The new "Warehouse District," and lively old Asylum Avenue

The big news last week was that Blue Cats, the big performance-oriented nightclub in the Old City, is moving to a newly defined hotspot they're calling the Warehouse District.

It's a vestigial, half-forgotten section that some reporters have tried to put on Western Avenue. But Western Avenue is a loftier thing than it once was: Western Avenue as we know it will take you over the new nightclubs, but never to them. The nightclub's new neighborhood exists in a slightly different dimension. Like a few other pockets overridden by the highway system, it's kind of a half-lit Middle Earth, never glimpsed by commuters; it's not on the way to anywhere. There are several ways of giving directions to it, and they all sound tentative and unreliable.

Still, already down there is the Valarium, formerly the Electric Ballroom, a 1920s warehouse building whose rooftop traces a graceful parabola, now one of Knoxville's largest nightclubs, and it seems to be doing well. The word INTERNATIONAL is spelled in bronze letters that stain the brick green, still advertising a company that left in 1937.

Next door, the building that will house Blue Cats is a taller, larger, older building, three stories of orange brick. I'll warrant few living Knoxvillians have seen it in the daytime, but French photographer Jacques Gautreau has exhibited some photographs of it. Just below an inset second-floor arch in the façade is a poignant hand-painted sign that says, in simple black letters, OPEN TO THE PUBLIC. It offers a generous schedule of daily hours, Monday through Saturday, some as late as 9 p.m.

It's all high enough off the ground to catch the eyes of passers-by, when there were passers-by, which was a long time ago. The phrase has a proletarian look to it. I wondered if it might be a tabernacle of some sort, or a union hall.

On the east side of that older building, faded block letters still proclaim the GREAT ATLANTIC SHOE CO. INC. According to the City Directories, it served that purpose, apparently a wholesale shoe place, ca. 1939-1967. I bet the sign refers to the hours that the big shoe wholesaler welcomed walk-in customers. It wasn't the first business here.

Calling this cluster off Blackstock "The Warehouse District" in opposition to the Old City has surprised some, especially those who remember when the Old City was "The Warehouse District."

My friend Al Heins has run his family's building materials business down here as long as anybody can remember. "We're gonna be in a trendy place now," he says. "Gee, whiz. I think I'll open something like the Grotto here in my office. Don't you think that would work?"

Of course, there was a time, a century or so ago, before the interstate sliced up the city and the railroad got touchy about trespassers, when the Valarium and the Old City were both part of one big, long warehouse district that skirted the northern fringe of downtown along the Southern tracks.

We could, by rights, call this developing section Asylum Avenue. The building that will house the new Blue Cats was, in fact, built on Asylum Avenue, around 1907.

It was a different sort of a neighborhood then, when Asylum Avenue was one of the main arteries west, and saw lots of daily traffic, by foot, horse, and streetcar. Back then, this block that's forever in the shadow of the Western Avenue Viaduct was a sunny, familiar place.

This block had once been the site of a big keg factory, which was handy to the Knoxville Brewing Co.'s main facility, nearby—but by the 20th century it was a complex urban place with a density of residences of blacks and whites, including a prolific and durable Italian family: the Maglios were grocers, bakers, fruit-sellers, confectioners, restaurateurs, and all their businesses were within a stone's throw of these old warehouses. There were butchers and barbers and billiard halls here, and Mrs. Mozella Tucker's boarding house. There were the McBath & Loftis Livery Stables, and, nearby, Baldwin Park, which was best known for hosting Knoxville's semi-pro baseball team, the Reds. Mrs. Ola Dwyer ran a saloon down here until the city banned it. The biggest industry, the Queen City Coal Co., used the freight yards heavily: a switch engine huffed back and forth all day.

In 1907, International Harvester, dealer of tractors and "motor trucks," built its regional headquarters here on Asylum. They also built the Valarium Building, in the late 1920s, mainly as a truck-repair facility. When they left in the ‘30s, Great Atlantic Shoe moved into the older building; the newer one became a warehouse for the Hartman Beverage Co., when they were best known for 7-Up, but were developing a recipe for a clever new drink they called Mountain Dew.

In another city, this District, or whatever you want to call it, might not seem so far away. If downtown Knoxville were Greenwich Village, say, then new Blue Cats and old Blue Cats would both be in Greenwich Village.

You can see the new Warehouse District from the northern end of World's Fair Park. The quickest way to get there from downtown might be to sneak across the freight yards. If you want to be all legal about it, you can walk from Henley down the sidewalk on Oak Avenue, the least-frequented overpass downtown, hang a left on Blackstock, and you're there.

I tried it the other day after lunch. It took me 10 minutes to walk from the Valarium to the Old City, and I had time to stop along the way to look at the skeletal remains of a ferret. It may take you longer, especially if you drive a car. If you drive a car drunk, it may take you a lot longer.

Anyway, it seems to me it's in the city's interest to try to rejoin these highway-scattered sections of Old Downtown, with maybe some crosswalks, signage and better lighting. If we can figure that out, they'll seem as close as they really are.