The Year of the District

Our ever-fluctuating cultural geography

You can hardly step outside these days without finding yourself in a District. Our home town is suddenly thick with them. Since summer, there's matter-of-fact talk of "the theater district." People use the phrase offhand, referring usually to the 500-800 blocks of Gay Street. It's not Broadway, maybe, but in that couple hundred yards are two capacious, historic performing-arts theaters, plus, now, an eight-screen cineplex. A half-block over on Market Square, there's a stage and frequent music and dramatic performances. A quarter-mile north on Gay is a small community theater, Theater Knoxville, with frequent shows. District seems to be a useful term, in siting restaurants and bars to serve that clientele. With about a dozen auditoriums or stages, plus nightclubs, within easy walking distance, maybe it's a "theater district," at that.

This fall, there have been whisperings of a new "entertainment district" in the vicinity of the former Electric Ballroom, aka Valarium, underneath the highways northwest of downtown. I don't know whether they've consulted with the Old City, less than a mile to the east, which an episode of Comedy Central's Colbert Report earlier this year described as "Knoxville's entertainment district." It got national attention because a black bear was loose there. Anyway, maybe it's time we had another entertainment district to complement it. Maybe, with completion of the greenway, still in the planning stages, the two ostensible entertainment districts can connect somehow, Entertainment Districts East and West, and we can all ride our bikes from one nightclub to another.

The District was also the name of a popular TV show a couple of years ago. I never saw it, but I gather it had something to do with urban crime. Now a big chunk of old Bearden, already maybe the most thoroughly named part of town, is now simply "The District." It's apparently above the indignity of an adjective. What sort of District? If you have to ask, I guess, you can't afford it.

There are now quite a few new law offices in the District, some of them refugees from downtown rents and condo-conversion turmoil. Also, I'm told so many Bearden residents make up the biggest early-vote demographic at the courthouse because Bearden is where the lawyers live. So maybe the missing adjective is Attorney. Bearden's our Attorney District. They're District attorneys.

Ha, ha. But it seems to me that there may be other districts we're neglecting, districts yet to be recognized as such. West Knox is the SUV District. Or maybe the Soccer District. Clinton Highway is the Asphalt District. South Knoxville is the What the Hell Are You Lookin' At District.

Halls is the Still-Intact W Sticker District. East Knoxville, the Recreational-Dining District. Fort Sanders is the Arthropod District. Near-North Knoxville is the Pesto District. Or, based on a frequent subject of conversation there, the Price Per Square Foot District. Downtown is the Slightly Tipsy District.

And we now have smoking districts. In the Knoxville I grew up in, smoking was legal nearly everywhere. Everybody smoked. Moms, grandmothers, doctors, kids. The only places you saw No Smoking signs were on gas pumps and in tobacco barns.

Back then, though, gambling was in roughly the same moral category as extortion. Lotteries were a dark rumor of the sordid lifestyle of Godless Yankees.

Now, however, every convenience store is a casino, every clerk a croupier. As I'm waiting with a pack of gum or a melting ice-cream bar, the customer in front of me is mesmerized by the colorful gallery of dreams on display, as they speculate on this state-sanctioned numbers racket, enjoying their moment in the sunshine of celebrity.

"I want a Lucky Sevens—and a Gold Rush, uh. No, some Silver Bells." Sometimes they're businesslike, cool as Roger Moore at a baccarat table, or at least a baccarat table that also deals in beef jerky and Red Man. But sometimes you can hear the excitement welling in their throats, as if they're a game show contestant who's finally gotten their chance to talk to Pat Sajak in person. It's a big moment for them, and they're not going to be hurried. Sometimes I just put my brown cow back in the freezer.

Meanwhile, as we're suddenly nonchalant about gambling, smoking's as restricted as pornography. As an asthmatic, I was altogether in favor of the new smoking rules, which went into effect Oct. 1. But the law has rendered a few unexpected consequences.

My daughter had been fond of Mirage, aka Cairo Cafe, a rare spot where you can get a good, simple, inexpensive, healthy vegetarian meal of pita and hummus and salad. She liked the authentic Middle-Eastern furniture, and the native garb worn by the waiters. The problem is that Cairo Cafe is also a hookah bar. It's gratifying that our home town can now support hookah bars. But though they don't bring the hookahs out until 9 p.m., and the place has never seemed smoky to me when we went there for supper before a show, Cairo Cafe is now strictly 21 and up. My daughter, who has never caused any trouble there, is barred from the place for the next four years.

The other problem is that some places allowed to be smoky are now really, really smoky. Places where it's not just secondhand smoke you have to worry about, but thirdhand smoke.

I've always favored dining on patios or outside cafes. Maybe I'm claustrophobic, maybe I like the random charm of sidewalk life, maybe I'm a pretentious pseudo-existentialist, I don't know. I just like it outside.

Since the ban, though, at many, perhaps most restaurants that have gone no-smoking but also have patios, the patios have suddenly become the de facto smoking section. People assume your smoking choice is clear from where you sit. And if you sit outside, you're in the smoker. You want some fresh air, pal, go inside.