secret_history (2006-25)

To Jane Jacobs

How a lady in Toronto explained Knoxville history to me

by Jack Neely

Author Jane Jacobs died a few weeks ago.

She lived in Toronto and wrote a great deal about New York, her former home. She didn’t have much to say about Knoxville specifically. I don’t know that she ever visited this place.

I never met her, nor heard her speak. But her work explained a lot to me about certain paradoxes in the city’s history that had puzzled me for years.

Knoxville over the last 70 or 80 years has struck any number of visitors as a “small town,” or even “a little country town,” or, to quote a recent mayor, “the biggest small town in the world.” 

I don’t know what that means, or what it is that prompts people to make statements like that. Maybe the prohibition that lasted here in various forms for almost 40 years after the federal government abolished it, a fierce resistance to any sort of taxation, a sleepy response to cultural phenomena, or a general bashfulness about participating in municipal events, is behind it all—but there is, or was, something to it. I think it has changed, and is changing more, but people, and I mean born-and-raised Knoxvillians, often had the impression their city was an insignificant place, too small and backward to count for anything. I long took it for granted, and assumed it had always been so.

When I started looking into the history of my hometown, one thing surprised me over and over. A century and more ago, when Knoxville was a much-smaller place than the “small town” I knew, nobody ever called it a small town. It was undeniably a city, even a “Queen City.” People sometimes referred to it as a “metropolis.”

And in many ways, Knoxville of a century ago seemed like a metropolis. Public transportation was comprehensive and dependable. Live entertainment, often with world-famous stars, appeared in Gay Street theaters almost nightly. There were dining options, Greek-owned restaurants that served tamales, and expensive French places that served multi-course meals. There were wine bars, cocaine bars, high saloons and low saloons. There were two passenger-train stations, with arrivals and departures by the hour; there were steamboats that carried passengers on excursion cruises, and steamboats laden with industrial cargo tying up at two different wharves. In the center of town there was a large and busy farmers’ market that some claimed was the best one on the Southern interior. There were, for a time, two competing market squares.

There were tennis clubs, bowling clubs, golf clubs, bicycle clubs, literary clubs, art clubs, classical-music clubs, socialist clubs. There were music festivals and industrial festivals and St. Patrick’s Day parades and Labor Day parades. There were street vendors and street musicians and street jugglers and acrobats. There were ethnic neighborhoods and churches and stores where more than one language was spoken. There were, for several years at a time, sometimes three daily Knoxville newspapers, and maybe a dozen special-interest weeklies.

There was, in short, urban life, with everything—good and bad, but mostly good—that comes with it.

And all this came packaged in a city that was maybe a fifth the size of the somnolent Knoxville I grew up in, the one so boring that all my friends wanted to leave as soon as they could, the one most of them did leave.

What I could never figure out is why, when Knoxville was actually a much-smaller place than it was before people began to call it a “small town,” it was so much livelier.

Jane Jacobs supplied the answer. Her 1961 study, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is a classic that should not only be required reading, but a required desk reference for all city decision-makers. In it, citing urban observers back to Samuel Johnson, and her own research, she said it was not the sheer size of a city that gives it the “exuberant diversity” found in the liveliest cities. It’s the density.

Though Jacobs warns that the phenomenon is too complicated to apply mathematical formulae to it, density, in residences per square mile, has measurable consequences. When people have any sort of interest that’s not shared by an obvious majority—whether they’re interested in opera, or Indian food, or Texas hold ‘em, or pale ale, or Episcopalianism—their needs are more likely to be met when they live close together. A population of 100,000 people living close together will support many more options in goods, services, and entertainment than the same population will support if they live far apart.

It makes sense. An entrepreneur intending to serve a certain customer area is more likely to find people who like falafels, say, if that area includes more people.

Something happened in Knoxville between its glory days, which most historians agree ended around 1920, and the dopey, slow, fearful, and often-ridiculed place it was in the postwar era when Cas Walker ran it and John Gunther described it—and I grew up in it. 

The biggest major demographic change during those years was suburbanization. Knoxvillians, driving new cars, spread out across the county. The old city became depleted, but no new concentration occurred anywhere else to replace it.

As it happens, according to the census, Knoxville in 1900 was a much-smaller place of about 33,000—but in terms of people per square mile, Knoxville in 1900 was more than four times as densely populated as Knoxville in 2000. That’s why reading newspapers from that era make Knoxville

No part of Knoxville yet has the ideal density that Jacobs extolled—areas with more than 100 dwellings per acre seem to be her ideal for urban vitality—but you can see the phenomenon illustrated here, just within Knox County. In the suburban parts, chain franchises of the sort that can be found clustered around interstate exits everywhere dominate. But Fort Sanders, the most densely populated neighborhood in East Tennessee, is in walking distance of purveyors of soul food and Middleastern, vegetarian, Indian, Japanese, Italian, and Chinese cuisine, mostly in locally owned restaurants—all accessible without even walking downtown, which is not far, either.

It’s based, of course, on the principal that people have a finite distance they’re willing to travel for goods and services. And as transportation costs rise, the need for density will likely become more acute. I don’t expect Knoxville to ever achieve the center of gravity it had in 1900, but there are telltale signs that it’s turning a corner.