It was never a glamorous place, but once it was at least part of town, and sometimes a very busy part: easy to get to by road, an easy stroll from the L&N station, between Second Creek and the freight yards, it was a good place to run a factory, and there were lots of them down here.
In the 1890s, the original celebrated New Knoxville Brewery was here, four stories high with spires bedecked with pennants. There was an ice cream factory and a creamery, too, but most of the business here in the shadow of the Knoxville Iron Works was of a grittier sort: chemical warehouses, contractor's storage yards, planing mills, the Knoxville Furniture Co., iron rolling mills, coal yards and fuel-storage areas.
Several roads, like McGhee Street, went through it. Later, roads went over it: first viaducts, like the one at Oak Street, then an expressway, then interstates and connectors, each one higher than the one before, leaving the ground far below.
The crumbly roads on this patch of the old bottomland aren't indicated on city maps. The people passing above can't see us. We can't see them, either. We can't even tell for sure which overpass that is, what road we call it when we're up there. The interstates have formed a sort of concrete cocoon around it that gives it a noisy kind of peace.
It's so out of the way it's easy to get away with stuff down here, things that raise eyebrows up in the city, whether it's spray-painting prophecy, or skateboarding, or living without an address, or creating art.
Strewn with bottles and hubcaps and rotten clothes, it would be a good place to film a movie about the aftermath of nuclear war. In the afternoon, teenagers ride skateboards on the concrete foundations of ruined buildings. On a wall, graffiti describes a comic-book apocalypse.
The few remaining buildings are plain. Old, judging by the brick, but hard to date. Over a century ago this was the Cooley Brothers' lumber yard. This area was mostly industrial, but there were nice houses right across the creek, on the eastern fringe of Mechanicsville.
The nameless roads are gravel and ground rubble. With no street signs and numbers, it's tough to get your bearings. You can see patches of downtown, surprisingly close, but what you see is confusing, a collage of the TVA towers and the Catholic Church.
At the bottom of the creek bed, reinforced with ancient brick, is a slim, clear version of Second Creek. Along the road, at regular intervals, clumps of daffodils bloom in the weeds.
There's a little business under the freeway, like Buddy's British Restorers, a big windowless building with cannibalized MGs and Triumphs rusting out front. Walk further down the road, and you may be accosted by a portly, elderly, but still ferocious brown-and-white dog who gallops out of a building marked Ace Sandblasting.
Down the gravel access road is an L-shaped brick building. Partly ruined, it has no obvious address. It takes some studying of old maps just to speculate about it, and even then you're not sure. From the looks of things, from about 1935 or so this was the R.S. Kennedy Oil Co., a wholesale gasoline distributor. Whether the building was there before 1935 isn't clear. A half-century ago, this building had an address on Oak Street, but even then it needed the parenthetical explanation that it wasn't actually on Oak Street but underneath it, beside the piers of the viaduct.
The building has been vacant, or mostly so, for 30 years. The taller part of it is a two-story ruin, floorless and roofless; waiting patiently at the old loading dock is a freight car with no wheels and no track, as if the rail dissolved beneath it.
Usually you don't see people down here, except for the skateboarders, some guys driving trucks to the TANX facility, and the people who sleep in the bushes across the creek. But one day last week, the air was thick with laughter and music and the smell of fried fish and spicy sausage, as one car after another drove down the gravel road and parked beside the shell of a building.
In a metalworking shop fitted out in what looks like an old garage, Preston Farabow is grilling snapper on a slab of metal with his ironworker's propane torch propped underneath. There's red beans and rice, too, and crawfish, and baklava, and New Knoxville ale, 90 years after the brewery around the corner closed forever. It's a regular thing for their friends to come down here once a month or so, and have an open-air feast.
Farabow and his partner, Darren Roberts, have been working down here for about a year. They have contracts all over town, grillwork in several West Knoxville restaurants and a few high-profile mansions. Roberts, who used to work in New York, favors modernist styles. Farabow's work is more traditional and elaborate. He's also a poet, and compares metalwork with writing poetry. Each is an art that deals with stress, he says.
They don't always serve fish at these events, but a client paid him for a table with nine pounds of snapper and a pile of crawfish.
Right across the parking lot, over in the L-shaped building, the part that still has a roof, are two more artists. Deborah McClary and her husband, Hunt Clark, have their woodworking studio there, with a sort of gallery. They're a multi-talented pair; there's photography on the wall, paintings, a couple of very handsome tables, and Clark's unusual tumescent guitars, made of pieces hollowed out like a canoe. They look like they're throbbing.
The object you can't ignore is one that McClary carved out of a walnut trunk: a huge statue, life-sized or bigger, of a two-headed horse. Or two horses, eyeless and joined in the middle and pulling furiously in opposite directions. The title of the statue is the sum of their effort: "Null."
The polished wood shows rings of growing seasons decades ago. She carved this sculpture from large walnut trees on Andrew Jackson's Hermitage that were felled by the tornado that ripped through Nashville a few years ago.
Once exhibited at a gallery in Chicago, this beast would overwhelm most museums. McClary is currently working on a simpler version of it, on commission.
She loves their place. "It's central, but isolated," she says. "Like being out in the country, but convenient." Everyone seems to enjoy that paradox. Clark even likes the noise which, he says, gives his studio a busy feeling. He intends to have public events down here in the near future, perhaps an interactive motion-picture event inside the two-story ruin.
More people arrive, several of them other local artists and craftsmen. Word's been getting around. Some have come up with a name for this place, enveloped by the tangled pasta of the concrete interstate exchanges: the Spaghetti Bowl. In all, maybe 30 people show up for the feast, including the postman. He gets out of his truck, pulls up a folding chair, and digs into some snapper. "I always enjoy having lunch with bohemians," he says. He's a regular. He says he once had to help the police find an address, 600 Oak Street. They couldn't find it because they were way up there on the Oak Street viaduct.
He says he gave the police a line he's been wanting to use for a long time: "You can't get there from here," he told them.