The Roughest Place in Town

An afternoon in Happy Holler, on the brink of change

Old Happy Holler is hardly a mile from downtown, and not a bad walk on a nice day. North Central Street used to seem a desolate place unless you were looking for a prostitute or a thermostat, but today there are several new signs of life along the way. The well-known specialty baker MagPie's opened early this month in the old Color-Ama building, adjoining the currently defunct Corner Lounge. You can tell it by the big birds roosting on the eaves. In back is a new business called The Glowing Body, a modern spot which combines yoga, massage, and gourmet health food in a sunny cafe setting. Some have already remarked that it reminds them of San Francisco, but to me it seemed a little like one of Frank Capra's depictions of Heaven.

Just a few more paces down the sidewalk is North Central Village, a modestly upscale residential condo development, almost complete, in a large prewar stone-front building. It's due to accept its first residents next week.

Just over the hill, Happy Holler exists between two North Knoxville landmarks, the Holy Ghost Catholic Church and the Original Freeze-O. It's been a dependable generator of stories for years. Judging by the file at the library, it has served for 30 years as the place reporters go when they need to fill some space. It once had a wild reputation.

But in the last few years, it's been home to the wonderful Time Warp Tea Room, the combination motorcycle museum, sandwich cafe, vintage arcade, coffee house, and listening room. It's a perfect spot for a Diet-Rite and a Moon Pie on a hot day. On the same block is a gay bar, a Taoist Tai-chi center, and Friends', the three-story second-hand shop that doubles as a comprehensive cultural museum. It's all Happy Holler type stuff.

At Shane's pet store, you can get a dwarf hamster, an albino Pacman frog, or a curly-tail lizard. Across the street on Anderson Avenue, next to Toots' Little Honky Tonk, is a masonry bunker with a sign in an obscure combination of Greek and Roman letters. Across the roof are sculptures forming a North Knoxville pantheon: Jesus in the middle, flanked by angels, a Buddha, Elvis, an African mask, porpoises, an owl, and a couple of conquistadors. It's said to be a second-hand shop, but the guy who runs it also plays some music, guitar and horn, in a crypto-African style. There are ruins on the corner, and four of the fragments of a gone building spell the word LOVE.

This section looks to some like the next direction for downtown, and the city's purportedly encouraging that with a significant redesign, which will widen these sidewalks, put in a bike lane, and narrow traffic to one lane each way. It's now under engineering review, which works on a timeline that's almost ecclesiastical.

The two blocks between Oklahoma Avenue and Baxter Avenue have been a commercial center for more than a century: a cluster of groceries and barber shops and poolhalls. For decades, starting in the early '20s, there was a movie theater here. No one can prove why, by the 1930s, it was known as Happy Holler, but it's assumed the multitude of bars had something to do with it.

Across from the Time Warp, by the trendy new second-hand shop Central Chic, are faded colors on old brick: "White Store: Complete Self-Service Food Market." That stalwart local grocery chain closed that store more than 50 years ago, but the sign's probably prettier now than it was when it was new.

The building has been the site of a vigorous attempt to start an upscale restaurant, resulting in a very interesting patio, enclosed by an artsy wrought-iron fence, in the back. One business plan dissolved, but the developer, Daniel Schuh, says another restaurateur is making an offer. It's all a work in progress.

No one's been here longer than Richard Davis, proprietor of Colonial Cleaners, just off Central. On a hot, muggy afternoon, the doors are wide open onto Anderson. An industrial-style exhaust fan high on the back wall keeps it tolerable. An old-fashioned iron conveyor built on an incline and operated with a switch carries garments of all descriptions. When it's on, it's hard not to watch it. It has a hypnotic effect.

At 83, Davis works every day, and employs four others. The toughest jobs he has, he says, are from car wrecks, when people come in with blood on a nice suede coat. "Can't help some people with some problems, but always make it a little bit better, anyway. I've never been able to say no, I guess."

Davis moved his cleaning business here 52 years ago; he had previously helped with his dad's business in rural Seymour, and didn't know what he was getting into. "When Dad retired, I had to find a place." The address he found startled Davis's dad. "‘Don't you know what that is?' he said. ‘That's the roughest place in town.' It was the first time I ever heard about Happy Holler."

"There were bars, and fights in the streets." Once when his dad was visiting, a man crashed through a plate-glass window and landed on the Central Street sidewalk. "He laughed, and brushed himself off. Dad said, ‘We don't have to watch Bonanza anymore. We've got it all right here.'"

"I think it's better now," he says. Davis specializes in leathers and wedding dresses, but while we're sitting and talking, a policeman comes in to pick up some cleaned and pressed uniforms. Several KPD uniforms are hanging among the hundreds of garments on the conveyor.

He likes his current neighbors. "Nobody bothers anybody," he says. (Some other merchants in the neighborhood complain about a prevalence of the homeless that congregate for giveaways on Saturdays, but Davis is closed Saturdays.) He's even agreeable to the city's new plans for widening sidewalks and putting in a bike lane. "I think it'll work," he says. "Of course, it's kind of a slow-process kind of thing." He'll just keep working.

"We open every day. My wife is getting tired of it." He's not admitting he's tired yet, but hints he might be willing to sell: "If somebody comes along and wants to work harder than they do."