They say there are two sides to everything. And so it is with downtown Knoxville. Up until a few months ago, I had only a passing familiarity with the south end of South Gay Street. Those first few blocks atop the bluff where James White pulled his boat up on the banks of the Tennessee River seem to have remained vital to the city ever since. Even when downtown was at its lowest ebb, the halls of government, the courts, and subsequently a number of law offices kept active on the blocks nearest the river. Since accepting a position at one of those offices a few months back, I’ve become more familiar with a part of downtown that I always knew was there, but never gave much attention unless I needed to renew my driver’s license or wanted to early vote.
In addition to being part of downtown’s most long-standing hub of civic activity, it’s also its most vertical, with the city’s two tallest buildings. Former sibling homes to the failed banking empire of the Butcher brothers, the now First Tennessee Plaza and Riverview Towers (aka the BB&T Building) represent a large chunk of downtown’s office space. Snagging a new job in one of them meant that my daily commute would be the very walkable length of Gay Street from Jackson toward the river. Then there was a pang of realizing that I was going to need my car at work for various reasons and would have to drive. Still, a nine-block commute beats most I’ve had, though it is a little strange spending as much time in garages and on elevators as I do in a car to get to work.
While much of downtown thrives at happy hour and beyond, most of the river-end of Gay still rolls up the sidewalks in the evening. Of the roughly dozen restaurants around the 800 and 900 blocks, most still cater primarily to the lunch crowd of office and government workers, keeping banker’s hours Monday through Friday. A sprinkling of others—two notable ones being the exclusive Club LeConte and downtown stronghold Bistro at the Bijou—are exceptions. But for the most part, when the banks and the courts close, it gets real quiet on the business end of Gay. With the relocation of the bus transfer point from the City County Building to the new Transit Center, there are even fewer souls on the south end than in recent years. It’s quite a contrast to the area just on the other side of Clinch Avenue where restaurants serve into the evening while visitors stroll, patrons huddle at sidewalk tables, and dogs take their people for walks.
Then there’s that other curious yin and yang I’ve noticed. Gay Street is not just different end to end. There’s a pretty big difference from one side to the other as well. It’s particularly apparent on very busy nights like First Fridays. On an evening amble up Gay from the 100 Block you’ll find life all along the way until you reach the high rises near the river—so long as you’re on the east side. On crowded nights, that side can be so packed that it can be hard to navigate on foot. But across the street, you’ll see just a fraction of that deluge. That’s because on the west side of Gay, you can count on one hand the pockets of life scattered along its length in the evening.
After a show at the Bijou, if you don’t cross the street, you’ll stroll past downtown’s ugliest (and overpriced) parking lot for a block along Gay’s western sidewalk. And while you’ll see restaurants, entertainment venues, and people taking in the evening at outdoor tables across the street, on the west side of downtown’s most lively thoroughfare, you won’t pass another open business until you reach Downtown Wine and Spirits nearly four blocks away. Beyond that, you’ll pass by nothing but more darkened storefronts until you reach Nama on the 100 Block. The west side of Gay is nearly devoid of life from end to end once the evening sets in. During the day you can bank, take in the History Center, pay your utility bill, buy a banjo, gawk at the wonder that is Yee-Haw’s front window, and then bank some more along on the western side of the street. But once the taller end of Gay Street goes dormant, so largely does of half of its sidewalk.
Whether Gay Street’s glass is half empty or half full is a matter of perspective. But it is lop-sided. It’s something worth remembering if you’re trying to make your way down a packed sidewalk some evening. Just make like a chicken and get to the other side if you’re in a hurry. But as with roads, the fastest route is seldom the most interesting.