Seeking Asylum

A suggestion for one of central Knoxville’s many mysterious vacancies

Some talk earlier this year of major construction in the vicinity of the two nightclubs known as the Valarium and the Cider House got me thinking. What’s envisioned sounds like a willful invention of a pocket downtown. Whether it’s realistic or not, who knows, but I’m all for it. It’s amazing how much underused, or sometimes completely unused, property still lies fallow around the fringes of downtown. In a broken arc around the central business district, within a mile of Gay Street and its million-dollar condos, are hundreds of acres of unused rubble or underbrush or broken pavement that no one’s thought to develop just because these places are never seen by Man. At least, not middle-class, affluent Man.

Developing these lunar landscapes, many of them spoiled for conventional development by extravagant highway construction over the last 60 years, would call for some imagination, but would do wonders for the city’s tax base, for sprawl control, for nurturing chancy new businesses that need low-cost options, which are rapidly dwindling downtown.

The Valarium and the newer Cider House are alone together in a can’t-get-there-from-here kind of netherworld between Fort Sanders and the interstate. We’ve had a few Metro Pulse parties down there. I was disappointed when the Cider House removed the striking 1930s “Open to the Public” sign high above the front door, but maybe they made up for it with the interior design. It’s comfortably spacious, embellished with totemic carvings of some Odin-like figure on either side of the stage. It’s a fun place for a show.

But every time we’ve had a party down there, I think, somebody claimed they tried to find it and couldn’t.

Part of the confusion has to do with the fact that the Valarium and Cider House are officially on “Western Avenue”—but Western Avenue is now, as it has been for several decades, the elevated highway 50 feet above. If you drive down Western, you will never reach the Valarium. It’s down below on a sort of shadow Western Avenue. It’s time to call it something different. We could call it sub-Western. But there’s a better name that’s older than Western, and I’ll get to it in a minute.

Whether you call it Western, or mention the side street, Blackstock, there’s still confusion based on the complex driving directions you need to shepherd a car down there. Even though you don’t really have to drive. From downtown, it’s easy to walk to it—and that may actually be quicker. It’s certainly easier to describe. Here: You walk just north of World’s Fair Park and turn left.

That’s it. Follow the sidewalk to the left of the Foundry right on the sidewalk, alongside picturesque Second Creek, which flows along a ruined culvert below which, after a few beers, looks like an aqueduct built by the Emperor Hadrian during his farther conquests. I’ve walked across the train tracks, which may or may not be legal. But there’s also an old pedestrian underpass beneath the trestle, which was used during the World’s Fair. It lets you out beside the Valarium parking lot. It’s not even scary. Thousands of people from Michigan and Ohio every day made that trek with strollers and wheelchairs, 27 summers ago. I bet you can, too.

The first "Warehouse District"

Promoters have been trying to push this section as “the Warehouse District.” Lots of American cities have something called “the Warehouse District,” nearly always described as “funky,” and it’s easy to see how that might sound appealing.

But Warehouse District isn’t any official designation for this area, and as a literal description, the term would seem to suggest more warehouses than the three or four you can see down here. The two current nightclubs were warehouses, at one time or another. But a century ago, it was a mixed neighborhood with residences and groceries and poolhalls and, for a long time, Knoxville’s main baseball field, Baldwin Park, where the semi-pro Knoxville Reds played before audiences in the thousands.

Also, we already have a “Warehouse District.” You don’t have to be ancient to remember when the Old City was “the Warehouse District.” (In the National Register of Historic Places, the official designation of much of the Old City is still the “Jackson Avenue Warehouse District.”)

Anyway. We could call it “North World’s Fair Park,” maybe. But back in the heyday of his area, when there was still a ballpark and poolhalls and an Italian-run grocery down here, the street fronted by the Valarium and the Cider House had a better name. It was called Asylum Avenue.

It got that name because it led to the impressive antebellum building known as the Deaf & Dumb Asylum, later known, perhaps more kindly, as the Tennessee School for the Deaf. (At the time, no one took offense to the word Asylum, a synonym for sanctuary.)

But what I’d like to do, as I proposed a few years ago, is resurrect the name Asylum Avenue to describe that area down there. I think the city dropped the name out of squeamishness, that folks might get the wrong idea about mental institutions and the possibility of escapees.

Nightclubs would seem to be just the sort of business that wouldn’t much mind using “Asylum Avenue” as an address. Asylum is the name of a legendary record label which put out Tom Waits’ early stuff, and some middle-era Bob Dylan. Still edgy, I’m told it now concentrates on hip-hop.

Whatever we call it, we need to develop these under-highway wastelands.

Less than a mile away on Gay Street, parking spaces go for upwards of $7 a day and sometimes fill up at that, unavailable at any price. Down here, literally a 15-minute stroll away, are expanses of surface-parking asphalt that go unused all day and all night. One sign by a never-attended booth says no parking without paying, but offers no advice about how to pay. Nobody’s here to notice.

It’s not hard to imagine condos down here someday: Minutes from campus. Convenient to the interstate. A short walk—through a park—to downtown.

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