Still Magnolia

The name-game strikes again

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Commentary

by Matt Edens

By any other name, Magnolia Avenue would still be one of Knoxville's most storied streets. And, perhaps, among its most put-upon. The latest thing to come down the pike (technically U.S. 11/70, a route designation Magnolia shares with Kingston Pike) is a proposal to rename the short, seven-block remnant west of Hall of Fame Drive â“Regas Avenue.â”

Now I've got no issue with the Regas family. And personally, I've never put much stock in the claim that rerouting Magnolia east of Hall of Fame so that it aligns with W. Fifth Avenue was a deliberate attempt by the dreaded â“powers that beâ” to â“cut offâ” East Knoxville. As a decade-long resident, I know how onerous it was to access the area prior to the road project. Reaching the interstate required snaking around under overpasses around Sixth Avenue, or a detour down to Cherry Street. It was certainly a rare occasion that I drove down the stretch of Magnolia in question, particularly the last two blocks that, even before I-40's expansion, were tucked tight under the interstate's flyover. I did, however, often use W. Fifth, cutting across to Middlebrook and points west. And I typically accessed downtown, the Old City and the waterfront via routes that didn't involve that short stretch of Magnolia, either. But that said, I'm not sure renaming it Regas Avenue is really warranted.

It certainly isn't unprecedented, though. And I'm not just talking about the previous mayor's penchant for renaming streets. Magnolia, as you may be aware, was originally Park Avenueâ"either a reference to Chilhowee Park or, perhaps, Victorian Knoxville's prominent Park family. Either way, as befitting its privileged sounding name, Park was once one of Knoxville's premier addresses, as evidenced by the occasional old mansion that remains, retrofitted to some other use. Knoxville's first electric streetcar also ran along its lengthâ"referenced in a short scene in Cormac McCarthy's novel Suttree (an anachronism, since the book was set a few years after the streetcar system's â“last runâ”). By then, however, the street was known as Magnolia, renamed for the beloved mother of Knoxville mayor Bryan Branner. (What is it about Knoxville mayors and their mothers?)

The changes kept coming after World War Two. Not only was the streetcar gone, but the road was widened and expanded to handle the growing automobile traffic on what was, at the time, the main road between Knoxville and points east and northeast. Icons such as the Pizza Palace or the long-gone, much-lamented Tic-Toc date from Magnolia's tail-fin era, as does the crumbling I-40 overpass scheduled to be replaced down by Regas. (The flyover actually predates the interstate by a few years, a relic of the all but forgotten â“Magnolia Expressway.â”)

But the biggest slight had to be the removal, during the frantic road reconstruction for the World's Fair, of the on and off ramps near Regas that gave Magnolia direct access to I-40. It was, in some ways, a reflection of the overall abandonment that was already well underway. By the '80s, the people who built the mansions and the bobby-soxers who cruised the Pizza Palace had already pulled up stakes, heading for the shiny new subdivisions and shopping centers springing up out west. Magnolia matured and died as an automobile-dependant commercial strip in the short span of a generationâ"a surprising amount of its rundown commercial real estate is recent vintage, from the '50s and '60s.

There are some signs of rebirth, though. Thanks to Hall of Fame Drive, Magnolia's western end has better interstate access than it has had in 25 years. Even more encouraging are early indications that downtown's revitalization is starting to reach Magnolia. The real estate market in Parkridge, on Magnolia's north side, is suddenly perking, and a new bike shop recently opened on the stretch some folks want to rename. The Metropolitan Planning Commission is also in the midst of a Magnolia Corridor study that could spur even more investment, particularly if coupled with the same sort of zoning changes and incentives being discussed for Central. Form zoning, in particular, could go a long way toward encouraging the old cruising strip to become more pedestrian friendly.

So don't write the old road off just yet. And if you must rename it, I say stick with Old Magnolia. After all, Old Broadway isn't Louis' Lane.

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