Some wishes for the new year, modest and otherwise

We all have a list of ways we'd like to see our home town improve in the coming year. I've got my own:

  • That we work more on connections between places, some of which really aren't very far apart. Downtown Knoxville as a whole is not very big. Geographically it's smaller than most neighborhoods in Manhattan. But we still think of it as a loose and resentful confederacy of distant outposts, traversable only by finding our car and driving it and finding another parking spot in the Old City, at Market Square, on Volunteer Landing, or over at UT, which to some downtown pedestrians seems like a distant land. Summit Hill is one probably unnecessary problem. And having failed to re-route I-40 away from downtown, we need some way to live with the noisy concrete behemoth to promote northward growth: permeate the area beneath the ever-broadening highway, and re-inhabit what's now a dark no-man's-land with sidewalks.
  • That we'll keep rooting for the Vols, when they deserve it, but recognize what many smaller college towns discovered long ago: that one college-football game alone is not reason enough to shut a city down on a beautiful fall Saturday. Not everybody in town has season tickets—it would take a Biblical miracle to fit half the population of Knox County alone into Neyland Stadium, after all. And a game's only about three hours long, even with waiting for TV commercials. A football game, even a home game, is not always a bigger deal than a gorgeous fall Saturday, or a good reason to discourage a fall festival or pub crawl or bar mitzvah or street fair.
  • That for every three nostalgia acts we flock to to sell out at the Tennessee, warming the hearts of not-quite-retired performers, we buy a ticket to at least one worthy band or dance troupe who hasn't peaked yet. When we wonder why all these great Motown or hipster rock acts didn't make it here in the '60s, maybe it's because they knew that, back then, we were preoccupied with Glenn Miller tributes.
  • That the traffic engineers who installed the countdown walk lights around downtown and UT pick a day sometime in 2009 to take a long, actual walk and discover that their countdowns make no consistent sense. They may find that it's perfectly reasonable to ignore them, as most pedestrians—even patient good sports who like countdown walk lights in other cities—have learned to do.
  • That we'll start employing useful directional terminology in referring to street names—determined more by practical usage than by what particular quadrant it lies in according to the Jackson/Central axes. Let's acknowledge, for example, that "North Broadway" should be the northern part of Broadway—say, in Fountain City. And, now that East Cumberland no longer exists, for this past half-century or so, that "West Cumberland" should refer specifically to the western part of Cumberland Avenue, that is, the part that goes by UT. Of all Knoxville's directional dysfunctions, my personal favorite is "South Northshore." Northshore is named Northshore because, more logically than most, the longest part of it travels along the north shore of the river. Only the contrary part that veers north toward I-40 isn't near a north shore. But it's the tail that wags this dog. Because the long east-west part of Northshore is sort of south, but actually more west, of that one deviant spur of Northshore, it has to be considered "south." So the only part that's actually near a north shore isn't Northshore but "South Northshore." I suspect there's some mathematical reasoning behind it which is consistent to some über-pattern that makes some variety of sense if you're in the City County Building looking at a county map. But please.
  • And that when prosperity returns, in 2009 or 2012 or whenever, we'll do something worthwhile and lasting with it this time. As consumers we spend billions every years, just in Knox County, so much spare money that you'd think that by now we might have accomplished great things: a transportation system good enough to measurably abate our twin blights of air pollution and asphalt spillage, say. Or maybe even cures or better treatments for cancer or any of still-unpredictable, still-terrifying diseases that lie in most of our futures.

Here's what does happen when Knoxvillians get prosperous, based my own personal study of consumer data from the last 15 years. Our houses and cars get bigger. Our TV screens and bathtubs get bigger. And of course we get bigger.

Of all the billions and billions of discretionary income spent by Knox Countians in our recent prosperous era, 90 percent of it—and I'm being conservative here, in case I get called on it—was spent on things that won't exist in any recognizable form in 50 years, when our grandchildren and great-grandchildren are deciding whether or not to quit this old town. You can almost measure our prosperity in square footage of automotive sheet metal, video screens, vinyl siding, and asphalt. That, with a few noble but comparatively modest exceptions, is the glory that was Knoxville: the fruits of our prosperity, and what we'll be remembered for.

I'm using "remembered" as an optimistic rhetorical flourish. I mean "forgotten."

Meanwhile, at our main library, which just cut back its hours like all the branches did and was criticized as too small for the population 20 years ago, students are often crowded cheek to jowl with the homeless seeking warm shelter, or a toilet, because the library provides what is still the only easily accessible public bathroom downtown. Our schools require our kids to go door-to-door selling cheesy coupon books to afford basic needs—and that's never enough, either. Never mind ever-more forlorn UT, which has similar problems, on a statewide level.

But we're proud of our low-tax status, and we don't want to raise taxes to build or improve our permanent amenities. So let's improve our community the low-tax way already.

Whatever that is. Is there a way to improve a city, in some durable way, without raising taxes? Let's resolve to discover it in 2009.