86 40 or Fight

A contrarian's lament about what could have been

I'm trying to think of it as a good thing: to live in a town where there's so little news that the temporary closing of a mile or so of interstate highway is front-page, top-of-the-hour news for weeks on end. It'll get some through-truckers reaching for their BC Powders, maybe, but I've been surprised at all the consternation, the predictions of business consequences downtown because for a year we'll have only two downtown exits off I-40 instead of 12 or whatever is considered normal and fitting. Sundown in the City last Thursday was well attended, as was First Friday.

I asked when I first heard about the SmartFix project, several years ago, and I still ask: If we can do without the downtown segment of I-40 for a year, why can't we do without the thing forever? Replace it with something more civilized, like a boulevard?

But everybody knows that Knoxville is TDOT's ho. We've accepted that our noblest destiny as a city is to keep the path clear between Nashville and Raleigh-Durham.

Me, I'm not going to miss it. I get around Knoxville a lot, but I don't ever take the interstate in town. Is that supposed to be weird? I haven't, as a rule, since '97, when a big truck with a double trailer tried to merge into my Chevy Nova. It totaled the car which, by the time it finished spinning, was badly damaged on all four sides. I got a whiplash in the bargain, and an attitude.

The driver of the truck, to his credit, was concerned about my health. He was friendly, and apologized. My car, he explained, was simply too small for him to see in his mirror. Little ol' cars, he said, shouldn't be out there with those big trucks. He had loads to carry, places to go. He never did like having to slow down in Knoxville, on his way from Nashville to Charlotte. He got in trouble when he was late, and people in the little ol' cars just didn't understand that. Heck, just demolishing my car was going to make him late an hour late for Charlotte.

I realized, standing in the middle of it with a grotesquely wrecked car in front of a gathering traffic jam, that I-40's not meant for regular folks.

It's a shame that we don't remember how well named interstates are. They're good for driving between states. In the midst of actual cities, they're less than ideal. They don't allow crossing, they divide neighborhoods, they don't allow bicycles or pedestrians. They're made only for automobiles, preferably with drivers who already know where they're going, and the highways' combination of speed and visibility seems to offer a decided advantage to the larger automobiles—i.e., trucks.

When I drive, I take car-sized routes. Sutherland, Middlebrook, Magnolia, Central, Western, the sundry Pikes. Time them. They're sometimes faster than the interstate.

I-40 was expected to be a boon to downtown, when it came through in the ‘50s. Some downtown merchants actually solicited it.

The three or four decades just after we invited the interstate in were not necessarily downtown Knoxville's Golden Age. Worse, the highway cut off a sizable chunk of downtown—the north part, Emory Place, Fifth Avenue, the northern end of Gay Street—which had once been considered an integral part of downtown, easily approached by foot from Market Square or even the courthouse.

Downtown as it was laid out 100 years ago, roughly from the river to the intersection of Broadway and Central, seemed a sufficient-sized downtown for a city of about 35,000, in a county of about 90,000. Today, a downtown about two-thirds the size is still the only downtown to serve a city of 175,000, in a county of more than 400,000. It's artificially small, on the north and east, because of invasive highway construction. In the last couple of years, SmartFix has trimmed downtown a little more.

Today, things are stirring up in that old northern corner, a little, as the city's trying to boost business along with facade grants and other incentives. I hope it'll work. But it won't work as well as it would have without that highway there. Not only does nobody want to live near an interstate, or have an outdoor cafe near an interstate, purely because of the noise, but the underbelly of a highway is always an ugly place, and it's a natural place for crime; there aren't many people around to see what happens.

Even people who arrive downtown by highways tend to avoid them after they get out of their car. Those who love downtown highways can show their love by hanging around them during the day. Take a picnic. Patronize businesses near the highway, and if you need a place to live, try an apartment beside the interstate; it may be a bargain.

A few years ago, I wrote a story about Chattanooga's astonishing and world-famous downtown revival. I met with the people who planned it, and they agreed that one of Chattanooga's big advantages over Knoxville was that it didn't have a damn interstate highway running right through downtown. One of them snickered a little, but the others looked at me with kind concern.

There was an earnest and seemingly well-connected effort, a few years ago, to dissuade TDOT from widening the highway downtown, to try to send it through some less densely developed part of town. It was maybe a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reconsider whether we really wanted an interstate downtown. The proposal was that people who wanted to drive straight through town, like truckers, could take I-640. The old urban part of I-40 would be cut down to the ground, and become something more like a boulevard, just a little slower, crossable by pedestrians, with a couple of traffic lights. Some other cities had done similar things. Knoxville could rejoin itself, and add dozens of acres of commercially valuable land in the deal.

Apparently no one in power took the effort seriously. We won't be getting the boulevard. What we'll get is an even wider interstate, and a bigger challenge—I'm using that word euphemistically—for people who care about the city of Knoxville.