Bearden, Again: An Amateur Anthropologist Looks at Anthropologie

Bearden's latest attraction, the trendy fashion shop known as Anthropologie, stirs up an old dream.

Before last weekend, one of the lacks youngish women complained about when they move to Knoxville was that there wasn't one. Some Anthropologie devotees were disappointed the hip clothing store wasn't going in downtown. But the guy who worked the deal owned a long-empty building in Bearden, and it turned out to be an old roller-skating rink. That was in the years just after World War II, when it went by the name of Cappy's Coliseum and the Silverena.

Bearden was, in those days, sort of a roadside amusement park, with ice-cream shops and soda fountains and burger joints and beer joints, strung between motor courts, all trying to catch the attention of tired and hungry drivers on Kingston Pike, then part of a couple of national-highway routes. The Anthropologie building served at least a dozen other purposes over the years—furniture store, trade school, print shop—but folks like to talk about the skating rink, just because it sounds fun.

All the excitement reopens the long-nurtured idea, going back to the Homberg Place development 40 years ago, that Bearden might develop some town-center style liveliness, with significant pedestrian life, like a downtown-away-from-downtown for Knoxville's populous and prosperous west side. Back in 2001—almost exactly 12 years ago—I wrote a cover story about efforts to create a concept then known as "Bearden Village." The Metropolitan Planning Commission was pushing the idea, because Bearden seemed to have a lot of potential in that regard: a relatively high residential density, by suburban standards, and, moreover, a lot of people who walk. In a few years, Bearden might be almost as much fun as downtown.

At one point it seemed to be happening. After a great effort, the new greenway went in along Sutherland Avenue. It was called, officially, the Bearden Village Greenway.

About eight years ago, my wife and I went to a play at the Black Box. We parked the car, ate at the Cuban restaurant with a patio, saw the play, then crossed Kingston Pike at the light to go to the bookstore for an event, picking up a bottle of wine at the liquor store on the way. Four attractions, several hours, one parking space. This is cool, I thought, as if it were becoming West Knoxville's own downtown. It seemed just on the verge of being the sort of place that might prompt fun-seekers to say, "Hey, let's go to Bearden!" like they say, "Let's go to the mall," or "Let's go downtown!"

Since then, the theater, the restaurant, and the bookstore have closed, and the wine store moved down the street to an asphalt island distinctly harder to walk to.

Meanwhile, the area's demographics have changed. Central to the Bearden Village concept were those high-density apartments on Sutherland Avenue once favored by foreign and graduate students. They're now athletic fields, empty most of the time. University planners helped create that community, then, a few decades later, dismantled it. Since UT shuffled its internationals away, one of the two longtime farmers' markets over there has moved out. However, Holy Land Market is bigger and busier than ever, and next door, Knoxville's first Ethiopian restaurant, Gosh, seems to be doing all right.

And Bearden has lost some opportunities. A once-pretty 1940s tourist-court complex had sidewalk frontage, and in 2001, it seemed ripe for creative conversion to residences or shops. It was torn down to make way for one conventional Chick Fil-A, which like a lot of chain retail, is mostly asphalt.

I can't guess whether any of that carelessness is associated with the bankruptcy of Mercedes Place or the closure of Chez Liberty, a restaurant I heard good things about and aspired some day to be able to afford.

Name any part of town, and there's always bad news and good news, of course. Since 2001, Holly's Eventful Dining, the Shrimp Dock, Bearden Beer Market, Earth Fare have opened, all of them interesting specialty businesses that seem to be thriving.

The nightclub now known as the Well wasn't there in 2001, either, but it's now one of Knoxville's more popular music venues. The Bearden Nama's doing well, based on the wait for a table last time I went. Big Fatty's is showing it's not just an interesting place to eat but on rare occasions a pretty credible venue for a live musical. The Grill at Highlands Row (most prefer to call it Highlands Grill) has established itself.

Old standbys haven't suffered for the competition. Venerable Gourmet's Market and Naples and the Orangery still draw regulars. Long's Drug Store is now one of Knoxville's two or three oldest restaurants. It's so packed on Saturdays that the last couple of times I took family there, we left for lack of a place to actually sit.

All told, there may be more interesting stuff in Bearden now than there was a decade ago, depending on how you feel about books and drama vs. fashion and groceries. But does Bearden itself make any impression as a neighborhood? To consider Bearden, you have to add it all up in your head and think, "yes, I guess that's sort of in Bearden, too." There's no concentration to it. From the pike, Bearden's the same confederacy of strip malls it was 30 or 40 years ago. There's still not enough of it close together to suggest walking, or any sense of a suburban downtown, or the once-projected "village." Bearden's new-urbanist pedestrian future was a little easier to picture eight-12 years ago than it is today.

Meanwhile, Kingston Pike itself remains indifferent to any improvement. The speed limit of 45 mph probably suited Chicagoans on their way to Florida, 60-70 years ago. Today, just getting up to that speed in the short spaces between traffic lights and congestion would require a high-performance car and some motive to make a point. Some do feel obliged. It's not a road I'm fond of crossing on foot.

Maybe Anthropologie will give this old pot another stir and get people looking at Bearden again.