Wandering Around Knoxville's Abandoned Industrial Sites

I started out this column last May urging reuse of the Standard Knitting Mill, one of Knoxville's many abandoned industrial sites. Now, the former Fulton Bellows site is in the planning stages of redevelopment. The proposed shopping center will include a Publix and an "urban Walmart."

There is not much left of Fulton Bellows now—just piles of gravel and immense slabs of concrete towering over Third Creek. The life has been obliterated from the land. The site is a brownfield; the groundwater underneath is contaminated. Despite the nearby traffic, a hush has fallen over the area. So much violence has been done to this place it makes me numb. Who cares what happens here now? Let them build their Walmart.

The field around the Standard Knitting Mill, though full of trash, does not have that same feeling of being poisoned beyond repair. At Mitchell and Washington, waiting for the train to pass, I see a tiny goldfinch, still dressed in his winter brown, picking seeds out of a stalk of dead grass. A few rusty paint cans roll around against a chain-link fence, and a heap of car tires pokes out of the brush. It's morning, and the place is alive with birds.

The contamination of these old industrial buildings and the land around them sometimes causes redevelopment to be delayed. Committees argue about their fate. Historical treasures or eyesores? Should they be preserved or torn down? For a while, the fields are allowed to lie fallow. This transient period is bittersweet. The wild state may last years, long enough to establish colonies of rabbits, mature trees, and thick blackberry patches. But eventually it will be paved, the building turned into condos, shopping centers, or something. Their existence is temporary, dependent on the degree of difficulty in unraveling a snarl of red tape.

Over the past year, I've grown to love the brownfield surrounding the Mill with all my heart. The tangle of brambles, the meadows of wildflowers, the forgotten fruit trees (pear and fig) are secrets kept by the birds. The quiet old foot-bridge, the hidden graffiti art, and beautiful First Creek with its islands of driftwood and debris—how could those things survive redevelopment? It's dangerous to fall in love with land that is not yours, but I've been doing it my whole life.

It was the view of the McClung warehouses from the interstate that made me fall in love with Knoxville. This was before the fire. The old, empty-eyed buildings draped in vines added a sense of mystery and grace to Knoxville's skyline. In the McClung warehouses I saw a city where things are allowed to slip through the cracks, a city where I could belong.

From the interstate, the McClung warehouses do not project a "business casual" kind of city. But, even from the interstate, one can see that the McClung buildings were made of good-quality, old materials. The layers of paint and the mellowed brick could not suddenly be reproduced, but took many years to become this lovely thing. Small details, subtle ornaments—the slightly arched windows, for example, lend an enchantment not often found in newly constructed buildings. These are the qualities that I hope can be preserved when some developers with money get their hands on them. This summer I inquired about a half-acre of unused land near the Standard Knitting Mill. It seemed to be for sale, and I wished I could afford it. "Will build to suit" read a sign with a hand-lettered phone number, and that made me nervous. Build to suit whom?

These overgrown industrial sites feel comfortable to me. They are unpretentious places; they invite relaxation by their very shabbiness and ordinariness. The plants are just growing, not pruned or forced into containers. The birds are eating the seeds of the unmown grasses, making nests in the cedar and wild plum. An old chunk of concrete makes a good place to sit, eat a sandwich, and watch for rabbits. This meadow wasn't fashioned—it happened by accident—but something valuable came from this period when things slipped between the cracks. I don't have any hope developers will allow it to stay this way when they do fix the roof and make the mill inhabitable for people again.