secrethistory (2007-47)


Secret History

Are we finally big enough to think of downtown in three dimensions?

by Jack Neely

Look, Iâ’ve got nothing against Gay Street. My office window looks out on Gay Street. I shop there, I eat there, I see shows there. I spend hours at its cafe tables, sorting things out. On Gay Street I can buy avant-garde sculpture, hiking boots, fine wine, and Afro wigs. I can get my watch fixed, get a car loan, watch a parade, sue somebody. I can see operas and rock shows and now movies. All in a stretch of less than one mile called Gay Street. Itâ’s the most dependably fun street in town.

I have almost half a century of good memories of Gay Street: Beatles movies and Dylan concerts; deli sandwiches and sidewalk beers; Santa Claus parades and opera festivals. When a squadron of Aussie motorcyclists stopped me on my bike on Neyland Drive and asked the best street in Knoxville to drive their choppers down, I didnâ’t hesitate. I told them Gay Street. Iâ’m sure my friends on Gay Street appreciated that.

Knoxville loves Gay. Not that thereâ’s anything wrong with that.

But I wonder if the whole cityâ’s maybe too Gay-happy. Or, if you prefer, Gay-gay. First, the history center was reoriented away from its original entrances on Clinch and Market to a single grand entrance on Gay. Then the tourist center moved from Volunteer Landing to Gay Street. Then the concentration of condos went in on Gay, much of it with city assistance. Then most of the galleries and boutiques in and around Worldâ’s Fair Park moved to Gay. Then the movie theater, originally proposed for a spot over near Locust, wound up on Gay Street. Planners of the prospective Sentinel Tower, which is sited at State and Church, are trying work in Gay Street frontage; after all, skyscrapers are always on Gay Street. The much-anticipated but elusive downtown grocery that once seemed fated for Union Avenue, or Market Square, or the Old City, looks most likely to finally go in on Gay Street.

Well, itâ’s enough, I think. Gay Streetâ’s Gay Street, and itâ’s doing all right. Itâ’s a fun road with a lot of stuff on it. Itâ’s past time to start building the city out beyond the Gay Street axis.

A few honest contrarians have lately remarked that in spite of all the new development, the new residents, the new activity, downtown makes for a surprisingly unsatisfying walk. They have a point. If you walk a lot downtown, youâ’ll be doing a lot of walking back and forth, most of it on Gay. If you stray off Gayâ"or Market Square, or the Old Cityâ"youâ’ll find a bunch of perhaps occupied but blank-faced offices, parking garages, parking lots, and blank backs of buildings.

Downtown was once better distributed; a little over a century ago, Gay Street was Knoxvilleâ’s busiest street, but it wasnâ’t the only street for big projects and lively activity. The tallest building downtown, and one of the prettiest, was the Vendome, which was on Clinch, west of Market. One of the biggest, poshest, most architecturally extravagant hotels was the Palace, on State, near old Commerce Street. Ross Flats was an elaborate stone-front building with street-level retail at Walnut and Church. All thatâ’s torn down, now, all of it serving as surface parkingâ"for people who are bound for Gay Street.

One odd exception is hotels: For 150 years, most of Knoxvilleâ’s hotels were on Gay Street. Now none of them are. Some are in the aforementioned desiccated areas, which can give visitors a skewed impression. Rock star David Byrneâ’s disparaging remarks about downtownâ’s vacancy, based on a brief jaunt from the Holiday Inn, reflect that.

Do other cities put so much emphasis on one street? Chattanooga, which is smaller than Knoxville, has two parallel main streets that offer lots of interesting circular walks. Asheville, which people persistently assume is larger than Knoxville, has main streets that intersect, and lots of interest on side streets.

But here in Knoxville, everythingâ’s Gay Street, Gay Street, Gay Street. I bet most of downtown feels like the second Brady Bunch daughter. Whatever her name was.

The all-eggs-in-one-basket approach has had a particularly negative effect on State Street. Maybe our State Street was never a great street, but it was the site of Tennesseeâ’s first capitol building (torn down in the â‘20s) and once a legitimate place to run a business. Fifty years ago, State was home to Knoxvilleâ’s main bus station, a couple of lodge houses, three restaurants, a beer joint, about 35 other businessesâ"including printing shops, sporting-goods stores, a chewing-gum manufacturer, and the office windows of two daily newspapersâ"plus about 100 residences.

The seven-block stretch of State that once sustained most of that activity now hosts mainly parkingâ"and the First Presbyterian Church, which, after two centuries there, seems to be ignoring the evacuation order.

In the last decade, State Street has witnessed a lot of demolition. It claimed the urban cluster of buildings around the Tennessee Mine and Mill headquarters, once home to a few thriving businesses and, a decade ago, slated for a promising mixed-use private redevelopment. In a city-county one-two punch of imaginary baseball fields and justice centers, it was razed and paved over, resulting in whatâ’s easily the most underused parking lot downtown. Plans to build a mixed-use tower in conjunction with the now-relocated transit center have been abandoned, and the county has no alternate plans for the property. The county sometimes uses it for storage of random oversized junk. Meanwhile, the Cal Johnson Building, genuinely historic for reasons other than mere ageâ"how many cities in the world have a large urban building built by a former slave, with his own name inscribed high on the facade?â"continues to deteriorate.

State Street is so bleak it even undermines Gay Street. From James White Parkway, Stateâ’s vacancy gives all Gayâ’s historic buildings and upscale new development a back-lot surreality. To develop the rest of the center city, maybe weâ’ll have to prove it helps Gay Street.


All content © 2007 Metropulse .