By Any Other Name: Reimagining Our Awkward Public Space

 

Even when it was new, the Country Music Park was always kind of an awkward thing, a half-acre triangle with its stylized treble clef, made of Fiberglas that began cracking apart before it was 10 years old. It was removed five years ago. Many didn’t like that sculpture, some didn’t like the list of honorees, and nobody much liked the location, a little park on what then seemed the wrong side of Summit Hill Drive. It appeared to attract mainly the homeless who couldn’t get along with the other homeless. Now, an unrelated abstract steel sculpture called “Envious Composure” stands, perhaps temporarily, in its place. 

Since the park’s establishment in 1986, the neighborhood has changed radically—a thousand more residents within shouting distance of it—and people have naturally started wondering if it could ever be something more. Recent First Friday drum circles there are likely the liveliest use the park has ever seen, and may suggest future uses we hadn’t considered. 

Last Thursday at the Emporium, the Community Design Center convened a charrette, a public venting of ideas for a prospective new version of the park. The budget is prospective. The city has earmarked $150,000 for park improvements, perhaps with more to come, and there’s talk of a goal of raising $1 million. For now, they’re just looking for good ideas. 

Leslie Fawaz, architect and design director for the CDC, led the discussion. The 50-odd citizens it drew included several new-urbanist sans-culottes and outside-the-box sorts, like architect Mark Heinz of Dewhirst Properties and Preston Farabow, the metal sculptor of Ironwood Studios—as well as some of the old guard, including retired businessman/philanthropist Bud Albers and Hal Ernest, who half a century ago was Knoxville’s first PR director. The elders spoke strongly in favor of keeping the original intent of the park, established during the administration of Kyle Testerman, to honor our country-music heritage. Albers, in particular, has an interesting idea, building a permanent public stage, in homage to the WNOX stage that entertained crowds every day at the Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round half a block away, ca. 1936-54. 

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Maybe that would be great, assuming folks could hear what was going on onstage, despite whatever traffic was passing on Summit Hill. But country music, as usually defined, is a complicated subject for honors on this particular corner. 

Give or take an occasional Charlie Pride, country’s almost entirely white. That simple fact might seem less scratchy in most other parts of town. But the longest edge of Country Music Park is along the old route of Vine Street, which was for a century the cultural spine of black Knoxville. Howard Armstrong (1909-2003) used to recall playing his music, which was a transcendent blend of jazz, blues, country, and vaudeville pop, in pawn shops and barber shops up and down Vine in the 1920s and early ’30s. One of his best-known early string-jazz recordings, with the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, is labeled “Vine Street Drag” (or “Rag”). In recent years, other bands around the country have covered it. The Vine Street he remembered is defunct. 

That’s one aspect that has evolved since the park was originally planned: Our country heroes are still famous, but several of Knoxville’s blues and jazz musicians have come to the fore nationally, thanks partly to rediscovered and preserved recordings. Since 1985, Armstrong alone has become the subject of two nationally televised documentaries and a popular annual festival. Ida Cox, the jazz legend who did most of her latter-day singing in a church choir about three blocks from the park, died in 1967, but seems better known today than she was when this park was established. Leola Manning, the 1930s chanteuse, was forgotten in 1986, but has experienced a mini-revival, thanks to digital technology. 

The patch does have some gravity as Country Music Park. Chet Atkins stood right here, on a sunny afternoon in 1998, for a plaque dedication. The most famous and influential musicians who ever lived in Knoxville were mostly country musicians—or people we now call country musicians, in retrospect. It was rarely called “country music” during the period of Knoxville’s greatest influence. The term became more popular in the 1950s and ’60s, just when Knoxville was losing its grip on it. And country music as Nashville knows it today, despite the obligatory electric fiddles, bears little resemblance to the up-tempo acoustic music folks like Roy Acuff played here. 

Honoring popular music on this site seems better than any other idea I’ve heard, but maybe we don’t need to limit it to a phrase. 

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Summit Hill Drive is an awkward thing, too. It’s the park’s biggest problem, and one of downtown’s. Much of the response to the prospect of reimagining a park consisted of complaints about downtown’s divided highway. Designed 40 years ago, Summit Hill Drive, built on the footprint of dozens of demolished buildings, was touted as a boulevard to link City Hall with TVA’s modern new headquarters—thence to breed no shortage of wonders, a 500-resident apartment building, a shopping mall, an underground parking garage. 

None of that ever happened. In fact, City Hall evacuated that headquarters just five years later. A few years after that, TVA downsized its headquarters staff by two thirds. But Summit Hill’s still there, and can seem mainly a pointlessly dangerous impediment between downtown and the rest of downtown. 

In the ‘70s, foot-crossing traffic was of little concern. The marooned 100 block of Gay, which was mostly empty or emptying in the ’70s, is now the highest-density residential block in metro Knoxville. Pedestrians have been killed and injured at that intersection in recent years. 

Without a forceful solution, there are more to come. 

Some attendees suggested rerouting it, but without scrapping the entire highway, it’s difficult to imagine how restoring a street grid would work without either giving Summit Hill Drive two right-angle turns—or making a major artery of what little remains of Vine Avenue, over the hill. One proposed burying it. That might be possible in another city. 

Some brought up narrowing the street, a “road diet.” It’s the most conservative option discussed, and by far the likeliest one.

In any case, the park redevelopment presents an opportunity to talk about it all.

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