There is a well accepted, almost universal, perspective of urban living as more fast-paced than that of the suburbs and countryside. It’s an idea ingrained in our society—a given. People talk about the hustle-bustle of the city, about the rat race. And in some respects that rings true, particularly in bigger cities. But there’s another side, especially in downtown Knoxville, that belies that notion. I see it every day. There’s an argument to be made that the denizens of the city may very well enjoy a slower lifestyle than our suburban counterparts.
To get a feel for it on any given day, one need look no further than Gay Street. While downtown patrons leisurely window shop, stroll the sidewalk, and sip coffees and cocktails, drivers hellbent on getting through downtown as quickly as possible clutch their steering wheels, frustrated that traffic on Gay doesn’t move the way they’re accustomed to. With the Henley Bridge closure, there are more of them than ever. It’s not just the traffic lights and pedestrians that hamper them, but their fellow drivers who have the temerity to wait for traffic to clear before making a left turn, or worse, dare to impede the flow by parallel parking. It’s not downtowners who are blowing their horns, cursing, and delivering obscene gestures. And people who live here aren’t the ones hurrying to get back to the land of drive-thru windows, curbside pick-up and a myriad of other on-the-go conveniences that speak more to a world in a hurry than to enjoying a sense of place and community.
For those living outside of the city, everything is a bit more spread out, and getting there almost always means driving. A stop at the gas station, a stop at the dry cleaner, and a stop at the grocery means a lot of getting from here to there, and a lot of hurrying around. Downtown has its rush hours. But it’s mostly people rushing to get somewhere else. People who live and work here just don’t seem to be in such a hurry. Part of that, I think, is because we’re already home. Even if you’re blocks from your abode on foot or bicycle, you still have a sense of being home. And when you can go days without ever traveling over 25 miles an hour, I somehow I just don’t buy that we’re the ones who are fast-paced.
You don’t have to live here to feel the difference. Once people arrive downtown and lock their cars up, be it for a day of shopping, an afternoon enjoying a festival, or a night of dinner and a movie, they seem to slow down, too. Or at least they should. I’ve heard plenty of folks hastening companions to “Hurry up! The show starts in a half hour!” when they don’t seem to realize that they’re five minutes away from their seats. Because of the scale of our downtown, once you’re here, you’re pretty much everywhere that here is. And there’s not so much need to worry about rushing to get somewhere else here, since you’re already practically there.
Maybe we’re just ahead of the trend. Since the Slow Food movement that began in Europe in the ’80s, the idea of Slow has, well, slowly been gaining ground. Wikipedia lists no fewer than a dozen Slow initiatives under its “Slow Movement” entry. Among those is the notion of the Slow City. The lead organization for the effort is the Cittaslow (Slow City) movement, founded in Italy. And the influences of the Slow City movement have a familiar ring to those who have followed downtown’s revitalization.
The following is a quote from the Cittaslow Manifesto: “We are looking for towns brought to life by people who make time to enjoy a quality of life. Towns blessed with quality public spaces, theatres, shops, cafes, inns, historic buildings and unspoiled landscapes. Towns where traditional craft skills are in daily use, and where the slow, beneficial succession of the seasons is reflected in the availability of local produce, in season. Towns where healthy eating, healthy living and enjoying life are central to the community.”
A lot of those ideas echo the vision urban pioneers have brought to downtown and our center city neighborhoods over the past couple of decades. And in more ways than one, they reflect the progressive values that influenced the election of Mayor Rogero as mayor of Knoxville. Downtown’s pace may be an indicator that the city overall is slowing down a bit, and in a good way. When people roll off the interstate into the downtown grid and walk into an independent retailer, browse the farmers market, or take time to sip a craft-brewed beer at a sidewalk table, they can put aside, at least for a while, the inherent urgency of suburbia.