A few months back, I wrote a piece about what area I considered to be my neighborhood—what I regard as downtown proper. In that column, I touched on another term: community. But I didn’t give it its fair due. The downtown community extends well beyond its residents. To quote Elwood P. Dowd, Jimmy Stewart’s character in the movie Harvey: “We’ve entered as strangers; soon we have friends.” Many an outsider finds the same to be true of downtown.
I’ve lived in several places. The last, before moving downtown, was South Knoxville, only a short drive from here. Between mowing the lawn, raking leaves, and other chores I abhor, I spent much of my discretionary time here. Even before relocating, I had become part of a community beyond my neighborhood.
I grew familiar with the names and faces of the nascent population that had already taken up residence here. Then there were others like me, who made the trek from their homes in the ’burbs, that I likewise came to know and recognize. That’s one of the things I found alluring. Downtown, unlike most any of our other neighborhoods, is a community that extends well beyond its borders. Nowadays I still see many of those original residents—the so-called urban pioneers. But they’re easily outnumbered by newcomers and visitors from all around the region.
Recently, as downtown has begun to become a destination for more and more people, there are plenty who are visiting for the first time, or at least the first time in many years. I often see parents and grandparents pointing out to a new generation buildings familiar from years before—or spots where buildings used to be. Others are gradually coming back to a place they avoided until not long ago, along with those who have recently relocated to Knoxville and never knew downtown as a place to avoid.
In any case, after some time, many of these faces become familiar, too. And oftentimes, friends. Along with us residents, they form a community that far outnumbers the people who live here.
At the Market Square Farmers’ Market, the Bijou and Tennessee theaters, and the Downtown Grill & Brewery, I run into friends from not only our center-city neighborhoods like Park Ridge and Maplehurst, but also from Oak Ridge, Clinton, Maryville, and even (gasp) Farragut. They’ve all found a reason to become part of our downtown community. And they’ve made it their own as well.
It’s not just our restaurants, cultural attractions, and events. There’s something about the life and the pulse of the place. When UT hosted Florida a few weeks ago, one comment overheard on the street was, “You know why I like this place? It’s got a real downtown.” Apparently, that’s something they lack where they came from.
Some of us remember what a Knoxville with little life and a weak pulse was like. Up until a few years back, even with a half-dozen UT home games a year drawing tens of thousands of spectators, most attendees avoided downtown. And many of those coming to shows at the Bijou and Tennessee didn’t linger here long either. Granted, there wasn’t as much reason to linger as these days.
But even then there were pockets of vibrancy. They just weren’t widely popular. Some places kept shorter hours, mostly catering to downtown office workers avoiding rush hour. Other spots didn’t come to life until after those workers had settled into their homes for the evening. And after dark, these oases of life were separated by near-vacant sidewalks and dark windows that seemed daunting and uninviting.
Yet even then, a community of bohemians, barflies, bookish-types and others found an allure to downtown’s ghostlike backdrop. It had things you couldn’t find elsewhere, like a nightlife of small jazz clubs and quiet bars where everybody knew your name.
But these days there’s a greater bonding taking place. I enjoy the friendship and camaraderie of not only neighbors, but also folks from Heiskell, Powell, and even far-flung Farragutoniuns on any given evening. These people are every bit a part of my community as my next door neighbors, many of whose names I don’t even know.
Downtown’s community has grown to be perhaps Knoxville’s largest. It is certainly its most diverse. While neighborhoods often draw populations of similar values and interests, one of downtown’s strongest points is that it’s a community where everyone’s welcome, no matter where they choose to make their home.
We might not all agree on everything. There’s plenty of difference in people, politics, and preferences here as well. But to quote Elwood P. Dowd again: “An element of conflict in any discussion is a very good thing. Shows everybody's taking part, and nobody left out. I like that.”
So do I.
Corrected: Final Elwood P. Dowd quote.