By Any Other Name

Some historic names catch a second wind

I hear Kingsport developers are working on rehabbing the old Sterchi's furniture store up there. The Knoxville-based furniture chain is long defunct, but it once operated about 60 stores, mostly in the South. In Kingsport there was apparently some disagreement about how, once they got it all done, the name should be pronounced: Sturkey or Sturchee. I grew up with Sterchis, and don't remember ever hearing the Stir-chee pronunciation until recently, especially with the development of the popular Sterchi Lofts on Gay Street. Some like to pronounce it that way, and do so with some authority, as if they know. Maybe they think it's a new variant of Tai Chi.

But it's still got the hard C, like in the Italian word chianti. Sterchi's an unusual name even in Switzerland, where most names look more or less French or German, and don't end in loose vowels. The Sterchis moved to East Tennessee in the 1840s, and apparently spoke French, but I've always assumed their name had some Italian influence. All of Switzerland is close to Italy, and the places where Sterchis seem most frequent are especially close to the Italian border. It's not surprising that the first Sterchi in Knoxville was married to a woman from Milan.

Anyway, we're lucky there's handy proof, located in most bookstores in America. James Agee's novel, A Death In the Family, includes a pronunciation guide. It's right in Chapter One. As Rufus and his father leave the Majestic Theatre on Gay Street in 1916, they see "the great bright letters of the signs: ‘Sterchi's.' ‘George's.' I can read them now, he reflected. I even know how to say ‘Sturkeys.'"

New street names for the waterfront

The mayor's southside waterfront project isn't becoming a tangible reality as fast as many would like it to, maybe, but some things are stirring. This summer, the city offered us an unusual opportunity. Usually developers and sometimes elected officials get to rename city streets. A tour of West Knoxville will give you the idea that the process of naming a Knoxville street requires mainly a random glance at Burke's Peerage—and a quick check of the index of a city map, to be sure there's not already a street named for that particular lord. That's an important step, because if you're a British lord, there's probably already a street named for you in West Knoxville.

However, for a change, the city invited us to have a say in naming some short streets near the southside shore that will be reconfigured by the new plans, as well as a new park, all of it along the river east of the Gay Street Bridge.

A committee of locals came up with some interesting names, and then posted them on the Metropolitan Planning Commission's website to allow citizens to vote for them. Full disclosure: They invited me along for one meeting, at which I threw out about a dozen suggestions, most of which didn't make the final cut. Polling closed on Friday.

One competition, to rename E Street but retain an apparent alphabetical sequence, was between "Eclipse Street" and "Empire Street." They're both historical names of riverboats, an appropriate homage on a shore that saw dozens of them.

I especially liked Eclipse. As I recall, it was the first gasoline-powered riverboat, and its name may have implied some challenge to the old coal-fueled steamboats. It's also an extremely unusual name for a street. Alas, it was eclipsed by Empire.

To rename an orphaned segment of Lincoln Street, "Foggy Bottom Street" beat "Foggy Bend Street," by a narrower margin. The downtown stretch of the riverfront isn't much of a bend, by Tennessee River standards. It's often foggy, though.

In a more generic competition for the current River Road, "Waterfront Drive" beat "River Row," by a still-narrower margin. I didn't have a dog in that fight. I would have guessed they were both already streets in West Knoxville. Here's a lesson: Given a chance to be locally distinctive, citizens sometimes still prefer the generic.

To name a new riverfront park, voters were offered a choice between "Suttree Landing Park," named for Cormac McCarthy's most Knoxvillian of novels, and "Lake Loudoun Park."

The Pulitzer laureate is a hot property in Hollywood (the much-delayed The Road is currently scheduled for October release), but some may sneer that this early novel isn't the sort of recommendation of Knoxville that the Chamber Partnership would have commissioned. Then again, it does make "this obscure prismatic city" seem complex and interesting, as few descriptions do. I think of Suttree as our Dubliners.

I grew up with the expression "Lake Loudoun," which I think peaked in usage around 1960. To a generation, I think it must have sounded swingin' to think that the river was suddenly Lake Loudoun, like Lake Tahoe, maybe. But I long ago stopped believing that body of water we see in city limits Knoxville is best characterized by the word "lake." Though the daily's apparently inviolable style is to call all the locally accessible parts of the Tennessee River "Fort Loudoun Lake," even the stretch of it that flows through downtown—which is a very long way from the 250-year-old ruins of Ft. Loudoun, or Ft. Loudoun Dam—most downtowners refer to the water that flows, pretty strongly, below the Henley and Gay Street Bridges as "the river." When you talk about Ft. Loudoun Lake, I think most people picture something further west, near Concord or Choto, where it's much wider and more lake-like.

Also, the term "Lake Loudoun" makes it sound like you're referring not to the British colonial fort, but to the individual; the Earl of Loudoun (properly pronounced Loodon, by the way) is perhaps the least deserving historical honoree in East Tennessee, an incompetent and corrupt nobleman who wasted no love on Americans.

Anyway, Suttree Landing won that round, 78-22, the most decisive preference in the poll.

They're not ordering new signage yet. The city's Public Properties and Facilities Naming Committee will consider them for final recommendation, and then the MPC have a say about it, and City Council will have to approve it all.