Here is offered a quick and easy solution to this town’s perpetual identity problem in ten words. Home of the University of Tennessee’s Flagship Campus. Period. EXCLAMATION POINT!
Urban planners, tourism boards, and branding companies, you may now give up and seek more honest employment. Citizens, please accept your city’s official national image and try to work it into a conversation some time.
And what’s wrong with that? First of all, why does a city—which, after all, is just a bunch of people living in relative proximity to one another—need an identity so badly that it expends as much mental energy, money, and helpful electronic kiosks as Knoxville does to come up with one? In all the discussion about just what Knoxville is and how (or whether) what it is resonates with the rest of the United States of America, UT is the most obvious and the most marketable It. Still, Knoxvillians remain unsatisfied with it.
The underlying message here is that Knoxvillians (as represented by their various branders) are not happy being relegated to college-town status, in part because that makes most of us townies. We want to be a capital-C City. And to be a City, we believe we must have a pithy little nickname, which is, essentially, what a city’s “identity” amounts to. Not for lack of trying, we haven’t come up with one that feels right yet. Remember the “Scruffy Little City?” First, hokey. Then there’s the whole thing where it makes Knoxville sound disease-ridden.
Knoxville’s musical tradition comes up a lot when people are trying to find the key to its elusive Knoxvilleness. Birthplace of country music? Sure, kind of, but it has the distinct air of Nashville envy. And, unfortunately, most people (by which I mean people not from Appalachia so don’t yell at me about it) either don’t care too much about bluegrass or associate it with Kentucky. The key to this type of advertising: It can be a lie, but it can’t sound like a lie.
As far as “the Couch” is concerned, I’m not going to touch that one, despite the fact that I don’t think it’s all that bad.
How about something that emphasizes the city’s penchant for building large spheres? Oversized Sphere Town, The City of Spheres, or Knoxville: We Don’t Stop When We Get to Dome. We’d probably need more than two to justify that, though.
This is where we’d be returning to the obviousness of the university—its athletic program, its innovative medical research, its solid undergraduate ratings, and its athletic program—except that there’s another force at work trying to define Knoxville: national rankings. Right now, a glut of specialty magazines (and their accompanying blogs), polling organizations, and census employees are all working hard to reduce population centers to a series of data sets, analyzing them, and assigning each a ranking of some kind. Then, recontextualizing the data, and doing it again and again and again.
It’s a quick way to a national identity, or many. We can know where we stand, and so can the rest of the country. Knoxville is the “most” something, the “-est” something, or is at least “more” or “-er” than, like, Napier. These ubiquitous ranking stories are always kind of interesting in a how-’bout-that-there-are-more-McDonald’s-per-square-mile-in-xburg-than-anywhere-else kind of way. There are so many of them so often, that you lose track of which ranking your town gets for what and when. Still, these infotaining bits offer the rest of the country a bite-sized glimpse at our city. As many of the people looking at them have never been here before, it could be the only glimpse they’ve gotten.
What, exactly, do these rankings, ratings, and stats, say to them about us?
The Good Things: KNOXVILLE ON A SCALE OF ONE TO AWESOME
Of course, somebody, or several teams of somebodies, have already thought about this. The Knoxville Chamber (of Commerce, though they don’t call themselves that) devotes a page of its website to Knoxville’s national rankings. On that page are no less than 14 glowing, albeit mostly outdated, numerical tidbits about the city. Clearly, this is a business-driven organization, intent on bringing outside dollars into Knoxville. So here is demonstrated a practical use of city rankings as a positive agent of image and economics.
It’s interesting to see how they are ordered and presented. There are two main categories: (1) Top of page: relatively new (2005-2006) and (2) Bottom of page: fairly outdated (2000-2004). Within that simple scheme are layers of complex, boostery strategy and subtle near deceptions that border on doublespeak. Here’s a cursory outline of the hierarchy at play, with examples:
Priority 1: Highly Coveted Rankings in Which Knoxville Fared Very Well
- Best Place for Recent College Graduates (2006), number one of 206, Economic Research Institute. This was based on Knoxville’s salary to affordability ratio. While Knoxville’s average entry level salary was, in 2006, at about 92 percent of the national average, cost of living was at 78 percent.
- Best Place to Live for Cities Under 1 Million Population (2000), number one of 354, Places Rated Almanac, a sort of meta-rating that takes a number of financial factors (cost of living, average wage, employment, etc.) into account.
Priority 2: Categories that Sound Good Until You Realize That They Are Sort of Back-Handed Compliments
- America’s Most Affordable Travel Destinations (2006), number four of 50, Hotwire.com
- Best Places for Affordable Living (2005), number eight of 32, Sperling’s Best Places
- Best Places to Retire (2005), number 10 of 100, Money Magazine
(Note: While the reader may wonder why the college graduate category was not placed in the Affordables group alongside the retirees, recent college grads are more desirable as they have greater spending/credit potential and are, statistically speaking, further from death.)
Priority 3: Categories in Which Knoxville Showed, But Did Not Win or Place, aka the “One Ofs”
- Here we have some fairly attractive categories, especially to incoming businesses, where Knoxville made the list but did not place particularly high. Thus, ambiguously, “one of” the best instead of a numerical ranking.
- One of the Top Best Small Metro Areas to Start and Grow Companies (2000), Inc. Magazine. Actual Knoxville ranking: 35.
Forbes magazine seems to do very little else than make long lists of things. Here’s where they’ve put Knoxville.
So far this year, Forbes has ranked Knoxville number 43 of 200 large metro areas in “The Best Places for Business and Careers.” This sounds great, except that in 2006-2007, it ranked number five, and was number 10 in 2008. The reason for the plummet? No one (Jewelry TV, Sea Ray, Goody’s) can be sure. But good news: Forbes cited, as one of Knoxville’s best features, that the city is only predicted to have 0.5 percent negative job growth this year. And in March 2008 Forbes gave Knoxville the dubious title of “Seventh Best Place to Buy Foreclosed Homes.” Forbes’ most famous list, is of course, the Forbes 400, the 400 richest people in the world. Number of Knoxvillians listed in the Forbes top 400: 0.
Forbes also occasionally puts out an article or two, though. The last Knoxville businessman to be the subject of a Forbes feature: Jim Clayton in “The Trailer King” (2002).
ETC.: FROM GOOD TO BAD TO INNOCUOUS, KNOXVILLE ON A SCALE OF SUCK TO 10
The Chamber, of course, is not the only organization that uses these rankings in an attempt to lure business and people and create a general air of good vibes among its citizenry. Here are some other stats, pulled from various city and regional websites as well as original sources.
- Knoxville is the third largest city in Tennessee, the 116th largest in the country, and the 63rd largest metro area in the United States.
- Metro Pulse analysis has found that it is the fourth largest “-ville” in the country, behind Jacksonville, Nashville, and Louisville, according to Census 2000 data.
- MP analysis of Census 2000 data has also determined that Knoxville (at 79 percent non-Hispanic white) to be the 16th-whitest core metropolitan city (out of 200) and the 22nd whitest city over 100,000 in the country (out of 239).
The Knoxville area (Tennessee Congressional District 2) is approximately medium-happy as compared to the rest of the country, ranking 206th among 435 U.S. Congressional Districts (third overall in the state) in the recent Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. The Well-Being Index uses Census, employment, and health statistics in order to determine an area’s “happiness.” Proof that Gerrymandering works: Oddly shaped District 7, which slithers from the Memphis suburbs to just west of Nashville, is Tennessee’s happiest district, ranking 56th nationally. District 5, central Nashville, ranked second in the state, which means we should direct our collective ire there. Tennessee, as a whole, ranked 42nd out of 50 states. Appallingly, Utah ranked number one.
Knoxville was declared the “streaking capital of the world” in 1974 by Walter Cronkite, following a 5,000-person streaking incident on Cumberland Avenue. Ironically, it had previously been known as the “underwear capital of the world.” Currently, Knoxville has the largest non-indigenous population of red pandas in the world, and the Knoxville Zoo declares itself the Red Panda Capital of the World. Our sister-in-name, Knoxville, Iowa, touts itself the “Dirt Racin’ Capital of the World.”
Knoxville ranked fourth in 2008 for “Best Cities for Relocating Families” in Mid-Size Markets by Worldwide ERC and Primary Relocation, which basically means that Knoxville is inexpensive and trouble-free to move into, and has a decent rate of home appreciation. In 2007, it ranked number one.
In 2007, Knoxville ranked among the “10 Best Places in America” to live and boat by Boating Life. Number one factor: Number of boat-related businesses (many of which have since been closed or semi-permanently “furloughed.”)
In 2003, Expansion magazine ranked Knoxville 14th among “Top Logistics Cities in the Southeast,” which may mean that Knoxville is very easy to plan, organize, and disassemble. Also that year, Southern Business and Development magazine ranked the Knoxville Metropolitan area the “Top Mid-Market with Population Between 250,000 and 750,000.”
In a 2002 study by Smart Growth America, Knoxville ranked eighth among U.S. metro areas for urban sprawl, a study that cited In a similar ranking, done in 2001 by USA Today, Knoxville ranked 17th.
According to data from the Knox Metropolitan Planning Commission, the most demographically typical area in the county is census tract 47 in Northwest Knoxville. Walkscore.com, which rates a neighborhood’s walkability, gives this area a 37 out of 100, or “Car Dependent.” The least demographically typical area was Fort Sanders, which gets an 80, “Very Walkable.”
In related news, a recent state report ranked Knox County fifth in the state for highway accident rates. Next door neighbor Sevier County ranked fourth.
The Tennessee River is the fourth most polluted in the country, according to the EPA in 2008. Biggest problems: Pharmaceuticals and hundreds of millions of gallons of raw or insufficiently treated sewage per year.
The National Parks Service ranks the scenic Smoky Mountains National Park, just outside Knoxville, as the most visited national park in the country, with nearly 10 million people per year. The Park Service cites the Smokies’ world fame for natural beauty and diversity of plant species. Unfortunately, you may not be able to see all that because it’s also the smoggiest park in the country.
While it no longer ranks in the top 10, the Knoxville metro area is still listed among the most air-polluted cities in the United States, receiving an F in both 24-hour and long-term exposure. Happily, though, we are no longer the asthma capital of the United States, as we were in 2008. This year, we’re only number 7, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
Leftovers That Don’t Fit Neatly Into Any Particular Category
Knoxville is the number-five casual dining market in the United States, according to a 2008 study by fast and family restaurant industry research interest Sandelman & Associates. The study reports that the average Knoxvillian goes out to eat five times per month.
Interesting fact: 40 percent of Knox County Schools K-12 students are overweight or obese, according to a joint KCS and Knox County Health Department report released earlier this year. The national average is about 32 percent.
Knoxville Authors With the Most Five-Star Average Ratings on Amazon.com (as of this writing):
- Harlequin Temptation author JoAnn Ross: 17 books
- (Distant Second) Legendary Knoxville author James Agee: seven books
- Glistening-body cover art romance author Rebecca Brandewyne: five books
UT is the 13th least “Sexually Cautious” college campus in the country, so says a Trojan condoms “sexual report card” ranking. And in a 2005 epidemiological study conducted by the state Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control, the state of Tennessee ranked 18th in total reported AIDS cases from 1995 to 2005. In a 2007 study, Tennessee ranked 10th for transmission of nonfatal STDs syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea. (Side note: Knoxville State Rep. Stacey Campfield introduced two bills this legislative session to limit the scope of sex education in public schools. Neither has been successful.)
Knoxville Area Survivalist Ranking: SurvivalRing.com says that the Knoxville area (Oak Ridge specifically) is likely the state’s number-one target for terrorists or other unfriendlies. Downtown Knoxville is about 22 miles from ORNL. According to the 1979 Congressional report “The Effects of Nuclear War,” Knoxville’s outside the extremely dangerous blast radius for a one-megaton nuclear detonation (about 10 miles), but we’re well within the fatal fallout range. Assuming even moderate wind speed, the really lethal fallout could affect everything within 30 miles.
In 2007, the Knoxville Catholic Diocese ranked number one for “vitality of Catholic dioceses” by the ominously named Crisis magazine.
Also in Features
- The Stacey Chronicles: a Timeline of State Sen. Stacey Campfield's Greatest “Hits” in 10 Long Years of Legislating
- Signs and Portents: Tennessee's Numerous (and Sometimes Bizarre) State Symbols
- Orange Is the New Green: Is Knox County's New Video-Only Visitation Policy for Inmates Really About Safety—or Is it About Money?