Knoxville’s Urban Legends

A crazy-high crime rate, a Vol-based economy, shipped-in homeless, and more restaurants per capita than any place else: debunked!

An urban legend is “a modern story of obscure origin and with little or no supporting evidence that spreads spontaneously in varying forms,” according to the dictionary. Most cities have myths and tall tales that circulate and become accepted as fact—and Knoxville certainly has its own set of “truths” that people repeat and share among each other. But how factual are they? We investigate four of Knoxville’s most common urban legends.

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MYTH: Other cities and counties send their homeless to Knoxville.

FACT: Dr. Roger Nooe, a professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee’s School of Social Work, has studied homelessness and mental illness for more than 30 years and contributes to the city’s biennial homeless survey. Do homeless people come to Knoxville from elsewhere? Yes, he says—but more often of their own volition than by another city, county, or agency encouraging them to come. And they usually come from somewhere in Tennessee.

“Somewhere between 50 and 60 percent of [homeless] folks in Knox County have grown up in Tennessee,” Nooe says.

There is some credence to the myth, as reported in a 2010 News Sentinel article, which quoted Sheriff J.J. Jones saying Knox County would no longer be picking up homeless people driven from other counties and dropped off at the county line. Jones said in that article that he was unaware the practice had been going on, but that it would not continue.

Blount County Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Marian O’Briant said that Blount County had driven people to Knox County to be picked up by Knox County deputies in the past, but only under “extreme circumstances,” when they had nowhere else to go.

Somewhere between 50 and 60 percent of [homeless] folks in Knox County have grown up in Tennessee.

—Dr. Roger Nooe, professor emeritus at UT School of Social Work

“I don’t know when J.J. ended that practice, but now our chaplains have taken over that role” of driving homeless people to Knoxville homeless shelters, she said.

Cynthia Russell, vice president of FrontLine at Knox Area Rescue Ministries, said in that same article that she was unaware of homeless people coming to KARM from other counties very frequently.

The idea that cities such as Dallas, Phoenix, Chattanooga, and other places pick up homeless people and either drive them to the Knox County line or give them bus tickets to the city is not a new or unique rumor, Nooe says.

“I’ve heard that same story in different places,” he says. “Probably that happens in cases. But it’s exaggerated. I think it’s a really small number [of people]. Even back in biblical times, people would go to the walled cities.”

Nooe says several years ago, he heard about a homeless person who was dropped off on the side of the road to make his own way to a Knoxville shelter, and was killed while trying to get there. He suggests perhaps that’s where the myth of people being dropped off at the county line came from. He says it’s also likely someone heard that story or met someone from another city who’d gotten a bus ticket here from an out-of-town agency, and it grew into a tall tale.

And people are likely sent to Knoxville because they’ll claim to have friends or family with whom they can live when they get here. “Someone’s going to come up with a bus ticket,” Nooe says, if that’s the case. “That works both in and out.”

The 2012 Homelessness Survey conducted by the City of Knoxville and Knox County (which Nooe contributed to) interviewed 236 homeless people. Of that sample, 57 percent were from Tennessee. The next highest percentage of newcomers were from Ohio (5 percent).

But usually, people come to Knoxville for the old-fashioned reasons, Nooe says, just like anyone else.

“People think there are jobs and housing [in the city],” he says.

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MYTH: Knoxville has more restaurants per capita than any other city in the country.

FACT: The 2010 census data would suggest otherwise.

According to those statistics, Knox County has a population of about 432,226 people and 819 food services and drinking places. That means there are almost two such establishments for every 1,000 people. Chattanooga has very similar statistics (two restaurants for every 1,000 people in Hamilton County). For more perspective, Lexington, Ky., Birmingham, Ala., and Akron, Ohio, and their surrounding counties each have about two restaurants for every 1,000 people.

Meanwhile, New York County, which encompasses only Manhattan, has about six restaurants for every 1,000 people, and San Francisco County has about four restaurants for every 1,000 people, according to the data provided by the census. Los Angeles County, perhaps surprisingly, has only two food establishments per 1,000 people.

Tracking down the origin of this supposed bragging right is difficult. The most likely possibility we could find was a Metro Pulse cover story on Knoxville’s rankings in national lists. In our Aug. 20, 1998, issue, we reported that Knoxville was ranked high among U.S. cities in per capita restaurant sales by Restaurant Business’ annual restaurant growth index: #18 out of 320 American markets. (Our spending habits have been in decline since then—the Knoxville market was #46 in 2010 and #69 in 2012.) Again, that’s for per capita restaurant sales. Over the years, this humble factoid may have morphed into the “most restaurants per capita” myth that we enjoy sharing to this day.

[They] have a tremendous amount of bars and restaurants concentrated in a single area.

—Steve Morse, economist and associate professor, UT’s Department of Retail, Hospitality and Tourism

Steve Morse, an economist and associate professor in UT’s Department of Retail, Hospitality, and Tourism, says he heard the same thing about Columbia, S.C., and Athens, Ga., when he lived in those cities. What do they have in common with Knoxville? “They’re all big college towns,” Morse says.

“[They] have a tremendous amount of bars and restaurants concentrated in a single area,” he says, like the Strip and downtown.

Justin Cazana, a principal and broker for the commercial real-estate company Cushman and Wakefield, told WBIR in October that Knoxville has one of the highest number of restaurants per capita in the country, but says he isn’t sure where the idea came from. “That statistic has been around for years,” he says. Cazana also says Knoxville is used as a test area for restaurants, though he couldn’t pinpoint that, either. The only restaurants he mentions that were tested in Knoxville were Ruby Tuesday offshoots Marlin and Ray’s and Wok Hay. Morse says the same—Ruby Tuesday is the only restaurant company he knows that has tested other establishments here.

The unique aspect about Knoxville’s restaurants to Morse, though, is the variety, most likely due to the number of professionals who come from other cities to work at the university, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and other businesses around town.

“Knoxville is not a typical Southern town,” Morse says. “It’s not just a barbecue town. Knoxville has a wide variety of things. That stands out more than the number of places.”

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MYTH: Knoxville’s economy depends on the Vols.

FACT: “That’s a stretch,” says Bill Fox, an economics professor at UT and director of the Center for Business and Economic Research. “Just under 3,000 jobs exist in the Knoxville economy depend on UT [sports.] The rest are jobs created in the private sector.”

In fact, Fox conducted an economic impact study in 2004 on the UT athletic department, which showed that only 255 jobs were filled by athletic department employees. (Today that number is about 319, according to Fox.) That means more than 2,600 of the jobs created in Knoxville by the athletic department are created outside the university, such as in restaurants, stores, and hotels. Fox gives the example that if new head football coach Butch Jones needs new clothes and goes to Belk to buy them, there has to be an employee to sell the clothing.

“Cuonzo Martin goes to Calhoun’s and there has to be wait staff,” Fox adds. “Fans come to town and stay in hotels.”

Those 3,000 jobs are only about 1 percent of all the jobs in the Knoxville economy.

Ultimately, though, those 3,000 jobs are only about 1 percent of all the jobs in the Knoxville economy, Fox says, and there are several job hubs that contribute to the economy, like ORNL or TVA.

Fox says that UT sports may seem like the end-all be-all to some businesses—particularly those along the Strip, for example—but, he says, “If you talk to an accounting firm or a construction firm ... they’re probably going to give you a different answer.”

The myth that the entire economy depends on the Vols’ wins and losses in a season probably started with a few businesses who do tend to depend on their record.

However, change “UT sports” to simply “the University of Tennessee,” and you get a different answer.

“Thousands of people work for UT,” Fox says. “If you pulled UT out, there would be a dramatically different outcome.”

In fact, Fox says UT is the single biggest creator of jobs in Knoxville’s economy. Not only do thousands of people work for the university, but also because businesses recruit recent UT graduates who’d like to stay in town after completing their schooling.

“There are businesses that have been started because people stay here after college,” Fox adds.

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MYTH: Knoxville has a higher-than-average crime rate.

FACT: Last fall, a discussion on the Knox Blab online community forum linked to websites cityrating.com and spotcrime.com that showed Knoxville has a strangely high crime rate compared to the state and national averages. The areavibes.com website even went so far as to claim Knoxville had a violent crime rate 114 percent higher than the state’s average. It’s been a topic of discussion on other online forums like topix.com, city-data.com, and bestplaces.net as well.

But according to 2011 statistics collected by the FBI, the Knoxville metropolitan statistical area (which includes Anderson, Blount, Loudon, and Union counties in addition to Knox county) has a population of 704,327, and the violent crime rate is 460 per 100,000 people. The Memphis and Nashville areas both have populations topping one million, and their violent crime rates are 980 per 100,000 people and 650 per 100,000 people respectively.

Akron, Ohio, has a similar population size to Knoxville (703,715, according to FBI data) and has a lower violent crime rate (324 per 100,000 people). Nearby, the FBI counts 475,361 people in the Lexington, Ky., reporting area, which has a violent crime rate of 380 per 100,000 people.

Ken Gilbert, the head of the Department of Statistics, Operations and Management Science at UT, says the disparity among the different sources could be due to the use of different data sets and different definitions of violent crime.

It could be they’re using different operational definitions of what constitutes a crime.

—Ken Gilbert, head of the Department of Statistics, Operations, and Management Science at UT

“It could be they’re using different operational definitions of what constitutes a crime. In one instance, it may be that they’re counting each crime that’s reported, and the other they’re not defining it as a crime until they’ve investigated it,” he says, giving the example of drug crimes. “It’s not really clear what constitutes a drug-related crime. If there’s an economic incentive to make a crime either drug-related or not drug-related, that could create a natural bias in the way the numbers are reported.”

But Gilbert also points out that even if a population and all other factors stay the same from year to year, the rate of crime can easily change.

“There’s also inherent variation. Even if nothing changes, the rate of crime will vary from year to year, and sometimes random events, random variations get interpreted as having some significance that it really doesn’t have,” Gilbert says.

The bottom line is the crime rate here fluctuates, but isn’t necessarily the highest in the state or significantly different from other cities of similar size. And sources can manipulate numbers however they want.

“There have been entire books written—I think there’s a book called How to Lie With Statistics. Statistics can be misinterpreted,” Gilbert says.

© 2013 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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