When UT Apartments Go, So May the People

Sutherland Avenue's quiet asset, and "Hipster Economics" revisited

UT's apartment complexes on Sutherland Avenue are nearly old enough to qualify as "historic," but the announcement of their abandonment and likely demolition next year has excited no preservationists I know of.

They won't be missed for any architectural reason. Their style might be called Soviet Revival. I've had several friends who've lived there over the years. Some were relieved when they could leave them and get back to Pakistan.

And it probably won't adversely affect many of the grad students themselves. Many of them will have left town by the 2010 closing date, anyway.

Still, these bleak cinder block apartment buildings have played an important cultural role in my hometown, and I'm afraid Knoxville may miss them badly, just because of the sort of people who've lived there, and what they've done for the neighborhood. Knoxville is not known for its international communities, but for the last 40 years, the Sutherland apartments have attracted a largely foreign population, especially Indians, Arabs, and Asians, and all of them have come with their own tastes which aren't necessarily exactly like what we grew up with.

The apartment buildings are all on the south side of Sutherland. On the north side of Sutherland, businesses have popped up from the 3600 to the 3800 blocks to serve the foreign population, and have flourished even though most of their customers are short-term Knoxvillians. Among them are the Holy Land Market and the Oriental Super Mart, which haver offered us amenities we wouldn't have otherwise. Thanks to these markets, I've tried several interstesting ingredients, from Asian spices to exotic olives, that I wouldn't have encountered otherwise.

Also in the mix are a couple of very good produce markets, competing within sight of each other. These vendors' location is no coincidence: I don't know whether this qualifies as irony or not, but produce sellers remark, sometimes a little sadly, that foreigners are much more likely to purchase Tennessee produce than Tennesseans are.

Their precise location has been more important than that of most local businesses, who honor Cas Walker's old theory that businesses should concentrate on suburban strips: "Knoxville's on wheels," he said.

Many of Sutherland Avenue's customers are essentially pre-Cas. They didn't necessarily bring cars or driving skills with them. The businesses that sprouted here to cater to them are all within easy walking distance of the apartment buildings UT will close next year.

As a result, hardly any commercial district in the metro area depends so heavily on foot traffic. It takes more than just a certain number of minority members to create a demand noticeable in retail choices; it helps if there's a concentration of them. When consumers of any stripe have to scatter among apartment buildings along bus routes, they nearly vanish from an economic or cultural standpoint. They're a tiny minority wherever they are. Those without cars have to shop at the same convenience stores that serve the rest of us. They may stop buying dried lentils and bok choy and Napa cabbage and just get used to Hot Pockets and Lunchables.

For fun, by the way, stand by the Hot Pockets freezer at the supermarket. But don't stand too close, or you might get hurt. Hot Pockets are pure American Pride, our strategy for outweighing the rest of the world.

Sutherland is on the most practical bike trail in town, and also on a couple of bus routes, some of them arranged to answer the UT grad student demand. It's actually possible, and to some even easy, to live on Sutherland without a car. Maybe we should preserve it as a useful example. We may need it someday.

I understand that UT's under stress, and that community development, and Knoxville in general, has never been a priority for the university. Maybe the city needs to take the lead in concentrating amenities for immigrant minorities, either here or elsewhere. Our city once had a reputation for homogeneity, and it's been close to a century since there was any other discernible neighborhood associated with an international culture here.

Encouraging them to concentrate somewhere in a way that would attract specialty businesses would help UT's foreign students of the future, but it might help Knoxville more.

"Hipster Economics" Revisited

A few readers were disgruntled about my recent column, "Hipster Economics." I do know lots of well-off people do contribute disproportionately to the community, both through deliberate donations of time and money and through taxation of expensive property, and I didn't intend to disparage them. We should be grateful to them. Often we are grateful, and name big permanent things for them. But I wanted to bring up the irony that because of our tax structure, with its especially heavy levies on cigarettes and beer and entertainment—and the disproportionate importance of downtown businesses to local tax revenues—and the fact that the less affluent are likely to spend all of their money in Knoxville, not in the Bahamas or in Vegas—I think it's possible or even likely that the average Hipster, or Punk, or street kid may contribute more money to public local amenities, including education and law enforcement, than many affluent or wealthy people do. Those who, thanks to vacations or shopping trips, spend much of their money outside the Knoxville area, may diminish in economic importance to a vanishing point. If we didn't have hipsters buying lattes and pale ales and tickets to live-music shows, suburbanites' taxes would be higher.

It would be different if we had a local or state income tax. Just sayin'. But the way it's set up now, street punks are sometimes more important to our community than well-traveled suburbanites.

But I also wanted to point out to consumers of all income levels that spending your money in ways your Mom might have suggested are wasteful may be good for Knoxville.

Maybe it's a wild American variant of a Scots-Irish Presbyterian value that the only thing worth blowing money on is luxury cars, electronic equipment, and fabulous vacations. For some reason we frown on modest local extravagances, like buying cappuccino and shows and restaurant specialties—but that's what's good for our local economy, on both public and private levels, employment, property values, tax base, everything. If you can afford that latte or martini or plate of sushi, think of it as an investment in your community. There's a little hipster in all of us, and we need to let him loose now and then.