bridge over water. On the far edge there's the underbelly of an interstate, a bridge over land.

The meadow is filled with the husks of old dreams, old disappointments—that school, for example. Once, a neighborhood thrived here, visible on postcards. Now down-and-out people pass through, or hang around for a while. Those in power have failed this place, and like many damaged places, the powerless tend to wash up here, traveling through the cracks. People and other small animals go about their lives here in the weeds.

A man pushes a shopping cart down Washington Avenue, pausing to work it carefully over the train tracks. In the basket, a woman sits cross-legged, holding a brown dog. The couple is here in the worst heat of the day, the man shirtless and sweating. I saw them here last night too, around midnight.

The couple trundles along Mitchell Street, passing by a tiny cottage where a woman hangs up her laundry to dry in the wind. The wind ruffles the honeysuckle, concealing the secret bridge across First Creek to the courtyard on the other side, where practice murals are painted by a local graffiti artist. This artist's more visible mural painted on the Sixth Street underpass was recently buffed, but behind the concrete support, concealed from the view of motorists, a sister mural remains.

Knoxville graffiti artists like to celebrate holidays under the Sixth Street underpass, just over the train tracks. "Love your mother," printed in a spray-painted heart, appeared on Mother's Day. Around Memorial Day it was a buck-toothed troll character rendered beside a plea for peace and the question, "Sky... where are you?"

In the meadow, a pile of old mattresses lie beside a barrel of trash. The artist propped up the top mattress against the others and used it as a canvas. More trolls, painted in shades of purple, the color of all three Tennessee state flowers.

A meadow is not a meadow without flowers. In spring the Standard Knitting Mill meadow is stacked with color, every color of the rainbow, including the rarest of colors found in nature, blue. Tall sky-blue chicory—an import from Europe, now naturalized in North America—flanks the train tracks late into summer. The purple passion flower, a Tennessee state wildflower, grows in the Standard Knitting Mill meadow.

The train runs along the western edge of the meadow, under Interstate 40, and disappears around a bend.

"Trains go goddamn fast," a hitchhiker told me once, explaining why he never hopped trains.

Down here under the interstate, the traffic above sounds immense, blubbery, like whales. A few yards away, on the other side of Mitchell Street, and up a steep concrete slope, someone sleeps on a mattress, a row of bottles arranged neatly on the I-beam above his head. Not liquor bottles, but shampoo and lotion, shaving cream, that kind of thing.

Someday I want to find the courage to talk to him. I want to find out why he sleeps under a bridge, why he doesn't have a house like other people. But today I don't dare.

"Please be respectful of the man sleeping," I request of the children I am in charge of today. They only hoot louder. They are not interested in being respectful, and they like the echoes their voices make under the bridge.

"Don't wake up the troll," I say, dropping my voice, low and spooky. They hush and tiptoe across the gravel pit, full of whispered questions and speculations. Why does he sleep under the bridge? Why doesn't he have a house like other people?

"He is very, very poor," a 7-year-old says, solemnly.

We are going to play on the rope swing hung under the interstate.

Once, driving by in my car, I saw three bow-legged old men pushing each other on the swing and cackling their heads off.

"Push me high," the children beg, and I do, because here there is nothing to crash into. They swing into a void of open air.