secrethistory (2008-02)

Vote Every Day

Secret History

Want a better city? Change it

by Jack Neely

Last weekâ’s cover story was devoted to what our readers would like to see happen in Knoxville in the year 2008. There were a lot of good ideas, many of which I share.

But I get the impression that behind most wishes is the assumption that somebody else will take care of it. Some genie, or mayor, or big, deep-pocketed paternal entity making decisions for us. Of those expressed last week, some were wishes we can best make happen ourselves.

Consider New Yearâ’s Eve on Market Square. It was a lovely event, a jolly crush of of people of all ages and sizes and colors, counting down together, cheering together, singing â“Auld Lang Syneâ” together. And they were not even, by Market Square standards, at least, drunk.

The engineers of the event deserve a lot of credit, partly just for taking the riskâ"even they were anxious about whether it would work. The idea that Knoxvillians would stand outside on a chilly, wet evening until midnight without handy beer was no sure thing. It was a fun evening not just because the mayors or the Superchamber or any other big boys declared it so. Anybody whoâ’s lived here long knows that a lot of well-footed events turn out to be embarrassing bores. It was successful because several thousand citizens wanted it to be.

A lot of dreams are like that. My wish for 2008 is that, if only as a one-year experiment, people would take action on their own. Weâ’ll vote next month to nominate presidential and County Commission candidates, and both ends of that election will be very important. But you can vote to improve Knoxville every day.

Hereâ’s one way to do it: Patronize locally owned businesses, especially those that take creative chances. Vote with your wallet. Whatever you want or need, find somebody who can get if for you, and ask. If you like edgy foreign films, see them when they come by. If you like any given trendy sweatshirt, before you drive to Atlanta or order it online, bug your favorite retailer about it. Maybe itâ’ll open a hole and start a retail channel.

Every day, people find themselves with a spare 50 bucks and go out and blow it at a chain restaurant they saw on TV. Some chain restaurants serve food that tastes real good; nearly everything does when you melt Velveeta on top of it. But good-tasting food is just part of what you invest in when you eat out. When you take your Knoxville money and spend it at a chain, youâ’re investing in the idea that nationally calculated menu items, focus-grouped and kitchen-tested in Newark, are better than the crap your East Tennessee neighbors make.

When you spend your money on locally owned businesses, your moneyâ’s much more likely to stay in town, which is good for employment, growth, the tax base. Youâ’re also investing in the idea that Knoxville is a place different from Des Moines or Toledo or Charlotte and, in some ways, maybe better.

If you wish Knoxville had better restaurants, thereâ’s not a municipal restaurant czar whoâ’s there to help. Patronize the best ones we have, and try new ones. Make suggestions. But encourage them to do what they do best. Donâ’t go to a Thai restaurant and tell them to leave off the spices.

If you like bland food, and maybe thereâ’s good reason to like bland food, go to a bland-food place, and be proud. Order the chicken and dumplings and green peas and a Bud Light. Maybe it will encourage them to make the food even blander, memorably bland, raise blandness to a new art. Maybe weâ’ll have a restaurant called McBlandieâ’s, and Knoxville will become famous for its subtlety.

I like spicy food, but if we had a McBlandieâ’s, Iâ’d go there, occasionally at least, and brag about it to my bereft friends in Atlanta and Nashville who donâ’t live in a city diverse enough to support authentic blanderie.

Hereâ’s my wish, though: that I donâ’t look at the News Sentinelâ’s annual reader poll and find that readers have once again chosen Pizza Hut as East Tennesseeâ’s Best Pizza. How can the Chamber use that information? â“Hey, come to Knoxville! Youâ’ve heard of Pizza Hut? Weâ’ve got some Pizza Huts right here!â”

If you want better public transportation, and it seems as if almost everybody does, well, ride the bus now and then. Service follows demand, and I bet if only half the people who say we need better public transportation actually used public transportation, weâ’d have better public transportation in short order.

Several years ago, KAT greatly expanded its schedules, offering better evening service than ever. I expected folks to start riding buses home at night, especially from bars, festivals, and parties in the downtown and UT areas. Not everybody could easily use the KAT buses to get home after a few drinks, but tens of thousands could. But every night, it was the usual group: a custodian or two, a couple of grad students from India, a few late-shift hospital workers, a teenage restaurant worker whoâ’s saving to buy a car. Sometimes it was just me.

It was particularly striking after Sundown in the City concerts. Here youâ’ve got 10,000 people downtown, most of them drinking, all of them having to deal with parking issues. Just three or four blocks from the show, several modern, alternative-fuel buses were waiting to take them in multiple directions. How many Sundown revelers do you think rode the buses? Based on my spot checks, it was sometimes as many as one or two.

In 2007, partly due to lack of demand, KAT cut back on its evening services; now thereâ’s only one bus an hour, and the last oneâ’s at 11:15, half an hour earlier than it used to be. Maybe, for now, we have the public transportation we deserve.

Maybe every populace gets the city it deserves. Iâ’m still optimistic that this particular populace is getting more lively and interesting.


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