Empty Storefronts

An ambivalent elegy for an aging Knoxville institution

When I was a kid, these weren't just storefronts; they were stores, and they were often so thickly packed you had to be careful as you squeezed by customers to keep from knocking things off the shelves. In those days, there were crowds on this sidewalk, and there were sales out there, too. You could do everything here: buy groceries, get a haircut, try on a new pair of shoes, shop for fancy gifts for your grandmother, or get a BLT and a Coke and read the latest Detective Comics.

Today, I walk down this empty sidewalk and try to recall what was where. There's the place that had the cold water fountain in the back, the one with the triangular stool that helped me reach it. There's the place that had the caged parrot you could go in and chat with. There's the place where, in 1969, I used my yardwork money to buy a souvenir 45 RPM record of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin talking on the moon. I was lucky to get one; it was crowded that day, and I got one of the last.

Today it's hard to convince my own kids how lively it was. Most of the doors are locked up tight. Some of these places have been closed for a long time. The sidewalk's cold and empty. Some windows are covered with taped-up newspaper. Leftover Christmas window paintings obscure the emptiness inside an old deli. Only a few signs are left to explain the obvious: they say "closed," or "moved." One says "moved 5 miles west," with arrows pointing toward the sunset.

This is a place called Kingston Pike Center. It's right on the busy West Knoxville street for which it's named. It's a strip mall.

It's not completely dead. The subterranean barber shop's still in business. Long's seems busy as ever. Even after they renamed it "Long's Drugcenter" and got rid of the comic-book rack, even after they shifted to styrofoam plates that dissolve under each serving of hot onion rings, Long's is still the last drugstore/ lunchcounter left in town. On a Saturday afternoon you still sometimes have to wait for a seat.

But even though the big new-looking sign out front advertises a healthy mix of businesses, most of them aren't here anymore.

If there were a block quite this vacant downtown, it would be central to several confident truisms that downtown is suffering because (a.) it has no free parking, (b.) it's too far away from affluent neighborhoods, or (c.) people are afraid of dark old brick buildings.

At Kingston Pike Plaza, the parking's convenient and free. The adjacent residential neighborhoods seem more prosperous and more densely populated than ever. The automobile traffic out front is heavier than it has ever been. The building doesn't look old. Given a '70s-style concrete facelift (though I think it got it in the '80s) to make it look like lots of other suburban strip malls, it looks big and dumb and boring, but not old.

Kingston Pike Center is not the only strip mall on Kingston Pike with a high vacancy rate. Free parking and a Kingston Pike address doesn't guarantee success, as many entrepreneurs know. But when businesses close on Kingston Pike, it doesn't make the TV news and the front page of the News-Sentinel, as downtown failures do. Is that why some businesses prefer Kingston Pike? Do they know that when they fail, they'll fail quietly, without fanfare?

People passing on Kingston Pike at 45 mph don't turn their heads to notice empty storefronts. Maybe they don't care much, either. For the entrepreneur without high hopes, strip malls are a much better situation than downtown, where failure is as public as a basketball championship.

When strip malls falter, we don't tend to worry about what we can do to save them. Should we? Pushing 50, Kingston Pike Center is nearly old enough to qualify under some preservationist guidelines as historic. It was one of the first West Knoxville strip malls that set the pattern for the scores that followed. An architect might notice that this building does feature, beneath the display windows, some of those long, flat bricks you rarely see these days. There's probably some value in that.

And, of course, it has sentimental connections of the sort that come up when people want to save a building. As I mentioned, I have plenty of my own. When I was a kid, my family came here more often than we went downtown.

Still, I don't feel any pang. I'd like to see Long's survive, even the brave new version of Long's that serves food on styrofoam plates. But except for that, they could tear the whole building down for "shoppertainment," or a hockey rink, anything but another dang Wal-Mart, and I might not even notice it was gone.

For me, Kingston Pike Center has a whole big, empty parking lot full of memories, but it doesn't have any character. It still doesn't, after all these years. I'm beginning to suspect it never will.

Strip malls are transitory. A trendier one opens across the street, and people start favoring it. People like change. All that's lost is a few acres of land. And we don't think about it much until there's a big rain, and all this impermeable asphalt sheds water to the nearest flooded creek. Then we forget about it again. It'll always be like that.

Maybe we should acknowledge the fact that strip malls are mortal when we grant business licenses for them. Require a sort of bond, up front, that guarantees that when your strip mall fails, you have to jackhammer up the asphalt and plant daisies. The extra expense might prevent a few from being built in the first place. That wouldn't be so bad, would it?

In the end, there's at least one good reason for saving one strip mall, and that's to prevent the construction of another.

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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