secret_history (2007-03)

On Chipman Street

A eulogy for a lane most of us first heard about last week

by Jack Neely

Chipman Street is more proof that none of us know Knoxville very well. Before last week’s news, many of us who claim to know Knoxville didn’t know there was such a street. It’s across the railroad tracks from the modest foot of North Hills, but most of the roads that come down the hill from that middle-class neighborhood end just before they get there. It’s across the interstate from Park Ridge; when the expressway came through, Chipman Street got the lesser part of two bad deals. It’s a confusing ways northeast of Fourth and Gill; from all those places you have to look at a map to find it.

None of those neighborhoods want to claim Chipman Street. Reporters were baffled about how to identify the scene where two young people were killed, apparently for no particular reason. Some called it “North Knoxville.” Some called it “East Knoxville.” The fact is that it’s off the grid, kind of in a no-man’s land where East Knoxville meets North Knoxville. Or, more accurately, it’s where East Knoxville and North Knoxville fail to meet.

On a map, Chipman Street is right in the middle of lots of familiar places, but it’s in a part of town that seems designed to bewilder. The numbered avenues have never made much sense from the earliest days, and even less since the highway construction chopped them up. Chipman Street is hardly half a mile long. It starts at Ninth, the last of the numbered avenues, and goes about four crooked blocks east before bending out of existence into Galway Street.

Less than a mile in various directions, you can find strong signs of hope. New construction over on Sixth, bright new paint jobs and real-estate prices rising to the north and to the south. But it would be easy to live on Chipman Street and never guess old Knoxville was changing in the least.

It’s a melancholy coincidence that one of the most notorious murders in Knoxville history was committed on North Eighth Avenue, just around the corner and across the tracks. On Labor Day weekend, 1919, an intruder killed a young woman named Bertie Lindsey in her bedroom. That murder would not be anything we would have heard of if not for the popular young man accused of the crime, falsely, most agree, and the lynch mob that spawned mob violence and more murder, the worst riot in Knoxville history.

Sometimes a property owner would tear down a house where an especially horrific murder had happened. But in that case, the house survived. Even after 88 years, people still look it up.

On Chipman Street are some warehouses and a corrugated-box company. There’s also an apparently empty office building and an odd little hut of corrugated tin with a sign that says “Truck Scales.” Waste Connections, the big trash-disposal company is here, with its fleet of garbage trucks. Simple old houses stand stubbornly among the warehouses, but a big part of Chipman Street is nothing at all, just the winter’s dead undergrowth, a few flat acres of gray scrub and no trees. It looks like a desolate beach. There aren’t many eyes to see what happens here.

It’s not a very popular name for a street, globally. There are Chipman Streets in Kenora, Ont.; Owosso, Mich.; and Laurel, Del. But the search engine Google suggests that despite its obscurity, the most famous Chipman Street in the world, this week at least, is this one in Knoxville.

It was developed in the early 1920s, if developed is not too cheerful a word for it. It’s not a grand old place that has declined; people have always lived here mainly because they could afford to. Throughout its history, the tracks have been right there, and residents have been awakened by the scream of passing trains. The odd little street seems to have been developed for a single purpose. In the 1920s most factory workers didn’t have cars; they had to live near the mill so they could walk to work.

Today, the most impressive presence in the neighborhood lords over it like a manor house: a large old brick factory building alongside the Norfolk-Southern tracks at Ninth Avenue. It’s a handsome, formidable building, but appears not to be used for much anymore. It was once the Holston Manufacturing Company. Founded here in 1921, it was a major hosiery mill, back in the days when Knoxville boasted it was the Underwear Capital of the World. They greeted visitors at an office in the General Building downtown, but did the real work out here in this suburban factory.

Its vice president, in the early days, was probably its most famous executive, a member of a well-established hosiery business family of northeastern Pennsylvania. Holston may have valued Frank L. Chipman for his business connections, though he apparently preferred to live in New York. When the company established employee residences nearby, they named it Chipman Street.

In those early days, it was a mainly residential lane, with about 30 households and Milligan’s Grocery on one corner, but it always had a little industry—the Cherokee Brick Co. and the Tennessee Lumber and Manufacturing Co. had small operations there.

Over the years, industrial purposes nudged several of the residences out, but there are still almost 20 households on the street.

Crime ruins many opportunities. It would be wonderful if any city could offer the option of a cheap neighborhood, a place where nearly anybody could afford to live: students, busboys, columnists. Even people who could afford to live in much bigger or more comfortable homes might be tempted. There are so many more interesting and important things to spend your money on than the place where you sleep. If only cheap neighborhoods didn’t tend to come with that tendency to attract criminals.

People in the neighborhood seem wary of the outside world. Security fences do a good business around Chipman Street, where there are Beware of Dog signs. Even the house where it all happened is surrounded by a big security fence, as if trying to keep the evil world out.

People talk about bad neighborhoods, but this neighborhood didn’t hurt anybody. The suspects were unfamiliar newcomers. Their other victim was the neighborhood itself.