Rank and File: How Knoxville Rates

National city ratings may not always be the most accurate gauges for true 'livability,' but here's what they have to say about Knoxville (lately).

If Knoxvillians seem preoccupied with national rankings of cities—especially those that have something to do with how "liveable" a city is—we should be easy to forgive.

In the ’20s, a tourbook author described Knoxville as the most "peculiar" city she'd ever visited. During a visit here in 1935, nationally popular columnist Ernie Pyle reported that he'd heard Knoxville called "the dirtiest city in the world," and as far as he knew, it was true. We probably don't need to remind readers what popular author John Gunther wrote in 1947, but it had something to do with "an intense, concentrated, degrading ugliness."

Ever since then, when Knoxvillians hear about urban superlatives, we regard them circumspectly, sniff at them like a streetwise dog around a rat trap.

Most of us never knew liveable was an adjective until 1984, when we heard that a geography professor at the University of New York calculated that Knoxville was among the most "liveable" cities in America—tied for #1 with Greensboro, N.C. Robert Pierce submitted his findings at that year's meeting of the Association of American Geographers. The professor who made the claim had never even visited Knoxville, but his computer printouts became a brief sensation in the national press, trumpeted in an article in the fledgling USA Today. (Pierce demoted us to #4 in a new calculation in 1985, just before we stopped paying attention to him.)

It's been over 14 years now, but Professor Pierce's original assessment is still quoted by city boosters as if it came out yesterday. That seminal poll and the attention it got seems to have spawned a whole phylum of polls ranking American cities for liveability or something like it, in nearly every imaginable category.

Three years ago, Metro Pulse attempted to bring its readers up to date on how Knoxville stands in the tangled thicket of nationwide polls that rank American cities. We thought it might be instructive to catch up with them again, find out whether we've gotten better or worse since '95. As it turns out, it's not nearly as simple a job as we expected.

Few of the polls we reported in ’95 survive in the same form. The magazine industry is a fickle business; readers and editors are always insisting on something new. So nearly every year, they change their methodology—drop old polls, start new ones—just to come up with a different array of cities, a different top 10. They say they're always improving their scientific methodology in response to reader demands, but we suspect they're reshuffling the deck so often just to keep subscribers from being bored. In this way, they amuse their old readers—and, every year, win over whole cities' worth of new readers flattered at being in the top 10 for the first time.

So take these for what they're worth, which may not be much more than USA Today's pre-season football poll. After all, few of these magazines claim the authors visited all the cities they assess; their data are usually based on demographics, and sometimes aren't interpreted in a sensible way. When discussing "Knoxville," for example, it's typical for these ranking groups to include the whole Knoxville Metropolitan Standard Area: Gatlinburg to Oak Ridge, about two-thirds of a million people—even though some of those people in "Knoxville" might insist they've never even been to Knoxville and don't particularly trust anyone who has.

But when these polls talk about Knoxville's government, taxes, etc., they're typically referring only to city-limits Knoxville—where only about one-quarter of the people in the Knoxville MSA actually live.

And, of course, the more specific information they include, the more likely it is to be inaccurate. It's logistically impossible for any author to have visited all the 300 cities in America recently. One extreme example of obsolete descriptions appears in The World Encyclopedia of Cities, published in 1994. In its Knoxville listing, under the heading, "Historic Landmarks," are descriptions of several buildings torn down in the '50s and '60s. The more specific they get, the more vulnerable they get, so most magazines and reference books prefer to deal with vague generalities.

Just Give Us Money

One thing that's changed in the last three years is that scientists aren't as good-humored about these surveys as they once were. Several popular magazine polls have been severely criticized in articles in academic journals. And, of course, they've been severely criticized by people who are proud of the cities that end up on the bottom. As a result, some of the popular magazines seem to have backed off on their comprehensive polls a little.

Take Money magazine's "The Best Places to Live Now" poll. Since 1987, it's been America's most-anticipated rating guide. It's also borne the brunt of the criticism for its inconsistent and sometimes meaningless methodology—changing its criteria nearly every year—resulting in some hair-raising, often nauseating municipal rides.

Knoxville's a case in point. We entered the Money race of 300 American cities at a respectable #74, in the top quarter, if barely, even if it wasn't the #1 ranking we'd been told we deserved. That turned out to be the best score Money ever gave us. In ’88, we slipped to #97 and in ’89 were all the way down to #135. In ’92 we hit #74 again, but in ’93 we plummeted 135 places to a bottom-third #209, our all-time low. In ’94, we were back on the high side of mediocre, at #128. In ’95, we were #103; in ’96, we'd dropped to #160, in the lower half of American cities—the local economy has always been a big factor in the poll, and maybe they were panicking about the economic consequences of federal-budget-cutting politics on TVA, ORNL, and UTK. But that issue added a special note that Knoxville was one of the lowest-cost-of-living American cities, the lowest of 30 they analyzed in that regard, 12 percent below the national average. As of last year's issue, Knoxville appeared to be on the rebound, seeded at #96 of the 300 cities Money surveyed—back in the top third again, and the highest ranking we'd gotten in five years, better than Charlotte, Nashville, Atlanta, Asheville, and Chattanooga.

Over the last decade or so, we'd gotten to be like compulsive Money purchasers, buying one more issue like gamblers buying one more chance to see whether they were on a roll. But this year the Money poll pooped out on us. Perhaps cowed by the critics, they didn't make nearly as big a deal of their annual city rankings this year. In ’98, for the first time, Money published no master list, just a token top 10—along with a note that if we really had to know more, well, we could check their website. And then when we did, all it told us is that Knoxville is #8 of 44 mid-size cities in the South; with no national ranking at all to compare with that promising #96.

That's not bad, of course—but what does that #8 mid-size city in the South thing tell us? When our friends and colleagues are moving to San Francisco or Chicago or Portland, all we're told is that we're better off here than in Biloxi or Macon.

Playing with that website at money.com is great fun, though, if not flattering. According to Money, Knoxville's air and water pollution—especially air—is worse than the national average. Property crime rates are lower here, but Money says our violent crime's much worse than the national average. Still, it's not that bad for a city in the South. Our unemployment rate's lower, our job growth is higher, our utilities are cheaper. Our arts & culture index is a little under par, by their reckoning, but high (#6 of 44) for a medium-sized city in the South. Our pro sports index is much lower than the national standard, in the 28th percentile (Money doesn't seem to care about college sports). They add we're a little warmer, a little cloudier, and a lot wetter than the average American city.

Interestingly, in spite of Chattanooga's appearance (and our absence) on dozens of top-10 lists—some of them international—having to do with "smartness," "walkability," and "family-friendliness," our dynamic neighbor to the South fares poorly in the Money poll, usually in the deep 200s, usually far below Knoxville. (They're #18 in that poll of medium-sized Southern cities.) The Chattanooga Renaissance apparently hasn't filtered into the Money computer banks.

Rating Places Rated

In ’93, Places Rated Almanac claimed Knoxville was the 14th best place to live of all 343 cities in North America. However, since we reported that fact, they just had to go and publish a new edition of that reference book.

In this most recent edition, we didn't do nearly as well. Authors Savageau and Loftus have us at #73—which, admittedly, looks pretty good after the Money polls. In Places Rated, we didn't score very high or very low in anything. We did tend to be well above average—except in a few respects, like transportation, which at #227 is deep in the bottom half of American metro areas.

Our traditional boast to prospective newcomers—that Knoxville is relatively inexpensive—is partly justified here. The poll places us in the top third, nationwide, in terms of reasonability (we'd rather not call it cheapness).

But we're maybe not as inexpensive as we think. Among the 106 metro areas that are cheaper to live in than Knoxville are some big cities, like New Orleans—and Chattanooga, which is much cheaper than Knoxville.

Some have been puzzled, moving to bigger cities, that big-city prices for many things aren't much different from what they are in Knoxville. That might not be so surprising to those who've pored over these pages as obsessively as we have. According to the Almanac, Knoxville has fairly average expenses in mortgage, food, and transportation. But Knoxville has low utility rates, very low property tax, and, of course, no state or local income tax. However, we partly make up for it with our sales tax, considerably higher than the national average.

Still, our overall tax rate is much lower; whether that's a good thing or not may depend on your political persuasion. Some credit it with our relatively strong economy, but teachers, policemen, and some other public servants we know might say we're getting what we're paying for.

Transportation, predictably, is one of our lower scores; not only do we have a bare-bones public-transit system, but our daily commute, as reported in the census (remember?) is actually longer than we like to think it is—45.8 minutes round trip, which is right up there with bigger cities, and actually longer than several, including Dayton, Ohio; Hartford, Conn.; and Las Vegas.

Considering we're home to one of the nation's 50 biggest universities, it might seem surprising that Places Rated put Knoxville down at #142 in higher-education opportunities. Above the American median, but not by much.

By these numbers, our climate seems to have gotten much worse in four years. In the 1993 Places Rated, we were #30 of 343, which, admittedly, seemed rather generous. Asserting that our weather here is in America's top 10 percent would be tough to defend, especially after these last couple of months; but in 1997, we plummeted 117 places to land at #147 out of 351. They apparently changed some of the factoring, taking note of our annual rainfall and relatively high humidity. Their criteria were "mildness, brightness, and stability." Who needs mild, stable weather, anyway?

Crime is the biggest eyebrow-raiser. According to the Almanac, we're the 87th most dangerous of America's 351 metro areas. Knoxville's rates of murder and assault are nearly twice the national average. We're high in every category of violent crime; only in simple (non-auto) theft is Knoxville below average. The South is, and always has been, a relatively dangerous place, with higher rates of violent crime than other parts of the nation. Knoxville's relatively high rank there may also have to do with our size; most of the 351 metro areas are much smaller than Knoxville, and the top 100 cities for crime tend to be the biggest 100 cities in the country.

One of Knoxville's aces—a jack of clubs, at least—is "the Arts"; at #121 of 351, we're well above average, with a high number of performing-arts performances per year, and libraries that are both well-stocked in terms of books per capita and well-used. The criterion called "reading popularity" is relatively high. Our #121 ranking in that poll isn't as impressive as who's lower on the same list. In this category, we beat the tutus off our regional rivals, some of them better known for "the Arts" than Knoxville is, even Charleston, Savannah, Asheville—and especially #321 Chattanooga.

In "Recreation" we did much better than that, though not nearly as well as we did in the previous volume of the same almanac. In ’93, we were #18 among all metro areas in North America; in the more recent volume, we're #50, tied with "Job Growth" as our best score. The criteria are interesting; one is public land and water available for recreation—remember, this is the metro area, not city-limits Knoxville—and good restaurants per capita, as determined by the annual Mobil Travel Guide's much-feared star rating. Knoxville earns a AA rating, the highest any city ever gets in Mobil's test. We apparently have especially good-quality eateries here, with at least one restaurant-quality-star for each 15,000 people. Plus plentiful movie theaters (another AA rating) and golf courses (a respectable single A).

Interestingly, we're also at #50 in Job Growth, up from 104—in spite of the layoffs at TVA and ORNL.

News From The Sporting News

In 1997, the venerable sporting magazine The Sporting News ranked America's 237 best cities for sports—spectator sports, mostly. It's likely that the exodus of Knoxville hockey and the threats to Knoxville baseball weren't recorded in time to be tabulated—but until they change it, Knoxville's still #43 out of 238 cities in the survey. In the eyes of those magazine editors, we've got better sports opportunities (both spectator and participant) than more than 80 percent of American cities. Most of the cities ahead of us are much bigger cities, with big-league pro teams.

We've known people who'd say yes, that's Knoxville's problem, the city's too dang sports-foolish; but look ahead of us in TSN's sports-cities poll: beyond the obvious sports metropolises are historic Charleston (#24), high-tech Raleigh-Durham (#34), sinful New Orleans (#36), and artsy Portland (#38). They seem to prove that you can be a superior sports town and be famous for something else, too.

Another sporting magazine, Outdoor Life, concentrates more on hunting, fishing, and other outdoor pastimes. Two and a half years ago, Outdoor Life published a feature called Best Sporting Towns in America—subtitled, "20 Good Reasons to Move." Knoxville was one of the 20—unranked within the top 20, but listed as first runner-up to Tallahassee, which was called Best in the South. We're described as "a vibrant little university town in the heart of the Tennessee Valley Authority lake country...."

This article is very unusual among these Best polls in one respect, and that's the fact that the guy who wrote it, Geoff Norman, knew his subject. The well-known sportswriter and novelist had spent a good deal of time in Knoxville in the early ’90s as an advisory editor on Whittle Communications projects.

Women and Children First?

A few months ago, Ladies Home Journal tried an ambitious, if partly whimsical, assessment of America's "Best Cities for Women." Somehow, almost gracefully, they combined serious aspects like rape rates and frivolity like weather conditions conducive to "bad-hair days." In between were about a dozen mostly serious criteria: jobs, public schools, women in government, divorce rates, women-owned businesses, and the wage gap, which in the entire state of Tennessee is conspicuously wide. Knoxville came down at #104 out of 200 largest cities—just under the median.

If that under-par ranking seems evidence of conservative mediocrity, consider that Knoxville beat out liberal mecca San Francisco (#116) as a better city for women. As closer points of comparison, Durham, N.C., was #2 in the survey; Chattanooga was #124.

Last year, Knoxville scored high on two family-related polls: 14th in a Readers Digest poll about the best places to raise your family, and in the top 10 in a similar poll conducted for Parenting magazine, then based in San Francisco. "Some people might think Knoxville a cheap thrill," began the mini-profile by New York-based writer William Green, describing the low cost of living here. He cites the "lush beauty of the area and the 'down to earth' locals." It's illustrated with a late-afternoon shot of the 100 block of South Central (which might have startled our ancestors, who called this the Bowery). The editor and design director of Parenting at the time were former Knoxvillians: Editor Anne Krueger, in fact, was then about to move her family back to Knoxville.

Oddly, we didn't qualify for a book published the same year called 50 Fabulous Places to Raise Your Family—or, for that matter, 50 Fabulous Places to Retire in America (1997); we're not one of Kiplinger's 20 Healthiest Cities in America (1996) or one of Bicycling's Best Cities for Cycling (1995), or Sales and Marketing Managements's 20 Hottest Cities for Selling (1998). However, we did make the top 10 on one recent poll publicized this summer. Knoxville, if you haven't heard, is the 2nd Itchiest City in America. The Lanacaine people in White Plains, N.Y., came up with that one, based mainly on the prevalence of mosquitoes and poison ivy. Nashville, by the way, is the Itchiest; Asheville is third. But look at the bright side of itchiness. Itchy places tend to be moist, warm places, where all kinds of plants and animals breed and grow. We have an especially high abundance of poison ivy and hundreds of other species, too. Life is itchy.

UT's Report Cards

Every year, U.S. News & World Report ranks colleges and universities across America. In their list of America's 228 national universities, UT didn't make the top 50. Vanderbilt did, at #19—but UT, as usual, settled comfortably into the second quartile in the survey, where they don't actually distinguish one from another with numerical rankings.

That implies that, as a university, UT's at least a little better than your average school. (Maybe it's not Virginia, maybe it's not North Carolina, but on the other hand, it's not the universities of Alabama, Mississippi, or South Carolina, which are all down in the third quartile. This information is supplied for clarification purposes only and is not intended for use on SEC football-game posters.)

In ’96, USNWR posted UTK at #76 nationally in academic reputation; in ’97, the magazine declined to post UTK's class standing, instead offering a grade-point average—2.6—instead of a ranking. If you count those universities with better GPAs, it looks like that #76 hasn't slipped much. If the massive cutbacks at UT over the past few years are having an impact on our national standing, it's not showing up just yet.

In September 1996, UTK earned a distinction in the USNWR poll, landing at #12 for best value. But that poll was simplified and retabulated the following year, leaving UTK out of the top 48 best values.

True to form, Money magazine is less kind to UTK, even in that regard. Money regularly lists America's top values in colleges: "schools that deliver the highest-quality education for the tuition they charge." It looks as if most state universities are on the list somewhere. But for the last few years—including the year it ranked 12th in the apparently similar USNWR poll—UTK hasn't made Money's top 150. It's not even in the top 25 best buys in the Southeast. (By the way, Carson-Newman peaked at #83 nationally in Money's ’97 poll—but joined UTK in oblivion the following year.)

However, UTK is indeed #5 on one of USNWR's polls: the Least Debt poll. The average UT graduate owes only $6,325, far less than most. (Maybe low graduate debt isn't surprising in a university founded by a Presbyterian minister.) Only 39 percent of UT grads owe anything at all. What that means, and why the editors considered it an interesting category for a ranking, is unclear.

Like almost all ranking polls, USNWR has come under heavy fire from critics in the last year or two. There's even an anti-ranking movement called the Forget U.S. News Coalition (FUNC). So, if we'd rather not deal with the mediocre-to-oblivious rankings in Money and USNWR by actually improving UT, we can just forget it. I'll see if I can find some application forms.

We're also around #10 on the anticipatory College Football polls, but we know UT is superlative in at least one respect beside owning the largest (or is it now second largest?) football stadium in North America. Last year, the Foster Partners survey of executives found UT's Department of Logistics and Transportation to be the very best in the nation. (Ironically, transportation, as we've observed, tends to be Knoxville's lowest score of all in the Places Rated surveys.)

Top of the Food Chain

Knoxville's obviously lost some steam in some of these polls. However, one of the most dependable annual rankings saves us from B-minus invisibility, and it is, we think, something to be proud of. One of the more serious, consistent, and objective studies is Restaurant Business's annual "Restaurant Growth Index" issue. It's probably the most astonishing of all.

In the most recently published survey, the Knoxville MSA is high in eating-place sales—#62 of 320 cities—in raw dollars, but amazingly high in per-capita expenditures. Knoxville's #41 in fast-food sales per capita. But where we have really impressive rankings—probably our most impressive current ranking besides that #2 itchiness index—is that we're #18 out of 320 American markets in per-capita restaurant sales. (That's for proper, please-wait-to-be-seated restaurants, as opposed to fast-food joints.)

It's remarkable in part that almost all of the other cities in the top 20 are well-known tourist destinations; the other cities in the South that make that top 20 include Myrtle Beach, Wilmington, and six tourist attractions in Florida. That may seem a clue to Knoxville's preeminence there, being the city nearest to the nation's most popular national park. Sevier County's booming tourist trade contributes to that figure. But Knoxville was especially high in restaurant-hopping back in the mid-’80s, even before Dollywood and the music-theater tourist boom.

Knoxville spends more per capita than some well-known restaurant towns, even New Orleans. And though we hear about expensive big-city meals, the average Knoxvillian spends much more per year in restaurants than does the average New Yorker—who only spends $400 per year on restaurant checks, as opposed to the average Knoxvillian's $678. (Is there really more good ol' home cookin' going on in Manhattan than there is in Knoxville?) To bring it closer to home, we also spend nearly twice as much in restaurants per capita than the typical Chattanoogan ($381) does.

In fact, forget per-capita sales for a minute—according to these figures, we even spend more in gross restaurant sales than the entire metropolis of Memphis. It seems as if having a well-known regional cuisine, as Memphis does, doesn't necessarily help restaurant sales. When people are proud and accomplished chefs, who needs Applebee's? You cook in the back yard.

Knoxville's safe from that hazard because we've never figured out our own cuisine; for over a century, we've been sampling the cuisine of other regions in restaurants.

American Tally-Ho

The American Tally ranks 3,165 U.S. cities and towns over 10,000 population on a percentile basis. They don't rank the cities individually, that is, but assign them a percentile—a score between 0 and 100, based on how they compare to other cities and towns.

Some of the details are even more surprising. Knoxville is at the 33rd percentile for whiteness; that is, 67 percent of American towns, large and small, have a population that's whiter than Knoxville's. And Knoxville's at 81 percent for blackness; only 19 percent of American towns have populations with more blacks.

Some of these statistics can be misleading, since the North, Midwest, and West are dotted with hundreds of nearly all-white towns and suburbs, and they all get equal weight. Though Knoxville's proportion of blacks is indeed greater than that of America as a whole, most cities Knoxville's size and larger have a larger proportion of blacks than Knoxville does.

Some statistics in The American Tally are credibly substantial, confirmed by more recent studies, and one in particular is provocative. Knoxvillians are less likely to have a high-school degree than citizens of 77 percent of American cities and towns. However, we're more likely to have a college degree than citizens of 58 percent of other towns, and more likely to have a graduate degree than citizens of 64 percent of other towns.

How can this be? Are Knoxvillians skipping high school and going straight to college and grad school? Not hardly. Most Knoxvillians are neither high-school dropouts nor wielders of graduate degrees; we just have greater proportions of both of those groups living here than the typical American city or town does.

If you want to give that a positive spin, that means we're more diverse in terms of educational attainment than most towns are. There'll always be a market for opera here, and a market for Hank Junior. If you want to look at the darker side, we have gaps between the have and have-nots that are almost feudal.

So, in the end, ranking lists may or may not mean much. What seems indisputable is that Knoxville appears to breed everything—high-school dropouts and poison ivy, Ph.D.s and mosquitoes. There's a little bit of everything here, and Knoxville and its university are, at least, above average. We could be a lot worse. And when we are, we can be assured that somebody in the national media will let us know.

© 1998 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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