The Tie That Binds

The outstanding recent cover story about the many images of Knoxville has prompted me to reflect on my own perceptions of the place I've called home for more than a quarter century.

I came as a corporate wife, dragging my heels, nurturing a secret hope that this would be a short stop on the way to another big city like the ones I'd left behind. Knoxville was still basking in the glow of the late World's Fair when I arrived, but downtown was seamy and depressing, Gay Street overhung with shabby metal awnings and the dingy side streets lined with vacant storefronts. Market Square had little to recommend it but Watson's, and you had to skirt around sidewalk preachers threatening damnation to get there.

The suburb where we settled was leafy and somnolent, the summer air heavy with the scents of magnolia, hot asphalt, and air conditioning. My children spent their days at the neighborhood pool, busily decoding the local accent and ignoring their summer reading lists while I unpacked boxes and brooded about culture shock. The neighbors were chatty and welcoming, arriving with wicker hampers full of ham and fried chicken and smoky-flavored green beans. They told me to come by and see them anytime. I didn't, of course. I returned the empty hampers and thanked them politely and closed my front door with a firm thud. I was a stranger in a strange land, and no one was going to talk me out of it.

On weekends, we went to the mountains. For all of Knoxville's faults—its shabby urban landscape, the unrelieved ugliness of Kingston Pike—there was this counterpoint, this proximate, accessible paradise. I couldn't get my mind around it. How could these two disparate worlds nestle beside each other? How could the vision that protected Cade's Cove and Abram's Falls have faltered so drastically in the sprawling chain of strip malls and fast food restaurants that blighted the city below?

It has taken me most of my years here to understand that contradiction is an integral part of Knoxville's character. Abundant natural beauty and fierce pragmatism duke it out on a regular basis, along with separatism and globalization, the wisdom of the ages and new ideas, incomers and natives. Alternately exasperating and exhilarating, it is rarely dull.

Change here proceeds at a glacial pace, but change does come. Twenty years of talk about downtown revitalization finally yielded to action. The metal awnings are long gone, and the city streets bustle with life even after dark. Loft dwellers walk to restaurants and theaters. The music in the air might be roots or rock or Rossini. There is, at last, an actual there there.

Kingston Pike still breaks my heart, but there are pockets of promise, small stretches of road that hint at green space and trees. Some days, it even seems possible that well-thought-out commerce and creative design could complement each other.

I came here intending to leave and stayed long past my estimated date of departure. When people ask why, I say it's because it turned out to be a good place to raise our family, or because my job is here, or because it's easy.

But sometimes, standing on Gay Street and looking north to the low hills that border the edge of the city there, I think it is for another reason. The place has grown on me like a sturdy, persistent vine that blooms extravagantly each spring and deepens in color through summer and the lingering fall. In its gentle grasp, I understand the people who leave this place and stay away and then come back again. Maddening, slow, contrary, and beautiful, it draws them to its heart.