When politicians talk about Main Street, it’s the all-American address where you and I and Joe Sixpack hang out and talk about our mortgages. Often contrasted with Wall Street, Main Street is an earnest, homey spot in the American imagination, a street of shops and cafes and homes where the Sixpacks are raising their kids. It’s a metaphor; I know that. But whenever I hear politicians talk about Main Street, I can’t help thinking about our own Main Street.
It’s just six blocks long. It was once much longer, a century ago, when there was an East Main Street that stretched into parts of town that aren’t there anymore. But the trimmings of the Henley Street project, ca. 1930, and more so the erasures of the Urban Renewal period, pared it back, with coincidental precision, to exactly what it was when John Sevier and them contemplated it in the 1790s. Back then, it wasn’t called Main Street, but Third Street—as, from the river, it was. That brief time in the 18th century was the only time that Knoxville had numbered streets that made sense.
Later it was known for a time as Broad Street. It was the address of all four successive county courthouses, the old federal blockhouse, our first market house, and a reputable hotel known as the Franklin House. A century ago, the western third of Main was all single-family residential, with some fairly grand houses dominated by merchant-prince Perez Dickinson’s palatial home.
For most of the 20th century, conforming to a pattern of calling east-west routes avenues, while only the north-south routes were streets, it was technically Main Avenue. But in 1989, Chris Whittle, the magazine magnate who built the giant Georgian building that later became the federal courthouse, and who, in those days, generally got what he wanted, convinced the city to change that second word. The change would put his building on 333 Main Street, and he liked the ring of it. “Main Street” fit the Whittle style. Knoxville was so astonished and grateful for his success that he got his way.
But when candidates talk about Main Street, ours probably isn’t the one they’re talking about. If candidates were to stop on Knoxville’s Main Street, they’ll find a few people waiting for the bus, sure enough. That sidewalk is our closest approximation to Grand Central Station. Mostly, though, they’d find a demographically unrepresentative percentage of attorneys, bureaucrats, and bankers.
Today, it’s a very important street, in terms of what it hosts: most of the courthouses in town, now, federal, state, and county, and hence has the region’s highest concentration of metal detectors. The 1886 courthouse is the oldest building on the street. In the front yard is the grave of John Sevier, or, rather, the six successfully recovered bones of the long-buried but reinterred governor—a few yards away from what’s maybe the weirdest thing on any courthouse lawn in America, fiberglass replicas of Spanish cannons from the Spanish American War. I rejoice in eccentricities, but these don’t fool anybody who touches them.
Make your way around those lawn ornaments and you can vote on Main Street, get your tags or driver’s license renewed on Main Street, even get a passport. Main has the city’s Vietnam memorial, and our September 11 memorial, neither as imposing as our Spanish-American War memorial, the guy with the hat and the gun.
It does have a newish hotel on it, the Hampton Inn. The big, grand, Baptist church seems to be thriving, behind its marble crypto-Doric columns. Main Street in fact displays some of Knoxville’s most impressive architecture, including the 1929 Medical Arts Building and the 1932 Post Office Building, which a few years ago won our poll of architects as Knoxville’s single best building. It also runs right between Knoxville’s two most conspicuous monuments to glass-and-steel modernism, the two tallest buildings in East Tennessee.
However, the excitement of downtown’s much-heralded revival has mostly passed Main Street by. A streetfront colon-cleansing parlor closed a while back, and what was a little convenience store a few months ago is now a vacant storefront. Except for the hotel, nothing on Main Street is ever open after 5 p.m., or on weekends. It’s one of the few streets downtown without residents.
Sometimes that works to our advantage. When the out-of-towner Nazis demonstrated last year, they assembled on Main Street, which probably seemed to them like it might be a big deal. They assembled around those plastic cannons, and chanted their favorite supremacist carols. But they went on Saturday, so hardly anyone saw them who didn’t want to demonstrate against them.
On most weekends, when there aren’t any Nazis handy, Main Street’s a dull place. On a recent Friday night just after 11, I was waiting for a bus at Cumberland and Walnut. It was a First Friday, in fact, when hundreds of people had been clustered around a sidewalk jazz band on the 100 block of Gay, and over 1,000 were watching a movie on Market Square, when there were lines outside the Riviera, shows at both the Tennessee and the Bijou, and every restaurant or bar I’d passed on my way to the bus stop appeared to be packed, their sidewalk patios jammed. If I’d been asked to estimate the number of people in downtown Knoxville that evening, 20,000 might have seemed low.
A group of about eight young people, perhaps fans for some visiting team, walked my way, from Main Street, probably from the hotel. As they passed, I overheard one say, “Man, this place is dead. Does anybody in Knoxville ever come outside?” They pronounced it Knox-Ville, like Yankees often do, and I can’t help but notice a strain of contempt in that hyperpronunciation. And I looked around. From where I stood, I couldn’t see anybody at all, or anything open. Especially not on Main Street.
I’m always loath to change names of streets, anyway, and maybe you could argue that Main Street is still Main in some respects. But maybe we should give it an asterisk.