Turning the Corner: Is Knoxville Finally Learning How to Try?

Knoxville has always had a hard time with the concept.

We began running our Best of Knoxville poll 19 years ago, but we weren’t the first paper to try something like it. A daily paper ran a popular Best poll, back in the ’80s. Reading the results was unsettling. Best pizza? Pizza Hut! Best hamburger? McDonald’s, of course! It seemed a collective cry for help.

The answers were sincere. The subtext, the conclusion a demographer might draw, was that Knoxvillians would just as soon live anywhere else. The city, if you could call it that, was an agreeable accumulation of chain attractions, with interstate access and pretty-good TV reception.

In the city I grew up in, the motto was “That’ll do.” Anybody who tried to achieve something that stood out for its quality or individuality, whether it was a building or a plate of food, was just putting on airs and spoiling the curve for everybody else. Knoxville was, by definition, a plenty comfortable enough place to sit and wait for Glory. Whenever anybody said Knoxville wasn’t every bit as good as some other place, some got mad, but never offered a very coherent argument.

Talk about urban design, or preservation, or public transit, or a park proposal, and you’d get a bemused look from someone who wasn’t quite sure whether to take you seriously.

“Hey, come on,” people said. “It’s just Knoxville.” The K-word was a running joke, pronounced ironically always, and useful as a signifier to let folks know that, in our extensive travels, we were familiar with much better places.

That’s been changing in the last decade or two, if not fast enough for me. But it’s still there, under the surface, an attitude especially popular among folks who don’t get out much.

***

And you have to admit, the idea of striving for something, not excellence necessarily, but just distinction, takes a while for people to get used to. It wasn’t long ago that Knoxville was a place for offices and bedrooms and nursing homes and churches, but it went without saying, among Knoxville’s affluent, that life was lived elsewhere. No point in doing anything remarkable here. Nobody here would appreciate it.

Knoxville buildings were, almost by definition, cheap and unimaginative, shabby short-term structures with big blank parking lots. Food, even Indian and Thai and Mexican food, was blander than in other cities. Cakes and biscuits came from mixes. Fashions in the mall shops hailed from a presidential administration or two ago. Parks were rare, and museums existed only in theory. Festivals were unfestive. Sometimes we had parades, but floats looked like they were designed the night before, by drunk third-graders. Schools were always short of textbooks. Performing-arts centers? Music festivals? Foundations?

Are you serious? Come on. It’s just Knoxville.

The reasons for doing stuff on the cheap always made perfect sense. Why, we want to send our kids to that famous Northeastern college. Or we’re buying a chalet in Denver, or a beach house. Or we like to spend our summers in Europe or Charleston or Cape Cod.

To the successful, Knoxville, with its low taxes and minimal regulations, was a more useful place to make money than a place to spend it. I don’t know whether this axiom applies more to Knoxville than to other cities, but it seems to me that, here at least, the more people make, and keep, the higher percentage of their money leaves town.

For developers, Knoxville was always a cheap date. They argued property rights, had their way with us, then ran away, with the money they saved, to a real place.

And there’s a corollary point. I won’t offer a list right now, but you know who you are: Many Knoxvillians who argue most vociferously against preservation in Knoxville prefer to spend their free time and money in places with lots of historic buildings and higher standards for architecture and stricter rules concerning preservation. Sometimes they end up investing in those places, even moving there, with the money they saved during their time in Knoxville. The implication is that Knoxville, lacking any potential for excellence, is not worth the same trouble that these other, appealing places are.

You’d think that, with extraordinarily low taxes and relatively few regulations, our private developers could have been doing remarkable things here. You’d think Knoxville might be a conservative City on the Hill where the American entrepreneurial dream takes flight in a way that’s much more impressive than in other cities with much higher taxes and much stricter rules about development. Freed of the government obligations and constrictions in other cities, maybe Knoxville developers would build a national advertisement for conservative principles, with individualistic or even unique designs for corporate headquarters, with major foundations solving our problems, making America better.

With a couple of encouraging exceptions, mostly recent ones, I can’t tell that it’s worked out that way.

***

Anyway. Back to our original conundrum, about Knoxville’s habitual failure to strive. If it’s still an affliction, it doesn’t have nearly the hold it did 25 years ago. It’s a different era; it almost seems as if Knoxville turned with the century. Though it’s not always obvious outside of downtown, the word Knoxville’s starting to mean something positive, almost as an aspiration.

The place is catching the attention of magazine writers and touring musicians and sometimes even food critics, What’s happened here? I’m often asked, by well-traveled folks, connoisseurs of cities who assume it’s either a sweeping government-driven urban plan, or a major philanthropic bequest along the Chattanooga model, or the vigorous work of a local corporation. Though there have been fragments of all those things, Knoxville’s turnaround is unusual in America, a result of a lot of bright, energetic people doing the right things at the same time.

On Market Square last Tuesday night, watching the jazz show, world-class by any standard, and the enthusiastic and diverse crowd, I enjoyed this new picture of my home town and hoped it was real.

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Comments » 8

andiez1267#210485 writes:

I moved here from Dallas in June of 1992 at the age of 25. I could not believe how boring this was & it was a college town for Pete's sake! I have loved watching this town grow & grow into an amazing place. It's been like watching a child grow up. I am so proud of this city. The best part? If you look closely you will see just how "UN-homogenized" this place is. I am fortunate enough to live close to downtown & take advantage of this fact. Once,when I needed help from AAA (car svc) I told the driver that I was at the Fellini Kroger & he knew just where I was. I LOVED that!

joetom69 writes:

Remember UT history class about Knoxville taught by Dr. Wheeler? He said Knoxville money stayed in the family, and the locals were reluctant to invest in new business. Said it went back generations to pride in the land so they didn't share the wealth. Aren't most of the new developments funded by Nashvillians or Chattanoogans?

SmallTownGuy writes:

I am a contrarian by nature, but I will have to completely disagree with the intent of Mr. Neely's article.

We had it good in Knoxville when I was growing up.

"Live music" meant the Civic Auditorium or maybe an oldies act at the Fair. "Local talent" and "barroom fight" were virtually interchangeable, and I remember the commotion when the Jacksons had their concert at Neyland Stadium.

"Fine dining" and "West Knoxville" were interchangeable; for the rest of us Sunday dinner at Woodruff's was fine. Outside of Louis' on Old Broadway, ethnic food was almost unheard of. "Italian", "spaghetti" and "pizza" were interchangeable, and Chinese meant the Peking Inn on Bearden Hill.

You might be considered slightly pretentious if you shopped at Kroger's instead of the White Store or A&P or maybe Piggly Wiggly.

Import car meant a Toyota from Sam Monday on Clinton Highway.

All in all, the Knoxville I grew up in was the biggest small town in America, and that was a Good Thing. I have had people tell me 'Knoxville doesn't need to be a giant Lake City', but to be fair we never had gang violence or tragedies like the Christian/Newsom horror when I lived in Knoxville, either.

It appears to me that the boosters have either intentionally or inadvertently transformed my home town into a miniture Atlanta. I still think what I thought when all this stuff started; if people want all this fancy stuff, Atlanta has plenty of room for them.

I will agree insofar as Mr. Neely's assertion that things changed around the turn of the century, but I cordially suggest that Knoxville in 1983 was a MUCH better place to live in than Knoxville of 2013 is for exactly the same reasons Mr. Neely advances for the idea that 21st Century Knoxville is a 'better' place. And we're worse for it.

kimtrent writes:

Amen!

Reader2 writes:

@Small Town Guy

I am not quite sure what your comment is meant to tell us.

Do you think it would be better if Knoxville did not have authentic ethnic food that goes beyond Louis/Peking Inn; if Knoxville lacked a variety of live music events such as the jazz night; or if Knoxville grocery stores were confined to Kroger etc.? If so I would like to know your reasoning for that.

Or do you think that the revival of downtown and the growing intent to make Knoxville a more livable place (consider the bus system) with more options for dining, events and grocery shopping has led to a higher rate of bad crimes? (That seems suggested by your comment, but I do not see any reason for this idea, so maybe I misunderstood you.)

Or do you simply resent all change because, well, it's change?

SmallTownGuy writes:

Not saying it would be better. It WAS better. The unintended second order effect of boosterism and population growth is crime. More people: more opportunity for crime.

I am reminded of a story. Man was shooting in his back yard and his neighbor (transplant)
came over to complain about the noise. Called the sheriff and they had a diverting talk about guns. Transplant was furious. Point is, as Southerners we take things as they are, not as we wish they were.

I find the inclination to remake Knoxville into a quasi-Atlanta peculiar. If big cities were so great, you'd think people would stay there instead of remarking small towns into miniature big cities.

SmallTownGuy writes:

in response to Reader2:

@Small Town Guy

I am not quite sure what your comment is meant to tell us.

Do you think it would be better if Knoxville did not have authentic ethnic food that goes beyond Louis/Peking Inn; if Knoxville lacked a variety of live music events such as the jazz night; or if Knoxville grocery stores were confined to Kroger etc.? If so I would like to know your reasoning for that.

Or do you think that the revival of downtown and the growing intent to make Knoxville a more livable place (consider the bus system) with more options for dining, events and grocery shopping has led to a higher rate of bad crimes? (That seems suggested by your comment, but I do not see any reason for this idea, so maybe I misunderstood you.)

Or do you simply resent all change because, well, it's change?

Revised and extended now that I am back in front of a computer:

Regarding ethnic food and live music: We got along just fine for decades without any appreciable amount of either. Roy Acuff's Town and Country Restaurant and Woodruff's were plenty good enough. Why fix what isn't broken?

As to downtown, people would have stayed if they had wanted to. As it happened, they moved away and I always resented my tax money being used to entice people into doing what they didn't want to do. Downtown is where you work at, not where you live at. That's what Halls and Fountain City were for.

shredne writes:

I think it says a lot when "Arts/Media/Design" heading, on the Knoxville Craigslist, is mostly for tattoo artists!

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