100 Block

(Do you even have to ask what street?)

The slowing of our city’s public-works vigor in the last year or two has disappointed some of us. Some blame the recession, others the Haslam gubernatorial campaign. “We’re keeping our heads down,” they say, until Nov. 2. No one wants to push a project that may risk a push back, and spoil the chances of the first governor from Knoxville proper since Reconstruction’s Parson Brownlow.

So maybe this isn’t something we’d notice if ambitious projects like the Southside development were booming, or if the city were making major strides toward its goal of redesigning West Cumberland Avenue—but I have to say that one thing the city has done right lately is the redo of the 100 Block of Gay Street, which had its grand opening on Oct. 1. A lot of it was necessitated by subterranean infrastructure improvements, but it framed an opportunity to bring in wide sidewalks, planters, benches. Rather than a street for cars that we’re sometimes permitted to walk on, it now seems like a pedestrian promenade we’re sometimes permitted to drive on.

You don’t have to be very old to remember when the 100 Block of Gay was a pretty seedy area of pawn shops and dingy vacant buildings, redeemed mainly by the presence of Harold’s Deli. Harold’s was a remarkable exception on this block that in my memory of my 30s, was always lonesome and gray: 20 years ago, Harold’s was about the most legitimate and compelling reason to come downtown on a Saturday. But it only seated about 30, and it closed at 4.

Now some are convinced the 100 Block, dominated by the enormous Sterchi Building, is the highest-density residential block in Knoxville. Some dormitory clusters at the University of Tennessee may support a few more, but the 100 Block is home to hundreds, mostly young and affluent, or plausibly so—and lots and lots of dogs. For an affluent student, a personal dog is the surest proof you don’t live in a dorm.

It’s one of Knoxville’s most-visited blocks, too. The Emporium’s Ant Colony of Art is there, next to UT’s Downtown Gallery, plus a couple of other private galleries and studios and artsy gift shops. The sidewalks of the 100 Block are crowded every First Friday. The block even lured the Hola Festival from Market Square, where it was conflicting with the Saturday Farmer’s Market, which has become a sort of weekly harvest festival.

On Saturday, I could only stand and behold: Stretching from the rebuilt viaduct to Summit Hill, about three blocks in all, were thousands of happy strangers, in a long, broad celebration of Latino heritage, ostensibly. But it also seemed a celebration of our suddenly fair city.

It was maybe the most popular thing that ever happened on an unusual block.

Despite the stately presence of Sterchi Brothers Furniture’s national headquarters for most of the 20th century, and, before that, in 1885, our first permanent public library, the 100 Block was not necessarily Gay Street’s most reputable block, with more tolerance for the showy and cheap than the starchier-collared blocks south of Wall. Near the train station were saloons and arcades and sandwich shops and shooting galleries ready to take advantage of passengers fresh off the train with a pocketful of quarters. A facade that towers over its actual building gives it a little bit of the flair of the Wild West, which is apropos. The block saw a couple of notable gunfights during the saloon era.

It’s always been a block of newcomers, whether personally or ethnically, since its earliest days. Here’s how I think it evolved: They built the railroad, just down the hill in the 1850s. Hundreds of Irish immigrants, many of them potato-famine-era refugees, came to work on the original lines to Virginia and Georgia. Irish settled around there. Up on the hill, the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church went in to serve that population. Subsequent waves and ripples from Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Poland, and Italy followed, and many of them were Catholics, too—and liked living and working near the only Catholic church in East Tennessee, and they opened businesses on the 100 Block. After that, Jewish immigrants, who had little interest in Mass but liked living around people who spoke German and other old-country languages, put in Knoxville’s first kosher groceries and shops in the same neighborhood. Then Greeks. The first local Greek festival I’ve ever heard about was in the 1930s, on the 100 Block.

Then, around 1937 came a curve that has nothing to do with European migration patterns or Catholic heritage. WNOX opened its auditorium-studio on the same block, and suddenly there were, every day, hundreds of white country people on the block, too, to watch the famous live daily show known as the Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round.

And, now, a Latino festival, with booths from the distinctive cultures of Chile, Guatemala, Colombia, Honduras, Mexico, Cuba, and it turns out to draw the biggest crowd ever afoot on this block since the Doughboys returned home.

And, of course, it comes with some mystery and legend, that of Underground Gay Street. Everybody in town knows something about it, this one part of town where the streets were built up a story or more over the original street level, in 1919, when they built the viaduct over the railyards, though most assume it’s either bigger or more mysterious than it is. Still, the subterranean balconies, visible from the sidewalk, are the single most reliable way to astonish jaded urbanites. They are a civic treasure.

At one time or another, everybody was on this strip of street. If there’s a block with a roughly comparable history in the United States, you’ll have to show it to me.

And now we’re calling that same block the “Arts District.” Sure.

A dim memory suggests I’ve actually asked this question before, in this space—but what constitutes a District? Can one block qualify? If so, don’t look now, but I suspect we’ve got some other districts on our hands, waiting to be declared.

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