secret_history (2005-52)

All That’s Left

Odd signs, and a little year’s end housecleaning

by Jack Neely

Confusion about signage in central Knoxville is a stubborn affliction. Several signs around downtown directing people to “Historic North Knoxville” point east, west, and other counterintuitive directions. There’s one, for example, suggesting we turn east on Summit Hill from State. It makes no sense at all.

I get the impression that many of the signs downtown are incomprehensible leftovers from some other half-remembered or maybe half-conceived idea of circulating people through town—or maybe a deliberate detour around the homeless shelters on Broadway. (If anybody out there knows, please enlighten me.) The only problem is that there aren’t further signs directing you to the actual neighborhood.

What they will see, pointing north on Central, is a sign marked “Old City Downtown.” At least one downtown merchant who works in the opposite direction is concerned that newcomers fresh off the interstate may jump to the conclusion that the Old City is the whole of the “downtown” they’ve been hearing about.

I wonder if it harks to a brief trend in the early ‘80s to call the Old City “downtown” as opposed to the larger mainline business, banking, and government district of Gay Street, Main Street, and Market Square. I’ve seen some evidence that Knoxvillians of a century or more ago occasionally used those designations as well. It makes some sense—”downtown” was literally downhill from “uptown.” In these days, however, only much-larger cities tend to have a “downtown” distinct from an “uptown.”

Anyway, the signs remain. I don’t know whether there are statistics about how many people make wrong turns every day based on a misleading sign. We may all get so used to the signs that we grow fond of them. We smile at them quietly and enjoy the consternation of foreigners; but I understand the city is organizing a “signage task force” to make improvements. 

I got a lot of response to my column about another sort of sign, the walk and don’t-walk signs, indicated by the white walking man and the big red hand. They seem designed to discourage pedestrian intrusion into downtown as thoroughly as possible. For whatever reasons, our traffic lights are on longer cycles than those of many other, larger cities. As a result, some lights flash don’t-walk red as much as 97 percent of the time

But that’s not the only phenomenon discouraging pedestrian traffic in town. Just as hard to deal with is Knoxville drivers’ hobby of obstructing pedestrians.

It affects everybody, the high and the low. The other day I was actually driving a car, waiting in traffic in the Old City, and saw Vice-Mayor Mark Brown trying to cross Central on foot, forced to walk behind a car that was blocking the crosswalk.

Something even more perplexing happened the next day, to me.

Trying to cross Summit Hill at Gay on foot, I made it halfway across and decided it was in my best interest to wait at the median for the walking-man light. As I stood there, waiting to cross, a lady pulled up squarely in front of me, her car straddling the pedestrian crosswalk. She was speaking on her cell phone, and had a little girl strapped into the passenger seat.

I thought it was kind of funny, the obliviousness of people to crosswalks even when there’s a pedestrian standing right there waiting to use it. When the light finally changed in my favor, I stepped toward the front of her car, looking at Gay Street to be sure I wouldn’t be hit from behind as I crossed.

But this young lady who was already parked across the crosswalk was full of surprises. She pulled forward as if to prevent me from crossing in front of her car, either.

I looked at her. She didn’t look back at me. A petite young woman, talking on a cell phone. The funny thing was, she looked like she was probably a perfectly nice person in the office, or on the PTA. But I think there’s something in the Knoxville driver’s lizard brain that sees the pedestrian as a rival, a threat, an impertinence, something to be suppressed whenever possible.

The walking man had vanished, and the red hand was flashing. I walked behind her, squeezing between cars, illegally. Just as I’d seen the Vice Mayor do the day before. It’s the Knoxville way.

It’s theoretically possible to cross Summit Hill Drive legally at the intersection, but it’s easier and usually safer to jaywalk in the middle of the block, as I think most TVA employees have learned over the years. Crossing Summit Hill legally almost always involves a long wait, and often involves a physical challenge with an angry and fairly stupid motorist.

Walking back uptown from the Old City, there’s a pedestrian crossing light. The only problem is, there’s often a whole line of cars waiting to turn right on Summit Hill while the light’s green. They tend to turn right just like a freight train turns right, inexorably, each one close behind the other. It’s their right to turn right, and if you’re not standing square in front of their car, maybe they don’t feel obliged to yield to you.

Given Knoxvillians’ driving habits, crossing when and where the light tells us it’s safe to cross can easily mean an expeditious death. I might propose, for honesty’s sake, the addition of a third signal. The walking man displayed horizontally.

Gus’s restaurant on the Square has a historical artifact from the year 2005 in a glass case right by the cash register.

It’s a brick. The sign calls it a brick from the “original Gus’s on Gay Street.” The eccentric restaurant left that location reluctantly about five years ago when the site was being prepared for what we were told was going to be the new justice center. The ca. 1938 building, originally a Walgreen’s, but probably better remembered, by me, anyway, as Todd & Armistead’s, was finally torn down this past fall. For most of its history it was a drugstore with a lunch counter. Most drugstores got rid of their lunch counters over the years; Gus’s was a lunch counter that got rid of its drugstore.

Now, of course, we’ve gotten rid of the whole building. It’s flattened red clay, being prepared for the construction of the new cinema.

A sign beside the encased brick tells us, “THIS IS ALL THAT’S LEFT.”

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

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