In the third installment of our series on Knoxville neighborhoods, photographer Shawn Poynter walks the streets of Fort Sanders to create a wide-ranging portrait of this colorful and storied community. Previous installments examined North Central and Vestal.
Without Fort Sanders, Knoxville would be less of a city. It’s East Tennessee’s most densely populated neighborhood. With more people per acre than anywhere else, it’s provably our most popular place to live. That shouldn’t be surprising. From there, you can get to anywhere downtown, or anywhere on the University of Tennessee campus, in a few minutes, without the bother and expense of an automobile. Neyland Stadium, the Tennessee Theatre, the Knoxville Museum of Art, the Clarence Brown, Market Square, the Regal Riviera cinema, Volunteer Landing, that soul-food place in Mechanicsville, and a few dozen good bars: for people in Fort Sanders, they’re all backyard amenities, an easy stroll away.
To other Knoxvillians, it’s a place to dread, to warn the children about. Maybe Fort Sanders does have more break-ins, more muggings, more murders than most neighborhoods. Of course it does. It has more of everything. It also has more birthdays, more barbecues, more rock’n’roll-band rehearsals, more cornhole tournaments, more klezmer shows. It hosts more stray cats and cockroaches than most neighborhoods, but also more athletes, more sculptors, more scientists, more lovers, more geniuses. It has inspired more writers than any ordinary American neighborhood can pretend to, from James Agee, and A Death in the Family, to Lowell Cunningham, and Men in Black. It was the longtime home of Tennessee’s greatest impressionist painter, Catherine Wiley, and the East Tennessee birthplace of punk rock. Cormac McCarthy walked here, Tennessee Williams drank here, and every time she comes home to be in a play, Dale Dickey rests here, after her performances down the hill. This old ridge where, in 1863, scores of men died in 20 minutes, the subject of Victorian-era lithographs published nationally, remains a collection of scenes: movie scenes, crime scenes, literary scenes.
Somehow, Fort Sanders contains multitudes: our student ghetto, the campus of a couple of famous of hospitals, a few unusual restaurants, a huge Masonic hall, the unique Laurel Theater, the Ronald McDonald House, Christ Chapel, Knoxville’s only mosque, UT’s law school, and the world’s most comprehensive effort to assemble the papers of Andrew Jackson. It has slums, lovely gardens, alleys, Dumpsters, and some of Knoxville’s most elaborately renovated historic homes.
We can hardly describe Fort Sanders honestly except in contrasting scenes, to suggest something about a whole you can’t describe in a paragraph or two.
There’s a wonderful old story not told nearly often enough, called “Br’er Rabbit and the Briar Patch,” about a place forbidding to outsiders but blissful to those who know it well. Fort Sanders is our Briar Patch.