commentary (2006-31)

Red, gold, brown and…oh, all right, orange

Fall Colors

by Matt Edens

Sizzling temperatures and sweat-soaking humidity can only mean one thing: August is upon us. But fall colors, of a sort, have already appeared on Gay Street. Mast General Stores’ new Knoxville location, gearing up for its long anticipated grand opening, is already stocking its shelves.  And, seeing how the opening more or less coincides with the start of football season, it’s hardly surprising that racks of bright orange UT apparel were among the first items on inventory—a sight that prompted a heavy round of eye rolling among hardcore downtown denizens.

Knoxville’s calendar may revolve around six Saturdays in the fall, but downtown, particularly its old-school urbanite demographic, has historically managed to keep a disrespectful distance between itself and the epicenter of Big Orange Country. Vol fans, for the most part, happily returned the favor, treating downtown as out of bounds, something to be avoided or, at most, quickly trudged through on the way back to the hotel. For the last game I attended, some three years ago, my old college roommate and I parked for free on the street in the Old City, barely two hours before the game, had a leisurely lunch at Manhattans and strolled over the stadium, seeing hardly a soul before we reached Henley.

Geographically, Neyland Stadium stands on downtown’s western fringe. But, in psychological distance, it has always struck me as much closer to Farragut than Market Square. And that cognitive dissonance was part of downtown’s appeal to many of Knoxville’s early urban pioneers. Forlorn and forsaken by the community at large, downtown was a welcome refuge for people put-off by the general conservatism and consumerism of Knoxville’s and particularly West Knoxville’s culture. And few things epitomized that culture quite like the massive annual migration of orange-clad Vol fans: too loud, too numerous and too ready to trash the place and then move on once the party is over.

Perhaps I overstate the case. But if you’ve lived in or around downtown any amount of time over the last decade or so, ask yourself: at a party or over a few pints of beer at the pub, how many times has a bitch session about West Knoxville, the Vols, or both broken out? (About the Vols as a general proposition—bitching about their record or coaching doesn’t count). By comparison, if you live out Farragut way, have you ever heard someone at a cocktail party get a few cheap laughs with a cynical crack about Fourth and Gill? (Seriously, I’d be curious to know.) 

The cultural chasm represented by all those disparaging comments about Vol-loving West Knoxville has, if you ask me, played a pivotal role in the ongoing debate about the shape of downtown’s redevelopment (and, recently, the South Waterfront as well).  Whether it is complaints about a proliferation of upscale condos at the expense of affordable housing, or the specter of chain stores converting downtown into an open-air version of West Town Mall, the question seems to be whether downtown will become just another cog in America’s upscale consumer culture (like Turkey Creek, but with tall buildings), or if it will evolve into something a little more alternative and indigenous. In other words, the defining question about downtown redevelopment seems to be just how much of West Knoxville do we want to let in?

It’s a question downtown may have to answer sooner rather than later, if the racks of orange apparel on Gay Street are any indication. This football season it’ll be interesting to see, in light of downtown’s resurgence and the Cumberland Avenue Strip’s concurrent (and not unrelated) decline, how much of the pre- and post-game crowd congregates downtown. And if they do, I suspect some people downtown will likely see it as a sign of the apocalypse. But before decrying the fact that the barbarians are at—or even inside—the gates, remember that downtown is not a gated community. Instead it should be a gathering place for all the people of Knoxville and East Tennessee, whatever their creed or color—even if it’s orange.