Street Injustice: Why a Neighborhood Watch Program Would Never Work Downtown

As one controversy rapidly overtakes the last nowadays, the public discussion surrounding George Zimmerman's killing of Trayvon Martin has begun to fade from the headlines. Like everyone else, I've got my opinions. But the other day it occurred to me that one of the benefits of living in my neighborhood is that the specific circumstances that led to that tragedy couldn't happen here. I'm not saying that downtown Knoxville is somehow immune to homicide, though I can't think of any recently. But there are some key differences to downtown that undermine some of the basic premises of the Sanford, Fla. shooting.

First, it may be worthwhile to reiterate what I refer to when I say "my neighborhood." As most of you know, I live downtown. For the past 10 years, I've called it home. And most of that time I've had a Gay Street address. With rare exceptions, I've confined this column to events, news, and random thoughts about this neighborhood. It's a pretty specific area that's bounded on the north by I-40, on the east by the James White Parkway, on the south by the River, and on the west by Henley Street. That's roughly the same as the Central Business Improvement District, but not quite.

From time to time I've had to correct friends who mistakenly claimed they, too, lived downtown. Granted, many of them live a short walk from my front door. Some of them even closer to me than the Gay Street Bridge. But as I have told friends in Fourth and Gill, Fort Sanders, and other close-in neighborhoods, if you live in a place that already has a name of its own, it's not downtown.

Those boundaries that I mentioned I've jokingly referred to as The Walls. Once you cross one of those, you're into a very different kind of place than anywhere else in the city. It's defined by its density, its mixed use, its buildings, and its uniqueness as a place here. I'm proud to say that it's one of the most visited neighborhoods in the city. Most Knoxvillians probably see it as the city's cultural and entertainment district. But there are probably now more people living in this small area than nearly any other comparable space in the city. It is very much, to us, a neighborhood.

Some years ago I was involved in an effort to form a neighborhood association. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I'd been told by some in the city administration that there might be more weight given to a united voice on some of the issues I was, as an individual, routinely bringing to them. To aid in the effort, someone from the city's Department of Neighborhood Development showed up at one of our precursory meetings to offer some advice on putting an organization like that together. One of the first things he suggested—something that was generally considered a building block for this sort of thing—was to form a neighborhood watch. It was one of the most ridiculous things I'd ever heard.

Among downtown's unique characteristics is its role as commons. With the exception of some our internal spaces—parking garages, office and residential buildings, for example—everyone has a right to be anywhere here, and no one seems out of place to those who live here. I can't pick up a phone and tell the police that there's someone walking down Gay Street whom I don't recognize. It's not a gated community and there are no outsiders to keep tabs on. These streets belong to everyone and you don't have to have a reason to be anywhere. Whether you're stepping out of a Ferrari, or you don't have a nickel to your name, no one who lives here is going to think you're not supposed to be here. With the diversity of events that occur in downtown come diverse characters. It's part of the fabric of the area.

No one is going to stalk another individual in downtown Knoxville under the pretense that they were looking out for neighborhood safety. If I had to single out people who didn't look familiar, or whose reason for being in my neighborhood wasn't clear, most of the individuals I see on any given evening would qualify. I either recognize you or not. If anything, it's probably visitors in fear of other visitors that I see. And that's too bad.

It goes without saying that I love where I live. Maybe it's acceptance, or maybe it's just tolerance. But either way it's a neighborhood. But it's not a neighborhood that lends itself to being watched for outsiders. And while I don't fault those who prefer a different environment, it's kind of reassuring to know that George Zimmerman wouldn't feel at home here.