The Whole Elephant

Meditations on a 'college town'

She didn't mean anything by it. She may even have meant it as a compliment. A friend of a friend who was visiting for a weekend last month, she was a former UT student who has lived in Charlotte for the past several years.

"The difference between Knoxville and Charlotte," she explained, "is that Charlotte's a real city. Knoxville's just a college town."

I'd heard people say that before, many times, but I'm always flummoxed by it. There's nothing wrong with college towns. College towns have lots of little bookstores and fringe theaters and street musicians, and they're usually fun places to walk around. If Knoxville were a college town, I would embrace that label happily.

It's just that Knoxville's not a college town. It doesn't look like one from the sidewalk, and it doesn't look like one in the books. Even though UT's the largest university in the region, Knoxville's city-limits population outnumbers UT's student population by about eight to one; Knoxville's metro area population outnumbers UT's student population about 30 to 1. Using alumni stats, I once calculated that hardly one-fifth of Knoxville adults over 25 ever attended UT; the number who ever worked there is smaller than that.

Still, this lady lived here when she went to UT some years ago, and that was always her honest impression. To her, I realized, Knoxville is just a college town, and always will be.

It might not have startled me if, just the day before, an equally confident lady in one neighborhood of North Knoxville had told me what sort of town Knoxville was. "Knoxville's just a poor working-class town," she said. I couldn't argue much with her, either. She never went to UT or any sort of college, and everywhere within sight of her home was working-class, and modest in income.

There are other opinions, too. "Take away TVA," someone asked me not long ago, "and what would you have?" To him, not much. Knoxville's just a TVA town, the headquarters of the nation's largest utility. If there's some other stuff here, it's just some TVA customers.

Of course, some others think of Knoxville as a bedroom community for Oak Ridge National Laboratories. "Knoxville wouldn't be anything without Oak Ridge," they say. They're often of the opinion that we wouldn't have a symphony here if not for Oak Ridge. It doesn't do much good to argue with them, either.

For people who work at HGTV's isolated West Knoxville headquarters, Knoxville's just a cable-TV town. For folks who work for the officially bankrupt—but still Knoxville-based—largest theater chain in the world, Knoxville must be a movie-theater town. Last year, someone in the cable-TV business told me they had concluded Knoxville had become a media town.

Industrialists have told me that Knoxville's a high-tech manufacturing town, and an auto-parts town. Though folks who work for DeRoyal may think of Knoxville as a medical-products town, people at Rohm and Haas might think of it as a chemical town, and folks at Sea Ray may think of it mainly as a boat town. It's also known to some outside as a flour town and a coffee town.

Some newcomers know us as mainly an old World's Fair town. Others, of course, still call us the Gateway to the Smokies. "Besides the Smoky Mountains, what does Knoxville have going for it?" Why, nothing at all, I say. We are, of course, mainly a tourist town.

I've heard it called both an ornery aginner town, and, somehow, by some logic that operates only in Knoxville, a town full of gullible chumps. And I'm sure, in their own ways, they're both right.

I've heard Knoxville called a Republican town. Even though in the last presidential election, as Democratic Tennessee favored the Republican, city-limits Knoxville voted by a wide margin for the Democrat, I won't argue. It's a Republican town. Everybody says so.

I sat quietly at a Next Big Steps meeting a few years ago when a high-paid consultant from Chicago informed us that we were mainly a NASCAR town. I'm sure that, to him, Knoxville truly is. I've heard it called a river town, an Appalachian town, a railroad town, a hot-tamale town, a country-music town, a floral town, a punk-rock town, a poetry-slam town, a cheap-shot town. I've heard it called a jazz town, a golf town, a car town, a literary town, a sprawl town, even a football town.

I've said before that Knoxville doesn't fit very well into any particular category of city, but I have come to realize that Knoxville fits very well into my favorite children's story. It's the one about the six blind men and the elephant. Except, in this story, there are a whole lot more blind men.

We're all the blind men, of course. And there are also a whole lot more parts to the elephant. Whether it's plain short-sightedness or just the honeysuckle and the hills that seal us away from all the other Knoxvilles out there, we all live in our own private Knoxvilles, and we all enjoy entertaining guests, and ourselves, with the notion that the Knoxville we know is all there is.

That habit may be a comfort for many. This city's a complicated place, and trying to think of the whole thing can give you a headache. But for those who want to step out and see who else is here, some friends of mine are launching something called the Knoxville Music and Heritage Festival, starting this weekend. I can't guarantee any one of us will get to see the whole elephant. But at least it's a rare chance to talk to some of the other blind men, and compare notes.

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