Like a lot of people, I keep a calendar. There are the standard birthdays, holidays, appointments, and reminders that you might expect to find on anyone’s calendar—places I need to be and things I need to do. But the majority of entries are actually things I have no intention of participating in, despite the fact that I’m probably going to be there.
As downtown’s popularity has grown, so has the number of festivals, fund-raisers, parades, and other so-called “special events” hosted by the city. And they all have various effects on the neighborhood. A few months ago, Gay Street was closed down from Friday afternoon until Sunday to accommodate the Dogwood Arts Festival parade, the Rossini Festival, and some other thing I can’t even remember now that most likely involved people racing, running, dashing, walking, or otherwise ambulating closed streets. Dozens of such events happen every year. We haven’t had a traipse yet. But I won’t be surprised if we do.
Over time, I’ve learned to plan my life around things that I don’t plan to attend. I probably know more routes to get in and out of downtown—or even from one end to the other—than most. I study the courses for the runs and walks, trying to guess what time various roads or intersections are going to be blocked, and then cross-reference that with the regularly scheduled shutdowns for things like the Farmer’s Market and Vol football games to plot the logistics of when and how to make my weekly trip to the supermarket.
While the sun may have finally set on Sundown in the City, Market Square still regularly draws thousands to other various events, the effect of which can sometimes be hard to predict. With the Henley Bridge closure, and the subsequent onslaught of traffic shifting to Gay Street, it’s not unusual to see our main thoroughfare suddenly turn bumper-to-bumper from Summit Hill to the river with kids peering out windows and drivers unfamiliar with downtown desperately searching for a place to park for a function on the Square. Sometimes I’ll see the same faces looking a bit more distraught, creeping back in the opposite direction 10 minutes later, still trying to get to a place they could have already been if they weren’t trying to park so close to it.
I also keep track of any number of concerts and other shows happening at downtown theaters and other venues on that calendar. A sold-out show at the Tennessee Theatre means it’s going to be hard to get a table at a restaurant. If the Bijou and Civic Auditorium also happen to be sold out that same night, it may be impossible until curtain time. And, oh yeah, it’s First Friday. It’s right there on the calendar.
For the majority of Knoxvillians, downtown isn’t a place where they live or work. It’s a leisure venue to visit. And for them, these various functions, performances, and celebrations are what downtown is. Attending these organized affairs is what defines the experience and the destination. For someone who remembers when no one came here, the perpetual events have taken some getting used to. I keep telling myself that it’s a good thing that downtown is now somewhere people actually want to go. But it also sometimes seems that the more it becomes a destination, the less it seems to be a place of its own.
I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy some of the many events our neighborhood presents. I do. But there’s an old saying about too much of a good thing. And certainly not everything that gets planned, promoted, and hosted here is my cup of tea. The best nights downtown for me aren’t the ones that dominate my calendar. They are the ones when the regular cast of characters aren’t obscured by a horde of extras and when downtown can simply be downtown, with a life and a pulse of its own. And that’s the place I’d like more of our city and visitors to get to know. It’s more than a backdrop or a setting for something bigger. It’s more than parades and concerts and fireworks and funnel cakes.
The city has spent the past several years promoting downtown by hosting special events to get people to come here. It’s hard to estimate just how many of the people who now make up the regular downtown community were first introduced to it by coming here to attend a public concert or festival and are now regular patrons of our restaurants and businesses. Those special events helped give the center city a life of its own. But now that it has one, it seems like it’s constantly being interrupted to accommodate events, and it’s not that special anymore.