Central Street is Knoxville’s defining axis. All addresses in the county from here to Farragut are numbered from it. Few blocks suggest its role as the spine of a metropolitan county of more than 400,000 people. It seems altogether too easy to cross on foot.
At its source, downtown, Central was once East Tennessee’s most densely populated street, but also its most notorious, with a concentration of saloons, whorehouses, pool halls, cocaine bars. A century ago, Central’s urban chaos sometimes shocked big-city reformers.
But parts of North Central that are hardly a 15-minute walk up from its old “Bowery” section can seem almost country, even today, especially in the summer, when foliage conceals evidence of any rumored city.
North Central once seemed undeniably central, lined with stores and factories and neighborhoods, for a long while even a movie theater, and then Knoxville’s first-ever big suburban department store. But then the interstate forsook North Central, giving city folks a much faster way to get to Powell; and enormous Brookside Mills, which had energized and populated several blocks of North Central for decades, closed. Even Sears jilted Central in the end.
For decades, Knoxville almost forgot that North Central was still there, slanting carelessly away from the perpendicular grids suggested by Broadway’s main thoroughfare. The lack of attention made North Central handy to various sorts of vice, the street favored by streetwalkers. You can’t blame them, because it’s an interesting street to walk.
One of the 21st century’s surprises has been its unexpected kindness to North Central, as the dying cluster of beer joints once known as Happy Holler re-emerged as a lively concentration of alternativity, a particular combination of attractions unlike any in the world: motorcycle tea room, eccentric nightclub, tai chi center, Catholic church, gay bar, ice-cream stand. Just up the hill, the city’s most idealistic grocery, not too far from Knoxville’s most extravagant bakery and the city’s only rare-books shop.
Farther out, though, in other hollers just beyond, it’s still old Central. It’s still easy to spot indifferently kept old buildings and parking lots that seem too big for the job. Parts look like a thoroughfare in a small country town that’s never quite died, but hasn’t been very ambitious to get out of bed since about 1948. But here and there are exceptions, where Central is still doing business, as if waiting for the interstate fad to finally run its course. It’s still got Rankin Restaurant, the home-cooking establishment that’s now maybe the city’s oldest eatery; and the one and only Star Sales, North Central’s no-frills off-brand alternative to big-box stores. It’s one of Knoxville’s most practical streets, with auto-repairs shops and parts suppliers and thrift stores, and some pretty and nicely maintained churches.
Still, it’s an easy street to walk, and to cross, on foot. And scenes of North Central can make some of us wish we were handy with a camera.