End-of-Summer Oddities

Palmettos, Mexican Coke, viaduct stairways, and downtown babies

Secret History

by Jack Neely

A few months ago, an article about global warming in the New York Times offered a surprising offhand aside that palm trees were now growing as far north as Knoxville. I don't know where they pulled down that detail, but just after that I talked to a couple of tree experts in town, who told me with some certainty that the only palm trees in Knoxville were in big pots, and were taken inside in the winter. I dismissed the elusive Knoxville palmetto as an urban legend.

However, as a couple readers have pointed out, there is at least one palmetto in Knoxville, planted in the real ground, permanently. It's in one of Knoxville's southernmost latitudes: Sequoyah Hills, on Lakeland, near the boulevard. Neighbors tell me that in the winter they see it getting special heat treatments. It doesn't much need them right now.

In the years I've been writing this column, I've always been able to tell what people really care about by the quantity of e-mail I receive. Judging by the volume of email I've gotten in the last two weeks, readers care more about Mexican Coke than anything else I've ever written about in my entire career as a journalist.

It's not surprising. Few of my subjects are as delicious and refreshing.

In a column a few weeks ago, I remarked that the â“Mexican Cokeâ” I got in a local taqueria was curiously reminiscent of the Coca-Colas of my childhood. I assumed it was the psychological effect of the hot day and the fluted-glass bottle that Mexican Cokes still come dressed in.

I was apparently in a small minority of Knoxvillians who didn't know that Mexican Coke actually does taste different, made with an older recipe than regular Atlanta Coke. Several readers, some as far away as Texas, sent me a small library's worth of newspaper and magazine articles about the subject. Mexican Coke is made from pure cane sugar; Atlanta Coke used to be made of the same stuff, but in the 1980s, the Norte Americanos began to substitute corn syrup, which is apparently cheaper.

Everyone who has tried it seems to be in agreement that Mexican Coke tastes much better than Gringo Coke. Some remark on the gunky taste that regular Atlanta Coke leaves in your throat, and once you hear about that, you can't help but notice it. Mexican Coke, to me, does have a much crisper taste. And it makes me want to go down to Woolworth's on my Schwinn to see if they have the latest Beatles record.

I was also corrected on my assumption that modern urban viaducts no longer included stairways to the ground below. I mentioned that I used to use the Church Avenue stairway regularly. Even with the keep-off sign, it was still an easy and quick way to get up from the cheap parking spaces of Central Street to sunny Church Avenue.

It turns out I was indulging in a little premature mourning, a bad habit of mine. In fact the Church viaduct does seem to be making an allowance for the old steel stairway; now that the work is substantially done, I walked around it and found the stairway still intact. It seems sound. They just need to take the â“No Admittanceâ” sign off.

And indeed work is underway on a new stairway on the south end of the elegantly accommodating Gay Street viaduct, which was otherwise completed about a year ago. In this case, the replacement stairway is a newer, bigger one, of concrete, climbing in a tight square spiral to a banister opening currently obscured by a Regas ad. Neighbors like my friend Michael Haynes (who knows the underside of Gay Street better than anyone I know, having lived there for years) are watching the slow progress with interest.

Earlier this summer, several strollers materialized on Market Square. There are often some kids on the Squareâ"besides dogs, the presence of children downtown may be the biggest and most surprising change downtown in my experience. But this was a babyfest. In all, there were 13 kids five and under at the photo opportunity, all of whom are living downtown. They're not a roving band of babies who prowl the alleys for discarded juice boxes. As far as I could tell, all of them were accompanied by larger folk. The ones we know of live downtown because that's where their parents live. Most of them have lived downtown since they were born.

It reminded me of an elite group you used to read about in the paper now and then, an exclusive sect known as the BOGS. They were a group of mostly old ladies, from mostly old families. Author Betsey Creekmore was one of them. You saw pictures of them in the paper occasionally, with fewer members each time. The main criterion for joining the group was that you had to be Born On Gay Street. When I was a kid, and the residents of downtown weren't always savory folk, it seemed a strange thing to own up to.

It was an interesting distinction, because most of Gay Street has been heavily developed as a commercial corridor since before the Civil War. By 1900 or so, Gay was probably the least-residential street in town. Buildings like the Lamar House, originally built to be a residence, had long-since been converted to commercial use, just to take advantage of the crowds in the streets looking for things to spend money on.

But until the 1920s, there were still several upscale single-family homes on Gay Street, mostly concentrated in townhouse-style buildings on the couple of blocks between Main Street and the bridge before they built the Andrew Johnson. In any case, it was considered a swank thing to be born on Gay Street, so some of them were happy to brag about that fact for the rest of their long lives. I wish one of them could have lived to see the current crop.

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