There has been, for as long as I’ve lived downtown, a certain rift between those who see downtown one way, and those who see it another. Not so long ago, a lot of people had written off Market Square and Gay Street as some sort of obsolete and abandoned no man’s land. Some renounced the area as a useless place, not worth the time or money. They avoided it.
Others saw downtown as somewhere they wanted to be. They wanted to make it their home, or at the very least, a decent place to enjoy. And in doing so they made it their own. After all, it didn’t seem anybody else wanted it. And whether they opted to become full time expats or just regular habitués, they became our downtowners.
Not many downtowners do the whole “live, work, and play” trifecta. Some live here, many work here, but nearly all spend leisure time here on a regular basis. On weeknights when most suburbanites do whatever it is most suburbanites do on weeknights, you’ll find downtowners out and about enjoying the city’s nightlife and one another’s company, relishing and supporting a place they love, and appreciating what it has become.
It is mostly on weekends that the district gets its migrant visitors from the ’burbs, who often seem to view downtown as sort of an urban amusement park where they go for parades, to catch a concert, or to attend some festive event. They crowd in on the weekends, complain about parking and, funnily enough, the wait for a table.
During most of its recent renaissance, downtown suffered the scorn of those suburbanites. A lot of them were perfectly willing to see our remarkable old buildings torn down and to see the city’s tax dollars diverted away from its historic core. They have often shown open contempt for loft-dwellers and those who enjoy an urban lifestyle, and that condescension is still alive. Check the online comments section for any News Sentinel story about someone trying to accomplish something downtown and you’re still likely to find a lot of derision directed toward those who want to see it thrive. Outsiders belittle our successes. And if an endeavor falters, they’re the first to giddily say, “I told you so.”
Yet they come here in increasing numbers. And nowadays downtowners find themselves, often reluctantly, sharing their treasure with the same people who, only a short time back, would have been happy to see the entire area bulldozed. Investment in downtown was a waste of money—until downtown’s hosting a legendary performer they want to see at one of our cultural venues or offering a family event that appeals to them. On a packed night at a shoulder-to-shoulder downtown watering hole, it’s not uncommon to hear a visitor say, “This is why I hate it down here,” or, “I don’t know why anybody would want to live here,” all the while crowding out downtown’s denizens from the very places those outsiders have been so quick to denounce. We hear you.
With all of the vitriol, it’s no wonder that when the crowds swell, some downtowners see interlopers among the congregation. On packed nights it’s not uncommon to hear a downtowner jokingly ask, “Who the hell are all of these people and what are they doing in my bar?” Or as I recently heard, “Why don’t they go see a movie at the cinema we got for them, get their sack of candy from Mast, and get the hell out of my downtown?”
Granted, downtown has been touted as Everybody’s Neighborhood, even in this column. But it doesn’t often seem that outsiders give it the same respect they do their suburban cul-de-sacs. People who might carefully avoid letting their dog soil a neighbor’s yard will bring it along to leave a steaming pile on a downtown sidewalk. And polite gentlefolk who will smile and yield to the next-door neighbor leaving their driveway will cut off a pedestrian in a crosswalk. Many who make an occasional trip downtown don’t give it the consideration they would their “real” neighborhood. Yet there’s rarely any indication that they see themselves as guests in a place they decry as being filled with hipsters, vagrants, and other undesirables.
There’s nothing really new about the perspective on either side. Aesop’s tale of the city mouse and the country mouse may be more than 2,000 years older than Knoxville. Yet if he were here today, he’d easily recognize the schism I see between our own downtown mice and their suburban counterparts. They’re two perspectives that rarely mesh well. The thing is, a lot more of those outlying mice are finding they like the downtown cheese just fine. Too bad for both, sometimes, that it’s not available to go.