Averageville: Is Knoxville the Typical American City?

"I've thought about this for years, and always Knoxville, Tennessee, comes to mind," wrote Tyler Cowen, the New York Times columnist and noted professor of "cultural economics" at Northern Virginia's George Mason University, whose extravagantly wide-ranging blog Marginal Revolution is a must-read for some demographic geeks. He was responding to the hypothetical question "What is the most perfectly average place in the United States and why?"

Cowen's originally from New Jersey, of which he was once chess champion. "Knoxville is big enough to be something," he elaborated, "but not a truly large metropolis, being only the third largest city in Tennessee. It is educated enough to avoid some of the more stereotypical features of the South, and indeed it was recently named the #2 ‘reading city' in America. It has elements of the South and of Appalachia, two major regions of the country."

I've been talking around that conclusion for a long time, without ever daring to suggest that particular superlative. For years, I've heard rumors that Knoxville's a go-to test market, a dependable crucible to show whether something will fly nationally.

It goes back at least to 1954, when RCA became convinced the unknown Elvis Presley had national potential based on the fact that a 78 called "That's All Right, Mama" was selling extraordinarily well on Knoxville's Market Square.

Cowen's observations partly reflect one of my favorite recent short descriptions of Knoxville. In Garden & Gun last year, my old friend Allison Glock called Knoxville "a classic, authentic American city... Big enough for an Ethiopian restaurant. Small enough that you recognize the vagrants."

Knoxville's racial diversity more or less reflects America's. The city proper is 17 percent black; America's 13 percent. (Of course, in the suburban countryside, that diminishes almost to a vanishing point.)

We have lots of affluent suburbanites, lots of both urban and rural poor. We're demographically a little odd in that we have a higher-than-average percentage of citizens with graduate degrees, and also a higher percentage of high-school dropouts. In terms of education, the average American city may be a little lacking, proportionally, in average Americans.

But when you're averaging extremes in demographics, it all balances out, and looks like America on paper.

Culturally, Knoxville is both Northern and Southern, as evidenced by much more than its stew of puzzlement over the Civil War. We've got hot, humid summers, and magnolias and honeysuckle and kudzu. But antebellum mansions are rare in what was once one of the South's most industrial cities. Some claim grits never appeared in Knoxville restaurants until curious Northern tourists started demanding it. Our most popular pro-sports organization is an ice-hockey team whose roots go back more than half a century. And one of us owns the Cleveland Browns.

Knoxville's also Eastern and Western. We're in the Eastern time zone, but our river flows toward the Mississippi, and a guy who once lived here became the namesake of the biggest city in Texas. For more than a century, our rich summered in New York and sent their brats to Ivy League schools, at the same time multiple gunfights on Gay Street, and the occasional train-robber jailbreak, preserved our Wild West cred.

We're both Democratic and Republican; in presidential races, the city proper almost always favors the Democrat, even as the county and metro area go Republican. No matter what state you're from, you can find a Knoxville precinct that votes just like it.

It rubs some people the wrong way, of course. Those who think average is the equivalent of "bland," as do some who have responded to that assertion on social media, may not understand the concept.

This is America. To be "average," you need a little bit of everything, good and bad. Knoxville has garden clubs and street gangs. We have authors and illiterates. We have McMansions and crack houses—sometimes at the same address. We have a visible obesity epidemic, and also a vigorous mountain-biking subculture, plus one of the nation's most punitive marathons. We have astonishingly ugly streaks of strip development, and also thriving historic districts where residents can name their Victorian-era architect. We have suburban mega-churches, and a few downtown blocks that are more fun at midnight than most blocks in Manhattan.

I like living in an average city. It generates endless streams of things to write about.

Over the years, some have likened Knoxville to The Simpsons' hometown, because like Springfield, we have our token everything. We have our Comic Book Guys and our Crazy Cat Ladies, and several dozen dives that could be models for Moe's. ("Eleven percent of Knox County adults are ‘binge drinkers,'" Professor Cowen adds, without suggesting any context.) We have our unscrupulous businessmen and our absent-minded professors. We have our Met sopranos, and our world-class jazzmen. We've got mobile-home tycoons and Mars Rover scientists.

We've got our Civil War battle, perfect for an average city: not so bloody as to seem garish, but much bigger than, say, the Battle of Akron.

Professor Cowen chose to avoid coastal cities as inherently un-average, but for what it's worth, Knoxville has more marinas than most landlocked cities.

Our economy has a balance of agriculture, industry, commerce, public institutions, and services. If not perfectly equivalent, they balance to a degree that makes Knoxville more "average" than many cities that depend more on one thing or another. We make brake pads and canned beans and cable-TV shows.

Of course, being average comes with some liabilities. In the 1947 movie Magic Town, Jimmy Stewart plays a pollster who discovers the town of Grandview, which he has determined is the perfectly average American community. For that reason it becomes his opinion-research company's secret weapon. But in observing Grandview, he changes it, and it doesn't stay average long. Swamped with marketing researchers, its citizens take on an air of self-importance. Grandview gets big-headed about its averageness, and hence loses it.

It's a logical conundrum. Once anything is determined to be Most Average, it's no longer average at all.