A Few Perspectives On the Iconic JFG Sign

The disappearance of the old electrically lit sign near the southern end of the Gay Street Bridge got much more press than most billboard removals. Part of its charm is that no one seems to know exactly how long it's been there. The usual estimate of "over 50 years" strikes me as conservative.

The advertisement for Knoxville's regionally famous coffee roaster has been removed for refurbishing, as part of a national effort. Reily Foods, JFG's New Orleans-based parent company, is footing the bill to rehabilitate this and other iconic old JFG signs, one as far away as Charlotte. You'd think there would be lots of interest in saving the signs in JFG's home city, and there is.

However, as an unintended result of the rehab, when the sign is ready to return, it won't. Holston Gas' Bill Baxter, whom we can only assume doesn't have a public-relations department, owns the property, and has forbidden its return, saying he has other plans. Some kind of development among that overgrown area of rubble could be great. The bridge, nicely refurbished a few years ago, makes for a pleasant walk, lacking only a destination on the other end. Walk to the south end, and there's nowhere to go, nothing to do: just a dead hospital, a few Keep Out signs, some dangerous crossings, and some unreliable sidewalks. Most of the business over there is conducted by groundhogs. Maybe Mr. Baxter's heretofore undescribed development will be even better than an iconic coffee sign. For now, the south end looks strangely vacant.

It wouldn't mean so much to Knoxvillians if it were any other sort of sign. But coffee's a daily need, and JFG's a very old and familiar company. Some of us find use for JFG coffee every day, and it's one of the few Knoxville-manufactured products that ordinary consumers notice when they're away from home. I've found it in groceries in other Southern states, both Carolinas, anyway. A lot of other commodities—propane gas, for example—may be important for lots of practical purposes. Can propane will ever inspire the same sentiments as coffee does?

I've never actually heard JFG called "the Best Part of the Meal," which might seem an ungracious thing to say to a cook. But I remember that old radio jingle with that lyric, and can still sing it.

A few years ago, poet Nikki Giovanni published a short essay called "Coffee Signs." It's about the poet's youth in the '50s, sitting on the front porch of her grandmother's house at 400 Mulvaney Street, in a neighborhood redeveloped—that is, erased—before the construction of the Civic Coliseum. The JFG coffee sign was visible from her grandmother's front porch, and she recalls it as a "peaceful memory." If you know anything about her career, you know the poet of the Black Power movement doesn't tend to dwell on peaceful memories.

A colleague moved here from up North to work for Whittle in the '80s, a time when the charms of Knoxville were often less than obvious, and downtown at night presented a bleak prospect. Nights downtown were long and lonely. From his apartment, my colleague could see the JFG sign near the Gay Street Bridge. He'd never heard of JFG, and didn't know what it was. He wondered whether it meant, perhaps, "Jump From Gay," as if that might be the most convenient solution to the Knoxville problem.

The ground floor of the Fidelity Building at Gay and Union houses UT's architectural studios as well as the Community Design Center, and they show off what they're doing in the old sidewalk display window outside. For the last couple of years, the thing that catches your attention is a video monitor with a long video loop depicting a soaring bird's-eye view of an appealingly urban southside development sometime in the future—presumably about 2025, when it was all to be finished. Stretching from Scottish Pike, west of Chapman Highway, to Island Home, a couple of miles to the east, is a green and orderly new city. It appears to be almost all new construction, condos, parks, stores, offices, boat slips, greenways.

Six or seven years ago, city officials were telling me the southside development would be the one signal legacy of the Haslam administration, the one thing Haslam would best remembered for. But then came frustrating negotiations with property owners, led by Mr. Baxter and Holston Gas, whose property, combined with the huge, fat metal cylinders of the neighboring Marathon asphalt plant, pose an aesthetic challenge as they also block the most plausible sorts of linear greenway development.

People have been complaining about the big shoreline tanks of the south side for the 30 years I've been working downtown, because they look cold and ugly, and maybe the word Gases, painted in giant black letters, is not something we want to be reminded of over dinner at Calhoun's or Ruth's Chris.

There's something to be said for maintaining something practical and industrial in the setting of a reviving downtown. Industry can ground a downtown in the real world, prevent the theme-park superficiality that's become the prevailing impression in some trendy urban revivals.

I'm not sure whether Holston Gases is the ideal representative of the downtown factory that new-urbanist avatar Jane Jacobs used to extol as an essential ingredient of a functional urban center. Holston and Marathon weren't built for looks. Maybe they could be improved with playful murals. A skilled trompe l'oeil muralist could transform them into something appealing. If it's done with some wit, they could become tourist attractions. The JFG sign proved that a practical commercial structure can be something to look at.

In the South Knoxville Foundation's video rendering that still plays to the sidewalk all day in the window of the Fidelity Building, there are no big tanks at all. About the only thing familiar among the fresh new architecture and green trees of beautiful South Knoxville is the JFG sign, which the people of the future have chosen to save in its original site.