On Knoxville's Size, and the Undead Prospect of Metro Government

Who really counts as a Knoxvillian? More to the point, who should?

The 2010 census figures were perplexing, as they always are. My entire life, as long as I've been big enough to understand the concept—and I was a pretty smartass kid, at YMCA day camp—I've been saying Knoxville is a city of "about 180,000." But last year's official head count doesn't go along. Once again, we're close, but no cigar.

It was 31 years ago that the Wall Street Journal, questioning whether Knoxville was up to the challenge of a World's Fair, referred to "Knoxville, a scruffy little city of 180,000 on the Tennessee River." If only. In their famous insult, the newspaper exaggerated our scruffy little city's size.

Here's a melancholy fact: Even as of the 2010 census, Knoxville has never officially touched 180,000. For half a century, we've been a city of 165,000 to 178,000. Maybe we'll never be as big as the Wall Street Journal thought we already were, back during the Carter administration.

Everybody agrees that Knoxville sure seems like a much bigger city than it was in 1980, in terms of the variety of attractions and events it offers, as well as its general urban hubbub. But technically, at least in terms of people willing to admit to the census that they are actual Knoxvillians, it's only slightly bigger.

Part of what makes it seem bigger is the continuing revival of downtown. We finally have a place where we can see that there are other people living here. I've always suspected that for the last few decades, Knoxvillians have looked around at their neighbors and the people they see at church and Applebee's and figured that's pretty much it. But maybe all along, there's been this quiet demand for gelato and crepes and tapas and wine-fueled street fairs, but without a downtown, a central conduit for it, it's hard to detect.

Another part of what makes it seem bigger is the explosion of our environs: Knox County is more than 60,000 people bigger than it was 10 years ago.

After my story about the census, some readers remarked that simply passing metro government—the referendum has been tried, and failed, a couple of times, but not recently—would change that. Just as Nashville-Davidson is counted as a "city" of 627,000 in the 2010 census, Knoxville-Knox County would be a "city" of 424,000—which is about the same size Davidson County was when Nashville went metro in the '60s. Metro government makes Nashville/Davidson count as the 25th largest city in America.

It would be quite a magic trick. With a simple referendum, Knoxville could instantly become one of the 50 biggest cities in America, a little bigger than Miami, Cleveland, New Orleans, and comparable in size to Atlanta. As it is, Knoxville's not among the nation's top 100 cities. It was for a long time, but not since 1980. Now it's not even close. It's all about where you draw the lines.

It might at least make sense to consolidate. We're extremely conservative, not to say stingy, about what we consider "Knoxville." I know folks who live a 12-minute drive from Gay Street. They're members of a downtown church. Every time they go to the grocery store, they go to the grocery store in Knoxville. But no, they are not, technically, Knoxvillians. Many people who say they live "in Knoxville"—in fact, I'd be willing to bet that it's most people who say they're Knoxvillians—are not counted as Knoxvillians in the census.

More than once, I've encountered suburban residents—I won't name any names—who actually operated under the assumption that they lived "in Knoxville" until they went to vote, and found out their favorite City Council candidate wasn't on the ballot. One newcomer complained to me that she couldn't believe how bad Knoxville's public transit system was, that it didn't come near her neighborhood. And it turns out that she doesn't live in Knoxville. County taxpayers don't pay for public transit, and don't get it.

I'd like to think the fact that suburban Knoxvillians now call themselves Knoxvillians at all is a sign of progress. Over the years, there has been resentment at the very idea.

Annexations were much in the news in the 1990s, but most of the notorious "finger annexations" of the Ashe era were just little annexations of business strips. Maybe more newsworthy is the fact that so many suburban areas have resisted annexation even though some of them are, in most respects, urban.

Knox Countians outside the city limits—most can hardly be called rural—do participate in urban culture and economy, many of them daily. They pay city sales taxes and city entertainment taxes, just not city property taxes.

Why is it that Knox County's much more popular than Knoxville? Is it just the dark spectre of city taxes?

I have a home of pretty average value. My city property taxes are less than half of our family's annual cell-phone bill. And with city inclusion, we get fire protection, police protection, sewer, bus service, trash pickup, plus well-tended parks within walking distance of the house. City residency seems like a great deal to me. In fact, I spend more on beer than I do on city property taxes. And I don't even like beer as much as I used to.

Is it a matter of ineffective marketing?

There's another problem, too, that I'm not sure my progressive, metro-government-oriented chums consider fully. Metro government might mean diminishing city government's traditional priorities and getting city people to live by country rules. County Commission and the county mayor's office may be the most likely sample of what metro government would look and sound like. Countywide voters are much more conservative than Knoxville voters. To many county voters, notions of cooperation or coordinated effort smack of Communism. The only reason they don't live in Hancock County is that it's too far from the stadium.

I'm not sure consolidation's what we want. But maybe, considering certain populations with urban habits, people who might as well live in the city, maybe it's time to consider selective annexations.