Street View: Despite Top-10 Title, Gay Street Could Use Some Rethinking

I don't drive a lot. It's rare these days that I need to travel for work. And my commute from my home on one end of Gay Street to my workplace on the other is usually on foot—occasionally by trolley if the weather's bad and I happen to see one traveling in my direction. But I generally make a car trip once a week or so to venture beyond the confines of downtown for provisions from supermarkets, hardware stores, and other outlying merchants that cater more to households than hipsters. I was on my way back home the other day from one of those excursions, having just crossed the Gay Street Bridge to my side of the river late one Saturday morning, when I noticed something.

Maybe it was the context of seeing Gay from behind the wheel rather than on foot, but all of the sudden I caught a fresh perspective of the street that's been my address for the better part of a decade. On that crisp, sunny morning, Gay Street was alive with activity. A pair of young parents watched as a toddler toddled around the man in the boat at Church Avenue, captivated by the giant face of the rower. Couples, young and not so young, sat at cafe tables dotting the street. Shoppers, fresh from the Farmer's Market, toted baskets of seasonal offerings along the sidewalk, squinting against the bright sun. This was, I thought, exactly what Knoxville's always needed: a lively, walkable setting where people can sense the appeal of a true urban center—a place as alive as the city itself.

All of a sudden I wasn't seeing downtown as being full of potential, but actually thriving in the way that many could only imagine just a few years ago. Earlier that week, Gay Street had been recognized as one of the Top Ten Streets in America by the American Planning Association for reasons that were abruptly as clear to me as the autumn air that beautiful morning.

It was right about then that I hit the first bump, and a bag of groceries spilled onto my floorboard. At both the intersections of Church and of Clinch Avenues, the usual smooth surface of Gay Street is embellished with decorative medallions of paving bricks and concrete. A vestige of the street's makeover late last century, they have not withstood the years of pounding by traffic well, and are worse for the wear. Their broken, uneven surfaces have no doubt seen accelerated deterioration with the increase in traffic coming from Henley Street to Gay since the closure of the Henley Bridge for repairs. My thoughts turned from the panorama I was passing to the roadway itself. When you focus on the foundation, and not the scenery, our beloved Gay Street still could use some updating in some places.

For example, I'm sure that at some point, striping the street as a four-lane highway must have made sense. Downtown wasn't what it is today, and viewing Gay as any other street designed to accommodate the flow of automobile traffic probably seemed perfectly logical. After all, there wasn't much point in street parking, because there wasn't much worth getting out of the car for. But somewhere along the line, we began sticking up signs here and there along the way to permit parking in the right lanes. If you drive from one end of Gay to the other, the outer lanes sometimes accommodate traffic, and sometimes don't. But drivers have no cues that the lane they're in may turn into a stretch of parking at any time. The on-again/off-again hodgepodge is the result of piecemeal accommodation of various interests over the years. And the theme changes randomly from block to block.

At a number of intersections along Gay, pedestrian signals cycle without regard for changes in traffic flow that have taken place over the past few years. Pedestrians face "don't walk" signals at intersections of one-way streets while cross-traffic is stopped for red lights. Gay Street at Union Avenue offers a study in multiple-choice traffic lights to drivers, with over a half-dozen controlling an intersection of a one-way street with Gay.

Don't get me wrong. Gay Street as a place is a jewel. It is a wonderful downtown setting. But so much has changed about that setting, the way it's used, and its importance to the people of our region. The fact that it garnered recognition despite some underlying shortcomings says a lot about the power of revitalization. Giving some attention to its infrastructure and flow to better accommodate the contemporary diversity of traffic—both vehicles and pedestrians—would only make a good thing even better. It just takes a fresh look at what it's become, and assessing the needs of today rather than relying on the solutions of the past. Things have changed around here.