The Knoxville I remember most from my adolescence consisted largely of suburbs and strip malls, expanses of concrete and asphalt upon which telephone poles, traffic lights, and billboards marked spaces unique only in that they were a particular arrangement of anonymous elements found everywhere else in the region. The city felt like a place built for cars, not for people, so much so that when you saw a man walking on the street, it seemed most likely his car had broken down, or perhaps he was homeless.
Of course, if you headed in any direction, all that would be eventually disappear, yielding to lush fields, brooding mountains, dark green lakes, and a pregnant quiet. That these contrasts existed side by side seemed natural then, and the two often intermingled: Even when leaving the city for the mountains, country, or lake, my friends and I would stop at a fast food place everyone could agree on or a low-end restaurant along the way, never thinking this was strange. Knoxville was a place of stops: You worked at one place, you ate at another place, you shopped at still another, you exercised somewhere else, and then you returned home.
After spending eight fairly formative years living away from Knoxville, I’ve seen cities that succeed to greater (Chicago) and lesser (Beijing) degrees at creating livable environments. And what I mean by livable is places designed with a fundamental truth in mind—that the fewer barriers there are to meeting and interacting with one another, the happier we seem to be. A neighbor of mine once said the greatest obstacle to happiness in Knoxville is inertia, the tendency for things at rest to remain that way.
Much of Knoxville has remained that way: the long headache of stop lights and strip malls called Kingston Pike is still where most daily business gets done. Large, monied subdivisions—some built at the height of the crazed housing boom and some much older—still define life as it sprawls west, and to me, still project an idea of strained, false control—one that can only be realized within the confines of a small plot of land, manicured by a crew of young men once a week.
But downtown, something has indeed changed. People are living near where they work, shopping where they eat, and casually meeting one another as they go about the business of living. With a new grocery store coming in, another piece of the puzzle of urban living will be in place, and even though it didn’t happen in one year, it is this collective fight against inertia I choose to recognize as the Best of Knoxville.