secret_history (2006-33)

Fifteen Years in Knoxville

Metro Pulse’s hidden agenda

by Jack Neely

In Metro Pulse ’s earliest days, we had a mission that went a little beyond just reporting the news and getting the word out about upcoming shows. We were, consciously and unconsciously, trying to push this old place forward. Before we could do that, we felt obliged to introduce the city to itself.

In the summer of 1991, Knoxville had a significant population of 170,000, a lively and diverse economy, a roughly intact central business district, a lovely waterfront setting, one of the biggest universities east of the Mississippi, and not the vaguest sense of itself as a city.

Even Knoxvillians tended to call it a “small town.” Though Knoxville was far too big to qualify as a “small city” in the Rand-McNally surveys that said nice things about Maryville and Johnson City, East Tennessee’s closest thing to a metropolis still struck people as a puny, inconsiderable place. Mayor Ashe was fond of calling it the biggest small town in America. Knoxville wasn’t a small town, but it was maybe a confederacy of small towns who hardly knew each other.

Some people in West Knoxville thought Burlington, Mechanicsville, and Fountain City were small towns, maybe in some other county. Maybe somewhere in North Carolina.

People in Lincoln Park thought everybody in Sequoyah Hills was rich. People in Sequoyah Hills thought Lincoln Park was in Chicago. Island Home was maybe a place rich people go for an expensive vacation. Fort Sanders was a hospital. (“You mean you live at the hospital?” a Knoxvillian once asked me.)

When West Knoxvillians regularly talked about the city’s “population center” having moved to Cedar Bluff, what they really meant was the population center of people who attended their church: the people in their own small town.

The vagueness was easy to understand. The news media reported as much about remote rural places as they did about Knoxville neighborhoods, and when Knoxvillians heard a word like “Vestal,” they didn’t know whether it was part of South Knoxville, hardly a mile from the Henley Street Bridge, or some holler in Rhea County.

And Knoxvillians, for the most part, didn’t leave their own zip codes except when they went on vacation.

Lifelong Knoxvillians, disconnected from most of their city, shared a certain impression with many newcomers that Knoxville was neither particularly interesting nor particularly important.

To judge by the annual popularity polls in one of the dailies, Knoxvillians thought most fondly of their city when they thought of it as a convenient accumulation of national-chain restaurants and stores, with the bonus of cable service. Plus a college that had a football team that played a half-dozen games a year in Knoxville and was famous all the way from here to Memphis.

If anyone criticized the place, Knoxvillians were quick to protest that their home was every bit as good as Morristown. They’d dare you to say it wasn’t.

And they liked it that way. Whatever way that was. It’s good enough; go to hell.

The local media celebrated Knoxville as an island of Middle-America in the middle of what they considered the main thing about Knoxville—which was the parts of East Tennessee outside of Knoxville. You might sleep in Knoxville, you might keep a desk and a phone in Knoxville, but you lived in the mountains, on the lakes.

We’re used to thinking of cities as leading their regions. Knoxville was a city that seemed contentedly dominated by its countryside.

A lot of things have changed, good and bad. We’ve lost pro baseball, if only to Sevier County, but considering that it was a stalwart of urban culture for more than a century, one of the few places Knoxvillians ever got together, it’s a loss that was felt.

Whittle Communications crashed, leaving a giant building that will surprise newcomers for decades to come, and dozens of wriggling creative sorts, looking for something to do. One of Whittle’s problems had been recruiting talent from other cities. One chief complaint from applicants who came to visit was Knoxville’s dearth of nice places to live downtown.

That and Knoxville’s relative lack of public transportation. In 1991, the last buses left downtown at about 6.

Most Knoxvillians in 1991 thought of downtown as a sort of fleabitten office park. The Old City could be fun, on a good night, but the decaying modernist façades that concealed the original buildings through most of the CBID were dark after 5 and awfully quiet.

Market Square was a failed shopping mall, but still home to the homely department store Watson’s, and a lunchtime amenity for TVA employees. Even the Tomato Head was just a modest weekday lunch spot. The venerable Miller’s Building was covered with reflective glass. Many believed it had long since been torn down.

The downtown riverfront was a mud bank on either side of Calhoun’s. Knoxville’s only bike trail connected a dead-end road near Tyson Park with a parking lot behind some UT apartments, a little over a mile away.

The “World’s Fair site” was just that, a site: a spot where something once happened. One redevelopment plan after another had died, not due to public opposition—it was hard to tell the public cared all that much—but due to developers studying it and pulling out. The city kept trying to sell it, but no developer wanted to risk real money on the prospect.

Street festivals were almost unknown. The Dogwood Arts Festival, which had started as a smart and lively celebration, had deteriorated into a sort of weird but strictly sober yard sale, enlivened with karaoke evangelism. Mention of the name of name Rossini didn’t bring to mind wine, lasagna, and jazz on Gay Street.

There was no such thing as a Museum of East Tennessee History, nor an Agee Park.

Other cities had brewpubs and wine bars and Thai restaurants. We didn’t. Coffee came in one flavor: styrofoam. Other cities had sidewalk cafes. Knoxville still operated under the once-accurate assumption that outside was dirty. You didn’t want to get outside stuff on your food.

Internet chat groups hardly existed to begin with, much less those devoted to local issues.

Ashley Capps was best known as a public-radio deejay whose admirable experiment with starting a nightclub was sputtering to an end. And nobody ever pronounced the word “Bonnaroo.”

The Convention Center was some big rooms in basement of the Holiday Inn.

Turkey Creek was just a creek. That suited some people fine.

Metro Pulse hasn’t always been on the progressive side. When Volunteer Landing was proposed, we pooh-poohed it as an “$8 million sidewalk.”

In fact, we criticized, made fun of, and in some cases ridiculed several of these initiatives. A few turned out better than we expected. Some turned out worse. But the city of Knoxville is altogether a better place to live than it was in 1991, and we’d like to think we did something to raise the public’s awareness of opportunities, and maybe helped refine the quantity we have come to know as Knoxville.