On a sunny afternoon, it looks just like a sleepy country town in South Carolina. Modest businesses with homemade signs, people sitting out on their porches or mowing their lawns, teenagers a little too big for the bikes they're riding. The smell of good barbecue, fried catfish in the air. People walking on the sidewalks, waving at others who stop their cars to chat. A uniformed policeman ambling an old-fashioned walking beat, smiling and calling to acquaintances. Everyone here seems to know everybody else, and if they didn't see you here yesterday and the day before, they give you a long look.
There's a convenience store as cluttered as an old-time general store, a body shop, an athletic club. Painted on the side of one cinder-block business are bold black words you can see from the street: IN GOD WE TRUST. Then, underneath, in slightly smaller letters: NO LOITERING. NO DRUGS.
It's one of the few hints that this is also the area some consider the most dangerous spot in Knox County, afflicted not only with drugs once more boldly exchanged than they are now, but with more exotic late-20th century crimes, carjackings, drive-by shootings. It's called Five Points, and when people talk about what scares them most about East Knoxville, they invoke it, like a code.
East Knoxville is shaped roughly like an oblong mushroom, stretching, by most definitions, from the Coliseum on Mulvaney Street, eastward about six miles to the city limits, and from I-40 south to the curvaceous riverbank. It's the only part of Knoxville that touches the languid Holston River, which flows down out of western Virginia all the way up in the hills around Roanoke over 200 miles southwest to run alongside Knoxville's eastern city limits, then meanders a couple of miles south before returning northward as half of the Tennessee.
Parts of East Knoxville are still wooded and undeveloped, changed little since British explorer Stephen Holston floated this river 250 years ago. Some parts of East Knoxville still seem rural: an overgrown family graveyard with misspelled markers, crickets chirping in the tall grass. But other parts of East Knoxville have been paved and repaved, developed and redeveloped so often you can read the history of 20th century commercial architecture on its tortured buildings, "modernized," soaked with graffiti.
It's less than 10 square miles, less than two percent of Knox County. But East Knoxville is, without question, the most complex part of this county. Among the 22,000 people who live there are many of Knoxville's very poorest and many of Knoxville's wealthiest. About two-thirds of East Knoxvillians are black; this wedge of East Knoxville, in fact, is home to more than half of African American Knoxville. White and black coexist in several East Knoxville neighborhoods like nowhere else. No other part of town knows these extremes of wealth and poverty, city and country, beauty and blight. No other part of town has more serious problems or more untapped potential.
People who never visit East Knoxville hear about it on the news. Most news is bad news, and most of what they hear about East Knoxville is bad. Some think that the local media is more specific about locating crimes that happened "in East Knoxville" than they are about crimes in West Knoxville. Others say the slanted news coverage slides toward gross inaccuracy. Kim Trent, who works with East Knoxville's Center for Neighborhood Development, moved to a handsome old house in East Knoxville's Parkridge community with her husband and young son five years ago and has been astonished by television crime reports. "When anything bad happens, it's East Knoxville," she says. "Even if it's not in East Knoxville." She says both TV and radio newsmen make the error of assuming every minority-related crime is in East Knoxville. When she hears dumb mistakes, she complains. "Sorry," she says, with an exasperated sarcasm. "I know it's hard to keep up--but that was actually on the west side of town, not on the east side."
However, when TV crews did a story on the renovation of her historic home south of I-40--and east of Bill Meyer Stadium--it was identified as North Knoxville. The TV rule, Trent discovered, is that if it's historic, it must be North Knoxville. If it's crime, it must be East Knoxville.
On some nights, she admits she's been able to hear what sound like gunshots from the area around Austin Homes, less than a mile away. There's crime here, but there's a great deal more. Longtime resident Evon Easley-Milton knows about the crime, but says "the productive parts of East Knoxville outweigh it 99 to one."
If Knoxville could survive at all without East Knoxville, it would be a very different--and much duller--place. East Knoxville is this region's only zoological park, the nationally recognized Knoxville Zoo. It's our only Filipino restaurant, the decade-old Philippine Connection. It's the Carpetbag Theatre, Knoxville's internationally famous black theatrical troupe. It's Howell Nurseries, Knoxville's single oldest business. It's one of Knoxville's best-restored and most-haunted historical showplaces, the Mabry-Hazen House. It's the popular John T. O'Connor Senior Citizens' Center, where hundreds of elderly ladies and gentlemen play bridge and line-dance. It's Knoxville's oldest Jewish and Catholic graveyards, Knoxville's only Confederate graveyard, the black Oddfellows Cemetery, and melancholy Potter's Field. It's the studios of East Tennessee's public television stations, channels 2 and 15. It's Levi's, one of Knoxville's busiest and most community-oriented industries. It's the 70-year-old model neighborhood of Holston Hills, with one of Knoxville's older country clubs and arguably our prettiest golf course. It's Scruggs', Frazier's (a.k.a. "Spooky's"), Kirk's, Alfred's, Dixson's, and other rare restaurants with devotees who claim they serve the best barbecue in town. It's Chilhowee Park, home of the annual Tennessee Valley Fair and popular Kuumba festival.
Soon, East Knoxville will also be home of the largest statue of an African American in the nation, the Alex Haley memorial, in a public park which promises to be Knoxville's biggest tourist magnet. (The playground will be finished by community volunteers next weekend; the long-anticipated statue is scheduled to be shipped in late October.)
At this writing, East Knoxville is also home to Knoxville's only Catholic high school and Knoxville's only pro sports club, the Knoxville Smokies.
But both will be leaving East Knoxville soon. Though neighbors are skeptical of their motives in proposals to move to various all-white neighborhoods out west, the Smokies claim they've got nothing against their neighborhood, insisting it's a matter of visibility, road access, and minor-league standards.
Jan Johnson is director of development for Knoxville Catholic High School, which has been located on the south side of Magnolia since 1932. A former Farragut-area resident, Johnson has lived in Holston Hills for years, mainly to be closer to her job. "Life is a little slower out here," she says, comparing East to West. "People in stores don't seem to be in such a hurry."
She's found that Knoxville's perception of the area's criminal threat is grossly exaggerated. "The way people speak of it, you'd think you can't walk down the street without getting hit in the head," she says. "I've been here for 12 years. We've had no rashes of break-ins or anything like that," she says.
Still, Catholic High is moving to its new home in West Knoxville within three years. Johnson insists they have no complaint with the neighborhood. "Here, we just haven't had enough room to expand," she says. "The Cedar Bluff property was donated by the diocese. Enrollment's growing, and we don't have parking for the students we have now." She says the bishop has promised old Catholic High won't be an abandoned building. Pellissippi State is negotiating plans to open a satellite campus there.
R.T. Clapp, located on Magnolia for decades, is Knoxville's largest and busiest auto-repair business, handling 35 cars a day. Owner King Benson believes R.T. Clapp is among the largest independently owned auto-repair shops in the nation.
Benson, who bought the company 22 years ago, has no complaints about the location; he says R.T. Clapp's getting as much business as they can handle comfortably.
"We feel very positive about East Knoxville and Magnolia Avenue," he says. "There's a steady increase in business investment out here. Anything vacant doesn't stay vacant long." As for crime, Benson shrugs. "It's about zero, year to year," he says. "We're very comfortable here."
Comfort's one thing many East Knoxvillians, black and white, cite as what they like about the place. Easley-Milton, who spearheaded the Haley Heritage Square project, says one of her favorite things about East Knoxville is its easygoing community nature. "People enjoy just driving through, enjoying the quality of that," she says. (Anyone who's done much driving in East Knoxville knows it's no place to be if you're in a big hurry.)
Margaret Miller is director of marketing and development for Carpetbag Theatre, which is located on McCalla. She lives in an older neighborhood near Chilhowee Park. "People have begged me to move because they fear for my life," she says, incredulously. They don't always know that she carefully chose to live there, moving from Cedar Bluff, where she found the traffic oppressive. "All that hustle and bustle of West Knoxville, I did not like." Citing some of the more outrageous recent crimes in West Knoxville, she says she believes "it's not as bad" in East Knoxville.
Nkechi Ajanaku, director of African American Appalachian Arts, lives in a comfortable, tree-shaded neighborhood. "I enjoy my home here," she says, adding that she doesn't worry for herself--"but I have an 18-year-old son, and it bothers me that he's not safe. I see men and boys out congregating on Saturday night on Magnolia and MLK, because there's not a constructive diversion for them."
Meaningful comparative statistics are hard to come by; the police department tabulates crime statistics by "number of calls" from eastern, central, and western sectors of Knoxville. Each sector has its low-income subsidized housing developments, but the KPD gets significantly more complaints about serious violent crime in the "western sector" than in the "eastern sector." However, KPD spokesman Foster Arnett says that may indicate a greater number of reports for the same crimes.
One thing almost all East Knoxville business people and residents, black and white, have in common is an impression that East Knoxville is unfairly maligned by people who don't know it well.
For many whites, East Knoxville has retained its charm; by most accounts, Holston Hills, Parkridge, and some other neighborhoods have not suffered the property-value decreases some residents feared as their neighborhoods became racially mixed. Architect Tom Davick has lived with his wife Linda, an accomplished artist, in Holston Hills for over a decade. "We love the neighborhood," he says. "It's a beautiful community. I work downtown, and it's a 10-minute drive without even having to get on the interstate." Davick adds an allusion to another, unnamed part of town: "It would be hard to fit me and my wife in a phony baronial mansion in a cow-pasture subdivision." Still, for some white families with school-age kids who've feared East Knoxville schools were inferior or more dangerous than others, education has been an anxiety.
The magnet-school program, designed to draw middle-class kids from other parts of town for superior educational programs, was first instituted in East Knoxville three years ago, already with notable results. Green Elementary, Sarah Moore Greene Elementary, Vine Middle, and, now, Austin-East High School have all launched magnet programs. This year, well over 200 white kids who live in other parts of town are coming to East Knoxville every day to attend school.
Many Southern cities have an intersection called Five Points, often a thriving cultural center. Knoxville's Five Points, about a mile and a half east of downtown, is where Martin Luther King Avenue intersects with--and then takes the original eastern course of--old McCalla, crossing parallel streets Olive and Ben Hur in the bargain. Geometrically, it doesn't look like a five points as much as a couple of neighboring intersections--but it's had that name for decades.
Looming on its southwestern corner is Walter P. Taylor Homes. Named for a downtown haberdasher and early leader of the Knoxville Housing Authority, Taylor houses about 750 people. Only a minority of the residents of Taylor Homes ever cause any trouble. But housing projects have traditionally drawn drug traffickers attracted to the desperation of people so poor they're willing to deal.
Taylor's not the only subsidized housing project in East Knoxville, but it's the biggest. Austin Homes, closer to town, houses about one-third the number Taylor does. A number of other subsidized or partially subsidized HUD developments are planted throughout the area.
Jimmy Clark is proprietor of Jimmy Who's Music Maker, a small shop on MLK just east of Five Points. He's a friendly guy in a Vols jersey who, considering he's been in the music business for over 25 years, must be older than he looks.
Jimmy Who's is a family operation; his wife and son help out. He mainly keeps the stuff that sells, the urban-contemporary top 40, plus some gospel, rap, and blues. Rap sells best. He displays a couple of Snoop Doggy Dogg posters in his window, and rap's playing in his store, but this former soul & funk disk jockey sounds like maybe he doesn't listen to a lot of rap at home. "Rap is here to stay," he sighs. "We've got to face it."
Jimmy Who's also sells hats and sunglasses, snacks, and black greeting cards. In August, some unsold black Father's Day cards are still on display. "I was the first to bring them to town," Clark says. "The department stores didn't have them at all. We served a very unique purpose." He laughs. "Now it's hard to compete against them."
Originally from Texas, Jimmy Who was a black-radio disk jockey who came to Knoxville in 1972 at the invitation of one James Brown. The Godfather of Soul himself bought a black AM radio station renamed WJBE, and brought Jimmy Who, a sometime concert announcer for Brown, to Knoxville in '72. In Brown's small network of black-oriented radio stations, Clark says, "Knoxville was the smallest town, the town that least needed a radio station," he says. "James Brown never lost faith in this town." But when WJBE went off the air in 1979, Jimmy Who opened his store.
As serious a problem as crime remains in his neighborhood, Jimmy Who says it was worse during his first few years, when he says his store was a little too popular, especially with the wrong kind. Jimmy Who's got a reputation as a venue for dope deals. "The first go-'round, I was very naive, ignorant," Clark says. "Now I stop it in the bud. I don't want it to get started." He sounds decisive. "We don't allow it."
He also says police protection is much better than it used to be. You do see a cruiser rolling slowly down MLK every few minutes, occasionally even an officer walking the beat. "I'm optimistic now," he says, "especially with the way the city's finally talking about putting money into the neighborhood, with the Dollar Store going in" down the road.
Leaving the store, he reminds you to be careful. "Don't look around, act like you don't know where you are," he says. "But they're not looking to mess with nobody in the daytime. And very seldom will you have any trouble at night, unless you're in the wrong place at the wrong time. But I wouldn't advise nobody to spend any time on Martin Luther King at night--black or white."
It's tempting to spend time there. Here small restaurants operate out of private homes, some with signs advertising HOT FISH SANDWICHES, some with no signs at all. Some have business licenses, some don't. They sell barbecue ribs or chicken wings or hot tamales or the catch of the day from the river: catfish on a good day. Police haven't been giving Knoxville's restaurant underworld a hard time, lately; "They take care of their own," one officer says. There are more significant problems here.
Nightclubs are placed strategically like small fortresses, windowless cinder-block bunkers with a jukebox. They may look alike to strangers, but their reputations are very different.
B&J's, features live music, old-time R&B bands. Eddie's, at Chestnut and Wilson, is an easy-going place frequented by older folks. Gene's, on Chestnut, is notorious for drug-dealing and, sometimes, violence.
One of those cinder-block buildings on MLK at Five Points isn't a nightclub. It's called the Muhammad Mosque. Down the street at the four-way stop at MLK and Castle, a dapper middle-aged man dressed as well as Louis Farrakhan in a grey suit, dark bow tie, and starched white shirt smiles and sells a $1 newspaper named The Final Call to any driver who stops and asks for it. "It's an international paper," the gentleman says, and it is, a black Muslim perspective on world news. An editorial inside sharply criticizes Yasser Arafat for kowtowing to the Israelis.
A woman who blundered across this same shady, peaceful-looking residential intersection after midnight a couple of weeks ago was carjacked and raped.
Christian and Muslim blacks alike are appalled at the violence, often angrier at these kids than whites are. Some who work with the kids believe they're even angry at themselves. "Most of these kids slinging these drugs, they hate their lives," says Chris Woodhull, co-partner in the alternative counseling group Tribe One. "They get tired of banging their heads against the wall."
Five Points is like several different nations within the same borders, each with its own political structure, its own intricate morality. On a Saturday night, the streets are flooded with young people rapping in their cars, laughing, grinning, ambling the sidewalks, stopping to talk. A few have guns or the chunks of fine white gravel that go for $20 a pebble. The next morning, the sunny neighborhood is quieter, more peaceful than any spot in populated Knoxville. Thousands, well-dressed in old-fashioned hats and gloves, are in the dozens of churches here, praying for the kids who mostly aren't there.
It's a sunny afternoon on Chestnut Street, a couple of blocks from the nightclub where a teenager was shot to death a few months ago. At a corner, five black preteen kids, shouting and smiling, are holding signs marked, "We are asking for donations to Ogle's Water Park..."
Ogle's hasn't become a charity. These kids are just hoping to finance a trip there before cold weather. In an accent most Americans would associate with white Appalachians, one black girl explains they attend a "learning center up 'arr" at Tabernacle Apartments. A HUD-subsidized housing project considered a little more upscale than Walter P. Taylor, Tabernacle has had problems with gangs, a colony of West Siders here in the middle of East Knoxville.
A Magnolia Avenue saloon has a stern warning you can read from your car: NO REDS. NO BLUES. NO BLUNTS. Red is the color of Knoxville's East Side gang. Blue is the color of Knoxville's West Side gang, centered around the Mechanicsville/Lonsdale area. Blunts are hollowed-out cigars stuffed with marijuana.
They're called gangs, but some think that word gives them more credit for organization and purpose than they're due. Police and social workers agree they're made up almost entirely of unorganized teenagers, few as old as 20. They're preoccupied with the big-city Bloods and Crips, borrowing their colors and secret symbols. Policemen and counselors agree these kids and their escapist daydreams are being exploited by bigger-time drug dealers, most of whom live in tonier parts of town.
Some nightclubs bar the young. One, Club Royal on McCalla, throws a few more years on the state drinking age, just to be on the safe side. DRESS CODE ENFORCED, its marquee says, 25 & OVER.
Intimates say there are no cultural differences between the east side and the west side. This red-blue conflict is not based on anything except divergent addresses.
Captain Paul Fish is in charge of the KPD's coverage of East Knoxville. Whereas in the past, mainstream blacks have been equally suspicious of both the criminals and the police, enhanced walking beats and close cooperation with neighborhood organizations may be helping previously clannish factions to respect, trust, cooperate with--and sometimes even like--the police officers on the beat.
Fish credits some different, softer approaches. "We were much more arrest-oriented," he says, with stricter codes enforcement. "Under the community policing philosophy, we've tried to get people organized and responsible for what happens in the neighborhood. We're getting more neighborhood feedback than we have in the past. We're getting alcoholics in treatment plans, getting people interested in neighborhood watches, working with Vistas with the Center for Neighborhood Development."
Neighborhood organizations, from the ambitious Parkridge Community Organization, which even sponsors home renovations, to neighborhood watch groups with "block captains" who help report and prevent crime, now thrive all over East Knoxville, meeting regularly to make their neighborhoods safer.
Something's working. "It's been a great summer for us," Fish says. Summer's the worst time for violent crime here, and he reports this has been the quietest summer in East Knoxville in years.
Across MLK from Taylor Homes is a lot with a new building on it and a sign: "Future Home of Dollar General Store."
Several community leaders are excited about that rare construction project, touted by some as the salvation of the neighborhood. Getting a national chain to invest in what has been a high-crime neighborhood is no small feat.
Some neighbors are skeptical that's going to happen here, that "Dollar Store" is going to exploit tax write-offs for the project and then abandon it, like everybody else does. "That's frustrating," says Nkechi Ajanaku, of AAAA. "Look at any urban area. Do Dollar Stores work there? It's not the level of development that needs to occur" to make a real difference, she says. She mentions the riverfront development project. "People don't see spending that kind of money in African American communities," she says.
Cynicism about powerful white interests "improving" black East Knoxville goes back decades, a cynicism learned from hard experience.
Once called Hardscrabble, a century ago East Knoxville was a racially unsegregated region sometimes as rough as its name; still, several of Knoxville's wealthiest white families lived there, atop the ridges.
Along Dandridge Avenue are a few of the region's most historic homes, like the handsomely renovated Mabry-Hazen house, an antebellum shrine open for tours. Down the street, the old brick Williams home that playwright Tennessee Williams recalled from his childhood. Built in the 1820s by ancestor John Williams, a U.S. Senator, diplomat to Central America, and forceful colonel in the War of 1812, the vacant house, recently purchased, gapes down at Dandridge.
In the bottomlands between the hills were much larger working-class neighborhoods, populated by freed slaves and European immigrants. Part of downtown East Knoxville was once called Irish Town. One section near downtown was more recently known as the Bottom.
Old East Knoxville remained intact for nearly a century, served by several churches, black-owned businesses, a black movie theater called the Gem, and a popular park to which black philanthropist Cal Johnson had donated a handsome fountain.
Though it was a relatively small neighborhood--maybe a quarter square mile--it was home to a disproportionate number of Knoxville's most famous, including maverick string-band jazzmen Martin, Bogan, and Armstrong, whose 78 about old Vine Street hit a nationwide audience; artists Beauford and Joseph Delaney, both generally regarded among America's greatest black painters; and poet Nikki Giovanni, who's still publishing new books, including memoirs of her youth in Knoxville. Ida Cox, singer and author of "Wild Women Don't Have the Blues," was already a blues legend when she retired here to become a member of the old Patton Street Church Choir, in the '50s and '60s.
None of these homes, nor Cox's church, still stand. None of their addresses still exist even as addresses. Vine Street's gone. Johnson's park and fountain have vanished. The original neighborhoods of East Knoxville became a suburban-style grass-and-asphalt annex to downtown, the Coliseum, the Safety Building, the Chamber of Commerce, the Hyatt. Urban renewal is better known among East Knoxvillians today as urban removal. It shoved black East Knoxville nearly a mile farther east.
Some saw it as a philanthropic effort of slum clearance, but its execution destroyed much good with the bad, demolishing solid homes and vital community centers along with slums. Few anticipated the trauma it would cause the black community, which lost its tangible heritage. Some describe it as a black Trail of Tears. In Chapter One of Nikki Giovanni's memoir, Gemini, nationally praised when it was released in 1971 and still in print, the poet describes her bitter homecoming when she found her old neighborhood being leveled. "Mulvaney Street is gone," she wrote. "Completely wiped out. Assassinated with all the old people who made it live." In the book she blamed her grandmother's death on the trauma of moving to an unfamiliar house farther east. "Linden Avenue was pretty but it had no life," Giovanni wrote. "She died because she didn't know where she was and didn't like it."
Some in East Knoxville today have never recovered. Bob Booker, historian and director of the stately Beck Cultural Center on Dandridge, remembers urban renewal and has studied its devastating effect on the black community. He notes that only one black business--Jarnigan's funeral home, still in business on MLK--survived the move.
Another longtime East Knoxvillian, a white resident who prefers not to be named, says his community "has been cut off from the rest of the city in a systematic and probably deliberate sort of way, when they built the Business Loop--and when they began warehousing the poor here. This was once a desirable, mixed-income community." He says what's followed has been "30 years of stagnation, a downward spiral."
Stagnation and Charm
It's true that East Knoxville has grown little in those decades, and stagnation has obvious liabilities regarding poverty and crime. However, some are grateful the area hasn't developed more. The scarcity of rapacious, Deane Hill-style developers here might account for the fact that East Knoxville still holds more surviving examples of the work of Knoxville's most famous architect, George Barber (1854-1915), than elsewhere. Photographs of Barber's work, including houses in East Knoxville's Parkridge neighborhood, will be profiled in an upcoming issue of Bob Vila's American Home.
There are other compensations to nongrowth. First-time travelers along Magnolia notice the wide street has a time-warp charm to it, old-fashioned churches, '20s-style apartment buildings, some art-moderne buildings visible underneath modern embellishments. It may have been that charm that attracted filmmakers to shoot parts of the current art-house hit, Box of Moonlight, along Magnolia.
Even though the Tic-Toc's famous barbecue drive-in recently closed, Magnolia still nurtures a drive-in culture, with one of the few remaining drive-in Weigel's, a drive-in ice-cream shop farther out on Asheville Highway--and, the "FAMOUS" Pizza Palace. It's the only spot in Tennessee where you can eat a big Greek pizza with anchovies and drink Old Milwaukee beer ("Brewed for that wonderful world of leisure," a mod sign in the window tells us), and top it all off with a Black Bottom Pie--all without once getting out of your car.
For those who do have automobiles to park in the bays of the Pizza Palace, shopping in East Knoxville has gotten considerably easier in the last 12 years or so. Most agree that East Towne Mall is not really in East Knoxville; Fountain City also claims it as their commercial center. Still, just a couple of miles north of Magnolia, East Towne's much closer to East Knoxville than West Town is.
But considering those holdouts of '50s drive-in culture, it may seem ironic that an unusually large number of East Knoxvillians--perhaps 20 percent, reckoning from census data--don't have access to automobiles. But that figure may well explain part of why, in spite of its problems, this seems such a tight, old-fashioned neighborhood. In East Knoxville, lots of people walk to where they need to go.
Chilhowee Park, established in the 1880s, was originally a public water park where well-dressed white people--and, one day a year, blacks--could do some swimming, sliding, canoeing. The park became so important to park-starved Knoxville that in 1890 it became our first electric-trolley destination; in 1907 it spawned a neighborhood which became known as Park City. Though it was an independent town for only a decade, you still encounter the phrase here and there in East Knoxville.
Across Magnolia in Burlington is Knoxville's most-peculiar residential oddity, Speedway Circle, a tiny neighborhood clustered right on former slave Cal Johnson's old turn-of-the-century horse-racing track. This neighborhood has been Knoxville's entertainment district for more than a century.
Today, of course, Chilhowee Park's Magnolia entrance bears the sign, "Tennessee Valley Fair," there even during the 350 days of the year when the fair isn't in town. In the city-sponsored redesign of the site, that one-note image is part of the problem. Once a public park well-used on most nice days, it's now a largely paved site, waiting for the Fair, or Kuumba, or a handful of smaller events, to come back. City Council just stamped an agreement with architecture firm Bullock-Smith to come up with a master plan for Chilhowee Park to make it more of a year-round public attraction.
Adjacent to Chilhowee Park is the nationally respected Knoxville Zoo. Nancy Young, the Zoo's marketing director, says the Zoo would like to see Chilhowee Park redeveloped with more green space, perhaps like Lakeshore. As part of the redesign, the Zoo is working with the city on more direct access to the interstate exit, a proposal that some neighbors view as vaguely unneighborly.
Young and others speak of the Zoo and the struggling Discovery Center as anchors to an Entertainment Corridor, anticipating the seemingly unlimited tourist-oriented growth of Sevier County to affect East Knoxville's commercial fortunes. Now that I-40 is the favored route to Sevierville and beyond, some of the Sevier County juggernaut is already spilling over into East Knox County's Strawberry Plains: several motels and tourist-oriented restaurants have materialized there, five miles out Asheville Highway, in the last year or two. It may not be so far-fetched to believe East Knoxville proper might make room for tourist traffic. Many patrons of the family-oriented entertainment of Dollywood might take a side trip to a revamped Chilhowee Park and the region's best zoo. It doesn't take much imagination to see the possibility of this old weekend refuge for the whole city serving a similar purpose someday.
Holston River Park
Many praise the area's natural beauty. Sudden views of the mountains or of the Knoxville skyline startle first-time visitors. "There are areas tucked all in and around East Knoxville that are fabulous and picturesque," says Ajanaku, making a case easy to prove. The Holston Riverfront may be the last unspoiled waterfront in Knoxville, but few had a good chance to see it before the city opened the Holston River Park just last year as part of Knoxville's system of greenways. It's located just between Holston Hills and the black neighborhoods of East Knoxville.
Willows grow alongside the shady stream that might remind you of those lazy rivers the Mills Brothers used to sing about. Big enough to drive a boat through, but so narrow the trees on either bank almost touch, this is part of the Holston River, the narrower of the two courses the river takes around big Boyd's Island, where corn grows thickly.
It may be Knoxville's most relaxing park, a large open glade with a mountain-like walking trail leading a short curvy route to Riverside Drive. At one end is a covered shelter with picnic tables where about a dozen mostly white people are gathered with multicolored balloons, celebrating a birthday party.
At the other end is a neat wooden dock that seems made for fishing. Two white boys, about 8, are casting baited hooks into the water. In short haircuts and striped shirts, in the twilight they could be kids romping out of the '40s. Only their tennis shoes give them away.
"I've got sump'm," the cross-eyed boy says. It turns out to be a long leaf. He casts again. "I can't throw good," he apologizes. His friend's seeking advice from a 40-ish black couple.
"'Bout that time," the black man in the Seminoles cap says, reeling slowly, "8:30, 9:00, when the water cools, that's when the best fishing is." He caught a bream earlier, but bream's not what he's here for. "Drum," he says hopefully. "And channel cats. A lady caught three channel cats here the other night."
This park allegedly closes at dark, and it's almost dark now, but the place seems to be getting more popular. A white family arrives and take up a fishing post on the riverbank. Two young black women are sitting at a picnic table listening to some easy modern soul. An elderly white trio walks the track, stopping here and there to examine a plant. Nearby, a Cadillac's offering a jump to another. A young black couple walks around the track; it looks like a second date, maybe third. Laughter echoes loudly from the darkening gazebo.
The overused word predominantly doesn't work at Holston River Park. Maybe 100 people are here this Saturday evening, but an observer would need to be methodical to tally whether there are more blacks or whites. And at Holston River Park, you just don't feel all that methodical.
Though some neighbors criticize it as window-dressing that ignores more substantial problems, Holston River Park is at least a symbol of hope for black and white Knoxville. It may take more than parks, and walking beats, and magnet schools, and neighborhood watches, and Dollar Stores, and famous statues, and entertainment corridors, to exalt East Knoxville--but to many that hope seems more plausible than in years past.