Free Market Square

The worst part of a promising plan

I don't know who came up with the idea of a glass dome over Market Square. I doubt it was anyone who has ever sat at a cafe table on a lazy afternoon of refilled iced teas and lost track of the time. I don't think it was someone who ever watched their children climb the oak trees in the Square on a summer twilight. I'm not sure it was anyone who was ever surprised to encounter an old friend resting on the benches in the shade.

Market Square is my favorite place in Knoxville. Nowhere else in the metropolitan area has so many stories, so much history in such a concentrated space; no other urban place is quite as pleasant just to look at. It's not surprising that it attracts interesting people. It was there that I met the guys from the BBC, working on their Agee documentary. It was there I ran into Russ Ringsak, a truckdriving writer who later introduced me to his pal Garrison Keillor.

Just last year I also encountered author Norman Mailer on the Square, and somehow wasn't surprised when he was moved to rave to this random stranger about how beautiful the place was. "Most American cities don't have anything like this," he said. There were maybe 150 people on the Square, walking and eating lunch in the outdoor tables, a typical lunchtime crowd on a spring day. Mailer opened his lecture at UT that night with a description of Market Square. "I had a very agreeable experience today," he said.

He said that and didn't even know anything about the history of the place. That Adolph Ochs, founder of the modern New York Times, began his career in journalism in the old Chronicle office here, around 1870. That public country music started here though the fiddling festivals of the 1880s and the street musicians who made a living here for decades. That it was a gathering place for reformers and union organizers and suffragettes. That photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson took a provocative shot of a mysterious woman here, a picture now known internationally. That the Square is described in haunting detail in the opening pages of a James Agee's A Death In the Family.

That anyone could look at Market Square and think of the word "Shoppertainment"—well, you wonder if they know what they're doing.

We hear Market Square's in dire need of the sort of help only a massive project, perhaps directed by out-of-town corporations, can provide. I've worked downtown for most of the last 20 years. There have been times when Market Square was more crowded, no question—like the days before TVA started feeding its employees fast-food lunches inside the TVA towers, to protect them from the mean lunch counters of Knoxville. Granted, Market Square retail is at an all-time low.

In other interesting ways, though, Market Square is livelier than it's been in decades. If you look closely at some of those old Thompson photos of Market Square in the supposed golden days of 50 years ago, you'll see that many of the second and third floors look pretty shabby, with dirty windows and tattered curtains. Today, some of those same windows belong to renovated, occupied condominiums. It's been more than a century since affluent people chose to live on Market Square, but they're here today, with more to come this year.

Twenty years ago, the Square was empty and dark after 6; now it hosts two evening restaurants, both with outdoor seating, and often packed. Outdoor cafes have popped up all over town in recent years, even beside big asphalt parking lots. They work best on Market Square.

If not retail, there are several interesting businesses on the Square today: a talented graphic-arts firm, a maverick architect, an alternative weekly. Market Square has had owner-neglect problems for years, but they seem to be working themselves out without radical intervention.

I actually like most of the vague details we've been allowed about the mammoth Worsham Watkins proposal. The cineplex, for example: it strikes me as peculiar that, in the entire 25-year history of cineplexes, no one has thought to build a single one within five miles of one of the biggest universities east of the Mississippi—or within five miles of the population center of Knox County. The Worsham Watkins plan corrects that omission.

I've always thought the botanic diversity of our region is something Knoxville should celebrate with an arboretum or botanical garden of some sort, and this plan supplies that. I like the concentrated residential development, and the promise of a corporate headquarters downtown may be a good thing.

Among the public details that puzzles me is that much of the project will be covered or enclosed. The impression you might come away with about the plan as a whole is that a great deal of it seems wintry. There's the "winter garden," of course. There's the enclosed pedestrian shopping mall. There's even the prospect of enclosing other pedestrian links on Locust and Walnut. There's the covered entry into Market Square. And there's the dome, whose stated purpose is to make the Square more accessible during winter months.

Taken all together, the proposal reminds me a great deal of those self-contained arctic utopias I used to read about in Popular Mechanics. Knoxville brags about its mild weather in promotional brochures. Now some seem terrified of it.

Some other cities have glass-enclosed open areas, they say. But every city where I've heard they have a glassed-in alley is a city where they already have at least one open square. Copenhagen, a thousand miles closer to the North Pole than Knoxville, has open squares, with outdoor cafes, used even on cold days. People drink coffee in outdoor cafes, even if they have to wear coats.

I don't doubt that Scandinavians are heartier people than Tennesseans. Luxury has dulled our once-famous temper and left us sluggish and whiny. But I still think we can leave a place in this city for one outdoor town square.

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