Fallow Fields Near the City's Center

The city's Homemakers Program offers vacant lots for sale

The house in the photograph accompanying this week's column isn't for sale. It was torn down several years ago, one of almost two-dozen houses demolished in Parkridge during my 12-year tenure in the neighborhood.

The long list of houses Parkridge lost over the years sprang to mind the other day, after Councilman Joe Hultquist forwarded me a link to a blog post about what the author termed "Feral Houses." The post referenced Detroit, but the photo gallery illustrating the piece—rundown homes slowly receding into their overgrown lots—would certainly have looked familiar to anyone who has spent the last couple decades living in Knoxville's center city.

I don't have stats on the number of houses Knoxville's torn down in recent years. I can recall, during his last re-election bid, then-Mayor Victor Ashe bragging about the "hundreds" of houses torn down on his watch. But was that really an accomplishment? Or cause for alarm? The gradual accrual of abandonment can produce astonishing results. Parts of Detroit are literally returning to the prairie, for instance, as abandonment and demolition produce neighborhoods with more vacant lots than standing houses.

Knoxville's not Detroit, thankfully. But it's hardly a "best case" scenario, either. The center-city's population has certainly contracted over the last 50 years (by some 30,000, according to the 2000 census); 2010 may show things stabilizing somewhat, helped by a slight reversal of the migration trend in a select few neighborhoods. But the question of what to do with those feral houses and the fallow lots left after their demolition remains.

Some folks have taken the whole "urban pioneer" cliché to its ultimate conclusion, becoming sodbusters in the city. One of my old Parkridge neighbors has even launched something called The Agrarian Urbanite. Calling itself "the Manual for Regenerative Urban Agriculture," the online publication's dedicated to promoting "sustainable, regenerative and organic" agriculture in an urban setting.

Personally, while farming certainly has a place in the center city's future, I'd prefer new people put down roots in Knoxville's "urban setting." Either way, there's a surprising amount of open land available. Every month, the city's Department of Community Development offers vacant lots and lots with substandard structures for sale to individuals, non-profit organizations, and businesses. There are 18 properties on the current list. Most are vacant lots scattered around places like Lonsdale and East Knoxville. But there are also several fixer-uppers on the list—two in Oakwood-Lincoln Park and another in Fourth and Gill. So, please, pick a place and plant something. Preferably yourself. m

Vacant Properties for Redevelopment

via City of Knoxville Homemakers Program