A Moving Target

Each census stops time for a moment to tell us who and where we were just then

Every 10 years, we revise our understanding of who we are. Most of the counting was complete more than a year ago, but we're just now getting back the stuff that makes a census interesting: detailed local information that shows how our city compares with other cities and how individual neighborhoods compare with others. In the months to come, there will be still more specific information based on the 2000 census.

The census helps us do several practical things, like redraw legislative maps, but it also gives us a picture of who we are, as a nation and as a community. In some respects, it's a status report, a municipal performance review.

As usual, it's a mixed report.


The good news for Victor Ashe and other civic boosters, of course, is that city-limits Knoxville has grown by 8,769 people since 1990. It's still a little more than 1,000 short of the all-time high of 175,045 the city hit in 1980—but considering that Knoxville lost almost 10,000 citizens between 1980 and 1990, the fact that it's bigger at all must be a relief.

Of course, annexation accounts for part of that growth—about 1,500 of it, guesses city administrative assistant Rick Emmet, who's been using the numbers to map new districts—but some see the figures as evidence that the flight to the suburbs has crested.

Terrence Gilhula, senior research associate with the Metropolitan Planning Commission, notes that while five of six city sectors lost population in the 1980s, only two of them—east and central—lost population in the 1990s. The others grew. Some, like North Knoxville, have actually reversed the urban slide and are more populous than they were in 1970 or 1980. The Northwest sector of the city has grown by well over a third in that same period.

However, there's no question that the county's population grew much faster than the city's did. Today, more people live in Knox County outside of the city limits than in the city itself.

It's not the first time we've seen the population balance tip toward the county. That imbalance was typical in the 19th century. The 2000 census shows an urbanizing county that could be seen as a distorted reflection of the days before World War I when Knoxville was a geographically tiny, densely urban pocket within a huge and mainly agrarian county with hundreds of family farms.

But the city was bigger for most of the 20th century. The 2000 census charts the county's ascendancy for only the third time since 1910.

It's hardly news that, over the last 30 years, growth in the county has been concentrated in the west, especially the southwest, between I-40 and the river. That sector is more than four times as populous as it was 30 years ago, and it's still the fastest-growing part of the county. However, its headlong growth seems to be slowing. At its peak in the 1970s, southwest Knox County almost doubled in size in that one decade, a growth rate of almost 100 percent. Now its growth is a much lower, though hardly modest, 41.1 percent per decade.

Southwest Knox was once again the leader in growth rate, but all six county sectors grew in population in the 1990s. The growth rate of North Knox County, at 31.4 percent, almost rivals West Knox. Even Northeast Knox County—Corryton, Mascot, Ritta—is growing faster than the county average.


Knox County as a whole grew by 13.8 percent since 1990; that means it's growing a little faster than America is. In the 1990s, Knox County grew fastest of Tennessee's four largest urban counties, well ahead of Nashville's Davidson County, which grew by 11.6 percent.

However, Knox County's growth rate is slow compared to that of the entire state, which was up 16.7 percent. That oddity reflects the fact that most of Tennessee's population growth was not in the state's four cities, but in previously rural counties.

Some of these burgeoning counties are right around here; Dolly-crazed Sevier County was the fastest-growing county in our metro area, jumping almost 40 percent in that decade. Loudon County—which some have begun to call "West Knoxville Out Past Farragut"—grew by a little more than a quarter.

Loudon County's growing fast, sure enough, but the three fastest-growing counties in the Knoxville area are all on the east and northeast: besides Sevier, both Jefferson and Union Counties logged population gains of 30 percent or higher.

Meanwhile, Anderson County, to the Northwest, grew by an anemic 4.5 percent, by far the lowest growth rate in the area, perhaps reflecting Oak Ridge's tech-related layoffs. Considering that the growth of Oak Ridge is often cited as one big reason for the boom of West Knox County, the fact that the fastest-growing counties are on the east side may be further reason to anticipate a new eastward tilt in the metropolitan area's center of gravity.

However, our metro area, as drawn by statisticians, is still leaning to the west. Demographers studying commuting and shopping patterns long ago dropped Jefferson County from Knoxville's official Metropolitan Statistical Area, and Gilhula says there are indications that Union County, still the least populous county touching Knox, will also be deleted from Knoxville's official MSA.

With or without Union County, it won't be surprising if, within a generation, Knoxville's MSA will support around one million people.


Perhaps the most-often parroted truism about Knoxville's population is that the county's population center has moved to somewhere in the Cedar Bluff Road area. For over 20 years, developers have recited it like a mantra. Mention that old rumor, and Gilhula smiles patiently but answers firmly.

"That's not even close," he says. The MPC has been calculating the county's population center—the place where you could stand with equal numbers of Knox Countians in every direction—since the 1980 census.

Since then, the MPC has been quietly refuting that old developer's pick-up line. This year, they've even published a four-page report about it, part of the MPC's Technical Report Series: "Knox County's Center of Population, 2000."

According to the report, "the center of local population is a point in the median of Western Avenue between 44th St. and the I-640 overpass." It's been moving west—that part of the old saw is correct. It's now half a mile west of where it was in 1990, which was about two-thirds of a mile west of where it was in 1980.

By Kingston Pike standards, that population center of Knox County is about two miles due north of Western Plaza. That's just about three miles northwest of downtown—and still seven or eight miles shy of Cedar Bluff Road. If that point continues moving west at a rate of half a mile per decade, Knox County's population center should arrive in Cedar Bluff sometime around the year 2130. Then, maybe everyone who touts Cedar Bluff as the county population center can say, "I told you so."

But there's not much reason to think it will keep moving west that fast. Its movement may be slowing; the population center moved only a little more than half as far west in the 1990s as it did in the 1980s. In fact, the MPC report hints, the 2010 census may show a slight swing back east of that mark.

"The decades-old trend of suburbanization may have slowed as new investment has returned to older parts of the city," the MPC report states, as well as "new interest in undeveloped portions of East and North Knox County, both of which have seen increasing shares of building activity in the past three or four years."


The lead national story about the 2000 census, of course, was the overwhelming growth of the Hispanic community in the U.S.; in 2000, more than 10 percent of Americans are Hispanic. With a Latino population of 1.3 percent, Knox County still has a far lower proportion of Hispanics than does the rest of the nation—in fact, Knox County is still low for the state of Tennessee as a whole, which is 2.2 percent Hispanic. (Latinos' percentage is a little higher in the city of Knoxville, at 1.6 percent.) Knox County also has the lowest percentage of Latinos of Tennessee's four urban counties (Nashville/Davidson's now 4.6 percent Latino). In America as a whole, Latinos now outnumber blacks to become the nation's largest minority group. But not in Knox County. As of last year, Latinos were still officially the fourth largest ethnic group, slightly behind Asians, who registered 5,792 in the city and county.

Still, that national growth of Hispanics is reflected in Knox County as never before. The city and county figures both more than double the 1980 and 1990 proportions.

Knox County's percentage of Latinos is more impressive when you consider that it's nearly 5,000 people, with likely many more unreported. Almost half of Knox County's Latinos are of Mexican origin.

When hearing about that figure for the first time, Knoxvillians typically ask, "But where do they live?" It may be a naive question. According to the census, Latinos live absolutely everywhere.

Some sections of the county still have no representatives of one ethnic group or another—there are no Asians counted in the Strawberry Plains section of East Knox County, for example. But of all the 83 census tracts that make up Knoxville and Knox County, there's not one tract that hosts no Hispanics at all.

Though 5,000 is enough to form an impressive ethnic neighborhood or even a small town, there's no such place at the moment. The highest per-capita concentration of Hispanics is in the Lonsdale area, where about one in every 30 Knoxvillians is Hispanic. In a few sections, like parts of Fountain City and South Knoxville, Hispanics outnumber blacks.

However, in pure numbers, there are more Latinos living in West Knoxville, a few hundred living in the Cedar Bluff and Walker Springs areas; that fact makes the existence of a thriving Mexican grocery there a little less astonishing than it did when El Mercado opened in what had been a typical suburban middle-class strip mall off Cedar Bluff.


Concerning the more historically stubborn division of black and white, the census makes for interesting, if not optimistic, reading.

Some things don't change much. Knox County is about 88 percent white and 8.6 black. Though more than 3,000 more blacks live in Knox County than did in 1990, their percentage, somewhere between 8.6 and 9 percent, is roughly the same as it was in 1990. The city-limits population, of course, is very different, with a black-identified population of about 16.8 percent, up slightly since 1990.

In Knoxville proper, the proportion of black residents is considerably greater than it is in America as a whole; but nearly everywhere outside the city limits, whether rural or suburban, black representation is much lower than the American average. Racially, America is located somewhere between Knoxville and the remainder of Knox County.

Today, more than 20 percent of all city-limits Knoxvillians are some race other than white. That's quite a contrast to the entire balance of the county outside of the city, where all racial minorities combined account for less than 5 percent of the population.

In short, almost 50 years after Brown vs. Board of Education, Knoxville's still residentially segregated, perhaps even more so than it was a century ago. Blacks still overwhelmingly reside in two historically black neighborhoods, near-East Knoxville and near-Northwest Knoxville. In the Central City sector, blacks account for more than 25 percent of the population. (The CBID's tract almost precisely reflects Knoxville's city proportions, with a residential population about 80 percent white and 16 percent black.)

For years, we assumed America would get less and less segregated as the years go by, and many residents of previously all-white neighborhoods can readily come up with anecdotal evidence that their neighborhoods are getting more racially balanced. The raw numbers might seem to support that assumption. Almost 1,000 blacks now live in famously white far West Knox County, for example, the area that includes Farragut, more than 50 percent more than lived there in 1990.

However, the white population has grown at about the same rate. Though hundreds of blacks moved into West Knox in the 90s, they're still a proportional rarity, at about two percent.

Spot checks of most other parts of town yield similar results. For the most part, white-majority neighborhoods are still overwhelmingly white. One exception is tract 33, the Holston Hills area, which is now about 68-30 white to black. Though many larger cities have affluent middle-class neighborhoods with that sort of racial balance, they're rare in Knoxville. (Incidentally, those looking for data to support a there-goes-the-neighborhood theory might have to look elsewhere; those proportions changed little in the last decade.)

Adjacent to Holston Hills is the Burlington section of East Knoxville, which may be the closest blacks and whites get to living in roughly equal numbers (tract 32, which includes the Burlington area, is about 56-41 black to white). In Knox County, getting that close to 50-50 is extremely unusual. Neighborhoods still tend to lean hard one way or the other.


The city of Knoxville supports a population of a little more than three people per acre. But there are a few parts of Knoxville with a density that's almost urban.

Some prefer to live in low-density areas. Neighborhoods with a low density are likely quieter, and may feature bigger lawns and more green vistas. But higher-density living has its benefits. Daily automobile commutes and grocery-shopping trips are likely to be shorter. (Data from the 2000 census isn't in yet, but the 1990 census indicated that Knoxvillians spent more time commuting than most Americans do.)

Also, national studies have shown that low-density regions don't sustain quite the diversity of goods and services that other neighborhoods do.

Higher-density development is also less expensive for the taxpayer to maintain than low-density suburban subdivisions, a point that Republican politicians in Chattanooga have made. (High-density residential development has been a hallmark of Chattanooga's "Sustainable City" urban plan; however, perhaps owing to its rugged geography, Chattanooga's Hamilton County is about 30 percent less dense than Knox County.)

It is also a symptom of a phenomenon that's troubling to some demographers: low density in spite of development owes much to the fact that, even as middle-class families demand larger lots, the size of the American household is diminishing, due to divorce, low birth rates, and the 20th century phenomenon of retirees living away from their children.

It's a national trend; Knox County reflects it, and then some. The average Knox County household is measurably smaller than it was in 1990. At a median of 2.34 people, the Knox County household is also a quarter of a person smaller than the median American household in 2000. (That's the median of all sorts of households, by the way; those who live in families have households that are a little larger: in Knox County, 2.92 people).

It's one of several factors contributing to the advance of residential developments across the countryside.

Fort Sanders is, as always, the most densely populated neighborhood in the Knoxville metro area, and probably in all of East Tennessee.

The eastern half of the Fort sustains 14.33 people per acre. As high as it seems, that figure is down from 1990, when 19 people lived on an average acre. There may be a statistical glitch at work; in early 2000, when the census folks did most of the counting, much of eastern Fort Sanders was undergoing massive demolition and construction projects. Completed and occupied, these projects will likely increase its 1990 density in the long run.

By the way, those who worry about the dangers of density might consider the example of a very different city: San Francisco, one of the most expensive cities in America, and generally considered a very nice place to live. San Francisco County is geographically a tiny place, less than a tenth the size of Knox County. But it sustains more than twice as many people as Knox County does. And the entire city of San Francisco is almost twice as dense as Fort Sanders.

Perhaps density has something to do with the fact that Fort Sanders registers as the most cosmopolitan part of town in several respects. The neighborhood, dominated by university interests, hosts, by far, the city's highest proportion of Asians (17.25 percent, which is high even for a Pacific Coast city) and some other minority groups including, as the last election demonstrated, Ralph Naderites.

In many respects, the census reveals Knox County's hidden diversity. The daily lives of those who live in Fort Sanders are obviously very different from the daily lives of those in the least-populated section of the same county; Fort Sanders supports 60 times more people, per acre, than does one big wedge of northeast Knox County, which still seems rural with something more than four acres for every one resident.

In spite of its unrivaled growth, heavy automobile traffic, and claims of it being a "population center", most of West Knox County still has a relatively low population density. Tract 58.06, which comprises most of Farragut, for example, supports less than one person per acre. Only four of the 20-odd census tracts that make up West Knoxville and West Knox County boast a population density comparable to that of the average density of city-limits Knoxville.

With a density of almost five per acre, the area just east of Cedar Bluff Road is the center of gravity in that low-gravity area; without a scientific study to prove it, it might be called the population center for West Knoxville. It's the most popular place to live on that side of town.

But 12 census tracts in North, South, and East Knoxville are still more heavily populated than that most densely populated tract in West Knoxville.

Farragut, pop. 17,720, is a demographically distinct place. The median Farragutian is more than eight years older than the median Knoxvillian; one-fifth of Farragut households include members 65 or older. Almost 90 percent of Farragut homes are owner-occupied. It's almost 95 percent white, but Farragut's share of Asians is higher than it is in most of the city; about one of every 31 Farragutians is Asian. In the Farragut area, as in no other place in town except Fort Sanders, Asians outnumber blacks.


Gretchen Beal, researcher and librarian at the Metropolitan Planning Commission says that, as a whole, Knoxville doesn't stand out much. "Knoxville almost always follows the national trends," she says. Knoxville is, in most ways, a microcosm of America. But within our overall averages, the city and county display a great deal of diversity in density, in ethnic backgrounds, and in living arrangements.

As family size shrinks, the makeup of the Knox County family is also changing. Well over a third of Knox Countians—36.2 percent—don't live in family settings. Gilhula also notes that in Knox County, the proportion of families led by a married couple has fallen. In 1980, more than three-quarters of Knox County families had a married couple in charge. In 2000, only two thirds do, a drop of almost 9 percent.

The phenomenon is much more pronounced in the city, where only 52 percent of households are family-based, and only 35 percent of households are run by a married couple. About 38 percent of Knoxville householders live alone.

Along with that is another interesting new national statistic: more fathers are raising their children than ever before. Though it's hardly typical now, it's no longer unusual: today almost one-sixth of single-parent households are run by the daddies.

One surprise is that Knoxville and Knox County both seem to be getting older. The average Knox Countian is now 36 years old, quite a jump from the 32.4 of 1990. Most folks would be happy to age only 3.6 years in every decade, but for a county, it's a little peculiar.

Gilhula says they haven't studied it thoroughly, but he has a strong suspicion about why. "I would definitely bet it's the baby-boom population," he says. The postwar boomers are now well over 40. "The baby boom is still working through the population pyramid like a big bubble. As the population ages, they still hold that population share."

However, Knoxville proper didn't age nearly as fast. The median Knoxvillian aged only one year in the '90s. For whatever reason (it might be tough to make the case for a healthier lifestyle), the median Knoxvillian is just 33.4.

In the city, the Baby Boom seems to be preceded by a trough. Though the population of people over 75 grew in the '90s by over 1,650, the number of Knoxvillians 55 to 74 actually declined by about 3,000.

There was another, smaller decline in the post-boom group; Knoxville now has 2,210 fewer 25-to-34-year-olds than we did in 1990. That age group was also the only one that actually declined in numbers in Knox County as a whole, surely a reflection of the fact that the last of the Boomers left that age group behind and got on with their lives. All the other age groups increased during the decade, especially the boomer-invaded 45-to-54 group, which swelled by 6,594 in the city alone.

The Median Knox Countian is a hypothetical concept. She doesn't exist. But if she did—and it would be a she, of course, though not quite as much of a she as in years past—she'd be 36, white but with maybe a black great-grandparent. She speaks only un poco Spanish. If she's a member of a family, and chances are she is, it's a family of 2.92 people. If she's married, and chances are she is, she and her husband have a little less than one child, own their own home, and support the family with a household income of $35,408. The home they own is, of course, in the median of Western Avenue near 640.


Downtown—officially, census Tract Number One—is an interesting study, especially in light of recent initiatives and controversies about downtown living.

In 1990, 1,470 people lived there—a decline of exactly one person from 1980. In 2000, the population was 1,300, seemingly a more significant decline of 170 people. In recent months, estimates of downtown's "residential decline" have been used to promote emergency development proposals.

The figures surprise those who've witnessed the renovations of old lofts in the Old City, on Gay Street and elsewhere. Downtown enjoyed significant new upscale residential development in the 1990s, and most of downtown's renovated condominiums appear to be occupied. So why the apparent population decline?

To begin with, some of those who left downtown in the '90s didn't necessarily go voluntarily. Charted in that decline is the demolition of one substandard tenement, the old Park Hotel on Walnut Street, in the early '90s. Because there's no similar residence downtown today, those who lived there apparently moved elsewhere. Some of it may have to do with the retirement-home population, as well as the population of county jail inmates, who are also counted as downtowners.

Downtown is changing residentially, but the word decline doesn't tell the whole story.

Tract-by-tract figures about home ownership aren't yet available, but in 1990, downtowners had a median income of $6,500, and only 4.3 percent of downtown residents owned their homes. (The countywide average is 66.9 percent.) In 1990, the poverty rate for downtown residents was 39 percent, almost three times as high as the city-county average. It's a safe bet that the 2000 figures, when they're available, will be significantly different.

Various residential projects promise to "bring people back downtown"; much of downtown was originally built for high-density living, and it's clear it hasn't begun to reach its potential in that regard. Still, it's interesting to note that, with 3.12 residents per acre, downtown already has a residential population density higher than, say, Sequoyah Hills, and much higher than most of the residential subdivisions of West Knoxville.

The census helps cure us of some popular misconceptions about our home town and helps us draw redistricting maps. In the end, the census also reminds us that we share a community with tens of thousands of people we don't know, who may lead very different lives from our own. It's also clear that our community is a huge, weighty, but always mobile beast. Knox County is still moving, as it always has, and it will never get where it's going. The census will never be the final word on any subject. Even as we're seeing the figures from forms filled out over 15 months ago, Knox County has already changed again. Comparing censuses of the past can give us some idea of our shared trajectory.

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

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