Seasons in the City: Tracking Downtown's Unique Harbingers of Change

I don't know about you, but I'm going to be happy to see this summer go.

I'm not the biggest fan of the season anyway. But week after week of record temperatures and 100-degree days in the city were starting to wear me out. And even though August has been an unexpected surprise, with more than its fair share of cool mornings and balmy days, I'm still looking forward to the more reliable coolness of the coming months. While I know a lot of people love summer, I know a lot more who will put fall in East Tennessee on top as their favorite season. One of the things that's unique about living downtown is that, aside from the temperature, the harbingers and mileposts that mark the seasons show up in other ways. When I was a kid, I grew up spending a lot of time on my grandfather's farm where the rhythm of planting, nurturing, and harvesting were very much in tune with the seasons. But living downtown, those changes are marked as much by human nature as mother nature.

For example, one of the augurs of seasonal change arrived over the past few weeks as thousands of students began the fall semester at the University of Tennessee. And, as has been a trend over the past few years, a number of them are setting up new digs in the heart of the city. Different seasons bring different life to the sidewalks. And one of the annual omens of fall downtown is the brief uptick of trepidatious trios as pairs of parents shepherd single sons and daughters to the university. It's a big time of year for moving vans blocking streets and alleys, and dumpsters are capped with empty Mr. Coffee boxes and flat-pack furniture cartons. As the roar of lawnmowers gradually changes to the whine of leaf-blowers corralling leaves of yellow, red, and amber, downtown will see its own color shift as clothing of orange and (depending on the week) crimson and gold begin to show up on football Saturdays.

Spring, traditionally a popular season as downtown slowly warms up with festivals like Dogwood Arts, Rossini, and the International Biscuit Festival, gradually burns off like a morning fog as summer's heat descends. But fall will announce its unofficial arrival more loudly this Monday as Boomsday blows summer (and who knows what else) out of the water. As the biggest-drawing event in the city, we'll greet more fellow East Tennesseans on their annual pilgrimage to downtown than any other day. It's a great night to be on a bicycle gliding past packed sidewalks through traffic gaps on gridlocked streets, glimpsing license plates from such far-flung locales as Cocke, Greene, and Morgan counties. The event marks the resurgence of festivals as the season plays host to the no-longer-illicit Great Tennessee Valley Rubber Duck Race the following day, the Brewers Jam later in the season, and a host of other events in coming weeks.

Market Square, the heart of downtown, is probably one of the best vantage points to watch seasons change in the city. Not only does it showcase the progressive bounty of the Tennessee Valley from the sparse salad greens of spring to summer's pickup loads of corn to the last pumpkin of fall, but the ticking off of other events pace the season as well. It's been uncharacteristically quiet this summer without the bulging throngs of Sundown in the City. But the weekly jazz shows have been a lovely accompaniment to steamy evenings. And day or night, the Square plays its summer part as downtown's front porch where neighbors from all over the region greet other neighbors on the stroll.

I don't have the same affinity for winter. Signs of its impending arrival will show up in mid-fall, first as city crews begin the process of stringing lights in anticipation of Christmas in the City. Much like the yuletide storefront displays, it feels like the lights go up earlier and earlier every year. They may not kick on until the Celebration of Lights, but I know they're there. And while I don't embrace winter with the same enthusiasm as its crunchier, more colorful predecessor, I will look forward to the bundled up crowds of shoppers, ice skaters, and others bringing out-of-town guests to show off the Christmas-card setting of downtown.

After New Year's Day, it gets quiet. Then, as everywhere else and like nowhere else, it begins all over again. The ice-skating rink will disappear. The strings of lights will go dark, and after the relative quiet of winter I'll watch downtown's metamorphosis as spring begins to bloom. It seems to slip by all too fast. But I'll know summer's almost back when I start to see discarded Mr. Coffees and abandoned flat-pack furniture on top of the dumpsters.