I walk miles around downtown every week, at lunchtime, late at night, listening to random conversations. I hope you don’t mind. I’ve been hearing mainly the same conversation for a couple of years now.
“Isn’t this great? I can’t believe it! Five [or substitute 10, or 20] years ago, there was nothing on this block.” Then there follows some exaggeration to underscore the point. “You could fire a shotgun down the street and not hit anybody.” “They rolled up the sidewalks at 5.” “It was a ghost town.” “You feared for your life.”
Deep down, of course, you may know it was never really quite that bad. I’ve known downtown intimately ever since I worked the graveyard shift at the daily paper’s copy desk during the Carter administration. Name any year in the last 35, and I can tell you something fun and interesting going on in downtown Knoxville: the deli counter at Blaufeld’s, the beer in milk glasses at the Farragut Cafe, a late-night reggae show at the Buttonwood, rockabilly at the Hang-Up, hot jazz at Annie’s, cool jazz at the Milestone, Saturday mornings at Harold’s (of course), pool upstairs at Comer’s, the jukebox at the Tavernette, the encyclopedic selection at Tucker’s Records, the Snake Snatch, the Printer’s Mark, the Rendezvous, the summers when the Tennessee showed old movies almost every night. They were all fun in their own way in spite of, or maybe even because of, the popular suburban rumor that downtown was dead.
But exaggerations always boost a good story, and I’ll agree downtown at night and on weekends is livelier today than it has been in 40 years. Moreover, it probably looks better today than it has since the days when we were hanging Kaiser Wilhelm in effigy on Gay Street. All these sidewalk urban-design pundits do have a point.
Downtown’s revival has made a very good start. We’ve made some strides that I once doubted we’d ever get around to. A modern movie theater, a good bookstore, an upscale wine store. Even an old-fashioned department store: A decade ago, I would have bet money that Watson’s was the very last in that line. Never mind a daily live-audience radio show. I would have said that was just silly talk.
Downtown still lacks some basics. It needs a pharmacy, an electronics store, a jeweler, a hardware store, a home-appliance dealer, some basic clothing and shoe stores. (As downtown-centric as I am as a consumer, I have to admit that most of the practical clothes and shoes I wear come from chain stores out west.) It still needs a simple all-night diner; that seems to be a tough code to crack. Without those things, downtown can seem a little precious, superficial, like an Epcot recreation of an American downtown, a daily tableaux presented to charm the affluent.
Even when we add all that, downtown, and maybe Knoxville itself, will need something a little more difficult to come by, less tangible.
Every day, downtown’s oft-described blight, which makes our modern commentary so dramatic, slips farther and farther into the past. And every day our tales of a transformative era is just slightly less amazing. Soon, I’m warning you, we’re going to need something else to talk about. The “Isn’t this wonderful?” conversation is going to wear out. And to be honest, I sometimes miss the less-predictable kind of conversations we had when downtown was an irredeemable dump. We used to come downtown and have conversations that weren’t about how cool downtown was.
Around 75 years ago, despite some aesthetic challenges, downtown Knoxville had a lot going on, in terms of movies and shopping and dining, but it was also important to the world for other reasons. In those days, downtown Knoxville drew global leaders in politics and thought. Le Corbusier, Ben-Gurion, Nehru, Sartre, they all checked into downtown Knoxville hotels, on different nights. They didn’t come to Knoxville because it was charming. Mostly they were interested in TVA, which from its downtown headquarters was making bold and globally relevant suggestions about land management and energy production. Meanwhile, just around the corner, Roy Acuff’s band was experimenting with new instruments like the dobro, and Chet Atkins was making sounds never before heard on a guitar, along with others creating a modern art form. And a walk down the street, inventors Weston Fulton and George Dempster, folks you were likely to run into at the S&W, were making industrial innovations that would change Americans’ lives in subtle but critical ways for decades to come. And just barely across the tracks, White Lily was producing a flour so fine that big-city chefs with foreign accents were demanding it.
What’s happening in downtown Knoxville of 2012 that’s comparable? A few unusual downtown firms, like Yee Haw and WDVX and AC Entertainment, do sometimes play on a national field. But does downtown today have anything on a scale or significance comparable to that much-smaller city’s downtown?
In history, no city’s judged just by how amused and trendy and well-fed its citizens are. If people of the future are at all interested in learning about the Knoxville of 2012, well, it probably won’t be for the tonnage of margaritas quaffed on our sidewalks, or the length of the ticket lines to see any given barf comedy. If Knoxville of 2012 is remembered in the future, it’ll be for the work we’re doing here. Maybe it’ll be a transformative art form, whether musical, cinematic, or culinary; or maybe Knoxville will finally earn the green-energy-capital status we’ve been touting since before the World’s Fair.
A city needs a sense of moment. Not just people sitting at sidewalk cafe tables. For folks who remember downtown in the ’70s and ’80s, when there was no such thing, that may have seemed novel enough, up to now. But what we need now is something to talk about at those cafe tables. And a reason to believe that maybe what those folks are talking about at those cafe tables is something we’ll hear about later.