Sex, and What City?

A Friday night happening—at a new movie—provides more evidence of a genuinely happening downtown

The film adaptation of the hit HBO series Sex and the City scored a stunning $26.1 million dollar opening night last Friday (that is—in terms the movie's characters could relate to—enough to buy more than 30,000 overpriced pairs of Manolo Blahnik pumps, slides, and sling-backs). I don't know the exact numbers, but downtown Knoxville apparently did its part. Most, if not all, of the evening shows at the Riviera were sold out, record numbers of cosmopolitans were consumed at the Downtown Grill and Brewery, and Gay Street was thronged with groups of women in flirty sundresses and slutty heels (even if, being Knoxville, there were more knock-offs than actual Manolos). It was a "happening," according to one observer, while another said she'd "never seen anything like it."

Made me wish I was single—and downtown. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, as curious a cultural phenomenon as the Sex in the City opening was, the truly astonishing thing was where Knoxville's wannabe Carrie Bradshaws flocked to both see the film and indulge in a little Manhattan make-believe of their own. I mean, Sex in Turkey Creek doesn't quite cut it, does it? You might be able to see the movie, but how would you round out the evening? Dinner at The Olive Garden? Drinks at O' Charley's? A little late-night shopping at the Wal-Mart Super Center?

Sounds silly, doesn't it? Yet the idea of Friday night's "happening" happening downtown would have sounded even less plausible not so long ago. When Sex and the City premiered in 1998, Market Square's storefronts were mostly empty. A first-run film hadn't been screened on Gay Street in decades. The Sterchi, Emporium, and what are now half a dozen other upscale addresses were just big, empty buildings. Even the over-ambitious, abortive, and downright whacky Worsham–Watkins plan for reviving downtown was a year or more down the road. Crowds returning downtown to eat, drink, and shop was crazy talk, much less the idea that, in 10 years' time, hundreds of women would flock there to drink cosmos and catch a movie premiere.

Almost seems like a different city, doesn't it? Makes me appreciate how far Knoxville has come. Mind you, it's not perfect. Most days, the Convention Center's a big, empty box. Both the Market Square renovation and the movie theater could have been better executed (although, in each case, things could also have been worse: Worsham-Watkins' idea of enclosing Market Square in a glass dome, for instance). And there have been some unfortunate losses and missed opportunities: the Sprankle Building and McClung Warehouses immediately spring to mind.

Overall, though, the pluses outweigh the minuses. The proof, you might say, is in all those women with small, trendy clutches trooping down Gay Street on Friday night. Downtown's denizens used to be a fairly small club. Not anymore—to the occasional annoyance of the old-school crowd (Nama opening a second location in Bearden was a welcome relief to downtown dwellers tired of waiting for a table). Knoxville has rediscovered what it feels like to have a night on the town. Sure, It's not Manhattan by any means. And few of us are as hardcore as Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte (they are, after all, fictional characters). But downtown is a lot less dormant than it once was (could you imagine Elvis Costello kicking around downtown 10 years ago? What would he do? Where would he go?). And the city as a whole feels a lot less provincial for it.

Now, if only downtown had a decent shoe store. m