Letter: Free-Ranging City Officials

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602 S. Gay Street
2nd Floor
Knoxville, TN 37902

Once again, Jack Neely explains how historical knowledge gives perspective, something so necessary to good decision-making, and why it is important to question periodically our personal bubbles of existence [“The City-County Container,” Secret History, May 1, 2014].

Jack implies that Knoxville’s Golden Age ended about the same time City Hall moved from Market Square into the newly vacated Tennessee School for the Deaf building on Summit Hill. If direct daily contact with the thrum and throb at the heart of a city is vital to its success, how do we encourage more interaction? A city government cut off from the city at large is like a gated community; it becomes its own prison and discourages both civic engagement and civic responsibility. Workers become not unlike so-called free-range chickens that, having spent so much time in the cage, rarely venture far when the gate is open.

I am dispirited every time I have to go to the City-County Building. My irritation begins when I cross Cumberland and walk through the federal courthouse with its sterile expanse of iron-barred perfectly manicured lawn. This and the City-County lawn would make perfect little city parks, and, yet, due to some irrational fear of terrorists or homeless people, they are dead spaces, apparently off-putting to even birds and squirrels.

If Mohammed (city government) won’t come to the mountain (the downtown working community), perhaps the mountain should come to Mohammed. The way to do that is by zoning for diversity (see The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs). Gray zones like the south end of downtown exist because primary use has pushed out diversity. Banks and courthouses dominate four corners of the major intersection, Gay and Main. Four blocks of Main, on both sides, contain only banks, courthouses, the City-County Building, post office, and a church. As Jack says, the Bistro is the only draw of pedestrian diversity in daytime.

The loss of short city blocks (to accommodate the sprawl of the federal courthouse complex on one side and the City-County complex on the other) facilitates single-use monotony. As evidenced by Jacobs’ diagrams, short blocks encourage more feasible spots for commerce due to the increased routes available for citizens.

So. We’re never going to recover those cross-walks, and there isn’t much real estate left to rezone, but a good starting place (Secret History redux) might be to reclaim the surface parking that covers, except for Pryor-Brown, the entire city block between Church and Cumberland. Build a parking garage on the Walnut end and small, multi-use buildings fronting on Gay. Okay, the reality is we’re never going to reclaim a surface parking lot even though it would mean increased tax revenue and vitalization and beautification of a gray zone.

Another idea—why not turn the bottom floor of the post office into retail space: specialty boutiques, snack/magazine kiosks, coffee/sandwich shop, art gallery. This would augment any retail slated for the ground floor of the Medical Arts building. Also, why not a Leadership Knoxville in reverse, introduce government to its business leaders, have them spend time getting to know the people and enterprises that make their jobs possible. A recommended reading list should include Jane Jacobs’ book and Neely’s Knoxville history volumes. The ones who periodically travel outside their bubble, not just to Market Square but to other cities, might be inspired; the ones who are content in their container might at least become curious.

Judy Loest

Knoxville

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