secret_history (2007-12)

Take a Walk

The north side, afoot

by Jack Neely

A while back, my mother spent some time at St. Mary's Hospital, for knee surgery, and it occurred to me that it might behoove me to visit.

Of course, there are several ways to get to St. Mary's from downtown. Ask anybody. Most will tell you to get on the interstate, maybe via the Henley tunnel, or maybe the new interchanges to the east of the Old City, I-40 and then I-275 North, and get off at the Oldham/Woodland exit, 1B I think it is. There's a stoplight at Central, but be sure you get in the middle lane, because the others make you turn, and it's a mile or so, about a block off Woodland up on the left.

For contrarians who prefer non-highway routes, there are other options. But still you have to park. I dread parking at hospitals as much as some of the procedures performed therein. Do you look for a meter, or do you drive around the perimeter looking for a free space? I once returned to my car to find a neatly typed note from a St. Mary's neighbor tucked under my windshield wiper. She was requesting that I never park in front of her house again.

Or do you just bite the bullet and drive into the parking garage, and agree to whatever price the gate Nazi tells you to pay when you leave? (If you don't have the money on you, do they keep your car? I've come dangerously close to finding out.)

On my way to visit Mom, I also didn't much like the idea of finding a new parking space at the hospital when I had found a perfectly good parking space downtown that morning. So, what the heck, I thought. I'll leave my car alone. I'll walk.

And, you know, it's a funny thing. It's really not that big a deal.

The walk is shorter than any of the highway routes--about two miles, which can seem like a long distance afoot only in your hometown. Young lovers can do two miles on any beach before heaving the first sigh. Two miles in Manhattan is less than the length of Central Park, not necessarily far enough to pester a cabbie. In the Smokies, a hike of two miles is contemptibly short, too short to deserve a name. If a two-miler in the Smokies did have a name, it would probably be called The Old Wheezer's Trail or L'il Punkin Path.

But when you walk two miles from downtown Knoxville to St. Mary's Hospital, say--or Sequoyah Hills to Neyland Stadium, or Bearden to West Town Mall--people look at you like you're Moses. "My God!" they say. "You walked that far!"

And of course you nod and stroke your long beard, in a grizzled Yes, my friend sort of way. Awing Knoxvillians is part of the fun of living here.

The stroll from Gay Street to St. Mary's took just under half an hour. Walking to my parked car, driving through congested streets and negotiating interstate exists, and then parking again would hardly have saved any time. I felt kind of silly for having driven that route so habitually over the years.

Arriving at St. Mary's after an aerobic walk, I felt maybe a little less likely to arrive there in a big van with a siren and flashing lights.

And it's an entertaining and educational journey. Walking north from downtown, you first come upon charmingly odd, vestigial Emory Place, which looks like a forgotten village's town square, except that it's not square. It's the footprint of a big farmers' market demolished a century ago, whereupon it became a public park, then a parking lot. Some pretty churches, melancholy Old Gray Cemetery across the street, Harb's venerable old rug place, the flatiron building, and a couple of second-hand shops and art galleries. One is Ironwood Studios, the most unusual wood and metalworking shop in town, barely a block down Jennings.

From there you have a choice of routes. The week my mom was in the hospital, I tried a different one every day. Broadway's interesting, with the cool Three Rivers Market and the tattoo place and gorgeous old Greystone and the Fellini Kroger. But it's noisy, and entails crossing a troublesome highway on-ramp with no signal, no crosswalk--and most drivers, I've found, believe that if you're crossing while they're doing something as important as getting their cars onto I-40, they're licensed, or perhaps obligated, to kill you.

Central's quieter and safer from crazy traffic, interesting in its own way, and, though desolate in patches, the focus of some offbeat new development. On Central is the legendary Corner Lounge, the Sisters of Charity, the Taoist Tai Chi Society, the XYZ Club, most of them in what the old-timers call Happy Holler, once the millworkers' equivalent of the Las Vegas Strip. Next to Toot's Little Honky Tonk is a gaily-painted place called Bienvenidos, which appears to stock "Love and Things." The Time Warp Tea Room, unique in all the world, offers a museum of antique motorcycles and pinball machines with fancy coffees and good fresh sandwiches.

Central affords a couple of excellent luncheon options. The Original Freezo (alphabetized in the phone book, of course, under The ) may be the last dining establishment in Knoxville with a walk-up window, like something at Myrtle Beach in the '40s. It's an amenity I appreciate. A couple of times I enjoyed a lunch of chili and tamales on the concrete picnic tables beneath the big oak tree in back. It felt like a vacation. Seeing my car in the parking lot would have spoiled it.

But as walks go, the most pleasant route was right up the throat of Old North. I have friends who live in that lovely tree-shaded neighborhood, and have attended lots of parties there. But I'd never just walked through the place and had a good look at it all together like that.

It's gentrifying, and now decidedly on the rich side, but there are still a few holdouts, people who evangelize with lawn ornaments or use their front porches for major storage, proudly defiant of esthetics. They bought into North Knoxville when it was on the decline, and prefer it that way.

Most of the old Victorians and early 20th-century bungalows are now renovated. On Scott, near Central, is the childhood home of Clarence Brown. The mill executive's son and UT engineering grad who later became the MGM director who discovered Greta Garbo grew up there. The one next door to it, the tall, melancholy one, used to be a block away, across Central. Its move to this hilltop a couple of years ago was maybe the most impressive feat of its sort in the city's history.

Nothing ties a place together in your mind like a good walk. Like a lot of North Knoxville, when you're driving Old North can seem paradoxical, nonlinear, like some kind of Escher illusion.

North Knoxville makes more sense afoot. As do a lot of things.