The Small Giant: A Spring Saturday, and a "Sudden and Brief Exclamation" About Knoxville

I had things to do on Saturday afternoon, but it was such a lovely day I took a walk through Market Square. It wasn't a quick walk. During the sidewalk-art competition, the Square was thickly crowded. To proceed forward you had to look for one slow current or another and just hope the people in front of you don't encounter another dog that fascinates them.

The sidewalk art this year is expert, sometimes astonishing. The first couple of years, I wasn't sure we'd get the hang of it. The people playing on the upright pianos were awfully appealing, too. Some teenager girls were playing a bit of what I thought was Mozart until I recognized the strains of one of the catchiest pop hits of recent years, Cee Lo Green's "F--k You."

Over where the farmers' market people were teasing us with what they won't be delivering every Saturday until next month, I bought some green onions and hot peppers. Some hippies were smoking something and another guy was playing classical vibraphones, something familiar but exotic.

From people who travel a lot, one of the most common remarks about downtown is how compact it is. It focuses activity wonderfully, as is obvious during the Dogwood Arts Festival. The theaters and nightclubs and the public square and the movie theater and parking and the tourist center, they're all close to each other, to a degree that's unusual in American cities.

For a region of well over one million, the closest approximation to a downtown is only half a square mile. That does limit some prospects. Both new-construction developers and historic preservationist developers are concerned that there's just not much left to work with. How many cities in the world are running out of old downtown buildings to fix up for new purposes? Demand is still outpacing supply.

Sometimes it's ascribed to the fact that downtown is hemmed in with wide highways on the north and east and the river on the south side—and the never- retreating boundaries of the university on the southwest. And it's true, downtown is much smaller than it was 60 or 80 years ago. Big projects have trimmed it on three sides.

But that compactness remark is actually a very old one. I once saw an 1890 list of American cities by population density, and was surprised to see Knoxville listed above Chicago in that regard. I was looking for something else last week when I ran across an odd description of Knoxville from an unnamed writer for the Atlanta Constitution, in June, 1882.

"Knoxville is as solid as a rock," wrote the unnamed writer. "With this sudden and brief exclamation, I am prepared to say some pleasant things about the city. There is probably no city in the South that presents a more substantial appearance every way than Knoxville. To the stranger within her gates, she looks small; but this compactness only gives her an air of pretentiousness and thrift when one moves about the streets and gets into the true inwardness of things...."

There's some pretty odd word choice in there: "pretentiousness and thrift" usually don't go together, and "true inwardness" seems to raise psychological issues. But maybe we can guess what he means. The word "pretentious" sometimes meant ambitious, and in big cities and small ones, architecture of the era was very proudly pretentious. He would likely have seen the Kern building, the Fidelity building, Staub's Opera House.

"Thrift" might refer to that compactness itself, that in 1882's Knoxville—which was more or less 2013's downtown Knoxville—there was no wasted space.

"This town is a small giant. Commercially she ranks second to Atlanta in the South, excepting Nashville and New Orleans." He followed with lots of figures about wholesale business and manufacturing.

"I am prepared to believe almost anything about Knoxville, having been already so completely overwhelmed with surprise. I had expected to see a poky, sleepy mountain town of some 10,000 inhabitants, and was totally unprepared to welcome a thriving city nearly half as large as Atlanta...."

That remark might have seemed ironic and maybe annoying to older folks in 1882. Knoxville had existed long before Atlanta. About 30 years earlier, Knoxville and Atlanta had been about the same size.

"Knoxville as a city presents a pretty appearance, though it is thoroughly hilly. It reminds me of Rome or Vicksburg...." Rome, Italy, or Rome Georgia, the point is the same. They're both hilly cities. Hilliness may account for Knoxville's original compactness. In 1882, the whole urban part of town was on top of a bluff.

"The city is very compactly built, as already stated. The corporate limits are very narrow, being only one mile across one way, by a mile and three quarters the other. Including suburbs and all, the city is not two miles wide, and yet 20,000 people are crowded into that space. I cannot begin to unfold, in a single letter, the many points of interest there."

Since then, compactness—especially in terms of residential density—has been shown to be the main indicator of what a city can sustain. A small city that's compact can offer a greater variety of amenities and diversions than a larger city that's not compact. If you've got 500 people who like, say, scones, or crepes, or gelato, or Belgian high-gravity beer, it'll be a population that's invisible and unserved unless they're concentrated. It's why descriptions of Knoxville in the 1880s and ‘90s are puzzlingly cosmopolitan. Everybody lived downtown, and downtown's population was several times as big as it is today.

No one could have predicted in 1882 the lakes, I-40, and especially our devotion to the automobile, the factors that would influence Knoxville's thinning itself out almost to a vanishing point.

But we've still got downtown. It's mainly what impressed a reporter from Atlanta in 1882. If he were to visit, maybe he'd remark that we're becoming almost as much fun as we were then.