The Public Image

The news can make you feel old. Last week’s paper ran big headlines about the reborn Tourism and Sport’s Corp.’s exciting new name, the Knoxville Convention and Visitors Bureau. It seemed a pretty good idea; as much as we all love sports, that word just seemed odd to throw the whole concept off balance. As if we’d called it Knoxville Tourism and Nachos Corp. And also, maybe it’s just me, but Corp. always sounded, forgive me for saying so, rather corporate. The new name may fix all that. But it’s not new. For the first several years I wrote this column, they were called the Convention and Visitors Bureau. The new name’s the old name. I think I can remember the excitement elicited the last time it was announced as the new name.

And for the last several weeks we’ve read stories about the introduction of pedicabs, these bicycle-powered rickshaws, to Knoxville. They’re fun and unusual, and I hope they work out. But they’re not new, either. As I’m sure you remember, 30 years ago this summer, they were everywhere downtown. There was a World’s Fair on, and young men were pumping the vehicles, toting their usually meatier passengers up downtown streets. I found I could walk a good deal faster, especially going up the hill from Henley on Clinch and Church, but slowed down just to make them feel better. There had been talk then of making them permanent, but the word I heard then was that Knoxville was just too hilly to make pedicabs practical.

There are more flat-route attractions these days, and maybe glutes work better than they used to.

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If you haven’t lately, have a look at the Kern Building, at 1 Market Square. Its developers have done an admirable job of rehabbing the front of one of the most historically interesting buildings in town. They’ve taken pains to restore the textured translucent glass squares you see in late 19th-century buildings.

It looks more like a 19th century building than any building has since the 19th century.

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Scotty Mayfield startled some East Tennesseans when he made a TV commercial about his running for Congress. His 3rd District is the long, skinny stretch that includes Chattanooga, and Anderson County, and now, suddenly, part of West Knox. Scotty Mayfield has been the friendly face of East Tennessee’s best-known dairy for years, touting his favorite ice cream for the kids. He’s our Mr. Rogers, our Captain Kangaroo.

Then suddenly here he is again, the same friendly guy in the same bow tie, saying, “I’ll fight the Obama-Pelosi liberals.”

I don’t know whether he notices it so much in McMinn County, but not all Tennesseans are so intent on fighting the Obama-Pelosi liberals. In fact, if Mayfield’s customer base is anything like the state of Tennessee in 2008, about 42 percent of people who buy Mayfield ice cream may well be Obama-Pelosi liberals, themselves.

You have to admire the sincerity of his animosity. A successful politician can afford to alienate 42 percent. If a politician has at least 51 percent, he’s just fine; he can ignore the big minority, and has no need to be polite. It’s not as clear that a successful dairyman can do the same. If by saying he wants to “fight” liberals, does Mayfield still want those liberals to buy Mayfield milk and ice cream? Should he carry his fight to the freezer section?

It’s an interesting question. But as it happens, Mayfield himself may not need to care much about Mayfield’s profits. He’s the familiar face of his great-granddaddy’s old company, but back in 1990, before he became its titular president, the Mayfield family sold their dairy business to a Texas-based corporation called Dean Foods.

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The West family of Preservation Pub and Earth to Old City has been promoting T-shirts, knit caps, underpants, bumper stickers, and coozies emblazoned with the challenge, “Keep Knoxville Scruffy.”

It’s rubbed some folks the wrong way. One prominent reader has complained to me about it, and at least one tourist-oriented gift shop has declined to carry them.

There are not many adjectives that belong more to Knoxville than to any other city in the world, but “scruffy” is one.

The Wall Street Journal’s dismissive assessment from 1980 is not one of the worst 20 things ever published about Knoxville. If you read it in context, of course, it was never meant as any sort of endearing compliment. And it’s hard to blame the writer, Susan Harrigan. What was there to like about Knoxville in 1980? Downtown seemed to have transformed decidedly into a second-rate office park, 1890s buildings covered with 1960s modernist siding, then boarded up with 1970s plywood. The riverfront was a muddy bank, the Old City didn’t exist as such, and Market Square, its 1960 modernist concrete going gray, aspired to be a TVA lunch plaza. The rest of public Knoxville looked like a big interstate exit, stubbornly, almost proudly ordinary.

Some who remember Knoxville in 1980 is perplexed by this celebration of a deserved insult, but if you look around, I think we’ve taken our inherent scruffiness and begun to do something interesting with it.

Granted, Knoxville can seem less scruffy today, but you can still see it around the edges. It may get better, but like chicken pox, it’ll always be there under the surface. I think we can live with it.

Scruffy’s not all bad. A lot of great Americans were pretty scruffy: Lincoln, Whitman, Hemingway, Guthrie, Einstein, Twain. Scruffy means you’re complex and distracted beyond the pale of ordinary daily hygiene.

And owning up to our scruff clues people off that we know what we look like. It might be worse if visitors had the impression that we thought we were Barcelona or Dubai or Nashville or somewhere. It’s better not to hide it, let folks know about it up front.

“Keep Knoxville Scruffy” is a way to say, “We know, we know. But we’re okay with it.”

© 2012 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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