A plea for neighborhood stores, signage perplexities, and some corrections
by Jack Neely
Several years ago, I wrote about a wonderful place in Lincoln Park called Shorty’s. I heard it closed this summer.
I felt bad, because I hadn’t been there lately. But there was no place like Shorty’s; she made old-fashioned thick-slice baloney sandwiches and, on some evenings, fried catfish. Her place, part grocery, part general store, part restaurant, was clean—she once got the inspector’s highest rating—and bore the responsibility of being a neighborhood refuge for kids who needed a safe place or a smile. She kept the place open late.
Almost all neighborhood places struggle in Knoxville, and I’m not sure why they do. When Knoxvillians get hungry or thirsty or lonesome, we get in our cars and flee.
I had thought of the neighborhood business as a thing of the past until I visited some other cities over the last several years. Pittsburgh neighborhoods, for example, resemble Knoxville neighborhoods in most respects. They’re hilly, and they’re packed with houses with front and back yards. The big difference is that many of their neighborhoods seem to have bars and restaurants and groceries and barbers within walking distance of the houses. And they actually stay in business, because the people who live there walk to them. You see the residents afoot in the evening: well-dressed people who seem like they can afford cars, but heck, they’re walking anyway.
It seems eminently sensible to me, as it did to Knoxvillians 60 or 70 years ago, when they were supporting neighborhood businesses in Bearden or Burlington or Vestal or Lincoln Park.
We don’t live like that anymore. Maybe it’s because we forgot to put in sidewalks. Maybe we’ve got some kind of silly zoning problems that force us into our cars. Maybe we’ve just gotten too large to walk. Mostly, I think, it’s that most of us live in neighborhoods built without regard for the idea of people in the neighborhood ever getting together. The downtown Burlington I used to hope would recover has been bulldozed bit by bit over the last several years, and hardly even exists anymore. Bearden has been so flattened into strip malls that you can hardly tell where the center was. Several of South Knoxville’s neighborhood bars have closed up in the last decade or so.
I know there are exceptions, and I hope someday we don’t think of them as exceptions. As gasoline slouches upward, maybe we’ll finally start thinking of the neighborhood store or the neighborhood grill as a sensible thing. It may one day be an essential one. Someday soon we may all need a Shorty’s.
A couple of weeks ago, I alleged that the Knoxville Culinary Institute a UT architecture class is considering as a class project was the “last new idea” for downtown. As a reader reminded me, I was wrong. There was talk of a culinary institute downtown maybe five or six years ago, when Scripps was rumored to be moving some part of its operation, including HGTV, into town.
I should have known that, by now, everything has been proposed for downtown Knoxville.
I’d be afraid to say there’s never been a Leaning Tower of Pisa or a Great Wall of China proposed for downtown Knoxville. Someone would say, “Don’t you remember, Jack....”
And come to think of it, we did have some of the Great Wall of China, a rather small portion of it, anyway, in downtown Knoxville for six very strange months in 1982. There’s nothing new under the sun, or the Sunsphere either.
Another reader thought that in my fond wish that Knoxville might become a refugee center for New Orleans chefs, my reference to Krispy Kreme Brulee was misplaced. I was implying that New Orleans chefs might come to Knoxville and make improvements on our everyday cuisine, and I just thought of Krispy Kreme as emblematic. However, she says, Krispy Kreme is already a New Orleans institution. In fact, she’s met one of the first New Orleans cooks to come to Knoxville, and he turns out to be a Krispy Kreme employee, who’s now making donuts in the North Knoxville location.
Finally, I’m all for more signage around town, to point out to the lost—hapless young celebrities, for example—the city’s elusive attractions.
But we need to remember that it’s important for the signs to be accurate. I happened to notice a couple of signs by the new hotel at Henley and Main that make me wonder about our city fathers’ sense of direction. Considering these signs are visible at our longest red-light wait that I know of in town, we have plenty of time to ponder them.
First, there’s a green sign indicating the Coliseum Area, Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, and Blount Mansion—to the left. That is, north on Henley. I wouldn’t turn left for any of those attractions, especially not Blount Mansion, which is actually straight ahead and to the right.
But maybe, I figured, they’re trying to keep traffic off Main Street for some reason. And though it does require some extra driving, it is, at least, possible and even legal to get to those sites by turning left.
The really perplexing one is the blue one right behind it. “Old N. Knoxville,” it says, and the arrow indicates straight ahead on Main. East, that is. Granted, you can get to Old North via a left on Gay Street, but turn left and go straight ahead, and you’ll drive right through Old North.
Then it says “Downtown Historic Sites/Public Parking”—and indicates a right turn, toward the Henley Street Bridge, one block away. You could technically get to a couple of historic downtown sites, like Blount Mansion, that way—but the other sign tells us that Blount Mansion is to the right. Also, the maneuver would require a quick, unmarked—and illegal—left turn onto Hill Avenue.
If you turn right, you’re probably not going to find much in the way of downtown historic sites or public parking either one; you’re pretty much headed for South Knoxville. I wonder if the Pinkston lobby was behind that one.
I puzzled about it until I realized perhaps the sign wasn’t installed properly. If it were rotated 90 degrees in a counter-clockwise fashion, it would make perfect sense.
Signs are good. Maybe we still don’t have enough of them. But for signs to be useful, it’s important for the directional arrows to point in appropriate directions. Maybe they don’t teach that in city planning anymore.