A Place of Our Own

Defining the parameters of "downtown"

When I first was approached about doing this column, it was couched as a view of downtown from the perspective of someone who lives here—someone from the neighborhood. There's plenty of commentary on our center city. But, with few exceptions, it's from people who write about downtown with the same detachment they write about Halls or Bearden. The opportunity revived a touchy question among friends of mine: Just what do I consider to be "downtown."

That answer has evolved a bit over the years. I used to think of it as a geographical thing. Downtown was bounded by the interstate and river from north to south, and by the Old City and 11th street east to west. That's roughly the boundaries of the Central Business Improvement District.

But many of my friends felt I was being too narrow—too selfish—in my definition. Aren't Fourth and Gill or Fort Sanders downtown? What about the other side of the river? I understand why some of the folks who live in these neighborhoods identify as being downtowners. From my former home on the 100 Block of South Gay Street, Fourth and Gill is about the same distance as the Gay Street Bridge. And friends from there can walk or bike here as easily as I could to the riverfront.

But there's more to it than proximity or walkability. I've come to see it more as a set of qualities. There are characteristics of the neighborhood I call downtown that make it pretty easy to distinguish from places only a few blocks away—places that have their own names.

For example, how many parking lots or garages are in these neighborhoods? I always suggest street parking to visitors to my home, if it's available. But that's not something you can count on. And the word "driveway" is no more applicable in downtown than the phrases "parking meter" or "loading zone" are to most of our near-in neighborhoods.

Then there's a certain vertical quality that dominates here. Many of my neighbors use an elevator to get home. While taller buildings aren't unheard of outside downtown, not many of them contain living rooms.

In the neighborhood I call downtown, it's most likely you live with someone either above, below, or adjacent to you. In many cases, it's all of the above. When we say we have close neighbors, it doesn't necessarily mean that we hang out a lot together. We might. But it may just mean that they're literally close. Maybe on the other side of the wall.

There are other distinguishing characteristics. There is a different degree of publicness here. We're not a collection of private lawns. And we share the space around us differently. If someone is screaming on a corner here, it's not disturbing the peace. It's free speech. If someone down the street has the speakers cranked up to rock concert-level, it's called Sundown in the City.

A few years back, someone suggested to a group of downtowners that we form a neighborhood watch group. I laughed. My neighbors laughed. And eventually (though they didn't laugh) the people who assist in setting up such programs pretty much figured out why.

Neighborhood watch groups look out for the unusual. But I'm not even sure what unusual means in a place where thousands of people come and go everyday, where 10,000 people show up some nights, or where elephants have sometimes been known to walk down the street. Some of the most familiar faces in my neighborhood don't even have a home for me to keep an eye on.

It's said that downtown is everybody's neighborhood. And in a metaphorical sense it is. Friends meet friends here from all over and have their favorite spots. I spend time with folks from as close as a few doors down to some who make the trek from Little Buckhead in West Knoxville, all chatting around a sidewalk table with a sense of community that definitely makes it feel like everyone's neighborhood. And it is. Sort of.

We're a city. And one that has begun to regenerate itself from the very place its seeds were planted on a bluff by a river. People can talk about the population center of Knoxville. I think more about its heart. But without the many Knoxvillians from all over the city—near and far—and without our regional neighbors from the surrounding area who enjoy frequenting downtown, it wouldn't be the place where I want to live.

It's the social aspects and the breadth of community, along with those physical distinctions, that make downtown its own, distinguishable neighborhood. It really is everybody's neighborhood. And that difference is what makes it unique. So maybe that's why I'm a little selfish when I don't include surrounding neighborhoods when I talk about my own: the one we all share.