Spring Cleaning

Of creeping Parisianism, a lost building, petitions, paradoxes, and a Cuban restaurant's mysterious safe

On a recent Saturday, I ran into my friend Ed at the library. He'd been impressed with the activity at Sequoyah Hills Park, where people were out to enjoy the sun and community: all ages, a few genders, and at least a couple of species. It wasn't like that in my childhood, when that same shore was a weedy floodplain attractive mainly to subsistence fishermen and some of the bolder neighborhood delinquents. On Saturdays recently it's been almost crowded. Ed said it looked like La Grande Jatte, in Seurat's famous painting.

I remarked that I'd just been to Market Square the same Saturday, and it reminded me of the Champs-Élysées. People were sitting at cafe tables and on benches eating, reading, talking, sipping coffee, walking dogs, playing guitar.

Is Knoxville trying to be French? There might seem to be circumstantial evidence, now that there are two French-themed restaurants downtown alone, a block and a half from each other. But maybe we're just learning how to enjoy staying home on a weekend, as do the French and Italians and Spanish and a good many other nationalities who are happy to live where they live. When Knoxville was an ugly, sooty, disheveled, sometimes dangerous place we got in the habit of leaving town every weekend, for the mountains or lakes or beyond. It was during that time, when Knoxvillians were fleeing to their houseboats, that the city got a new reputation for being slow or dead. Maybe the economy has helped us to understand that it's not so bad in town anymore.

The Building Lost on Middlebrook

Middlebrook Pike's not a place we take visitors to show ourselves off. The several miles closest to town are a pageant of parking lots and cheap industrial buildings. One appealing building, maybe a mile from downtown, always stood apart.

The big two-story brick building with lots of windows always looked like it belonged downtown, and I once had a notion that maybe someday this place near the intersection of Mingle Avenue could be central to a neighborhood. Once, maybe, it was.

Engraved in stone high on the front facade was the year 1932. Builders used to boast of building dates, which eventually bestowed some evidence of permanence and substance. That particular year's a rare one for building dates; it must have taken some serious willfulness to get it built, during the Depression's darkest hours. The building originally hosted a family grocery, and upstairs a fraternal lodge for the Junior Order of United American Mechanics. Later, the same building had a casket company, a martial-arts studio, some residences. During its early years the streetcar came out this way, and there was an interesting mix of residential and commercial activity along the sidewalks from downtown out here. It probably didn't seem as far from downtown as it does now.

Then the highways came through. Now, getting there from downtown is a short but unpleasant hike beneath concrete overpasses.

About three weeks ago, the 1932 building vanished. You can't even tell anything was ever there. Its plot looks very small now, as demolition sites always do. Preservationists say old buildings are like antelopes; when they get separated from the herd, there's not much hope.

Pond Gap Neighbors Petition UT

A lot of folks are concerned about the effects of UT's grad-student population leaving Sutherland Avenue next year.

The neighborhood's not giving up on the largely foreign community who've lived in university housing there for more than 40 years, and to some extent defined the commercial neighborhood. The Pond Gap Area Neighborhood Association has petitions out at Sutherland's produce and ethnic stores, pleading for the university to change its great and powerful mind. It's never worked before, but that doesn't mean it's not worth a try.

A Beer Paradox

Paradoxes are my stock in trade, and I savor a good one. My favorite paradox presently is that you can now drink beer, good ale, in fact, at WDVX's live daily noontime show, the Blue Plate Special—but only on Fridays, when the performance is in a place that sometimes serves as a church.

When the faith-based charity known as the Cornerstone Foundation opened something like a nightclub at Four Market Square, the question was, "How can it be a nightclub without alcohol?" Of course, the idea that Christianity implies alcohol avoidance is a quaint Americanism. It might have puzzled the Trappist monks, who've made beer for centuries, and maybe Jesus, too, who on at least one occasion manufactured wine for bridal consumption, by unorthodox processes.

Alcoholic drinks have never been an option at the Blue Plate's secular location. In my long experience with that great show, the issue of alcoholic beverages has never come up. I hadn't even thought to ask. The Tourism and Sports Corp. is a public institution, and I suspect some folks who aren't even churchgoers might object to the idea of folks drinking beer in a publicly supported welcome center, a place families come innocently looking for maps and brochures.

However, at the Square Room, which hosts church services on Sunday, it's a different deal. There, Blue Plate Special fans have access to draft beer by the pint. How about that. I'm not sure whether the same amenity is offered during services.

The Mysterious Safe in Little Havana

Little Havana, the atmospheric new Cuban restaurant on Gay Street, is a welcome new option for lunch or supper or drinks, and it has one unusual piece of furniture. It's a giant steel safe, its double doors painted as all safes should be but none ever are anymore, with scenes of bliss—an English-style rural scene of an arched stone bridge over a brook with big trees.

They can't move it, and they can't open it. They don't know what's in it. It's big enough for about six bodies, stuffed.

The building at 137 S. Gay looks early 20th century, maybe 1915, but I bet the safe's older. Manager James Shand, who's from Miami, is very interested. He says anybody who can crack the safe without damaging it gets a Cuban meal on the house.