The City County Container: Does it Matter That We Make Our Decisions in the Dullest Part of Town?

The City County Building could benefit from a very thorough fire drill. Better yet, a chemical-attack drill, one which required all its denizens to go at least three blocks away for a while.

In criticizing a private proposal for a county-owned downtown property, a certain influential county official recently remarked, before witnesses, that "the only businesses downtown are bail bondsmen and check-cashing services."

To be fair, I'm not sure that perspective is his own fault. You can actually dwell in the City County Building, park your car in the basement and take the elevator up, eat lunch in the luncheonette, and believe that.

It wasn't ever true, of course, but the joke played a lot better 25 years ago, when there actually were conspicuous bail bondsmen and check-cashing services downtown, and few businesses that offered weekend or evening hours. Now, on Market Square, on any day of the week, such snidery would just sound puzzling.

And last summer, a Metropolitan Planning Commission meeting left me squirming in my chair. One commissioner touted the importance of surface parking downtown, even opined, without rebuttal, that it was mainly a lack of surface parking that had caused downtown's decline in the 1970s. At that meeting, at least, he was the MPC's equivalent of a historian of downtown's revival, and no one questioned him.

At the same meeting, another commissioner spoke firmly of the importance of demolition of older buildings as the main alternative to blight. She had seen enough of blight, she said.

And no one argued. Points of information from an ordinary citizen would have been out of order, but I've never had such a hard time keeping my seat. Surface parking lots, which had been the default option for downtown developers since the 1920s, was one of the reasons downtown almost died. Parking lots made the place, for the first time ever, boring.

Tearing down old buildings to build surface parking lots had become a kind of mania by the 1950s, when we surrendered some buildings of genuine distinction, like Staub's Opera House and the Perez Dickinson mansion, to surface parking. By the 1970s, there was lots and lots and lots of parking, and most of it was empty, most of the time, all night and on weekends, land wasted except for commuters and a declining number of shoppers.

Though there are several smart people on the MPC, who I assume remained quiet out of politeness, it got me thinking there need to be some seminars on a subject that's apparently unfamiliar to some commissioners, that is, metropolitan planning—especially insofar as it concerns downtowns. It might be useful to get them to read some books on the subject. It might also be useful just to offer them the newcomers' Gray Line tour of downtown Knoxville. Or just force them out, occasionally, with a fire drill.

Today, vacant buildings downtown are almost as rare as check-cashing services. Maybe we can't expect various public servants who spend too much time in the City County Building to have noticed. Maybe we enforce their fogginess by incarcerating them there, hermetically sealing them in that big concrete-and-glass building, beyond the guards and the metal detectors.

I spend more time than I care to in that building, and rarely see the Knoxville I know and love in there. I'm not condemning its architecture. Every day, its lobby makes a hive of activity, interesting in an abstract sort of way. And I'm not sure it's a big deal that most of the big shots' offices look away from downtown, out over the river. But even for those who find a good excuse to emerge from it, the City County Building is a long way from anything fun. The Bistro is a major exception, as is the Bijou Theatre, but it doesn't host shows until hours after the City County Building closes and most of these folks have gone home. The Main Street area is the one part of downtown that hasn't improved much in the last 25 years. In fact, it's gotten a good deal duller. Twenty-five years ago, Whittle Communications was there, young creative types coming and going all weekend, the floral courtyard never gated shut. Sometimes Whittle hosted public events, outdoor political debates, ice-cream parties, recycling drives. Now it's a federal courthouse, gated all weekend, strictly business, and very strictly controlled.

Twenty-five years ago, the post office was open long hours, and drew some traffic even at night. There were still a couple of little cafes just off Main, and the Medical Arts Building was full of medical people, and had a little store at the bottom.

Today, Main Street's the one part of downtown that's almost strictly M-F, 9-5. Maybe residents soon to move into the Medical Arts Building will budge that perception some. But for now, Main Street is the downtown Knoxville that our less-adventurous decision-makers see. Is that a liability, for all of us?

Ask historians, and they'll tell you Knoxville's boom time, our Golden Age, was from about 1870 to 1920. During that half-century, Knoxville developed its first public libraries, first efficient public transportation, first public schools, first public festivals, first organized sports. The city put on three major expositions that attracted national attention. Knoxville built hundreds of brick and stone buildings, thousands of interesting houses, and dozens of factories. During that period, Knoxville's population multiplied by a factor of nine.

And that Golden Age happened to coincide with the period, 1868 to 1924, that local government met in a very public place, in the center of things. The city was liveliest when the mayor and City Council and other boards had all their offices and meetings in a crowded public building on Market Square. In the spring they could open their windows and smell the flower sellers and the fishmongers, and hear the farmers' fiddles and the whine of streetcars and the matrons of the boarding houses ringing their bells for lunch. Right or wrong, they knew the place, and what made it work.