Because You're in East Tennessee

An annual lament for our perpetually dysfunctional signage

At Kroger a few months ago, I'd found the beans, the soup, the olive oil, most of what I needed; all I lacked was milk. It was a Kroger I'd been to before, but not one I'd ever known my way around without looking. I peered up at the signs that hang over the aisles.

Spotting the word "MILK" hanging over the far aisle, I went over and looked. Cheese, butter, but no milk. A refrigerator case full of milk is usually hard to miss, but, standing under the MILK sign, I saw no milk anywhere.

There happened to be a Kroger staffer on a stepladder, working on something on a top shelf, almost within reach of the sign.

"Excuse me," I said. "Where's the milk?"

He sighed, exactly as an exasperated junior-high assistant coach might, and with an "I've told you and told you" sort of singsong. "Over there," he said, "Just like it's been ever since we moved it back in '02."

"I don't remember that," I said. I wasn't shopping at this Kroger in those days. I couldn't help adding, "It's '08 now, and your sign still says it's here." He didn't say anything else, but shook his head. It's a shake I recognize from junior high. It means, "You kids never learn."

I did find the milk, around the corner at the opposite end of another aisle, maybe 25 yards away. More curious than anything, I mentioned the misleading sign to the checkout clerk.

"Yeah, that's where it was until we moved it in '02," he acknowledged. Everyone in the store seemed to know their history.

"But why don't they change the sign?"

He shrugged and smiled with something like pride. "It's because you're in East Tennessee," he said.

I wondered whether maybe that might have something to do with a similar phenomenon I remarked about in this space, almost exactly one year ago.

Last May, I noted that some recent events held at the Knoxville Convention Center, like UT graduation, didn't seem to carry over into downtown proper much. But a walk around the joint didn't disclose any reason why downtown would seem tempting. I wrote a column about the lack of signage or any clues in the convention-center vicinity that there was even a downtown over here.

The convention-center area, including World's Fair Park, is an Oz of cute signposts, almost like a kids' board game, continually offering fun-sounding options, like "Candy Factory" or "Festival Lawn" or "Fort Sanders," showing directions to some places that you maybe didn't even know were places. To the "Clinch Concourse," whatever that is, and the "Rotunda Room," whatever that is. Several signs say "Parking," sometimes pointing to parking in multiple directions on the same pole. (Think about this a minute. You're a pedestrian, in a pedestrians-only area. Are you likely to be looking for a place to park?)

I did finally find a couple signs, in obscure locations legible from unlikely angles—a sidewalk where hardly anyone ever walks, and the B-side of another directional sign to the Rotunda Room—that point to "Skybridge/Downtown" ("Skybridge": Would that be the second-story-level pedestrian bridge over Henley?). None of them point directly toward downtown, or offer clues about the existence of a Market Square. Improving downtown business was a primary justification for building the convention center, and Market Square was once described as the driver of the convention center, the one urban amenity that might make it attractive, even though it was four blocks away, and the one place that might be most likely to bring in retail sales taxes from convention traffic, which is what was supposed to pay for the most expensive public amenity ever built in Knoxville.

When a team of urban-design experts from all over the country came to town in 1999 to talk about the viability of an extravagant new convention center, they emphasized the importance of improving the entrance to downtown, and connecting the convention center to Market Square. To my knowledge, nothing of that nature was ever done.

After I wrote that column, right away I heard from multiple well-connected people, who said, more or less, Thanks, Jack, but we're on a committee that's already doing something about it. I gathered more than one committee was converging on the signage problem. I was almost embarrassed to have written about a problem so close to its solution.

Today, though, it's exactly the same as it was a year ago. The signs down there seem mainly designed to keep people busy on World's Fair Park, and physically fit. And from there all you can see of downtown is the University of Tennessee Conference Center, the plain side of the YMCA, and some random concrete buildings. It would take groundless faith to believe there's as much as a wig outlet over here.

If they do make it downtown, a first-time visitor will run into other perplexities, like the electric countdown walk signs that don't make any sense—some of them count down, reasonably, to a point where you really do need to think about clearing the intersection, while others count down to an indefinite waiting period, a Because-I-Said-So limbo. Which is no better than the pre-countdown days. Considering they're the slowest known walk lights in urban America, it takes just a day or two to learn to ignore them all.

Of course, Knoxville gets its revenge on World's Fair Park's closed circuit. A motorist just off of I-40 on Henley Street, trying to get to World's Fair Park following the signs, will always end up in South Knoxville. The best advice to visitors might be Ignore the Signs. Maybe that should be our municipal motto.