It’s begun. We’ve already gotten past Big Ears, Rhythm & Blooms, and the Rossini Festival. But what some have called the “festival season” has really only just started. It may not be obvious to everyone. But if you live downtown it’s been impossible to ignore. Between now and the first day of summer, the city’s calendar lists nearly 50 special events. Downtown’s Central Business Improvement District will play host to the vast majority of those.
For those of us who live here, it’s a good time to keep an eye on that event calendar. Planning and timing trips to avoid road closures and making alternative plans for parking can alleviate a lot of the hassles. But I’m not sure whether it’s downtown’s residents, or visitors, who are more likely to experience the most stress over the coming months. Those of us who live here, in what is arguably Knoxville’s most visited neighborhood, more or less surrender to the idea that it is going to be repeatedly inundated with attendees to various runs, walks, festivals, and concerts. But for some of those event attendees, it means leaving the familiar and venturing into foreign territory, and the anxiety that comes with that.
I’ll admit to being jaded. I’ve lived downtown now longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in my life. Nearly all of the things that make it comfortably familiar to me are the same things that make it so alien to those who are more accustomed to suburban life. It’s not exactly a metropolis (as a former neighbor of mine used to say: “Welcome to downtown Knoxville! Don’t let the tall buildings fool you.”), it still has the characteristics of an urban center. And it can still foster stress in those unfamiliar with its ways.
When event visitors enter downtown by car, as most of them do, the environment changes from broad sweeping intersections and cloverleafs that were built from scratch to accommodate swift and efficient movement of motor vehicle traffic, to an older grid that was never intended for that purpose. Many streets are one-way. And unlike most of the region, drivers are likely to encounter bicyclists sharing the road, pedestrians trying to cross the street, and other forms of traffic that are the norm here. It can be nerve-racking to drive in if you’re not used to it.
The best way to overcome that stress is to park and join in. But that in and of itself triggers another round of anxiety. I’d recommend that anyone coming here for a special event or festival plan for more than one contingency when it comes to stashing your car. Even if you’re accustomed to parking here, there’s a chance that your preferred location may be inaccessible or already full during special events (I’m looking at you, Market Square Garage). But that doesn’t mean that downtown has a parking problem. It only means that you have a parking problem. Unless, of course, you follow my advice and have a backup plan. Trust me, the sooner you get out of the car and are strolling to your destination, the happier you’ll be. The further you move away from the focus of the event, the more parking you’ll find. But for those who thrive on stress, I recommend attempting parallel parking as close as possible to your destination.
What downtown lacks in familiarity, it makes up for in other ways. While you won’t find any Olive Gardens or McDonald’s, you will find a cornucopia of locally-owned dining alternatives. And while some of these may be a little above the price point of most of the familiar chains that dominate the metro area, I invite you to add up the price of the corn dogs, curly fries, and funnel cakes from festival vendors, and you’ll find that many of our unique, homegrown eateries are an extraordinary value. Besides, you’re going to need a bathroom eventually, and downtown restaurateurs tend to be much more accommodating if you’re a patron.
Downtown didn’t used to be quite such a complicated place. When I moved here, you could generally zip down Gay Street without a hitch. And there were way more places to park than reasons to. I laugh when I look back and think about begging people to “get out and show your support for downtown” by attending an upstart event that was being called Sundown in the City. But nowadays we’re past that. If anything, that now-defunct series proved that people did actually want to come downtown—all that was needed was a reason. And for a time, it was events like Sundown that provided that.
For some, it’s been our festivals and special events that have reintroduced Knoxvillians to their downtown. As a venue, it may have its tribulations. But if the crowds are any indication, negotiating downtown’s hurdles is worth it.