Soul Food

What the reborn S&W says about Knoxville

The S and W's salvation, as Jack Neely observed in last week's story on the announcement that a restaurant will soon be returning to the space, is "a fairy-tale ending." But it's more than just the Cinderella story of a single building. And, once the S&W Grande Café opens, the city will have regained more than just a restaurant.

First coming to Knoxville a few years after the cafeteria's closing, I never ate there. In fact, I've only set foot in the building once. It was about a decade ago. The ill-fated justice center project was dead, no significant chunks of Gay Street had been converted into condos, and the convention center had yet to break ground. I stepped into the S&W's crumbling interior as part of a task force formed to address the idea of an alternate building code, ostensibly to make buildings like the S&W easier to save.

Preservation, back then, was pretty much an unproven strategy in Knoxville.

The building officials and fire marshals attached to the code task force were certainly skeptical of the exercise. And, walking around inside the S&W, it was easy to see why. The place was little more than a ruin, a worksite for archaeologists, not real estate developers. Indeed, with fallen plaster crumbling underfoot and what little ornamentation that remained dimly visible in the dusty glare of a few portable work lights, I felt a sudden flashback to the Well of Souls scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. All that was missing were the snakes.

At the time, tramping through the building, I had the sinking feeling that the entire exercise was a farce. The tour inside the S&W was a seemingly hopeless case, arranged to dissuade even the most diehard preservation from persevering. The code officials wouldn't even let us in one building in the block. Too dangerous, they said. It's since been demolished. Frankly, after the tour, I secretly assumed the S&W would suffer a similar fate. Saving it would be nothing short of a miracle.

Miraculous things have, of course, happened since then. Gay Street has gained hundreds, if not thousands, of new residents. There are new restaurants and shops on Market Square. And all, with very few exceptions, are in old buildings—buildings that conventional Knoxville wisdom had long written off as too far gone to save.

Perhaps even more miraculous is the way Knoxvillians have embraced downtown's transformation. As restaurateur Stephanie Balest said in Jack's piece, "The way people talk about the S&W, their faces light up." A decade ago, suggesting the S&W be saved might have met a different reaction: a shoulder-shrugging "Yeah, it'd be nice, but..." Or even a rolling of the eyes: "Who would want to go downtown, anyway?"

In that light, I had to chuckle at the online arguments that the News Sentinel piece about the S&W touched off. It was a shame, according to several comments, that "it will be another over-priced place to eat that most working people with families cannot afford." That the objection ignores the fact that, as the Sentinel piece stated, the Balests plan a "more reasonably priced selection of dishes than the upscale fare they specialize in now," isn't all that surprising. We are talking about online comments to a newspaper story, after all. More interesting is the assumption the argument is based upon, namely that families with children would want to go downtown in the first place.

Speaking at the press conference announcing the new restaurant, Knox Heritage's Executive Director Kim Trent said, "It's important as a turning point for preservation in general." She's right. But I think she also sold the project short, turning-point wise. Because, while the metaphor may cast preservation as simply the shoehorn, the Cinderella in this fairy tale isn't the S&W, or even downtown: It's Knoxville. m