secret_history (2006-29)

Requiem for Market Square

Why this, too, will pass

by Jack Neely

Maybe it was inevitable. Market Square just seemed to be going too well. Nearly every evening after work this summer, I’ve ridden my bike through the square, just gawking at the place. Five different places with outdoor café tables, most of them full of people enjoying the late-summer sunshine with a pint of beer or an iced mojito. A few interesting shops still open into the evening. And promise of more to come. The “pan-Asian” place everybody’s been speculating about. Kids playing in the fountains. Often a good musician, busking with a fiddle or saxophone. People walking dogs or sitting alone on the benches, reading novels. It’s such a simple thing, reading a novel on a park bench, but it was once a rare thing in downtown Knoxville. There’s something about seeing someone with a paperback in the evening that proves people have accepted a place, that they feel comfortable here.

Lately, Shakespearean actors onstage, practicing swordfights.

And it’s all been happening naturally—organically, as they say—without strict direction from some government-imposed überplan. I don’t know how to say this, but it was just seeming to work out better than we deserve.

To those whose memories stretch all the way back to the ’90s, the popularity of Market Square seems almost otherworldly. I used to have an office window overlooking the square, and often worked late, and on weekends. I remember summer evenings when there was hardly anything open on the square, and nobody afoot out there to care whether there was.

Its current activity surprises us who remember its quiet years. Its authenticity surprises those who remember the plans five or six years ago when powerful men were proposing covering and air-conditioning the place and standardizing its attractions in predictable ways for the enjoyment of conventioneers.

Maybe after all those years of tattered awnings and cornball proposals, I have modest standards for the most historic spot in East Tennessee. But this summer, I have been marveling at the place.

I hope things work out for my friends the Wests and for the several wonderfully peculiar businesses they created on the square.

They’ve been exceptional in a few ways. The time-honored Knoxville retail strategy has been to wait until a retail trend is thoroughly proven a success in Atlanta for a certain trial period—at least 10 years, 15 years to be on the safe side—before it’s deemed to be safe to introduce a watered-down version of it in Knoxville. The Wests were never that patient. They like to push things forward, whether it was an odd little toy called a Beanie Baby, which they sprung on an unsuspecting public in the early ’90s, or some crazy offbeat rock’n’roll band like the Tarbox Ramblers or Enter the Haggis or the Band of Humans.

I know nothing about the criminal charges leveled at some members of the family. But just so people don’t get the wrong idea about Market Square, I feel obliged to note that in my considerable experience with the place and its nightlife, which includes more than 100 evenings well-spent at Preservation Pub, I’ve never seen any controlled substance at all in any of the businesses the Wests owned, nor witnessed any offer of such.

Like you, I’ve seen marijuana all around town. I’ve seen working men smoke it on loading docks. I’ve seen elderly retirees pass it around at cocktail parties. I’ve seen joints come out at funerals. I smell it emanating from cars driving down Cumberland Avenue, or rising from grates on Gay Street sidewalks. I’ve seen it in yuppies’ trendy living rooms, growing as a droll potted plant. I’ve never been much interested in the stuff, but I’ve seen it so often over the last 30-odd years, I no longer say, “Hey, you’d better hide that stuff.” At rock festivals, kids smoke it openly. “Want a hit of this?” “No, thanks.” Cops walk by. There has come to be a level of informal tolerance. But formally, we still prosecute.

Judging by the sorts of questions that TV reporters ask, some are worried whether the taint of scandal will hurt the square. I can’t imagine that it will. It’s partly the taint of scandal that draws people to the square in the first place. More than any other place in town, it’s a place with a history, and you can feel it just walking around. There have been riots here, angry demonstrations, deadly saloon fights. It has seen whores and wrestlers and evangelists and Yankees and Confederates and corrupt mayors and Irish cops.

Some sordid scenes in the square’s deep past are described in well-known novels. Agee, McCarthy, Anne Armstrong, and David Madden described the many varieties of beggars, “miserable little waif dogs,” “pencil peddlars holding out their tireless arms,” farmwomen with “eyes like smudges of soot,” “amputees on roller carts or crutches,” pornographers, “pariahs,” “flower ladies in their bonnets like cowled gnomes,” “blind singers and organists and psalmists with mouth harps,” “wild street preachers haranguing a lost world with a vigor unknown to the sane.” Most of these arguably compromising descriptions of Market Square are in books that are available in most good bookstores in America.

Even the philanthropist who established Market Square and donated it to the city in 1853 was a businessman with a reputation for recklessness who was finally killed in a gunfight around the corner.

The reputation of Market Square is not very easy to taint.

Of course, it’s a complex place that’s also spawned music and poetry and careers in journalism. It was once regarded as the best food market in the Southern interior, and it’s where many Knoxvillians saw their first bicycle, and tasted their first Coca-Cola.

One William Gibbs McAdoo was arrested and held on the square in 1897 for inciting to riot. He later became U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, and a senator from California. That’s probably not much consolation.

Laws must be enforced, as long as they’re on the books. Regardless of how common marijuana is, if the common consensus is that it should remain illegal, our authorities have a job to do, a job so big it makes abolishing terrorism seem almost doable.

But there should be a clause somewhere in the statutes that in arresting offenders, law-enforcement authorities should not pursue retribution to the extent that it damages the community. Regardless of the Wests’ fate, their legal businesses on the square are worthy ones that should be allowed to thrive as much as the public is willing to support them.