The Public Image: Three Cases of Dysfunctional Appearances

We can’t chortle at Coal Creek, aka Lake City, aka Rocky Top, too much. Several times, over the decades, Knoxville institutions have changed their names, sometimes when the shifting meaning of words or connotations of phrases became problematic. The town end of Western Avenue was known, for the better part of a century, as Asylum Avenue.

The meaning of the word has shifted. In the 19th century, asylum meant “refuge.” There were several kinds of asylums. Ours was a nationally respected school for the deaf, one of only eight schools for the deaf in America. We were proud of it, and there was no slander suggested when we named one of our longest roads Asylum Avenue. By the 20th century, though, asylums were understood to be asylums for the insane.

“Politically incorrect” is a modern term, but not a modern concept. A century ago, even mental institutions began avoiding the word asylum, like a seventh-grader would avoid an old friend who became uncool.

Therein is a problem, and an opportunity. Western Avenue is unusual in that, for a short distance, it’s a multi-dimensional road. Usually when a highway is elevated, the road below it disappears. That wasn’t the case with Western. The old road was replaced by the new one for the purposes of through-traffic. But just out of downtown, on the northeastern corner of Fort Sanders, as the new elevated road is busy with traffic bound for Mechanicsville or I-40, part of the old road is still down there, and it’s still the address of businesses, a couple of nightclubs, one recently reborn as the International. It is, at least sometimes, called “Western.”

Just recently, that nightclub has been using the address of Blackstock Avenue, a functional access road which gets you to the vicinity. But these old buildings obviously face old Western, which is perpendicular to Blackstock.

Here’s my plea to the mayor and City Council: That place down there needs a distictive name. If it’s really Western Avenue, what is that noisy concrete thing 25 feet above it? So how about reviving the old name? I have proposed this before, and will again. That road down at the bottom, the one with the nightclubs, was once, and for many decades, called Asylum Avenue. There are some sorts of businesses that would not like an address on Asylum Avenue. No politician would favor an Asylum Avenue address. Probably a LASIK eye surgeon wouldn’t want Asylum Avenue on his business card. But it seems to me a warehouse-style loud-music nightclub, which has been the primary form of business down that way for at least 30 years, would enjoy the cachet the word asylum suggests. We can put up a sign to explain.

It would work. Imagine being new to town, in college maybe, and somebody asking, “Have you been down to Asylum Avenue?” If you were 21, could you resist?


More than a few times, skeptical citizens watch the construction of a new building they didn’t expect to like, and are surprised at how beautiful it is, for a moment. And then they put up the plastic signs.

University Commons is going in where the old Fulton Plant stood for years. The big shopping center bears a superficial resemblance, in scale and to some extent in style, to the old part of the actual 1915 factory, which was torn down about eight years ago as a matter of course by the foreign corporation that owned it. The building, stoutly constructed of thick brick walls and broad-beam hardwood floors, took months to demolish. It was as big as a Walmart. It was torn down long before the current developers got involved in the site. It’s a shame it wasn’t still there for them to reuse, but that was apparently never an option the owners even contemplated.

The new building is clad in brick, with gables, and though its design won’t astonish anybody, it looks very nice for a Walmart. A lot of the professors and lawyers and students I ride the bus with remark on it as they pass, and it has generally gotten a thumbs up.

Then they put up the signs. The big plastic Walmart sign is one thing. It can make anything look ordinary. Worse, though, is the big, plastic University Commons sign. Perhaps because it includes the word “University,” they were obliged to choose bright UT orange. One rider noted it was precisely the same hue as the traffic cones in the not-quite-open parking lot.

I’m no aesthetician, and am known to wear clashing socks, but I think the expert cosmetologists at Aveda will affirm that bright orange never goes with red brick. That color combination looks like something you find on a sidewalk on a Sunday morning.

That unfortunate pairing would seem to be an aesthetic challenge just across the tracks, on a campus that’s determined to emphasize its red-brick traditional architecture, but—much more now than in my youth—equally devoted to waving the orange flag, which is a brighter orange than anything General Neyland ever witnessed.

Those colors have been adjusted over the years, and could be again.


It’s another damn political season. You get used to ignoring the ads of people you don’t like. Now I’m even hating the ads of people I thought I liked. One particular public servant’s re-election had been a priority for me. I’ve voted for him several times in the past. This summer, his campaign put out a misleading TV ad that mentions none of his strengths and seems determined to make him seem simpleminded. He’s paying to look like a slightly more dignified version of his opponent.

Should we vote on their record, or on how they used hundreds of thousands of dollars of their contributors’ money to present themselves? I may skip that race.

As a reporter, I’m obliged not to contribute to political campaigns, but if I did, I’d insist on a proviso: “Please don’t use this to make yourself look like a jerk.” In the modern climate, spending money on political advertising seems to entail some collateral damage.