Who's on Fifth?

What happened to Third, Where's Secondâ"and did First ever exist?

Secret History

by Jack Neely

A rumor that some part of Fifth Avenue is going to be renamed to become part of Magnolia, as part of the bewildering highway redesign of that neighborhood, is apparently unfounded. Fifth, for better or worse, will stay Fifth.

I ought to be happy; I'm skeptical about renaming streets, especially historic ones. Regardless of the merits of the latest proud honoree, the practice generally promotes confusion. And for whatever reason, new names tend to go clunk. I miss Mulvaney Street, a musical name for what is now â“Women's Basketball Hall of Fame Drive,â” a nine-syllable mouthful for a three-block-long street.   I admired Stadium Drive's simplicity: It led right to a stadium. But it's now â“Phil Fulmer Way.â” If somebody comes to town wanting to drive directly to Mr. Fulmer, it's probably as good a route as any.

The name of Fifth Avenue, on the other hand, seems expendable. The career of Knoxville's numbered avenues baffles one generation after another.

On a map, Fifth Avenue lies crosswise, like a long, sagging roof over downtown. But Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth all rise perpendicular to Fifth, north and south, north of Fifth but never touching it. So does North Fifth, if they still call it that. But somehow for several blocks, North Fourth and North Sixth run just one block away from each other.

A walk around the near north side, especially around Fourth and Gill, can induce a crisis of faith. Trying to make sense of the street layout can leave us with grave doubts about the certainties of Newtonian physics. Fourth Avenue disappears, and reappears, in disjointed shreds, one way over in Mechanicsville, one near North Hills. Whether you can ever find your way from any one segment of Fourth Avenue to any other depends on the experience of your scout.

Third Avenue is a pleasant, tree-shaded five-block-long residential street in Fourth and Gill. But don't even look for a First or Second Avenue.  

I've always assumed that once it all made more sense than it does today. I set out to the library to find out when it was.

By the 1880s, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Avenues flourished on the north side of town. They were all east-west routes, following downtown's then-new convention that streets run north and south and avenues run east and west.

In the absence of any apparent First or Second Avenue, I began to assume that perhaps Fifth Avenue was conceived first, to remind potential investors of another one in New York.

About the same time Knoxville began laying out new streets on this previously forbidding, trans-swamp side of town in the 1850s, Manhattan's Fifth Avenue was the most famous numbered avenue in America, well known as a long, broad thoroughfare of grand stone-fronted houses.

In some other towns as small as Jellico, Fifth Avenue is the main street. There are some other numbered avenues, but they look as if they were added as backfill, only to give a â“Fifth Avenueâ” plausibility.

I suspected that was the case with Knoxville: that we just figured to be a real city we needed a Fifth Avenue, and that all the other numbered avenues were there to give us an excuse to have some swank-sounding addresses on Fifth.

But the City Directories offer a surprise: Fifth Avenue didn't show up until several years after Third and Fourthâ"as a new name for an already existing lane previously known as Montgomery Streetâ"sometime in the 1870s.

And it's hard to get past the apparent absence of a First or Second Avenue. There's no reference to either in the 1869 city directory; they don't appear in a carefully detailed 1867 map. Maybe developers just didn't think to put them in.

But then I found one spectral mention in the rare 1859 city directory. Back then, an alleged â“First Avenueâ” was just one block long, between what was then called Amity, a road parallel to Broadway, and Lamar, apparently outside of city limits. Second was a good deal longer, about five blocks. There's no indication that either street was ever the address of anything at all.

They may have been optimistic development projects interrupted by the war. In any case, First and Second were forgotten soon after Appomattox. And never coexisted with Fifth.

Everything about our numbered avenues is backwards from what you'd expect. In most cities, roads that are designated as â“Avenuesâ” are, almost by definition, broad and straight. But most of our â“Avenuesâ” aren't any wider than any street. And in later years, Third, Fourth, and Fifth, eventually bent like hockey sticks into north-south lanes on the northeast side of town, an arrogant challenge to the street-avenue convention.

Later, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Avenues evolved, but strictly as north-south streetsâ"roughly parallel to the short part of the hockey sticks, but without regard to the original east-west course of the abortive numbered-avenue grid.

Moreover, you think of avenues as being numbered from an urban central axis. In New York, First Avenue runs alongside the busy eastern shore of Manhattan. In Fort Sanders, the numbered streets start from an urban point, with the lower numbers on the downtown side.

When they began numbering avenues in Knoxville, though, the original avenues started with low numbers in the suburban north and marched south into the city, seemingly opposite of urban convention. Vaporous First and Second Avenues, insofar as they existed, were beyond city limits. But the hockey-stick bends corrected the sequence for the new avenues, allowing the numbering concept to continue eastward in a more conventional pattern.

Maybe I should have just drawn a diagram in this space.

Anyway, over the decades, Third and Fourth have withered. On a map, Fourth looks like a snake that's been run over a few times.

Fifth Avenue didn't wither. It hewed to its original east-west course, even cut off its vertical axis to concentrate on its horizontal one, and extended farther east than any avenue had ever gone, well beyond the land of avenues. It stretched much farther east, and much farther west. It connects Mechanicsville, on the northwest side of town, to deep East Knoxville, near Chilhowee Park.

We could try to retrofit Fifth with some reason for it to be named Fifth. It's an avenue you can walk in roughly the amount of time you take to drink, with proper appreciation, a fifth of Scotch. Or maybe we can say it's named for the Fifth Amendment, for which many Knoxville indictees have been grateful.

But you folks who like to rename historic streets for this month's idol, relieve us of some of our numbered avenues. You'll get no objection from me.


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