Sidewalks are typically good barometers of a center-city’s health—the more bustling the better. Here’s hoping that, as the holidays approach, the sidewalks around Mast General and along Market Square are thronged with shoppers. Seems like not too long ago when such thoughts would sound absurd.
There is, however, one stretch of Knoxville sidewalk where crowds aren’t all that encouraging. When it comes to pedestrians, few sidewalks downtown are as consistently packed as the block of Broadway where Knox Area Rescue Ministries and the Salvation Army face one another across four lanes of asphalt.
The crowds often spill over the curb. Around North Knoxville, Internet message boards and cocktail party conversations are rife with tales of the time “I was driving down Broadway and almost hit this homeless guy in the middle of the street.” Sometimes the guy in question is passed out, sometimes he simply stepped out into the street without so much as looking. It was, you might hear, “as if he owned the place.”
In a way, he does. While they’re outnumbered elsewhere—on Market Square, the 100 block of Gay Street, even out North Central in what’s been rebranded as “Downtown North”—the homeless still dominate this small stretch of street. And the agencies that serve them are digging in to stay.
“Digging in” is perhaps appropriate. The intersection of Fifth Avenue and Broadway is caught in the crossfire of a long-running war of words between the service agencies and the neighborhoods to their north. The fighting has flared up recently. Volunteer Ministry Center’s push to convert the old Fifth Avenue Motel into homeless housing has become a money pit. It’s tough to say which is rising higher: the project’s price tag, or the ire of Fourth and Gill residents.
Maybe the residents will succeed in killing the project. If so, it’ll mark a turning point in their long fight to contain what some call the “Mission District.” But what will it cost them? Private interests have already tried to redevelop the old townhouses. They failed, even in easier economic times. Nor are the holidays ever a good time to be portrayed as hard-hearted towards the homeless.
Then there’s the fact that, by fixating on Fifth and Broadway, neighborhood advocates tend to overlook adjacent areas that, in the greater scheme of center-city revitalization, are perhaps more important. Interesting things are happening in Downtown North. And the efforts, in the long run, may eventually reestablish the century-old connection between the city’s near north historic neighborhoods and downtown proper. Getting Fifth and Broadway under control is, of course, important to that effort. But Gay Street, not Broadway, is the true gateway to downtown from the near north. Emory Place originally functioned as a funnel, developed as a transit hub that collected foot traffic from the nearby neighborhoods and fed it down Gay via streetcar. From both Old North and Fourth and Gill, it offers a direct route connecting Downtown North to downtown’s reviving heart and across the Gay Street Bridge to the South Waterfront beyond. It’s a relatively straight and level shot from Fourth and Gill all the way to the bluff where Baptist Hospital sits: easy for pedestrians, bicyclists and, perhaps, those little electric shuttles Chattanooga has had such success with (which, like the mule-drawn street cars that once ran down Gay to Emory Place, have trouble negotiating grades).
Don’t believe me? Look at a map. Broadway veers west, leading away from Gay Street and Market Square. Topography works against a pedestrian, too, as Broadway becomes Henley Street and skirts the ridge downtown perches upon. If VMC and KARM pulled up stakes and left tomorrow, most folks in Fourth and Gill would still traverse that stretch of asphalt via automobile. Although, perhaps, there’d be fewer drunks to dodge.