Death and Life: Recalling the Roots of Downtown Knoxville’s Revival

If one had to name a single work that transformed the way architects and planners look at the cities for which they design, it would be Jane Jacobs’ first book, published in 1961, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In it, Jacobs—a journalist with no professional training in the building arts—took on urban restoration before the terms gentrification or authenticity became popular. She formulated strategies by which ordinary citizens could approach important urban issues, including diversity, safety, traffic, pollution, economic sustainability, physical growth, rehabilitation and livability. She provided a roadmap by which we could negotiate the physical, cultural, and economic maze that we call our city.

Downtown Knoxville is referred to, mostly by politicians and planners, as “everyone’s neighborhood,” a concept Jacobs invented and applied. The term alludes to the fact that the district is frequented by many people who don’t live there, but visit for a variety of purposes. Its concentration of public and private offices, banks, restaurants, bars, cultural and entertainment venues, shops, and parks—and their accessibility without having to drive from one to another—make it convenient, efficient, and fun for the 22,000 workers using it daily. The 2,100 residents living in its midst keep the district alive after the businesses close, defining the difference between the city center and the suburbs, where movement of motorized vehicles along high-speed roads and between parking lots tends to segregate commercial and residential uses.

By implying shared ownership, the term justifies the public subsidy of its economic development. Big cities have always had the dilemma of how to fund services it provides to those who do not live within its boundaries. Why, a business person might ask, should I support schools when my children don’t use them? One answer is that cities have a multiplying effect on the regional economy. Downtown workers not only create wealth, but distribute it where they work as well as where they live.

Has public investment actually improved things in downtown Knoxville? Economic development had already begun several municipal administrations ago, when the city center was sleepy but still active and interesting. The Tennessee Theatre, saved from demolition, was home to old movies and an occasional live music or theatrical performance. The Bijou had a busy concert schedule in spite of its leaky roof and inadequate mechanical system. The stately old churches were all busy on Wednesdays and Sundays. Miller’s department store, occupying its distinctive mid-20th-century building, was doing fair business, and Watson’s on Market Square remained a favorite of bargain-seeking clothing shoppers. There were a few popular, good restaurants: Regas and Harold’s Deli at the north end of Gay Street, Line’s Cafe in the old Sprankle Building, and the Lunchbox in its original box configuration next to the post office on Main. The west side of World’s Fair Park was beginning to grow as a cultural center even before the Museum of Art found its new home there. The Candy Factory was truly everyone’s community center, attracting individuals and groups from the multi-county metropolitan area, and the 11th Street Coffee House, located in one of the Victorian Houses, was a haven for young poets and musicians.

New development began before public subsidies became commonplace. Residents started to move into refurbished spaces on North Gay and in the Old City, along with some new restaurants and music venues. Lawson McGhee Library and the East Tennessee Historical Society were strong cultural magnets, and Krutch Park in the mid-1980s provided a needed oasis for hot summer days. Revitalization of the streets and storefronts was given a boost when the arcades—concrete on Market Square and steel on Gay Street—were demolished, opening the sidewalks once again to light and air.

Several recent projects have successfully transformed their micro-neighborhoods: Market Square continues to thrive and grow; the reborn Riviera movie house has proven a stimulus to what is now called the theater district, where symphony, opera and dramatic performances share the refurbished stages of the Tennessee and Bijou with lighter fare. The new central bus station is an example of how one might develop air rights over the stretch of highway that snakes alongside the city skyline.

In 2004, near the end of her life, Jane Jacobs published her last book, ominously titled Dark Age Ahead, where she offered stern warnings about straying from responsible stewardship of the environment. Though largely apolitical, her life was marked by direct action. In 1958 she joined the movement to save New York’s Washington Square from the invasive construction of a multilane road, a project described with pride in Death and Life. It’s not without irony that the movement to save Toronto from the building of a highway through its downtown is detailed in Dark Age. The outcome lead to her conclusion that “if you don’t build it, they won’t come,” that when you close roads traffic tends to simply disappear. Bookends to a remarkable career, the two campaigns epitomize this feisty woman for whom revolution meant a thoughtful but deliberate wielding of both pen and sword. One still feels her presence in the no-man’s-land of James White Parkway as it dead-ends (for now, at least) in the woods of South Knoxville. m

Michael Kaplan is Professor of Architecture Emeritus at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Winner of the American Institute of Architects Education Honors Award in 1991, he continues to lecture and write on cultural aspects of architecture and design.

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