secret_history (2005-33)

The Scent of a City

When industry and downtown got along

by Jack Neely

The recent news that JFG was expanding in Knoxville was greeted with general rejoicing. The New Orleans-based corporation that owns the Knoxville institution could have relocated the coffee-maker elsewhere, of course, to another city or state. The new location on Sutherland Avenue, only two miles from downtown, is a bonus. It’s infill development, which is altogether positive for the city, and which has been all too rare in Knoxville. The Marble City section of Sutherland Avenue needs revitalizing, too. Downtown’s loss is Marble City’s gain.

But it’s hard not to be a little melancholic about it all. You don’t often say of a factory that you’ll miss its smell, but we will. JFG has been downtown since 1926, and since then, coffee has been part of the general aroma of downtown Knoxville. People have written poetry about it.

I remember touring the plant with my sixth-grade class, disoriented to be in a part of town I had no experience with, and enthralled with its Wonka-like process, the conveyor belts and chutes full of coffee beans. When no one was looking, I picked up one coffee bean, furtively pocketed it, and taped it into a report I made about Brazil. In the ’60s, that was as close as we got to interactive learning.

In the early ’90s, the JFG factory spun off one of Knoxville’s first modern-era coffeehouses. Right next to the factory, the JFG Coffee Shop must have been one of the most authentic coffee joints in America.

It was, for a while when it was the fresh new thing, an exciting place to visit after dark, even weeknights. Brightly lit with all the tables full, it could remind you of a swank nightclub in an old movie. Lots of people you knew, lots of people you didn’t, all jabbering on a happy espresso buzz. When you were there, subjects flew around the room like crazed bats. Should we build a convention center, should we build a baseball stadium. Was Superdrag really going to be the next Beatles. Was this Clinton really a secret Republican. Everything in the world was fascinating. Shortly after, of course, you had a headache and everything in the world was dreary and pointless. 

They didn’t often feature live music, but sometime in the ’90s Old Crow Medicine Show played there, before their appearances on national radio and before Bonnaroo-sized crowds. They’re a revivalist band, old-time, but well caffeinated.

In the daytime, the coffeehouse was quiet. During the grim years when my office was a cubicle, I claimed the JFG Coffee House was my real office. I always met people there. My secretary was the waitress, and I let my associates know she liked to be tipped. It had a bank of books to read in case you were early, and unlimited coffee. The pot was never empty. It was the swankiest office downtown.

That coffee shop, and its successors, has been gone for a while. Only the factory’s still there, with its humming and grinding, and big trucks backed up to the loading docks, and rich sweet earthy aromas. It won’t be there for long.

It’s leaving downtown at the same time the Fulton Company is headed for a suburban industrial park east of town. Fulton’s been making esoteric flexible-steel bellows devices—they don’t call them sylphons anymore—on Third Creek just off the bottom of Cumberland Avenue for generations. Weston Fulton, who invented the things, built the place nearly a century ago.

There was a time when its hundreds of workers would flow onto Cumberland Avenue at lunchtime for a sandwich and a beer and a quick game of pool, but it’s the 21st century, and industry and urban areas don’t seem to get along anymore.

But downtown has always had industry, from the day James White began dumping grist into his mill on First Creek (then, I think, better known as “The Creek,”) right about 220 years ago. By the 1880s, Knoxville hosted about 30 good-size factories, and most of them were adjacent to downtown. There was an iron works, an ice factory, a tannery, and a couple of furniture factories along Second Creek, the area we now call World’s Fair Park. There were marble works and railroad-related industries in the Old City area. And on the northwest side, a good-sized brewery.

Many of them shipped via the trains, or the wharves along the riverfront, and their employees mostly lived within walking distance of them. There were even small industries, stove factories and tin shops or clothing factories, in store-sized buildings on Market Square or Gay Street. Factory workers were always a presence on downtown’s sidewalks. Nobody thought it was weird.

It’s a fondly held belief among some of the fiercer purists among city planners and idealistic new urbanists that industry and residential development should mesh in a downtown even today. In some ways, the combination might seem even more amenable than it used to. A century ago, belching smokestacks were undeniable proof of progress; you even wonder whether promotional artists of the period exaggerated the thick, black, luxuriant richness of the smoke. But there were also complaints, and the neighborhoods around a major factory tended to shed the folks who had options to live elsewhere.

Today, insulation and pollution controls make several sorts of factories quieter and less noisome.

The center city’s main problem, for factories, is access, loading docks for tractor-trailers. And, for the neighbors, it’s also a matter of aesthetics: industrial architecture was once built to inspire, but it’s now built mainly to be cheaper than the competition’s aluminum building.

Downtown still has some industry, of course, and as it happens, Knoxville’s last downtown industry is about the same as its first, just much bigger. White Lily is still downtown milling flour, as James White was doing here during the Articles of Confederation era. Still flourishing on the northeastern corner of downtown beside the Old City, as it has since 1885, White Lily is still using its Victorian-era industrial buildings to make one of the finest American flours.

And, of course, there’s still Yee-Haw Industries, the famous printmakers of Gay Street most recently known for doing a cover of the New York Times Book Review . That’s the kind of industry we need more of.

The question remains of what will be the fate of JFG’s two large industrial buildings on Jackson Avenue. Is it considered “brownfield development” even when the brown is mainly just coffee?

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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