secret_history (2007-14)

Like New

Marking big changes to our oldest bike trail, and one of our oldest houses

by Jack Neely

The Third Creek Bike Trail has drawn comparisons to hiking trails in the Smoky Mountains. It's an unlikely comparison, being as it's right between one of the highest-traffic segments of Kingston Pike and the industrial/commercial section of Sutherland Avenue, and hardly a quarter mile from either. But for more than 30 years, the trail has climbed small hills, crossing the creek more than once on little wooden bridges, meandering through a forest of natural thick undergrowth. At many points, especially in summertime, buildings and cars and roads were unseen or at least indistinct. It was a handy break from the human race. People were always outnumbered by visible wildlife: snakes, turtles, wading herons, and especially rabbits. Over the years there have been reports of deer down here. That must have been a sight to behold even when we recognize that it's probably not a very good place for a deer to be.

It's been like that since the '70s. But this spring, as people venture back outside, they're finding that the original part of the bike trail, which is the oldest part of Knoxville's ever-spreading greenway system, is wholly different. The course of the creek, long ago rerouted to make room for nearby development, has been redirected to something closer to its more meandering original form, a move which engineers believe will help control flooding and improve water quality.

But what you may notice first is that most of the greenway's acres and acres of undergrowth is plumb gone. Most of the taller trees are right where they're supposed to be, but in place of the jungle is an expansive carpet of straw, and in some places green grass showing through. Suddenly the old bike trail looks like an urban park.

I have mixed feelings about the change. It's maybe more user-friendly, especially for those users who are bipedal. Previously, only the trail was accessible, because the underbrush was mostly impenetrable, at least without heavy khakis and a pith helmet. There was a scant trail through one section, but in decades of riding the trail, I saw people walking on it only three or four times. It was practically a briar patch.

It's much easier to imagine kids romping around on the open grass, or people taking picnics or volleyball games or a laptop down there.

And it's probably safer. Serious crime has never been common on the bike trail, but then again, it's not unheard of. There have been occasional rashes of rapes in there, a robbery a few years ago, the inevitable rumors of satanic soirees . A long time ago, two men just out of prison went down there to have it out, and only one emerged alive.

All that will seem less likely now. But then, so will the rabbits.

It was probably the wildest section on the near-west part of town, and I can only guess at its importance to the vestiges of a wetlands ecosystem that's been compromised here for more than a century and cut off from areas where animals could roam much without getting run over.

It's already noticeably noisier, with so much less arboreal insulation to muffle the sounds of traffic from up the hill on Kingston Pike, and industry across the tracks along Sutherland. You can see lots of buildings now, including the junior-sized buildings of the police department's educational Safety City, with its own diminutive Sunsphere.

I wouldn't be surprised if usage increases significantly, as more of the greenway appears to be usable to lumbering tender-footed bipeds. And as much as I enjoyed the sheer weirdness of having this patch of wilderness right between UT and Bearden, there's something to be said for maximizing usage of city land as opposed to rural land. When I was a kid, families who could afford to left town on weekends, if only to have a picnic. Thousands of Knoxvillians evacuated the city, to run motorboats in distant lakes, or go to a foothills resort to visit a theme park with a simulated ocean, or simulated rapids, or drive up to the mountains to watch TV in an RV. It was just what you did if you lived in Knoxville, you left town every chance you got.

A lot of them left town on weekends because there weren't many opportunities for relaxing outdoors within the city of Knoxville. Maybe if people annoy the wildlife here, they'll pester it less elsewhere.

I'm just trying to think of it that way.

You'll have to admit, the old brick James Park house at the corner of Walnut and Cumberland has never looked better. The subject of a major renovation that involved removing a large postwar addition, it survived a near-catastrophe when a major wall collapsed a couple of years ago. Built about two centuries ago by Irish immigrant and sometime Knoxville mayor James Park, it's been renovated to look more like its original self than most people are old enough to remember.

The resourceful Claussen family has directed the work, with help from architect Lee Ingram. It's going to be the new headquarters of the Gulf & Ohio Railroad, a regional freight concern that also runs the little passenger-excursion line the Three Rivers Rambler, which boards just down the hill.

It was already old when most of the downtown buildings we think of as historic were built. It was already one of the oldest homes in town in 1888, when on the sidewalk right in front, a newspaper columnist on his way to church shot and killed an angry, knife-wielding reader, bent on revenge for an alleged insult.

Knoxville has grown up around the James Park house. One story has it that old Crooked Street got its name from the fact it had to jag around to miss the James Park house. Crooked Street is still crooked, of course, even though it's now called Walnut.

When Whittle Communications planned its grandiose new headquarter building 20 years ago, they were obliged to build around the James Park house. For that reason, part of the west wing of the Whittle Building, now the Howard Baker Federal Courthouse, is tenuously thin, no wider than a hallway. It's an architectural trompe l'oeil . From the ground on both sides, it looks substantial. From the air, it looks timid and obeisant, slipping by the James Park house as if hoping maybe it won't notice.

The house still sticks out stubbornly in its neighborhood, still in the way, across the street from the big marble art-moderne post office, next door to the faux-Georgian federal courthouse, across another street from the gothic marble of St. John's Episcopal Church. Its style is plain, its windows rectangular, and it has a yard and a porch and a pitched roof.

It's one of the two or three oldest buildings downtown, but you have to wonder: if it were built today, would it pass the city's new historic guidelines?