secret_history (2006-02)

The Column At Page 10

by Jack Neely

A few years ago, the makeover of old Western Plaza startled me.

I go way back with the place, even long before it was on my paper route. It was one of the classic ’50s strip malls, originally just a big L. Maybe it was the first thing ever called a “plaza” in Knoxville, and in newspaper ads a long time ago Western Plaza had a ropey western theme, at a time when westerns were TV’s biggest draws. The idea of a big, flat, square, open space with buildings on the side was fairly new to Knoxville. It’s natural the word plaza popped up. It probably reminded us of exciting scenes in Zorro or Have Gun Will Travel . They should have put in a saloon, except that in 1950s Knoxville, saloons were illegal.

It was a sober, middlebrow place in my youth, with a Kroger, an A&P and a bowling alley in the basement. The Woolworth’s had a lunch counter and sold Rat Finks and baseball cards and Elvis records.

Then in the ’90s they redid it all, and added more buildings, with more boutiques, restaurants and specialty shops in them. That didn’t surprise me as much as what they called it. Suddenly it wasn’t mere Western Plaza anymore. It was The Shops At Western Plaza.

I couldn’t figure it out. Of course it has Shops. It always had shops. It’s a strip mall. All strip malls have shops. And of course the shops they have would tend to be at Western Plaza.

But to someone, “The Shops At Western Plaza” sounded more swank than plain old “Western Plaza,” with its associations with horseflies swarming dead gunslingers and the leavings of pack animals.

There must be magic in the word at . It has transformative powers. It’s catching on all over town. You don’t really have a new development unless it’s one of those at developments. It is a mark of distinction.

I wondered if neighborhoods would borrow the concept: offer a fairly obvious plural noun, followed by a preposition before the familiar phrase that used to do the trick by itself, and lend some class to something otherwise mundane, or institutions that have image problems.

Why stop there, I wondered. We could, I thought, spruce up the whole city that way. The Trailers At Clinton Highway. The Beers At Michael’s. The Cars At I-40.

And actually, it happened. The phenomenon exalts strip malls and office buildings, but seems to have inspired more apartment buildings than anything else. Like The Villas At Emerald Woods. Who knew we had an Emerald Woods in town? Sounds like something in Narnia, or Oz. Maybe the woods is imaginary. What’s important is the at .

There’s the Courtyards At Eagle Pointe. (They spell it a la francaise ; do they pronounce it the French way, too?) They leave it up to the customer to assume that the word courtyards implies that perhaps there are buildings attached, with walls and ceilings and floors.

Some are more puzzling, and they make you wonder if the main point is to avoid, at all cost, the uncouth word apartments . The Grove At Deane Hill. Cherokee at Westcliff. The Reserve At Westland. Heritage Lake At Westland. A lot of them you could just switch around, without altering the sense. Westland At Heritage Lake.

I’ve never seen Heritage Lake. It does sound lovely, and patriotic. But you’d never guess, just going by the names, that we’re talking about habitable apartment buildings. Maybe, at bottom, we’re embarrassed about our need for creature comfort, and would rather tell people we live in the woods, or in a lake.

The most important word in any given phrase, of course, is the posh word at . Often, the nouns around the at are just there for dressing, and may offer little in the way of actual linear sense.

Take The Fountains At Parkside. It sounds perfectly lovely. You might think something like that would be mainly fountains. But it’s not fountains. At least fountains aren’t the principal feature. What will be is a 12-story office building out near I-40 and Pellissippi Parkway. It may well be embellished with fountains. I’d recommend they be sure to embellish it with fountains, because with a name like that you just know folks are going to come looking for them. (I think I once knew how Parkside Drive got its name, but have forgotten. Maybe the park’s still in the plans.) But the operative word is the at .

Consider the new development at the dead end of old Scottish Pike, the one you can see across the river from UT: CityView At Riverwalk.

Now, what can you tell from that? CityView , with that same eccentric spelling and capitalization, is the name of a magazine that’s been around Knoxville, through several articulations, for years. Are they involved? 

As if in answer to the question, “Where’s your CityView at?” there comes the answer: Riverwalk. Is there a river walk over there? Not yet, and probably not soon, though there may be someday with the Southside redevelopment project. But you come to realize it really doesn’t matter. The important part is the preposition. It’s one of those at developments. And there may be an extra charge.

Certain other prepositions seem to work about as well. Like The Willows of West Hills. And the word on , for example, carries some old English class. Like Stratford-on-Avon.

Hence The Verandas on Flenniken. This is a new retirement community announced with some fanfare this past fall. Flenniken Avenue is a previously modest street off Maryville Pike in the Vestal area of South Knoxville, which probably never saw much in the way of verandas even in antebellum plantation days. Fortunately for those considering them as retirement homes, I understand The Verandas do come equipped with actual covered residences, with privacy walls and windows and bathrooms.

Again, though, the preposition is more important than any actual noun could be. Maybe there’s something poignant about it all. We’re all looking for a sense of place, and the word at implies a place that’s recognizable without further description. We want desperately to believe there’s a there here. The preposition tries to prove it.