Walk around downtown and you’ll see a broad spectrum of humanity. There are the families out spending time together shopping or taking in a show, professionals and office workers heading to and from work, and various restaurant workers in uniforms. There are what I call “the lanyard people” because they’re here attending some sort of conference or convention and are easily spotted by their ID badges and matching canvas bags. Then there is the mishmash of homeless, panhandlers, and other street people. Some denizens live downtown, some are from the area, and some of them clearly ain’t from around here. And that diverse cast of characters is what makes downtown different.
I won’t say that suburban neighborhoods are monolithic. It’s not like everyone who lives in a particular area can be expected to be exactly the same. But a lot of neighborhoods do tend to generally reflect the common economics or values of the people who inhabit them. Downtown, however, isn’t like that. Day-to-day life on the streets is a blend of a lot of different people from a lot of different backgrounds doing a lot of different things. So many, in fact, that for every type, there is almost certainly another type to offend, frighten, or annoy them.
I was reminded of this recently when a friend of mine posted a complaint on KnoxBlab, probably Knoxville’s oldest online Internet forum, that he had been approached by a vendor on Market Square offering The Amplifier, the recently founded street newspaper that focuses on concerns of the homeless. The project was started by Redeeming Hope Ministries to “give voice and economic opportunity to those living beyond the margins of our community and to address the social issues that affect them.” My friend said he found that encounter to be “annoying.” He asked, “How is this anything but an end-run around the anti-panhandling statutes?” In attempt to get me to agree, he even brought up a column I had written a few years ago wherein I suggested not giving money to panhandlers. I didn’t agree.
In my experience, panhandlers can be broken down into two groups. Those who simply ask for money, and those who give you a reason they’re asking, and then ask for money. In either case, they’re not usually offering me anything in return except maybe an elaborate story. On the other hand, I can’t count the number of people trying to sell me something. On any given trip to a supermarket, I may encounter Girl Scouts selling cookies, Boy Scouts selling popcorn, or Shriners selling, well, newspapers, of all things. Is that an end-run around panhandling? What about the numerous people I encounter every Christmas season noisily ringing bells in front of red kettles? Those bells can get annoying, I suppose. Somehow, my friend can distinguish the good annoying people from the bad annoying people. And he’d rather not have the bad ones hanging around public spaces pestering him while exercising that whole freedom-of-the-press thing. Maybe something should be done about that.
But why stop there? Those families with their kids orbiting around them that take up an inordinate amount of sidewalk space when I’m trying to get somewhere? Annoying. Lanyard people taking up all the barstools? Very, very annoying. When it comes right down to it, downtown is full of annoying people. Aside from our city’s parks, downtown probably represents the largest contiguous public space in Knoxville. Our sidewalks, courthouse lawns, and our crown jewel, Market Square, are free and open to everyone. That’s not to say that anyone should ever put up with being harassed, followed, or threatened in any way. But being around people who you may not necessarily want to invite over to dinner is part of it. And people hawking newspapers in urban areas have been around since there have been newspapers.
When I was a kid, there was a guy on Cumberland Avenue named Bobby who sold newspapers. He had a speech impediment, and I remember him mostly from game days yelling out something akin to “Lineup! Lineup!” while standing on the sidewalk holding a stack of papers. He was one of those people who, because of his disability, made me a little uncomfortable as a kid. But he was also a part of the fabric of the city and I would look for him every time we were in the area.
There are more people on the sidewalks of Gay Street these days than there have been in decades. But downtown has never been, and hopefully will never become, a sanitized environment that’s scrubbed clean of every element that might challenge sensibilities or offend. On any given day I expect to see a social gamut. These are the people in my neighborhood. And those who want to see it sanitized for their comfort? I find them annoying.
Corrected: Name of newspaper vendor, Bobby.