Deconstructing Market Square

A small parcel, but a huge concept

There's much to like about it, whether you call it the Worsham Watkins plan, or Renaissance Knoxville, or the Convention-Center-Related Development: the big greenhouse, the movie complex, the apartment buildings, the hope of attracting a major media headquarters. To be honest, a lot of the plan seems to be purloined out of my own daydreams for downtown. Though I'll have to leave it up to others to figure out whether it's fair to the taxpayers, I can easily argue in favor of some of the plan's controversial points.

To me, for example, the downtown cineplex seems to be the one part of the entire plan that has no risk associated with it. It's a mystery to me why, in the whole 30-year history of the modern multi-screen movie theater, no developer has thought to build one such cineplex within five miles of Tennessee's biggest university, and within five miles of East Tennessee's highest concentration of residences of young single adults. I can attribute that lapse only to some dim bulbs in the projection room.

Some RK opponents worry that the addition of residences will deflate the market for existing residences downtown. But it seems to me that more residences will demand, and support, more amenities, like groceries and drugstores, and make living downtown more appealing for everybody. For now, I think it's safe to say, the more people who live downtown, the more people will want to live downtown. The market's not that limited. Nearly a million people live in the Knoxville metropolitan area. If only one percent of the people in the Knoxville MSA want to live in a real downtown, that would exhaust all the old, renovated residences, all the prospective new ones, and call for thousands more. There's not an obvious limit to this market, at least not one that's relevant to the realistic supply of housing, now or in the foreseeable future.

But I don't claim to be an economist or an architect or an urban planner. I write stories, and that's why I'm particularly concerned about one aspect of the plan. Because there's no place in Tennessee that has more stories than Market Square.

We have only a few clues about what the undisclosed plan proposes for Market Square, and all of them make me uneasy. One is that the developers had once proposed enclosing Market Square with an air-conditioned dome; and that they intended to remove all the Square's new population of pioneer residents. Though they've backed down from both of those proposals, they still insist on some sort of "control" of the Square. Another clue is that the PBA and the developers are opposed to landowners' efforts to effect long-needed historic zoning for the Square, at least before development commences. Another is that their "renovations" to Market Square are likely to be so massive that they may call for shutting down the Square for a year and a half or, based on recent comments from Dale Smith, even two years.

Nothing in the Square's 148-year history, not even Union occupation, when Gen. Burnside's army commandeered the Square as an ammo dump, has ever shut commerce on Market Square down cold.

The uncertainties of the project seem to mask an agenda for Market Square that's bigger than what we've been told about, and that's troubling to many people who have an interest in the city's heritage. Market Square is the single most historically important spot in the Knoxville metropolitan area.

You can't talk about the history of Knoxville without talking about the history of Market Square. For almost 150 years, it has indeed been a farmer's market, and not just any farmer's market. From the 1890s until about 1915, Knoxville promoters boasted that it was the single best produce market between New Orleans and the Atlantic seaboard, a place where you could find nearly anything: sirloin, hog jowl, sweet corn, kohlrabi, creases, oysters, catfish, oranges, mangos, blueberries, huckleberries, French wine, moonshine. Big-city visitors were reportedly awed by the spectacle of it. It still is a farmer's market now, on the three days a week when Sherrill Perkins unloads his truck at the north end.

But Market Square has been many other things, too. For decades it hosted residences, from swanky Victorian apartments to multi-tenant boarding houses run by Irish widows. It has known clothiers, haberdashers, shoe stores, "bon ton" fashion boutiques, groceries; stores of every sort: thousands of East Tennesseans saw their first bicycle, heard their first phonograph, tasted their first banana, drank their first Coca-Cola on Market Square. It has supported cafes and restaurants run by Greeks, Germans, Swiss, and hillbillies; small movie theaters and arcades; Irish saloons, speakeasies, and beer joints high and low; a police station and a steam-engine fire hall and before 1920 even City Hall. It has even known some light industry, stove factories and tinners' shops.

Once, there was even a newspaper office here. Adolph Ochs, the influential publisher who invented the New York Times as we know it, began his long career in journalism on Market Square, circa 1870. Many years later, in 1929, the Times ran a vivid essay about Market Square, emphasizing its appealing, unpredictable weirdness, and the startling variety of humanity that thrived here; strolling black and white street musicians sang "wistful hymns or occasionally an old English ballad that has gained a novel twist..."

Decades before then, by the 1880s, Market Square was playing a role in the popularization of country music, as it would 50 years later when it served briefly as the home of WNOX's Mid-Day Merry Go Round. But it has also witnessed decades of live jazz and blues, from early performances by Duke Ellington to the only significant recording sessions made in the Knoxville area in the '20 and '30s. I'm not even sure that era's over. As recently as the 1990s, a Market Square nightclub assisted in the birth of rock 'n' roll bands that would later get national attention, and even last year, AC's monthly concerts on Market Square—not to mention some recent art-gallery openings—have drawn enthusiastic crowds in the hundreds, even thousands.

Not surprisingly, Market Square is the most literary spot in East Tennessee, described in several significant novels that got national attention: The Seas of God (1915), A Death In the Family (1957), Suttree (1979), others. Poet Carl Sandburg was fond of the Square, and praised it: the only place in America, he said, where you could buy ginseng root from real country people in a central business district. Less than two years ago, Norman Mailer happened by at lunchtime and called it "wonderful." At UT that night, he opened his speech with a rhapsodic description of Market Square at lunchtime.

Market Square has seen the storm and swell of political and social movements: temperance conventions, socialist rallies, suffrage demonstrations, spiritualists' seances, drunken riots, even Republican caucuses. Those who work near it know it's still a rallying point for political and charitable causes, and reporters know it's a good place to find a citizen with an opinion.

Even with its tattered awnings, installed by the city but never repaired, it's still a beautiful place, beautiful in the variety of its brick architecture: two, three, and four stories tall, mostly post-Civil War Victorian with some cleaner 20th-century styles in the mix. Market Square contradicts itself. It contains multitudes.

Can any one theory or paradigm or marketing strategy wrap itself around anything as big and various as Market Square? I get nervous when people say they can, but won't tell us much about it.

Market Square has always been many things at once, even at its nadir. Today, it's home to four restaurants, several comfortable residences, a good tailor, two architectural firms, two art galleries, a small luxury hotel, and a dress shop. I agree that it should be much more than that. Renaissance Knoxville could help Market Square by being a part of it, perhaps a very big part of it. But from the sound of it, this real-estate development wants to own Market Square, to run the place for itself.

It's hard to blame developers for that, for wanting to own it, for wanting all of its fascinating complexity, without exception, jealously guarding it from other suitors. Men have forever been known to fall in love with beautiful, elusive, contradictory, bohemian women, and then to marry them and to try to force them into a much simpler, more manageable role, as faithful, obedient wives. It usually doesn't work out.

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

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