The New Mall


If A.C. Entertainment had any sense,â” I grumbled, wading through the crowd at a recent Sundown in the City, â“they'd make this a 21-and-up event, just to keep out the underage riff-raff. They can't even buy beer, so it's not like A.C.'s making any money off them. Send 'em back to the mall where they belong.â”

Of course, I was just feeling old and cranky. It was hot, and Market Square was packed like a can of biscuits with unfamiliar suburbanites, the bulk of whom appeared to have little to no interest in the music that was emanating from the stage. Among them were great hoards of middle- and high-schoolers, huddled together in pairs and groups, talking loudly on their cell phones and road-blocking the paths of those who were trying to make their way up front to listen.

When I was in high school, nobody my age went downtown just to â“hang out.â” Downtown was for stuffy grownups; there was nothing teenager-friendly about it, just big buildings and grim-faced people in business suits. I remember but one recreational downtown outing the whole time I was a teenager: A friend and I spent all of an hour or two flipping through the picture books at Lawson McGhee Library before we got bored and decided to head back home.

Since then, of course, things have changed. Now there are all-age rock shows at Old City Java and ice-skating rinks on Market Square. There are hip restaurants and skateboarders and stores that sell actual vintage clothing as opposed to the usual pre-faded Abercrombie & Fitch fare teenagers seem to favor. When the new cinema opens on Gay Street, they'll have yet another reason to choose downtown over suburban alternatives.

But nowhere is the phenomenon of local youths' newfound awareness of downtown more evident than at Sundown in the City. Whether you attend high school in Bearden or in Seymour, it's the place to be on Thursday evenings, and everybody knows it.

Teenagers arrive by the carload and linger on the Square and in Krutch Park into the night, mingling alongside frat boys and gray-bearded hippies, bank tellers and bikers and tattooed punks. On that night of the week especially, the Square becomes a center of the community and a showcase of the city's diversity. Miserably crowded or not, it's an invigorating sight.

But the younger demographic poses one problem: underage drinking. The problem, as a Sundown security officer explained it to me last week, isn't that the minors are purchasing alcohol from inside the event so much as they're arriving at the event already intoxicated or sneaking in with alcohol in tow. And inebriation, especially when coupled with car keys and a curfew to meet, is a serious problem indeed.

Last week, event organizer A.C. Entertainment and the Knoxville Police Department held a press conference to address the issue. At that time, A.C. announced a new initiative called â“Sober at Sundownâ” that includes outreach to middle and high schools, as well as to the University of Tennessee campus, and merchandise and free concert ticket incentives for anyone under the age of 21 who pledges not to drink.

The police department is stepping up its presence at the events as well, with more police officers (both uniformed and undercover) patrolling the crowd with an eye out for underage drinkers. And, whereas in the past the police would merely call underage drinkers' parents and have them pick their children up, under the new plan violators will be immediately arrested and taken to jail. The rule also applies to anyone caught supplying alcohol to an underage person.

We think the stricter standards are a good thing, but we also think it's important to not let the risks of having a strong youth contingency at Sundown overshadow its benefits. What Sundown is doing, if inadvertently, for the future of downtown is commendable: In essence, it's giving the next generation of downtown business owners, patrons and residents their first introduction to the area, encouraging them to become familiar with downtown's physical layout and personality. Whereas five or 10 years ago, if you'd asked a local teenager where the Tomato Head was you might receive a blank stare in response, last weekend we saw teenagers in their prom dresses and tuxedos waiting outside for a table.

And while such exposure surely plants the seed for future involvement, the energy young people bring to downtown can already be felt today. They're patronizing new restaurants and making financially risky endeavors like the ice-skating rink a success. No matter what their age, the more people we have downtown, the better.

A few days after my â“get off my lawn, ye durn kidsâ” old geezer moment at Sundown, I was running along the southbound Gay Street sidewalk one evening and passed a group of middle-school-aged boys who were standing around in front of AmSouth Bank. Seconds later, I heard footsteps a few paces behind me, and turned around to see one of them loping along behind me, with a determined, serious look in his eyes. Not quite sure how to respond, I turned around and kept running, but looked back again when I realized that now, all of the other boys had joined in, running in a line behind me, Forrest Gump style.

It was, I realized, a surreal kind of practical joke, a real-life non sequitur, and decided that it was better to play along than to resist. I pumped my fist in the air, jumped up and clicked my heels together. Behind me, the boys followed suit, clumsily clicking their heels together one after the next. When we parted ways a couple blocks later, me turning onto Cumberland Avenue and them pulling to a halt, out of breath, I yelled â“Thank you!â” and truly meant it.

Young people possess a remarkable ability to surprise, and to challenge status quo, and the qualities they bring to the table can only better our growing city. We're glad that events like Sundown have finally managed to catch their attention, and we welcome them downtown with open arms. â" Leslie Wylie


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