Twinkling Lights and City Nights

Feeling festive amid downtown's holiday decor

With the kickoff of the Regal Celebration of Lights last month, Alstom's Holidays on Ice rink on Market Square up and running, and the WIVK/Fowlers Christmas Parade drawing the usual throng to downtown, it is—as the song goes—(insert corporate sponsor here) Christmas time in the city.

In addition to the thousands of lights supplied by the city, businesses are turning on their rooftop beacons strung in conical tree-forms about poles. Since most of these are never taken down, much of the year they're odd curiosities. But lit up during this season gives them context.

And this year, the city is acknowledging areas that were previously left to fend for themselves. The parade included a stretch through the Old City. And even the 100 Block, formerly devoid of decoration, got the same lit wreaths and banners that were hitherto only provided south of Summit Hill Drive.

Along with the lights and decorations and other hallmarks of the season, I've noticed winter brings another change to downtown. There simply aren't as many feet on the street after five. It's not that there are fewer people, they're just hidden here and there, mostly indoors or in cars. The rink on Market Square being the exception.

Last year, I walked into the pub on Gay Street one evening and began peeling off layers. First, a wool cap, then my ear warmers. Next, the gloves and scarf. And finally the topcoat. A friend commented that it wasn't really that cold out there.

Now, granted, had I driven to the supermarket, a mall, or even to that pub on Gay, I wouldn't have had worn the same thing. But winter in the city for the pedestrian is an entirely different matter. Hopping out of a warm car and hustling to the door is one thing. But going for a walk downtown once the temperature heads south of freezing is a whole different experience.

When gentle breezes meet a maze of multi-story buildings, interesting things happen. Downtown's grid channels zephyrs into gales. You can bet that if the air is moving at all, it will reach wind-tunnel velocity in some direction amid our man-made gorges.

I've walked along Gay Street with a stiff breeze pushing me along one minute, and fighting a headwind the next. And at every cross street, one never knows when those winds will seem like a light breeze compared to the blast at the intersection. Coats billow, and hats not grasped tight take flight.

Meanwhile, the north wind may hardly be noticeable at the rink on Market Square. The double buffers of the Crown Plaza and the TVA towers create a sort of eddy at their feet. But they don't stop that wind. They only channel it to the path of least resistance.

I've watched rain and snow blowing sideways into the TVA towers, only to make an abrupt turn just before reaching the wall and fly around the building where, upon meeting the next wall, make yet another turn, until the flow finds its way to Gay Street to follow its broad chasm, picking up speed and changing direction at random corners.

If this Christmas is like most, there will be more cars driving by the 100,000 lights illuminating Krutch Park than people strolling through it. Taking in the city's Christmas lights from the warmth of the driver's seat is like never leaving the fireplace.

But there's a lot to be said for taking a stroll on a cold winter night, wind or no wind. And no better place for it than downtown. Park the car, bundle up, and enjoy the wispy fog of your every breath. Each store, restaurant, and coffee shop stands out more—warm sanctuaries along the way. And with the Christmas lights, it's brighter than any other time of the year.

You may even find a few surprises. Not every Christmas display can be seen from a car. There's at least one that's just for those who travel the sidewalk.

Amble down to the 100 Block across from Nama and watch for a balcony just below street level. If you look carefully, you'll find a subterranean Christmas display complete with garland, twinkling lights, and wreath. It went up without fanfare on the same day as Regal's holiday jump-start, and will disappear before the year's end. I call it the Underground Display Of Twinkling Christmassy Specialness In The City. And it's sponsored by yours truly. Have a happy Christmas season.