Boomtown Confidential

When faces in the crowd become names you know a little too well

Last month the News Sentinel ran a front page piece on downtown's growth as a neighborhood, noting that the area garnered nearly 2,500 new residents over the past 10 years. In it, one relative newcomer was quoted as saying, "The thing I didn't expect when I moved downtown is that this feels more like a neighborhood than any neighborhood I have ever lived in. I actually feel I could go to a neighbor and borrow a cup of sugar. Everyone walks everywhere. You see the same people. You get to know everyone." That echoes my sentiments as well. I've never lived anywhere else that seems to have the connectivity of neighbors to one another that downtown's density provides its residents.

Within a few weeks of moving downtown, I felt at home. And everyday when I'd leave my loft, I wouldn't get off the block before seeing a neighbor I knew by name. Back then, it seemed like I knew all of them. Then the real boom started with the opening of the Sterchi Lofts, followed closely by developments like the Phoenix and Fire Street lofts, and keeping up with names got a lot harder. Still, familiar faces stand out in a sea of others that aren't, and that sense of a tightly woven neighborhood remains.

Physically, downtown isn't getting any bigger. But the population is growing. The space bounded by the James White Parkway, the interstate, the river, and the World's Fair Park is a very compact, walkable area. But despite the city's efforts to connect it with the surrounding neighborhoods, it still sometimes feels like its own small town within a city. That gives it a close-knit feeling that can be a double-edged sword. You may see your neighbors every day, but keeping a tight lid on your privacy isn't quite so easy. While large cities with big populations may make you just another face in a crowd, our downtown neighborhood doesn't offer that kind of anonymity. Adding to that, many center-city denizens choose it as home because we prefer walking to the multitude of nearby offerings over driving around to scattered gathering places and nightspots. Throw that all together and the result is that your life can often be more of an open book than you might think. And avoiding people you'd rather not see isn't as easy as you might like.

For example, I have a friend who recently moved to Knoxville to accept a new position. Coming from an urban background, she chose downtown as home. After a short time, she began dating another downtowner and—without any declaration on their part—people figured out they were a couple. As things sometimes go, the relationship ended after a few months. And just as quickly as it was evident that they were dating, it became evident that they weren't. Things are still a little prickly between them, and I think they'd rather not run into one another. It's just not that easy.

When my own marriage ended a few years ago, my former wife and I ended up living just a few blocks apart downtown. While there wasn't any real animosity toward one another, I'm pretty sure both of us got to the point where we'd rather not cross paths. She eventually moved on with her life, and I with mine. So when I learned that she would be relocating to accept a job a few thousand miles away, it came as welcome news. Downtown, as I confided to friends, was about to get a lot bigger for me. On the flip side, if online narrative is any indication, I recently read comments by a friend on Facebook whose relationship appears to be ending. The post that sealed it for me? When he said that this town was about to get a lot smaller. I could relate.

I don't think downtown's a hotbed of gossip nor is it devoid of secrets. It's not that we're all caught up in tracking everybody's business. If anything, it may be just the opposite. When you live, sometimes literally, in a place where one man's ceiling is another man's floor, I think people make an effort to avoid paying too much attention to their neighbors' private affairs. You see and hear enough without that effort. And it's largely an unspoken understanding of our mutual situation that keeps up a certain respect for our limited privacy. Or maybe it's that since so much is public knowledge, there's not much in the way of juicy gossip to spread. Either way, I'm pretty sure I could borrow a cup of sugar from a downtown neighbor if I needed it. And if the situation arises, I'll do my best to ignore that other neighbor on his couch in her negligee when he answers the door.