On the ground at this year’s PrideFest
Counting to Cross
A new style of walking signal will tell us when we really can’t walk
Closure of supermarket leaves a hole in Bearden Village concept
Wednesday, June 7
At first, the event organizers weren’t buying it. “Several people walked all over (looking for counter-protesters), and they never saw a soul,” recalls Todd Cramer, co-chair of the Greater Knoxville Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender/Questioning (LGBTQ) Leadership Council, the festival’s sponsor. “It was certainly their right to be there—we’re all for freedom of expression. That’s all we were doing ourselves, expressing the right to be who we are without the pressure of prejudice or discrimination. That’s what pride is all about.”
Despite the sticky summer’s-here weather, this year’s PrideFest attracted a lively crowd that included 20 vendors, multiple speakers and performers, and more than 500 visitors coming and going throughout the day. The main event on Saturday followed on the heels of a Pride Week packed with activities, ranging from a film festival at the Knoxville Museum of Art to a visibility event at Sundown in the City. If anything, the week was a reflection of how far Knoxville’s LGBTQ community has come in both organization and power since it began seriously organizing itself three decades ago.
Standing before Saturday’s crowd, the Rev. Bob Galloway, senior pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church, noted that only six persons participated in the city’s first gay pride parade, held in 1976. “But nothing is done in a vacuum,” he said. “Those people in 1976 paved the way for the activities of this year. They don’t want us to just remember them. They want us to get out there and fight.”
And current events, specifically the Marriage Ban Amendment, which was overturned last week, and Tennessee’s Amendment 1, which will go to vote on Nov. 7, have left little question in the Knoxville LGBTQ community’s mind as to what is at stake.
Not surprisingly, many of PrideFest’s speakers, who included politicians and LGBTQ community leaders, addressed the issue directly in their speeches. “They got fired up about it; we’re all very worked up about it,” Cramer says. “We’re being very active and vocal about it, and it’s going to be a message you’ll hear from many of our LGBTQ Council members.”
In addition, representatives from the Tennessee Equality Project’s “Vote No on 1” campaign were on hand at the festival collecting pledges to vote Nov. 7 against Tennessee’s Amendment 1, which would permanently deny equal marriage rights for same-sex couples in Tennessee (the campaign is also accepting pledging online at www.voteNOon1tn.com .).
Chris Sanders, president-elect of the Tennessee Equality Project, says that marriage equality is an issue that has united LGBTQ communities across the state. “It’s not just Nashville and Knoxville and Memphis anymore. A lot of the smaller communities are getting organized to fight this thing as well. I think that surprises a lot of people.”
Even in the state’s larger cities, the infrastructure of LGBTQ communities has experienced a strengthening, with various organizations coming together to pool resources and share information. In Nashville, for instance, LGBTQ weekly newspaper Church Street Freedom Press cites the Tennessee Equality Project as one of several groups it relies on to stay abreast of rapidly changing developments in the same-sex marriage issue. City/political editor Joyce Arnold, who was on hand to represent the paper at PrideFest, says it’s a tough job for a small editorial staff. “We try to cover it as carefully and closely as we can, on both a state and federal level,” she explains. “We try to get as many voices as we can, although I’ll acknowledge that it’s hard to get the other side to talk to us. But we do the best we can.”
Sanders notes, however, that the fact that gay marriage is being treated as such a serious issue by the media, the government and the American public is a statement in and of itself. “It’s a sign that our numbers and visibility are growing,” he says. “It’s just sad that they’re trying to pitch us as a threat to marriage when we’re just trying to protect our families.”
Gary Elgin of Knoxville’s Rainbow Awareness Project points out that the issue has helped bring LGBTQ communities together for a cause, but that the same sense of unity must exist on a day-to-day basis—rally cry or no rally cry—if community members truly wish to be treated as equals. Drawing from his experience as a local LGBTQ activist since the early ’90s and observations of the community’s fluctuating levels of activism, he predicts that Knoxville still has a long way to go before it achieves that caliber of across-the-board outspokenness.
“I find that the Knoxville community has the ability to gather and organize for specific events or reasons,” he says. “But we still haven’t figured out how to keep people active enough on a daily basis to make positive and concrete change happen. It takes the foot soldiers on the ground everyday, on the phone and stuffing envelopes, and one or five people can’t do it.”
Events like PrideFest, Pride Week and Coming Out Day, which takes place in October, are important, Elgin says, but if the energy they promote fizzles out at the end of the day, their effectiveness is limited. Raising the community’s visibility level for one or two specified weeks during the year and then retreating back into the woodwork doesn’t cut it, he explains.
“Here, the general consensus is, ‘don’t rock the boat. I have a job. I have parents.’ We’re creating our own nightmares, and we’re not willing to step up and say ‘enough,’” he says.
And while strengthening the LGBTQ community is critical, he notes that changes must take place on a broader ideological level as well. “Gathering support from outside the community is going to be the key,” he says.
Counting to Cross
Waits for a walk light are long, often as much as a minute and a half, and in several cases the signal to walk appears for less than five percent of the full cycle.
It doesn’t take long acquaintance with downtown for pedestrians to get wise. Spot checks seem to suggest that pedestrian compliance to existing walk signals may be less than 10 percent—and may actually be limited almost entirely to parents trying to teach their children to obey the rules.
Attorney Arthur Seymour might seem an unlikely champion of pedestrian causes; as an attorney he often represents developers over preservation or neighborhood interests. But he is, regardless of what his opponents might prefer to think, a walker.
“I have a quarrel with the red man,” Seymour says, referring to the red hand that signals pedestrians not to walk.
Right now, the light glows red when it’s not safe to walk; a white walking man appears when it’s safe to start across an intersection.
What’s confusing is what comes in between. The flashing red hand makes some pedestrians panic, in the belief they’re about to be mowed down; some self-righteous drivers, seeing the flashing lights, would seem more than happy to oblige.
“Some pedestrians don’t realize that when it starts flashing, they’re okay,” says city engineering director Steve King. He adds that many pedestrians who do understand the meaning of the flashing red have had the experience of an angry motorist pointing to a flashing hand in the belief that the pedestrian had no business being in the intersection.
Seymour noticed that many other cities he visits, from Washington, D.C., to Salt Lake City, feature a countdown system whereby a sign shows the pedestrians the number of seconds he or she has to clear the intersection.
“In a lot of cities I’ve noticed, they give you the seconds.” He didn’t see why Knoxville couldn’t. He mentioned it to MPC staffer Mike Carberry, who is working on a draft of downtown-design proposals, several of which are intended to make downtown more pedestrian friendly—like wider sidewalks where architecture allows them.
Steve King, director of the city’s engineering department, has heard the suggestion from several sources, and is taking the advice.
“We’re going to change over to the countdown system,” he says. “I hope we can start it this summer.” Details have to be worked out, but King says typically the light would show when pedestrians had 10 seconds to clear the intersection before they would have to deal with automobile traffic. He hopes to convert all or most of the signals to the countdown system as soon as possible.
King says they’re also working on a method to make the signal audible, for the benefit of the blind.
Some pedestrian issues are thornier. In spite of one pedestrian bridge, Henley Street too-effectively segregates downtown from UT. King says it’s a tough street to deal with, because it’s a heavily traveled state route. It’s directly connected to Broadway, Chapman Highway, and the interstate, and slowing it down can cause major problems quickly. “Really, it’s a balancing act,” King says, between the automobile traffic and providing for safe pedestrian crossing.
Gay Street, which rarely witnesses traffic jams, and is crossed by thousands of pedestrians daily, should be easier. The crosswalks at the heaviest pedestrian crossings of Gay Street—at Main, Cumberland, Church, Clinch—are all on cycles of about one minute and 35 seconds. That cycle is much longer than the cycles of many other cities with as much or greater automobile traffic. Even crossings of major arteries like Broadway in Manhattan typically entail waits of only 30-40 seconds.
For now, though, King says they’re not reconsidering the long cycles. He says he hasn’t yet heard complaints about that. He says in plotting the times for the flashing red hand, the city has erred on the side of caution; while many cities’ signals assume a fairly slow minimum walking speed of four feet per second, Knoxville allows for the handicapped and elderly, assuming only three to three and a half feet per second. The new countdown system should allow pedestrians to assess their own fitness for crossing in a certain allotted time.
However, maybe Knoxvillians don’t complain about the length of a wait; judging by the intersection outside our windows, you don’t complain about what you can ignore.
Pedestrian issues will be one of several focuses of a downtown design meeting at the June 29 meeting of the Metropolitan Planning Commission.
The supermarket closest to the residential areas of Sutherland and Forest Park, the Bi-Lo was central to the new-urbanist Bearden Village concept in the works since the late ’90s.
Bi-Lo participated, providing an easement for the Third Creek Greenway extension. The Bi-Lo was, for a few years, the western anchor of the longest greenway in Knox County. With greenway improvements to be completed by this fall, it was arguably the most pedestrian-accessible supermarket in Knox County. It also served as the terminus of KAT Route 10, highlighted on bus schedules. Some in other parts of the city were able to use the route to grocery-shop via bus.
About six months ago, UT announced that the housing department was closing its Kingston Towers building and consolidating more off-campus housing to the Sutherland and Golf Range complexes, in large part because it was more accessible to a supermarket than other sites, with pedestrian access to the Bi-Lo soon to be enhanced by the additional greenway. By the fall, perhaps 200 more UT households, many of them foreign students who don’t have cars, were expected to be living in the Sutherland area, a short walk from the Bi-Lo. And then it just closed.
The grocery chain was taken over by Food City, which has chosen to concentrate its services to Bearden Center and a former Bi-Lo location at Deane Hill, a couple miles to the west.
UT officials say there are no plans to alter housing arrangements due to the closure; Kingston Towers will close at the end of the month, the building will be sold, and most of its residents are still expected to move to Sutherland.
The neighborhood’s higher than average population of automobile-less pedestrians aren’t completely bereft. A trip down the bike trail last week found shoppers slipping by a path across the railroad tracks to the Western Plaza shopping center, which hosts the Fresh Market; the Kroger is not far away, but getting there entails crossing sometimes-hazardous Kingston Pike.
The closing of the store may be particularly rankling to those who remember the controversy surrounding the supermarket’s construction; in 1992, an out-of-state developer proposed redeveloping not only the site of a former drive-in movie theater, but also called for the demolition of Parker Brothers, an old-fashioned hardware store with wooden floors and a front porch. The place was so beloved that the threat launched a major letter-writing and petition-signing campaign that drew a reported 10,000 signatures, Parker Brothers gave in and moved to a former Shoney’s half a mile away, where it now operates as a more conventional Ace outlet.
Today the property that people were fighting over so passionately 14 years ago is a big empty parking lot with no obvious prospects.
Judging from its parking lot’s usage, Bi-Lo was apparently never as successful as hoped. Some shoppers say that though the Bi-Lo often had better produce than other groceries in the neighborhood, its selection in general was little more than a pale version of Kroger’s, and that the staff was not as helpful as in other groceries.
Some who are unsatisfied with grocery options in Knoxville believe a specialty market like Whole Foods, the national organic chain so far absent from the Knoxville market, would work on the site.
The owner of the property is North-Knox-based Bob Monday Properties, which reportedly resisted the greenway construction that Bi-Lo favored. Monday didn’t return calls for comment.
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