Go Outside the Green Zone

The center doesn't really have to hold it all

Still, it's rather early to rest on our laurels. Largely because the downtown we've "rediscovered" is actually a pretty tiny piece of real estate—about the size of West Town Mall and its parking lots, actually. For the vast majority of Knoxvillians, including many self-described "downtowners," the land inside the I-640 loop, but beyond the boundaries of the central business district is largely beyond the pale—terra-incognita, if you will. Tell people I live in Parkridge, and I'm almost invariably asked, "Where is that?" And even Fourth and Gill, despite being far more gentrified than my scrappy 'hood, is largely foreign ground to most folks around here (no wonder out-of-towners are typically the ones buying its real estate). At best it seems the neighborhood's name is an all-purpose designation for the various Victorian neighborhoods north of downtown—if even that. While it was gratifying to see that Knoxville's recent marathon routed runners through not just the predictable loop of Cherokee Boulevard but to places like Parkridge and Fourth and Gill, it was less so to see the News Sentinel simply refer to both neighborhoods as "parts of the Old City" (the Old City's mental boundaries being at least as amorphous as Fourth and Gill's).

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Now if only the committee of downtown boosters who came up with the recently released draft of the city's "Downtown Improvement Strategy" would be as visionary as the Dogwood Arts people. It starts off well enough: "Reconnect Downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods" is one of the document's "guiding principles," and there's a whole section on "Downtown Connectivity and Adjacency." But it's a little hard to tell from the draft how we envision accomplishing that vision. Sure, there's considerable detail devoted to the south bank of the river (redevelopment of which was a priority of one committee member's previous tenure in city government) and redevelopment in Fort Sanders and along Cumberland Avenue (an equally understandable focus if you stop to consider the direction many of the committee members commute into downtown). But other than that, the remainder of the recommendations run for less than 200 words and range from such obvious suggestions as "keep on keepin' on" with Mechanicsville's Hope VI project to utterly random recommendations like redeveloping an obscure KCDC maintenance facility in Old North Knoxville.

Three weeks before Sundown in the City kicks off a new season on Market Square, I'm starting to wonder: is this the summer that Knoxville truly rediscovers downtown? The signs are hopeful, if recent crowds at the Downtown Brewery or browsing the artwork during First Friday are any indication. Then there's the attendance at any of the recent shows at the Tennessee Theatre. Or consider that downtown lofts are selling for prices rarely seen in the city limits outside the 37919 zip code.

Still, it's rather early to rest on our laurels. Largely because the downtown we've "rediscovered" is actually a pretty tiny piece of real estate—about the size of West Town Mall and its parking lots, actually. For the vast majority of Knoxvillians, including many self-described "downtowners," the land inside the I-640 loop, but beyond the boundaries of the central business district is largely beyond the pale—terra-incognita, if you will. Tell people I live in Parkridge, and I'm almost invariably asked, "Where is that?" And even Fourth and Gill, despite being far more gentrified than my scrappy 'hood, is largely foreign ground to most folks around here (no wonder out-of-towners are typically the ones buying its real estate). At best it seems the neighborhood's name is an all-purpose designation for the various Victorian neighborhoods north of downtown—if even that. While it was gratifying to see that Knoxville's recent marathon routed runners through not just the predictable loop of Cherokee Boulevard but to places like Parkridge and Fourth and Gill, it was less so to see the News Sentinel simply refer to both neighborhoods as "parts of the Old City" (the Old City's mental boundaries being at least as amorphous as Fourth and Gill's).

But that may be changing. This weekend from April 15 to 17, the Dogwood Arts Festival has added Fourth and Gill as its first Dogwood Walking Trail. Now I know, looking at nature from outside the safe confines of your sedan or SUV may seem sacrilegious to some Knoxvillians, but try it. You might like it. There's even free trolley service from the festival on Market Square (What's this, a Knoxville tradition embraces both walking and mass transit? Surely it's a sign of the Apocalypse ). Stroll over on Sunday, April 17, and you can take a peek in some of these strange people's houses. My God, some of them are even attorneys, accountants, and doctors! Don't they know they should live off Cedar Bluff? (visit www.fourthandgill.org/HomeTour.html for info).

Now if only the committee of downtown boosters who came up with the recently released draft of the city's "Downtown Improvement Strategy" would be as visionary as the Dogwood Arts people. It starts off well enough: "Reconnect Downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods" is one of the document's "guiding principles," and there's a whole section on "Downtown Connectivity and Adjacency." But it's a little hard to tell from the draft how we envision accomplishing that vision. Sure, there's considerable detail devoted to the south bank of the river (redevelopment of which was a priority of one committee member's previous tenure in city government) and redevelopment in Fort Sanders and along Cumberland Avenue (an equally understandable focus if you stop to consider the direction many of the committee members commute into downtown). But other than that, the remainder of the recommendations run for less than 200 words and range from such obvious suggestions as "keep on keepin' on" with Mechanicsville's Hope VI project to utterly random recommendations like redeveloping an obscure KCDC maintenance facility in Old North Knoxville.

Perhaps I ask too much? After all, when I attended a meeting recently to peruse the plan, its language about linkages might have seemed less blinkered if not for the bold document handed me to me by a friend from Fourth and Gill: a copy of the new, updated incarnation of Chattanooga's Downtown Plan (complete with CD-ROM). One of the remarkable things about it is how little emphasis it devotes to what we insist on calling "downtown." The central business district is only one of seven areas given equal attention in the plan; the remainder is essentially the equivalent of the places that, in Knoxville, have pretty much fallen off the map. So here's hoping that one day, if we really do rediscover "downtown," we can be tempted to dip our toe outside the "green zone" of the central business district.

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