Walking around New Orleans earlier this year, I was taken with an irony. I’ve been visiting New Orleans irregularly since I was a teenager in the ’70s. Now, my 23-year-old son lives there. In spite of one of the worst municipal catastrophes in the last 100 years, the hurricanes of three years ago, and the floods and attendant fires and looting—plus other hurricanes, and decades of careless administration and corruption at the city and state level, the New Orleans that I’d known since I was a teenager was still there.
When I’m in New Orleans talking to my son, I don’t used the phrase “used to be” very much. Most of that fascinating city’s attractions seem about the same as they ever were, intact and thriving, and he can experience them for himself.
Almost every place I remember from my first Mardi Gras, 31 years ago, is still in business in 2008, operating under the same name, at its original location and unchanged in basic character. Felix’s and Acme Oyster House, still in their cross-street rivalry; the tourist places like Preservation Hall and Pat O’Brien’s, though it’s the one place substantially changed, with much-bigger patio and a second entrance; my favorite bar the Napoleon House; the crowded-all-night Cafe du Monde; and all those restaurants I admired but could never afford, Galatoire’s, Arnaud’s, Antoine’s, Court of Two Sisters; the St. Charles Streetcar. All still there, as if constructed from my teenaged memory. And I thought, of course: in the life of an 18th-century city, 30 years isn’t all that long.
But in the life of a different 18th-century city, like my hometown, 30 years is something like a millennium. I thought about the places I got to know as a college student in Knoxville, around the time of my first visits to New Orleans: Dan & Gracie’s, the Last Lap, the Brewery, the Roman Room, the Cat’s Meow, the Trestle, the Torch, the L&N, Good Times Deli, Bundulee’s, the Quarterback, the Torch, the Maltese Falcon, the Ice House, Antonio’s. They’re all long gone. Of all my 20-odd favorite Knoxville bars or restaurants from my UT days, hardly any are still in business in the same place. The only one I can think of is Stefano’s. Some are so thoroughly gone you can’t even tell quite where they were.
Knoxville has suffered no major winds or floods or civil unrest, but maybe something even more ruinous to tradition. Fickleness, consumer carelessness, and a sort of municipal attention-deficit disorder have afflicted us for generations. Mature cities welcome the new and trendy, but also hang on to venerable institutions; the most innovative cities are often among the most old-fashioned. In Pittsburgh you can eat in an oyster house that hasn’t changed much since before World War I. In New York are several bars preserved as they were since before prohibition. In San Francisco, you can go to a coffee house that’s a century old.
But living in Knoxville is like watching TV with a kid who’s always changing the channel. Maybe some people like it that way, but to me it seems a symptom of frantic insecurity.
I had practical reason to think about this phenomenon earlier this summer, several old Daily Beacon colleagues converged on Knoxville, former editors and columnists. We used to wander around town like a jolly band, from Los Charros to the Press Box Lounge to Sam & Andy’s. Some are big-city journalists now, one a wire-service reporter in Washington, one a television sports commentator. None of them had lived here since they graduated, ca. 1980.
I had non-negotiable commitments out of town that weekend, and offered my regrets. But one got in touch with me beforehand, scouting places for a sentimental gathering, and asked me what was left of Carter-administration Knoxville. Of course, we were never able to afford Regas in those days; and, to be honest, some of us, on reporters’ salaries, would have issues with that now. So I suggested the Bistro at the Bijou. It’s one of the few places that’s been around long enough to be considered an institution. The elusive novelist Cormac McCarthy was spotted there a few months ago, enjoying supper at the window table.
My friends had never heard of the Bistro. I was surprised, until I looked it up in old city directories. The Bistro, by that name, is one of downtown’s oldest institutions, sure enough—older than any business on Market Square, older than the whole Old City revival, older than the development of Volunteer Landing. But the Bistro first opened a year or two after my old Beacon colleagues left town. To these reporters in their extremely late 40s, it’s a new place. It has nothing to do with their memories of Knoxville.
In the end, I wasn’t able to lure them with any Knoxville memories. We’ve saved no landmarks to tempt nostalgic reporters with. So all these UT Daily Beacon guys who had lived in Knoxville when they began their careers in journalism spent their rare Tennessee weekend living it up in a cabin in Pigeon Forge.
I was convinced that, given the opportunity to see it, they’d all go crazy about downtown. But the only one I know of who did return to Knoxville that trip had a look around Cumberland Avenue and Fort Sanders and said it just made him kind of sad. I’m not expecting to see him back any time soon.
Considering the massive numbers of people who live in Knoxville for a short, memorable time in their lives, especially students in the region’s largest university, you’d think there would be a market for a permanent landmark of some sort, an official home plate. There are, what, close to a quarter of a million UT grads out there who must occasionally be curious to find out what it would be like to come back. For this generation, though, there’s no “back” to come to, no object for a middle-aged pilgrimage.
It seems to me a chronic problem in Knoxville, that lack of continuity. We need to hang on to some good things.