urban_renewal (2005-48)

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Suburbia is an ever-shifting thing

117 Adair Drive

Epater-le-Bourgeois

by Matt Edens

Does writing about historic preservation, inner city revitalization, urban living and such automatically equate to hating the suburbs? Not really. For one thing, other than the occasional citation of “cookie-cutter” architecture or random reference to “ticky-tacky,” many critics of suburbia skip quickly past the built environment and on to their real beef: unflattering stereotypes about the middle and upper-middle class members of mainstream society who inhabit it. And, should a small number of those same middle-class people decide to move into the city and inhabit high-rise condos or historic homes, then a surprising number of folks who find fault with suburbia will suddenly shift gears and start griping about gentrification. Which makes me suspect that, while there are real problems with runaway suburban development—energy consumption, expensive infrastructure, traffic and the inequitable burdens of taxations, to name a few—for a lot of folks bashing the ‘burbs is really a new spin on the old adage epater-le-bourgeois .

And not a terribly new spin at that; literary and artistic aspersions of suburbia are as old as the suburbs themselves—a tired cliché that was already well tapped out by the time American Beauty won Best Picture. My personal favorite is by the late British Poet Sir John Betjeman, a friend and contemporary of the English authors Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. Written in 1937, the piece “Slough” mockingly calls for bombs to fall on the London suburb named in the title and “mess up the mess they call a town.” I have no idea how Betjeman felt when, three years later, the Luftwaffe kindly obliged. 

Then there is the fact that suburbia is an ever-shifting thing. My old house in inner city East Knoxville was once way outside the city limits, where people moved for the “country life.” A hundred years ago, long before Citizens for Home Rule came along, the neighborhood even fought an acrimonious annexation battle with the city, and won.

A little farther out, many of the city’s older inner suburbs that are popular with progressive anti-sprawl types—Island Home, Emoriland/Fairmont and North Hills to name a few—owe much of their charm to the “bogus Tudor” that Betjeman, back in the thirties, wanted bombed into oblivion.

This house in Fountain City’s Adair Gardens is another fine example. One of dozens of similar Tudor and Gothic revival style homes in the quaint neighborhood listed on the National Register, it has loads of historic charm, richly accentuated by details like oak floors, French doors and a Tennessee Marble floor in the sunroom. But, considering that it was built in the era of Bauhaus and Corbusier, it was as conventional and traditional for its day as any of the tract houses currently under construction in Farragut.

I wonder, if I’d been writing this column 75 years ago, would I have made fun if it?

117 Adair Drive

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