by Matt Edens
Jack Neely, as always, said it better than I ever will. â“Knoxville has kept its secrets,â” he writes in the introduction to the 1995 anthology of his long running Metro Pulse column. â“At some times,â” says Neely, â“we've been ashamed of some of these stories. Others we plumb forgot. Most often, we've been shy or confused about them, uncertain whether they're presentable to visitors. Even after more than two centuries, we've never found the confidence that comes with knowing who we are.â”
That was certainly true around '95. The city's civic leaders looked downriver at Chattanooga, coveted its aquarium and decided that what Knoxville needed was some sort of â“destination attraction.â” The technical sounding term, as best I could ever determine, was a fancy way of saying â“some sort of tourist trap to skim a few dollars off all those people driving through to Pigeon Forge.â”
However one chooses to define it, Knoxville's assorted boosters â" politicians, businessmen or both â" would spend the best part of the next decade trying to find the elusive Philosopher's Stone that would somehow, overnight, turn Knoxville's defunct downtown into gold. (They forgot that shaking down tourists is something Chattanooga had already been doing for decades, like when my seven-year-old self visited the Confederama circa 1976.)
Knoxville's leadership was always a little vague on how the miracle they sought was actually supposed to work. That led, much like medieval alchemy, to odd experiments and a lot of trial and error. Most, such as Renaissance Knoxville, Universe Knoxville, were mere Scholastic exercises, leading nowhere. Others, such as the Convention Center, Women's Basketball Hall of Fame and Gateway Visitor's Center, were actually built. They remain strange totems to the gods of tourism, as mute and mysterious as the Moai of Easter Island. And let's not forget the downtown baseball stadium that, by some unexplained metaphysical phenomenon, ended up in Sevier County.
Yet, in the midst of its mythic quest for the El Dorado of tourist dollars, Knoxville dodged one fundamental question: Why would anyone want to visit a city its own inhabitants were so disinterested in? The not so secret impetus behind the idea of filling downtown with tourists was the sad fact that the vast majority of Knoxvillians hardly, if ever, went there. And the proposed attractions, at times, were more of a distraction, aimed at focusing attention to anything but the city itself. The Gateway Center, for instance, barely mentioned Knoxville among its exhibits. Universe Knoxville, the proposed planetarium on State Street, went all the way to outer space in search of a reason why people would want to visit Knoxville. Jack could have easily added â“ashamedâ” to â“shy or confusedâ” when it came to the way some Knoxvillians felt about their city.
That's changing, thankfully. Wandering around downtown over the last week, I was pleasantly surprised at the number of people milling about despite the withering heat. The Tomato Head was packed on Wednesday night, as was the Brewery on Friday. Saturday, the square was so full of people who'd come downtown to browse the farmer's market that I actually had to hunt for a space in the Market Square Garage (I did find one, free of charge). Trio CafÃ© was also busy when I popped in for a panini sandwich.
Later, on a lark, I rode the elevator to the top of the Sunsphere. Perhaps two-dozen people cycled through in the 20 minutes I spent on the observation deck. Most, judging by the comments I overheard as people pointed out landmarks or read through the exhibits on local history and attractions, were locals rather than tourists. Their reactions reminded me of the supposed goal behind Chattanooga's aquarium, river walk, and other attractions. It wasn't so much to attract tourists as to â“re-acquaintâ” Chattanooga with the river.
Likewise, Knoxville, in its desperate desire to drag tourists downtown, has rediscovered Knoxville. It's taken a decade, but the city has finally figured out what the destination is.
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