secret_history (2006-27)

Summer Notes

Of a handsome viaduct, a creekside idyll, a history museum, a liquor store, and an antiwar activist

by Jack Neely

The Gay Street Viaduct is, from what I can tell, a job well done. A few years ago, I opposed the project. I liked the numerous historic associations of the existing 1919 viaduct, which served in an era when citizens still crowded it to catch a glimpse of visiting dignitaries on whistlestop tours. And I was concerned, as many were, that the new one, built to allow double-stacked freight trains to run beneath, would obscure North Gay from the rest of downtown. It does, almost as badly as I expected.

But given that regret, the new one is also the best-looking viaduct built in this city since streetcar days. TDOT has occasionally tried to soften the grim functionality of a concrete overpass with some cheesy detail work, but this new viaduct has a graceful arch, good broad sidewalks, and, for once, an actual balustrade, with vertical apertures.

Knoxville is a city of viaducts, and lately many have mutated into mere highway overpasses. When we see a good one, we should praise it.

One of the last untouched remnants of the 1982 World’s Fair was the shady spot alongside Second Creek, at the eastern foot of the Hill. It was just a clearing, with some wood timbers for seating, on a terrace of large cobblestones that looked like a remnant of something much longer ago than the fair.

Below the asphalt grade of the fair, downhill from the Australian pavilion, it was a serene escape from the heat and noise of the fair. It remained a secret for the next quarter-century. A lot of the wood that formed the seating and steps was rotting, but I often paused down there on jaunts between downtown and UT. I once cited that tiny vista as a rejoinder to the popular truism that Second Creek was hopeless. It proved that if Second Creek were exhumed, it wouldn’t necessarily be, as some were fond of insisting, anything but a fetid mess of grocery bags, condoms and dead fish. Though of course there’s some of that.

The new greenway, under construction now, will open the area up by the end of the year, making Second Creek accessible again. It’s a fine thing, from the sound of it. One casualty, though, will be those large, rectangular medieval cobblestones that paved the seating area; they apparently form too rough a surface to comply with current ADA regulations.

It doesn’t do any good to argue in favor of beauty; and when we do we know, in the back of our heads, that any of us may be seated in a wheelchair someday, and regard cobblestones with apprehension.

Congratulations to the East Tennessee Historical Society, which recently accepted a check from Governor Bredesen for $2.5 million, enough to complete the long-delayed Museum of East Tennessee History. Located in the old Custom House portion of the history center downtown, it will be a much-expanded version of the museum that opened there in the ‘90s.

Closed for expansion in 2003, its absence during this flowering of the Market Square area is ironic. On Sunday afternoons in the ‘90s, the museum and the public library were often the only things open in the neighborhood. Lately, the museum’s  been missing the weekend crowds. But if all goes well they’ll reopen late next year.

Knoxville has never been able to attain escape velocity from its own history, and the downtown liquor-store problem is one of the more annoying manifestations of that phenomenon.

Say you’re one of the 20,000-odd people who work downtown. You’re invited to a party on the 100 block, or the Old City, or Fourth and Gill, or Parkridge. It would be easily doable on foot-—except for the fact that there’s not a package store in downtown Knoxville.

I’ve also heard complaints from tourists and business travelers staying in our largest hotels who want to pick up a bottle, say, to take to a restaurant—but can’t without hiring a taxi.

Now young entrepreneurs with a proven commitment to downtown have the energy and capital to open a package store, but, so far, the city won’t allow them to. A 1962 city code prohibits package stores within 500 feet of “any church, school, park, recreational facility, hospital, mortuary, or similar public place....” The problem is that downtown’s lousy with public places. The only thing wrong with that fact is that there’s hardly a spot downtown where package stores are legal.

It’s part of the nature of a downtown that disparate businesses and amenities coexist. A couple of weeks ago I relayed Jane Jacobs’ theories about the importance of density and diversity in building a downtown. This is a case in which downtown’s being penalized for its density and diversity.

The law is, I suspect, a remnant of the anxiety some Knoxvillians were suffering in 1962, when, to the shock of some social conservatives, the city had just voted to permit the sale of liquor and wine in bottles.

These odd restrictions were perhaps a compromise with the fretful in this brave new world. I’m sure some of them were good, well-meaning people, concerned about the future of their innocent grandchildren, and we should honor their memory. But in this era when the city sells thousands of gallons of beer at weekly music festivals on Market Square, when people drink wine and martinis nightly at several patios in the neighborhood, what’s the harm in having a package store—operating in a state with more restrictive conditions than exist in most of the country—within a block of Krutch Park? Is there anyone who can tell us why not? Anyone that’s still alive, I mean?

Ken Newton, the UT professor of psychology who died at 83 last month, got written up in the daily-, as you’d expect of a guy who was fairly prominent in the community. A World War II vet who worked as an engineer with the Manhattan Project, he later became the founding director of UT’s Psychological Clinic.

But a few of his old associates noted that one thing was left out of his obituaries. Newton was one of the leaders of the antiwar counterculture at UT in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and, as a white-haired elder statesman of the movement, was one of the almost 50 who were arrested for protesting the appearance of President Nixon at the Billy Graham rally at Neyland Stadium in May, 1970. He later told Metro Pulse that on that day Neyland Stadium felt like the Colosseum, and he and his comrades felt like 200 Christians facing 80,000 lions.