Maybe there were reasons to finish James White Parkway. If the Tennessee Department of Transportation says Chapman Highway has safety issues, I can’t argue much. But I’ve never been sure of beltway math. Decreasing car accidents on one route would mean increasing car accidents in a stretch that’s now just unpaved quiet woodland. Somebody said a long time ago that battling traffic by building more roads is like battling obesity by buying a longer belt. I wish I’d said that first.
However, finish James White Parkway, and at least all the millions spent taking it partway there would seem justified, and maybe the millions of tons of concrete mess on the east side of downtown would start to make more sense. They’ve been working on James White Parkway for, if my watch is right, about 43 years now. It would seem wasteful and pointless not to finish it. It looks funny on Google Maps, this highway that zooms off the interstate, takes up hundreds of acres of the eastern side of downtown, flows across a big bridge, just to stop dead at Moody Avenue.
But justifying it that way is kind of backward logic, isn’t it?
Don’t finish it, and we’re left with the reality that all that concrete and asphalt between downtown and the South Knoxville Bridge is sort of pointless. It’s obviously intended for people from Sevier County to get to the interstate free of the Knoxville temptation. If we’re not going to build JWP, though, can we please dismantle most of what was intended to lead to it?
The region between the Old City and the South Knoxville Bridge, in particular, is an absurdly confusing tangle of blind curves and puzzling exits. It’s a high-speed chute that looks like it was built for giant ball bearings in a really dumb pinball machine. If you happen to be one of those ball bearings, as I am much more than I care to be, you can’t tell where you are or where you’re going. It’s obvious that the people who designed it think you don’t need to know all that. To highway engineers, we’re all high-speed peons to be chuted this way or that.
I drive it maybe half a dozen times a year, only when I’m obliged to, and it’s not enough to be absolutely confident about where it’s leading me. When I drive in from the south, heading toward downtown, I find out what it’s like, for a moment, to be lost in space.
Helpful friends advise, without irony, that the trick to using James White Parkway is to get off it as soon as possible. If you’re headed downtown, flee the thing while you can, just as soon as you cross the river, even though you know you’re nowhere even sort of close to downtown yet. That first exit says “Hill Ave./Hall of Fame Dr./Neyland Dr.” Even as you take that exit, you may know, intellectually, that you’re not near any of those streets. And it exits to the east, away from where your gut tells you they probably are.
Take those destinations one by one. You may know Hill Avenue is a long and perplexing road. Part of it’s a narrow, tree-shaded, historic street that’s been there for 220 years, and does indeed go along the side of its namesake hill by the river, east to west. But it’s also a divided highway, almost a mile east of downtown, hardly any Hill in sight—and, breaking the “avenue” rule, too, observed strictly downtown, it goes north and south. It should be called something else. When that sign’s flying at you at 50 mph, do you know what it means to go toward “Hill Ave.”? I don’t. (Is “Hall of Fame” any clearer?)
So, confused, you prudently skip that exit. For a full mile, you’re progressively more confident you made the right choice. You see downtown, and get closer and closer to it. Ah, downtown. Comprehensible, civilized downtown. It’s right there, so close you can almost holler at your friends. But you can’t get off. You’re a boomerang, and now you’re headed east, toward Cherry Street.
We know what’s good for you, James White Parkway seems to say. You’re not the downtown sort at all. You’re not even a Knoxville kind of guy. You’re on the way to the highway, pal, and the sooner we get you the hell out of here, the better.
More times than I’d care to admit, I’ve ended up in deep East Knoxville, with a few more miles on my odometer than I would have expected.
Worse, JWP, as it exists on the north side of the river, is lots of acreage of asphalt that doesn’t begin to justify its waste by the modest amount of traffic that passes over it.
That whole stretch has baffled me for most of my life now. “We’ll understand it better by and by,” I’ve always said, like in the old hymn. Traffic engineers, like God, move in mysterious ways. Finish James White Parkway, and maybe, after 43 years of puzzlement, we’ll all say, “Oh, wow! I get it now!”
But we’re not going to finish it. So let’s dynamite it all away and start over. I’d propose we lay out a downtown-style street grid—perhaps a lot like the one James White himself did. Fill all that public land with private residences and stores and churches, linked together with lanes and boulevards and greenways.
There’s millions, heck, billions of dollars’ worth of prime property there. And a broad creek that hasn’t seen sunlight in almost half a century. First Creek, once known as White’s Creek, was the defining principle for the city of Knoxville, the reason James White built his fort and mill and home here on this place, and started a town. And back in 1970, in obeisance to the future glory of James White Parkway, we buried it. Since then we like to pretend First Creek doesn’t exist at all.
The highway department could sell all that potentially urban real estate and use the money to build another highway. Somewhere else, preferably.