editorial (2005-50)

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Closed for the Holidays

Why Christmas can be a liability for downtown Knoxville’s lively image

Closed for the Holidays

We recently ran a letter from a visitor sharing his apparently earnest impressions that downtown has seen no revival of life in the last 10 years. The writer had moved on to Denver; comparing downtown Knoxville unfavorably to downtown Denver probably wouldn’t surprise anybody. What was a little jarring was that he was comparing downtown Knoxville in 2005 unfavorably with downtown Knoxville as it was

It would be easy to disprove some of the points in the letter; there are easily more nightclubs and restaurants in downtown Knoxville than there were in 1995. There are hundreds more residents downtown than there were then. And hours are longer; when an old colleague visited on a Sunday afternoon early this month, we had several choices of where to go to reminisce over a beer. Those of us who are accustomed to working downtown on Sunday afternoons remember that in the ’90s, it was hard to find a can of Coca Cola for sale downtown.

The writer’s impressions were probably honest ones, though. He did offer one clue about why downtown struck him as “deserted.” The writer mentioned that his disappointing visit was at Thanksgiving.

No part of Knoxville closes down more thoroughly for all holidays than does downtown. It’s easy to understand why. Unlike the interstate exits, downtown is dominated by small, family-owned businesses with small staffs; only a few of them can afford to let employees visit relatives for the holidays and stay open. A couple who had just opened an interesting shop downtown last year told us they knew they were missing the post-Christmas gift-money business, but they just had to visit relatives out of state. A weirder example of the phenomenon was a now-defunct candy store that, during the several days before Christmas, just when thousands of Santas were shopping for stocking stuffers, were always closed for the holidays.

Other downtown draws take a holiday snooze. There’s little or no live drama in late December, and live music is curtailed, both at the club level and at auditoriums like the Tennessee Theatre, which are unusually quiet during the season to be jolly.

When entrepreneurs take their days off is their business, of course. But the problem for the city of Knoxville is that the holiday season is exactly when lots of bored family members wander abroad by the carload, looking for something to do that doesn’t involve leftovers or busted toys or more TV; it’s a time when out-of-towners—or even West Knoxvillians—venture out to see if all the fuss they’ve heard about downtown Knoxville is true. We suspect many of them go home convinced that it’s not.

Of course, some of them find something. Tomato Head is often packed all day the week after Christmas and has the character of a non-stop reunion. But for the most part, downtown always appears comatose at those moments. Those of us who are downtown almost every day know the melancholy of seeing whole families of well-dressed strangers roam from locked door to locked door on the day after Thanksgiving, or the day after Christmas. Or New Year’s Eve.

Several pubs host rock shows for the over-21s who are footloose on Dec. 31. And there are more than 1,000 private parties all over town. But for the parents unable to free themselves on the toughest babysitting night of the year, Knoxville usually offers two choices: television and sleep.

Last year, the city launched what we hoped would be a regular tradition, a public New Year’s Eve party at World’s Fair Park. The crowds on the unseasonably warm evening were much larger than anyone expected; thousands came out to ring in the new year in a festive public setting that was as open to all ages as a Fourth of July show.

Many expected the event would be held again this year; the rumor— apparently well-founded—was that it would be on Market Square. There would be something poetic about that venue: Adolph Ochs, the publisher who more than a century ago launched America’s most famous New Year’s Eve celebration, on the square in New York named for his beloved Times , began his career in journalism at the old Chronicle office on our own Market Square.

But as of this week, no plans are finalized for a repeat performance; a major sponsor reportedly backed out. The city hasn’t thrown in the towel, though, and sources say there’s still hope for it. Cheer them on; we think some sort of public celebration of the New Year is something Knoxville shouldn’t do without.

Otherwise, though, solutions to the holidays-off dilemma remain elusive, unless we can convince downtown merchants to stagger their holidays: Start celebrating the Greek Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 6, instead. Or perhaps Ramadan. 

One big difference this year, however, has already taken shape in the form of the ice rink on Market Square. The for-once seasonably cold weather has cooperated agreeably with the cooling system, and the rink has been popular nightly since it opened just after Thanksgiving. It will be open at least through New Year’s Day, closed only on the 25th.

On those dreary days after the 25th, bring your cousins and aunts and nephews downtown, with the assurance that there will be at least something fun to do in downtown Knoxville.

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

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