insights (2006-09)

Ending the Geography of Division

by Bill Dockery

In the days when gravel roads were common and the Global Positioning System wasn’t, circulation managers at small-town newspapers developed a rule of thumb to figure out whether the residents along a rural road were in their circulation area.

When a side road intersected the main road, if the gravel was sprayed on the side of the intersection away from town, that meant the traffic on that road was typically turning toward town. If the gravel was fanned into a mound on the side closer to town, that meant the residents of the side road usually turned away from the town, presumably to go to another nearby center of commerce outside the economic sphere of that newspaper.

Gravel roads are disappearing from the landscape, but the way streets are laid out can still reveal important things about how a neighborhood or community fits in with its larger urban center. Take, for example, East Knoxville.

As I noted editorially in this column almost a decade ago, a series of individual decisions about street closings and connectors, taken in sum, have effectively cut off East Knoxville from easy access to the downtown and the university area. The links between Magnolia Avenue and Interstate 40 were disconnected when the I-40/275 interchange was re-engineered during the 1982 World’s Fair. The current construction and redesign of the extended Hall of Fame Drive has eliminated both on and off ramps between Magnolia and the James White Parkway, a move that has been in the planning stages for decades.

Even the Parkway’s improvement of UT access from East and South Knoxville is flawed. Eastsiders seeking to merge from Riverside Drive to Historic Preservation Drive (and thence to UT or the downtown) are at the mercy of drivers exiting the South Knoxville Bridge at highway speed. If they survive that ordeal, they’re certain to get caught by the “Rapture” red lights on Hill Avenue, so called because the Second Coming is likely to transpire before they turn green.

(Incidentally and ironically, Historic Preservation Drive, one of former mayor Victor Ashe’s many street-namings, is totally devoid of structures of any kind, historic or otherwise.)

To be fair, the SmartFix40 project does promise to improve traffic flow not only for through traffic on I-40 but also for East Knoxvillians seeking to go downtown or to get on the freeway. The price is about three and a half years of confusion, frustration and inconvenience.

The current phase involves the extension of Hall of Fame Drive from Summit Hill almost to Broadway in North Knoxville. The completion of this phase will eliminate the deadly crossing between the Broadway entrance to I-40 West and the James White Parkway, used by North Knoxvillians to reach the center city.

Unfortunately, the western end of Magnolia Avenue will be a permanent casualty of this phase. Plans call for Hall of Fame to block Magnolia permanently a few blocks east of the Greyhound Bus Station. The remaining stub of Magnolia will be renamed “Old Magnolia,” while the main Magnolia artery will be bent sharply to tie in with East Fifth Avenue where it crosses the new Hall of Fame extension. One state transportation worker said the change was made because the city wanted to make Magnolia more accessible to the Mechanicsville area. While such infrastructure diplomacy may have its benefits, it’s difficult to see how this change helps users of Magnolia, because the Broadway/East Fifth intersection is generally congested and can’t be easily improved.

The second phase will reconfigure the Parkway interchange with the interstate, closing the JWP completely from this December until September 2007 (coincidentally, the crumbling Church Street viaduct will be replaced at the same time). East Knoxvillians seeking to get on I-40 West will have to negotiate a tangle of city streets to access the Henley Street tunnel or make their way around the city on Neyland Drive.

After some miscellaneous prep work, the final phase will shut down and rebuild I-40 from May 2008 through June 2009. Effectively, I-40 East will feed into the James White Parkway only, giving the downtown and its eastern environs an interstate spur of its own for about a year.

If SmartFix 40 does pay the promised dividends at its completion in 2009, the East Knoxville that gets reconnected to the rest of the city may offer more to interest the wider Knoxville community.

Thanks in part to a $200,000 personal gift from Ashe, the Knoxville Botanical Gardens and Arboretum is moving toward turning the 44-acre historic Howell nursery into one-of-a-kind park-like museum of rare shrubs and exotic trees. There have also been significant improvements to Chilhowee Park and Caswell Park.

Likewise, despite recent snags and setbacks, the development of Five Points Plaza will offer what is arguably the closest full-service grocery to the booming community of downtown loft-dwellers and condo owners.

With any luck, the geography of division is ending, and East Knoxville will be reintegrated with the city that cut it off during the urban renewal of the 1950s.

Bill Dockery, who was editor of Metro Pulse in 1996, coordinates research information for the University of Tennessee.