The surface of the road is so new it melts the soles of my flip-flops when I walk across it. Road equipment growls and clangs, and the air is filled with the smell of tar.
Two residents of Po’ridge stand in their respective yards watching the carnage. Sixth Avenue, the main thoroughfare in Po’ridge, has been tied up with road construction projects since February. One man calls out something friendly about how nice it will be to have a smooth road after all this.
“Yeah,” the other replies agreeably, but I know for a fact he doesn’t own a car.
Po’ridge, short for “Poor Ridge,” is a skinny neighborhood extending north and south along North 6th Avenue, bound by Hall of Fame Drive to the west, and riding hard against the industrial dead zone of the Standard Knitting Mill to the east.
“I came up with the name Po’ridge,” says Jen Rock, a musician currently living in Johnson City. “It was when I was living in Po’ridge and I was unemployed.”
The name Po’ridge is a riff on nearby Parkridge, but indicates a neighborhood less wealthy, more disadvantaged, and all-around scruffier. And if you feel your neighborhood is scruffier than Parkridge, well, that’s saying something.
“It’s not Fourth and Gill, and it’s not Parkridge. It’s just this super low-status area,” says Rock.
At the heart of the neighborhood stands a handful of attractive brick and clapboard houses. One resident of six months reveals that he pays $300 a month for half a duplex that includes a bedroom, living room, kitchen, and laundry room.
Though peeling and grimy, the exteriors have escaped any unfortunate updating with soulless, poor-quality materials. Architectural high points include a brick duplex with unique arched entryways, and a rambling old house that has been home to several Knoxville musicians over the years, encircled by a homemade dirt-bike track. Po’ridge has an electrical substation, an underpass, a cell-phone tower, and wide grassy areas behind chain-link fences—right of ways left by the large road projects of the 20th and 21st centuries. Po’ridge also boasts a Baptist church and a bridge over First Creek, flanked by dinosaur graffiti.
A few years ago when Rock and William Johnson, aka Will Fist, were performing together as William and Jennifer, they wrote a song about their neighborhood. Lyrics acknowledge some “drinkin’ and druggin’” in Po’ridge.
“Po’ridge. It’s a revolving door of insanity,” Fist says.
Though they don’t seem exactly resentful, there is a sense among residents that their neighborhood has been slighted by those in power.
“I was giving [my friend] a ride on the first really nice day of spring,” says Maggie Brannon, resident of Po’ridge. She describes that day in North Knoxville—people out enjoying the weather, frolicking with their golden retrievers.
“Then we turn onto our street. There’s jackhammers going and the air is filled with dust. I kind of think all this would have gotten done sooner in another neighborhood.
“Now excuse me,” she adds, “I’m going to go rock out.”
Local bands Big Bad Oven and Daddy Don’t are playing a house show in Po’ridge that night. Standing in the yard, we can hear drums and cymbals crashing away in a back room. The street lights of Hall of Fame and Interstate 40 blaze from behind a chain-link fence. All the trees and houses to the west have been leveled to make way for these road projects. One thing you can say about Po’ridge: It has a big sky. Someone takes out her cell phone and sweeps it in an arc above her head. The screen tells us the star near the moon is actually the planet Venus, and a smaller star we can barely see is really Jupiter. The cell-phone tower looms directly overhead.
Po’ridge is a transitional fossil of a neighborhood. Maybe it’s a slice of Fourth and Gill that was isolated by I-40, or the leftovers of another, separate neighborhood, now mostly obliterated. Though the conditions that created it are not far in the past, Po’ridge is now a distinct neighborhood, with a smudgy, bleary-eyed flavor all its own. It’s an island caught between a stream of traffic and a stagnant pool of dead industry. The people who live there, for all their diversity, share at least one characteristic: They’re poor.