Park City , a new picture book about an unforgotten neighborhood
by Jack Neely
I drove down Magnolia Avenue the other night, and was, for a moment, unsafe behind the wheel. I was hypnotized. The old hollow I thought I knew as Chilhowee Park was something like a vision in a dream, all lit up for the holidays. The historic old marble gazebo, lone leftover of one of the grand old expositions, decorated with lights, surrounded by electric evocations of dozens of Christmas trees. I couldn’t tell there was anything going on right then, but if I hadn’t been late for a family occasion I might have pulled over just to wade into the place and its memories. It used to be the most fun spot in East Tennessee, and sometimes maybe it still is.
It once inspired a town that was so proud of the fact that it was on the way to Chilhowee Park that it named itself for it. Park City was—is—an exceptional place in a lot of ways.
One of the most annoying assumptions people make about Knoxville is that it’s ethnically homogeneous: overwhelmingly native-born white and Scots Irish. But in its heyday Park City, perhaps more than other parts of town, looked like America. That’s the impression you get from the latest book in the Images of America series, Park City .
“Images Of America,” a series published in Great Britain but locally produced, highlights American cities and neighborhoods and photogenic citizens with handsome photo-dominant paperback books.
I’ve always had the unsettling suspicion that a documentary about Knoxville would be a challenge to Ken Burns, partly because we rarely take photographs of the most interesting parts of town—and partly because we learn from an early age to look as bland or dour as possible when the shutter snaps.
Maybe Park City was an exception to that rule, too. Look at these pictures. These are people having fun, even though they’re Knoxvillians. East Knoxville was once, and maybe still is, the most fun part of town.
“Park City” is a term most familiar to Knoxvillians well over 50, and might have fallen out of use altogether if not for some history-minded young people who’ve been moving back into the area in recent years. Park City was a separately incorporated community for a decade in the very early 20th century. The central part of what was before and afterward known as East Knoxville, it drew its name and much of its identity from Chilhowee Park, the trolley destination which was once the Knoxville area’s most popular venue for baseball, bowling, dancing, three major expositions, and countless fairs. Park City also claimed the old racetrack, and later the Zoo, and dozens of good barbecue and beer joints.
Park City became part of corporate Knoxville in 1917, but Knoxvillians who grew up there before the urban-renewal era clung to that name for at least half a century. For whatever reason, it attracted many immigrant families, Greeks, Jews, a few Italians, and African Americans. Today, old Park City is about half white, half black.
Park City is a pageant of photos of families, homes, businesses, and events, many of which I’ve never seen before. My favorite shots are the long-gone businesses: Presnell’s lunch counter, the Atlanta Cafe, Easley’s Grocery, Sylvester McBee’s fruit stand. Barnes’ Barber Shop, depicted here in the ‘30s, is still in business in old Burlington.
Ploddingly literal historians looking for a fight may find plenty to quibble about. The authors may have accepted some family lore at face value: an item has “the first bowling alley in Knoxville” opening in Chilhowee Park in the 1930s. Smoky’s actually wasn’t even the first bowling alley in Chilhowee Park, which was famous for its holiday bowling tournaments circa 1900. By then there had already been several bowling alleys downtown, as early as the 1860s.
Authors Becky French Brewer and Douglas Stewart McDaniel define their neighborhood pretty liberally. Their Park City annexes the whole eastern quarter of downtown Knoxville: old Knoxville High, the Gem Theater, and Cal Johnson Park, which gets two photographs in here. In the book downtown Knoxville itself is presented as if it were a western suburb of Greater Park City.
Hyperbole in defense of a historic neighborhood is no vice. Neighborhood pride is such an astonishing thing in this forlorn city, that we can forgive almost anything in its name.
The authors acknowledge some blurring of lines in the introduction. There’s a chapter about the turbulent and picturesque Mabry family. Most of the Mabrys never heard tell of Park City, though the place they lived was near Park City’s later boundaries. The photo of the Market House on Market Square is justified by the fact that it was built on land donated, in part, by Joseph Mabry, who had lived near an area that would later become Park City; that connection is enough for the purpose of this book. (Given that ethic, I was surprised not to see more of Caswell Park / Bill Meyer Stadium, where Knoxville went to see pro baseball for 80 years.)
All of the blurring points out that regardless of political boundaries, Park City was never easily distinguishable from Knoxville, economically or culturally. It was a place where many Knoxvillians lived, and where many others visited, as often as they could get away with it, for a horse race or a ball game. Some proud residents of our suburbs today may regard Knoxville as a disreputable distant cousin. But it’s a stretch to call historic Park City, or modern-day Farragut, “independent.”
Nostalgia is the appeal of many books in the “Images of America” series. Befitting its subject, Park City has a good deal more attitude than most. It’s even a motivating purpose. “People are reclaiming their real identity and proudly referring to themselves as Park City people once again,” the authors exhort in the Epilogue. “Homeowners are standing hand in hand and demanding better law enforcement and better codes enforcement throughout the area, and they are finally being heard. Neighborhood groups are beginning to join together and are in the fledgling stages of creating a Park City Town Hall.... After years of silence, home and business owners in this diverse, multi-ethnic community realize that together they can speak with a much stronger voice....”
Though the book is most likely to appeal to those with personal connections to that old neighborhood, it has a more universal appeal than most. In a time when the city struggled without much success to develop urban public parks, Park City was, in many ways, Knoxville’s backyard, the place we went to kick back, and loosen up a little.
I’m grateful for the book, though I might have called it “East Knoxville.” That would make the inclusion of so many out-of-bounds sites easier to justify. And, maybe, give a positive spin on a phrase that many West Knoxvillians hear only in crime stories.
But it wouldn’t have quite the poetic flair. “Park City” sounds like a way of life.