I haven’t seen the figures lately. But I’m pretty confident that the number of people who are choosing to make downtown their home is continuing to grow. That’s interesting to me, especially since I know so many old friends and former neighbors who have now moved away. Downtown’s loss has been the gain for several of our near-in neighborhoods like Park Ridge and Fourth and Gill. But overall, the downtown population still appears to be on the upswing. More are coming than going.
One recent indication of that comes from a friend of mine—a former Knoxvillian who is now returning as a part-time resident and who chose to set up home downtown—who had to wait for an apartment to open up. Not quite a decade ago there was something of a boom as moving trucks practically lined up to fill the newly created lofts and spaces that have been key to downtown’s transformation. But housing availability isn’t what it used to be. We may still have a remaining stock of luxury condos that have sat empty while the country has been frozen in recession, but rental apartments seem to fill up as soon as the paint is dry.
While I often hear stereotypical descriptions of downtown dwellers, like most stereotypes, they tend to be misguided, oversimplified, and occasionally derogatory. I won’t claim the center city to be a model of diversity, but there is something of a spectrum. And as more affordable housing comes onto the market, I think we’re going to see that broaden. Still, I can observe some trends. There are, of course, university students with an appetite for the energy of the city, and transplants from other urban areas who are seeking the familiar. In the early years, your typical downtowner tended to fall into one of two categories, either the old guard of middle-aged empty-nest bohemians, or young singles. Over time, the face of downtown has changed as some of those singles paired up, married, and had children. And while once I could have counted the number of kids living downtown on my fingers, the school bus stop on the corner tells me that’s changed. It’s no longer unusual to see cribs and tricycles roll off U-Hauls alongside ottomans and flat-screen televisions as families set up residence here. While it seems like most of our small-fry downtowners are almost still wet behind the ears, I’m seeing more teens among the population. No longer is the neighborhood growing by influx—some downtowners are being raised here for the first time in recent memory.
One group that’s a little difficult to gauge is probably our oldest demographic of denizens. I don’t know that we’ve got any fewer, but as a percentage of the population, street people are a greater minority than when I first moved here. With the relocation of the Volunteer Ministry Center, there’s been a noticeable decrease in the ever-changing procession of homeless who used to spend their days downtown. But I still see many familiar characters who don’t really fit the description who get naively labeled as “homeless” by visitors. Several who have been here for years either live in Summit Towers or nearby low-income neighborhoods and favor spending time occupying our public spaces. Many are colorful. But homeless they are not.
Some people have moved here looking for a change. But probably almost as common are those for whom change found them. When relationships fall apart and people split up, half of those involved need to find a new place to live. And a lot of them seem to be finding it downtown. Some are people whom I’ve known for years who, either because of a divorce or the demise of a longtime relationship, have ended up as my neighbors. An inside joke among some in my building dubs it “the heartbreak hotel.” When your world gets turned upside down and you find yourself beginning a new chapter, sometimes it’s best to change the setting as well. And consequently, the downtown community has a healthy share of those reconfiguring their lives in a new environment.
Downtown still doesn’t reflect the diversity of the city overall very well. On one hand, in terms or racial or ethnic variety, it’s a little homogeneous. And that’s something I hope will change. Hosting festivals that celebrate a culture isn’t the same as attracting those cultures. But on the other hand, I’m happy to live in a neighborhood that doesn’t seem to lure the bigotry and intolerance that are all too commonplace in this region. As the residential options broaden, I hope we’ll likewise broaden the diversity of the community here, yet sustain the values that have attracted and built the neighborhood a growing number of us already call home.