Downtown's Homegrown Revival

Newcomers did a lot to revitalize the center city, but locals did more

Dear Doc Knox:

My wife and I had lived in Knoxville for about 15 years before we left in the early 90's. We returned in '04 and were truly awed by the metamorphosis we saw. A downtown we first experienced as one of the most lifeless had turned into a great little city. It begs the question, have "native" attitudes changed? Or did it take an influx of non-natives to create what's becoming a great little gem?

While it's no doubt a combination of efforts, what was the true "catalyst", if there was such a thing? Who better to have a welcomed perspective than you, I said to myself, as we recently enjoyed crowded restaurants and crowded streets at 10:30 at night! What happened in the very recent "history" of Knoxville to change it so dramatically?

Best regards,

Mike C.

My Dear Mike:

It's a good question, of course. In part it was just a matter of reaching a critical mass, finally half-blundering into the right combination of factors. A lot of the Knoxville-area consumers who make it all work have been here all along but just didn't have a place to go to find gelato, or cigars, or crepes, or tapas. But the question of newcomers is interesting.

There have been important newcomers, of course, like Jeffrey Nash, who's from London. He's the developer of several upscale residential projects, as well as his pet, the Crown & Goose. Newcomers can often see potential that escapes locals, especially a certain generation of locals who remembered when downtown was a limited concept, and they couldn't, or preferred not to, think of it as anything else.

For many people now elderly, downtown was once, at best, all about offices and mainstream retail. When that model sagged, many of them found ways to adapt, often by vacating, and thereafter felt invested in the idea that downtown was just over. Newcomers were probably in the majority of the first generation of downtown residents. Some newcomers were accustomed to downtown living, and preferred it. Now, as you may know, moving back into the city is part of a national trend.

But the idea that downtown's revival suggests an influx of newcomers is a puzzle: It's not clear Knoxville has any more newcomers now than in the past. In fact, we might expect there to be fewer, because our biggest national recruiters, like TVA, ORNL, and UT aren't hiring like they once did.

A lot of what's happened has been the work of locals. Dynamic developer David Dewhirst is from small-town East Tennessee. His mentor was a native: The late Kristopher Kendrick tried to get downtown going about 25 years before it actually did, but he made some progress here and there. In fact, many—perhaps most—key downtown developers and politicians are local enough to remember downtown when it was in the dumps: Bill Haslam, Victor Ashe, Kyle Testerman, Duane Grieve, Leigh Burch, John Craig, Scott and Bernadette West. They may not have much in common, but they're all locals.

The recent historic-theater rehabs—especially ambitious in the case of the Tennessee—were spearheaded by local philanthropic visionaries like the late Wallace Baumann and Robert Webb. What they left us were sonic jewels that impress even big-city music critics. Speaking of, Ashley Capps, lifelong Knoxvillian, has become one of the South's primary music gurus, the mind behind Bonnaroo, Sundown in the City, and the booking of the Tennessee and Bijou. His impact has been enormous.

Still, newcomers are a major factor, mainly as consumers—bringing open-mindedness, and freedom from old patterns and assumptions. And dollars, which even old Knoxville geezers respect.

Yr. Obt. Svt.,

Z. Heraclitus Knox, Native

Send your historical mysteries for the consideration of Doc Knox to: editor@metropulse.com