Tonight’s Sundown in the City is the last for this season. For many attendees, that’s probably a disappointment. But for some of us downtown, it’s going to be a relief. The event has, increasingly over the years, brought the bad with the good, and as the crowds have grown, so have the problems. As an example, for the past several years, residents and business owners downtown have had to deal with people urinating in alleys and the nooks and crannies around downtown. But walking home following the season’s biggest-drawing show featuring Blues Traveler a couple of weeks ago, I ran across something I had not seen before: a guy standing on the sidewalk openly pissing onto Gay Street. The guy wasn’t sneaking in the least. He had a pretty good arc going as dozens of onlookers walked by.
Earlier that night I had sipped beer outside the Downtown Grill and Brewery with two couples who had driven in from Morristown for their first Sundown in the City only to find the crowd too overwhelming. “We’ve been meaning to check out downtown for a while, and thought this would be a great time,” said one of the men, “but I didn’t know it would be like this. I don’t know how anybody can enjoy this.” Granted, the entertainment drew larger than normal attendance. Several friends of mine who are regular attendees of the event showed up looking shell-shocked after fighting their way on to and off of Market Square. Other Knoxvillians, who have learned what to expect, didn’t even bother to try, calling to mind the old Yogi Berra quote, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”
One of the problems that’s inherent to Sundown is that there’s really no way to fully predict what the turnout is going to be. When there’s a ticketed show for most venues, it can sell out. But because Sundown is free, and there’s no official capacity for Market Square, there’s no straightforward way of controlling how many people show up. Still, I don’t recall a show in the past few years that hasn’t drawn substantial crowds. I remember when it was something we needed to “get out and support.” But that was a different time. And as Jesse Fox Mayshark pointed out in last week’s Metro Pulse, those crowds are hardly confined to the Square.
By 5:30 on that Thursday afternoon, traffic turning onto Gay Street from Summit Hill Drive was backed up. As hundreds of cars choked the streets of downtown, the only traffic cop I saw was blocking cars from turning down Union Avenue at Gay toward parking. Between the draw of Regal Riviera’s eight screens, a show by the Barenaked Ladies at the Tennessee Theatre, and a likely record crowd being squeezed off the Square through the cracks, the sidewalks for blocks around Sundown were teeming with thousands of people. Meanwhile, I counted fewer patrol officers on Gay Street than I expect to see on an average weeknight.
AC Entertainment, the company that produces Sundown in the City, is responsible for covering the cost of additional security on Market Square. But that doesn’t take into account the impact the event has on the rest of downtown. There’s not much doubt that Sundown has a net positive impact on many merchants, which in turn pumps a lot of additional tax dollars in to the city. Yet the city doesn’t seem to be ponying up its share when it comes to looking after things on the many blocks surrounding the event. Given that the city pulled its subsidy from producing the event that now pays for itself, it’s reasonable to assume that AC profits somewhat. But the city is taking in taxes from sales on the Square along with every cash register that rings downtown. There ought to be enough to cough up a few extra bucks to pay for sufficient policing.
Don’t get me wrong. Events like Sundown in the City and numerous others that draw thousands of visitors are part of what make a thriving downtown. And with large crowds there’s always going to be a few undesirable elements. But there ought to be enough uniforms visible to make someone think twice before using our most heavily-trafficked street as a toilet.
That guy who was openly micturating onto Gay Street wasn’t the least bit concerned about getting busted. Meanwhile, visitors like those I mentioned earlier who were making their first foray into the center city for an event might not have gotten a very good impression of downtown Knoxville. It might not seem like the sort of place they will want to bring the grandkids. I wasn’t embarrassed in the least for the public pisser. But I couldn’t help but be embarrassed for my neighborhood.