commentary (2006-25)

Carving out a space for urban bohemia

Montmarte, Meet Happy Holler

by Matt Edens

"The missions are…doing important work in helping people turn their lives around and become productive citizens,” said the city’s press release regarding the formation of a special task force to tackle the thorny issues surrounding Fifth and Broadway’s growing “Mission District.”  And, contrary to the opinions expressed in a couple of letters to the editor in response to my last column on the issue, I’m not about to argue with the city’s point. Of course the missions do important work.

The problem for the city is the distinct lack of other work being done in or to the real estate around them. Along the Central and Broadway corridors, between the missions and the North Knoxville neighborhoods with which they are often at odds, commercial enterprises generally conform to one of three categories: a dwindling number of holdout businesses that have been in the neighborhood for generations, a few non-profit ministries swimming in the main shelters’ wake, and an odd assortment of businesses at the bottom of the commercial food chain, drawn primarily to area’s cheap space: dealers in salvage, used furniture and, most recently, adult videos and novelties.

There is, however, another type of business that has begun to surface around Central and Broadway—the bohemian kind. Clustered within a few blocks of the Central and Broadway intersection are the Time Warp Tea Room, the Taoist Tai Chi Center and the Gypsy Hands Healing Arts Center as well as the Corner Lounge, a renewed mainstay of the local music scene. The most recent addition to the area’s growing roster of “bo-biz” locations is Ironwood Studios, the art space that John McGilvray and Preston Farabow are busily carving out of the jumble of old industrial buildings behind Old Gray Cemetery.

“The process of spontaneous gentrification begins surreptitiously,” according to New Urbanist architect Andres Duany, “when a first wave of the poor but savvy discover the urban quality of a hitherto decrepit area.” And so it goes with Broadway and Central—exacerbated, perhaps, by the fact that downtown is decidedly less decrepit these days. Not only are the more avant-garde sort of entrepreneurs priced out of its market, but there’s also something a bit precious about performing punk rock in a neighborhood of half-million dollar condos.

As downtown becomes more mainstream, the punks, artists and gypsies have begun to seek an edgier environment, a trend that can be traced back to the days when artistic Paris migrated from Montmarte to Montparnasse, once the former had been “discovered” by society (no doubt sending the cost of garret studios skyrocketing). Farabow’s new venture certainly fits the model.

Previously, his ironworking business had been located in the basement of the Southeastern Glass building at the corner of Broadway and Jackson. But the artist had to seek a new abode when developers bought the building and began planning its conversion into upscale condos.

And, in an interesting wrinkle to the story, once the city learned about Farabow’s plans, officials modified the boundaries of a new façade-improvement program for the area around Central and Broadway to include his property. The result, for Farabow, was an extra $50,000 for improvements to the old warehouse.

Nothing about the façade-improvement program is specifically arts-related. But, in light of the arrangement with developer David Dewhirst and the Arts and Cultural Alliance that led to the renovation of the Emporium Building, there seems to be a growing awareness on the part of city officials of the path-finding role that artists play in reclaiming derelict real estate. And there may be no piece of downtown in more dire need of reclaiming than the area around the missions. The façade program is a promising start, but it shouldn’t be the sole component of the strategy. Other cities have taken a variety of approaches to arts-related real estate development. Some, such as Paducah, Ky., have worked with local banks to provide artists with loans to purchase and renovate live/work space. Others have enlisted the aid of Artspace, a nationwide non-profit developer of affordable housing aimed at artists.

Whatever the strategy, the city should give serious thought to encouraging the growth of Knoxville’s evolving “bohemian business district,” both to bridge the gap between an increasingly upscale downtown and the gentrified neighborhoods to the north and buffer each from the shelters within their midst.