secret_history (2007-02)

America’s Doormat

A short but ambitious wish list for the new year

by Jack Neely

My fondest, and least likely, wish for 2007 is that, having seen that we can live without the James White Parkway for a few months of construction, we’ll finally realize we can live without it forever.

Several years ago, during the Volunteer Landing project, I had coffee with a visiting author who writes about urban issues. I mentioned the problems with linking the riverfront with the CBID. She blinked, and said, “If they were planning to do all this, why didn’t they just restore the street grid? Looks like nobody’s using that big highway, anyway.”

A good answer wasn’t handy. I said, well, maybe they just didn’t think about it. We never do. When big guys want to lay asphalt in big swooping patterns, we get out of the way.

Some have argued in these pages that the Parkway helps downtown, just by limiting it. Downtown’s miniscule size, hemmed in as it is by highways and a university, is what guarantees its success. Given Knoxville’s large and growing metropolitan area, there’s more demand for downtown acreage than supply. If just one percent of Knoxville-area residents want to live in a place where they can get up in the morning and walk out to get a cup of coffee and a newspaper—or walk to and from a theater or a bar without getting into a car at night—well, sorry, just that’s more than we can accommodate any time soon.

Maybe the limit does help force a sort of desperate success on downtown, but it also means that right now, what supply there is goes mainly to the affluent. And it’s hard to force developers to cater to the middle or working class when the well-heeled are offering them a million dollars for one floor of an old building.

Meanwhile, James White Parkway sits. Until recently, my office window looked out on its luxuriant 11-lane expanse. There are one-way streets downtown that get more traffic. And it’s famously dysfunctional, in ways that I suspect SmartFix won’t fix. Everybody has a loony James White Parkway story, of trying to get downtown from the South Knoxville Bridge, and ending up in Chilhowee Park, or Jellico. With its blind alleys and delight in irrevocable mistakes, it’s an automobile funhouse.

The weirdest accident I’ve ever seen in my life was down there, three or four years ago. Late on a sunny Sunday morning, I was walking on the old Church viaduct. Guy was driving pretty fast down from one of those ramps of indistinct origin, northbound, whether he liked it or not—and his car just flipped over on its side. Just wham, and it was over. He climbed out. He stood and looked at his car curiously. It was still right on the highway, but in nobody’s way. There wasn’t anybody to be seen. I would have called the cops, but I doubted whether they knew of a sure way to get down there.

Anyway, before we spend any more money on it, what if we were to just abolish the James White Parkway and build about 60 new city blocks on it? It would be great for pedestrian access, it would be great for tax collections, and it would allow thousands more Knoxvillians to be able to live downtown, perhaps even affordably.

It won’t happen, though. Highways are never reclaimed for development, not in East Tennessee. We revere highways like we revere cemeteries. Someday there will be a federal holiday, a national Highway Day, and we’ll use it to decorate them with American flags.

It would also be nice to think that in 2007 we can learn to accommodate corporate development in ways that are good for the long-term health of the city.

For most of the 20th century, one of the symbols of Fountain City was the extravagant old Williams house, a large brick Victorian on Broadway near Gibbs. It was a sure sign you were entering a different community—one of the things newcomers would notice, and get the feeling they’re not in North Knoxville anymore.

In 1980 the Target corporation acquired the property and tore it down to build a big store. Though it added some convenience, and some jobs, many regretted that they tore down a building of genuine architectural distinction and built a big cheap store with windowless walls, just like hundreds of other identical ones all over the nation.

A few years ago, a young, successful professional couple moved to Knoxville. They made their livings online, and could live anywhere, and decided on Knoxville. One of them had lived in Knoxville many years before, remembered Litton’s fondly, and deemed Knoxville a good place to raise kids. Online she read a cover story I wrote about Fountain City back in the ’90s, and it made her nostalgic. They contacted me and I assured them that, yes, Fountain City is a lovely place to live.

They found a house on the web, a charming old bungalow, and fell in love with it just from the pictures the owner had sent them. When they got here, they still liked the house, and their immediate neighborhood, and Litton’s. But I realized that I had oversold Fountain City. 

“What did you mean?” they said. “This place is an armpit.” Evidence was abundant, in the strip malls and parking lots and billboards of North Broadway, but Exhibit A was near their house, the big Target.

“Well, the pretty part’s over there,” I said. “Maybe you missed it.” And there is still a distinctively charming area around Hotel Avenue. But I realized I’d already lost the argument. And that the Fountain City I described to my friends wasn’t wholly there anymore. They didn’t stay long.

Early last year, Target decided it no longer wants the property flattened for its store. Now owned by another out-of-state concern, it’s been vacant for some months.

It’s just one example of many. I’m told that in Fountain City, it’s a popular thing to blame its aesthetic decline on the 1961 incorporation into the city of Knoxville, but that sounds a little mushy. Look farther out, in Halls, which is not incorporated. It’s no Eden. When you cross city limits in any direction, there’s not much of a bump in terms of strip development. Broadway, Kingston Pike, Clinton Highway—cross city limits anywhere, and it’s all still pretty ugly.

But maybe there should be a bump. The city should look better, not worse, than less-governed areas. The Target example is an argument in favor of impact fees—and also in favor of historic-overlay zoning, and more aggressive city involvement in saving landmarks.

What makes a community ugly is old-fashioned worship of property rights combined with modern strategies of corporate domination. A community of tough-talking property-rights absolutists, for practical purposes, is a passive community, and easy prey.

Like a good wife, we don’t complain. Corporations in Minnesota or Illinois or Texas tell us what they want and how they want it, and we reply, with the proud spark of pioneer property-rights defiance in our eye , Yes, dear .