citybeat (2006-21)

Saving Face

Façade improvement program aims at Broadway and Central

Play On

For those who are confused, the city clarifies: Street musicians are legal

Wednesday, May 17

Saving Face

As part of the city’s overarching plans for neighborhood improvement, the Broadway/Central area joins other target locations that are in similar states of decline: Five Points and Burlington, Mechanicsville and Lonsdale, Jackson Avenue and Depot. Already, there are some unique business that have popped up in the area over the past few years: Gypsy Hands Healing Arts Center, Time Warp Tea Room, and the Taoist Tai Chi Center, to name a few. There’s also a rare mushroom shop and a locally-owned juice bar slated to open on Broadway soon. The city hopes façade grants will further enhance the area and prompt more businesses and tenants to see the potential in the rows of empty storefronts.

Preston Farabow has always been a mover and shaker. The custom metal artist was instrumental in Knoxville’s early First Friday art events, back when they were a bit more raucous and held in the “Spaghetti Bowl,” underneath the interstate overpasses at Broadway. He remembers with pride the days when you might have found Mayor Victor Ashe sharing a table with a prostitute and a scruffy art student at one of those events. Or the time when the arts community convinced Market Square and Gay Street 100 Block owners to open up then-derelict storefronts for an art walk. “We saw beauty in the areas that the rest of Knoxville was not paying attention to,” he says. “Artists typically roll the dice and find an appealing area and take a risk. It’s because I think artists look for ways to realize their business maybe a little harder than the average businessperson.”

Farabow’s latest move from the Glass Building on the corner of Broadway and Jackson (recently purchased by Cole Smith for a residential/mixed use development) to 119 Jennings, a rundown warehouse just off Central, is another visionary, if risky, move. Businesses like his might be just the thing to help boost appearances in the area, while retaining its eccentric charm.

At first, Jennings Street wasn’t included in the façade grant boundaries, but when the city learned of Farabow’s intention to purchase 119, it modified them to include his block. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for people to get the outside of the building looking good,” he says. “But our business is more about what’s on the inside, and we’ve got to cover all this.”

At a recent meeting at KCDC, Rogers Doughty outlined the program, stating that the main objective is “to improve the overall character of the area, in turn improving economic viability.” From a cynical—or perhaps realistic—perspective, the effort could be seen as superficial, ignoring structural, exterior and even roof damage. Slanted roofs that are visible from the street qualify for funding, but damaged flat roofs are out of luck. Other improvements include exterior painting, lighting, signage and awnings. Ineligible improvements include parking lots, landscaping, internal rehab and property acquisition. Still, Renee Kessler, the city’s director of Community Development, says of the façade-based grants, “It just seems like with this you’re going to see some immediate results. We need to work on the exteriors because that’s what people see right away.”

Property owners must fill out an application form and will receive the grants on a reimbursement basis. Funds allocated to the Broadway/Central area amount to $900,000, at no more that $50,000 per property.

While that might not be enough to rehab an entire building, the city’s hoping it’ll be enough of an incentive. Farabow’s building is breathtaking, with that old, eerie industrial-age starkness. The geometrically-patterned steel rafters overhead could be a work of art; the oversized rows of rectangular windows give a bleary blue-yellow haze to the air. A barn-like, windowed arch in the roof pours in sheets of natural gray light. In the front is a “gallery space,” with windows visible from Central. The vast back space will be studio space for, Farabow hopes, a handful of artists. He and Ironwood Studios partner John McGilvray are opening up shop as soon as codes issues are all addressed.

Not only does the building have the historical character the city aims to preserve, which Farabow describes as “classic early-20th-century workspace: open, utilitarian,” it has its own stories as well. Built in 1924, 119 Jennings functioned for many years as a depot for bus repairs. Upstairs is a renovated apartment, where busdrivers used to stay. In a curious “secret closet,” there’s a window that functioned in moonshine sales during Prohibition. The apartment will now be home to an artist-in-residence.

Strolling outside the building, Farabow explains that he envisions an artist colony in the sea of surrounding empty, rust-stained buildings. There is, as he notes, a subversive charm in the dilapidation of the place; like a warehouse graveyard. Farabow recalls that in a recent dream, he was stricken with the idea to call it “The Orchard.” “I can see it being a very fruitful place for artists. The buildings are ideal workspaces. They’re centrally located, yet they’re still tucked away,” he says. “Hopefully Ironwood Studios and Aespyre [his personal business] will play a role in encouraging others to come.”

Play On

He’s not the only street musician to have played downtown recently. But the fact that, earlier this month, a policeman told the saxman to cut it out prompted the city to clarify its position on street musicians.

“It’s permissible under city law,” says Jill Van Beke, special assistant to the mayor. “A street musician can show up on Market Square and play.”

The clarification answers a long-lurking question. For years, there’s been a public perception that busking—playing music for tips—is either illegal or officially frowned upon. And though most policemen have tolerated street musicians, a couple of policemen, over the years, including one this month, have interpreted it as panhandling. Van Beke hopes this clears the matter up once and for all.

Van Beke is quick to add there are certain provisos: Street musicians can’t block pedestrian travel or ingress and egress to buildings. They have to abide by the noise ordinance, which means, among other things, that they have to quit by 10 p.m. “And they cannot amplify,” says Van Beke. “That’s very important to us.”

“It mainly has to do with public safety and quality of life issues,” she says.

She adds that musicians raising money for any cause other than themselves have to receive a permit from the city law department. And if they’re selling CDs, they become a street vendor , which also requires a permit. But playing for pocket change is as legal as it was when Roy Acuff did it on these same streets 75 years ago.

Van Beke says the city’s Law Department has passed along the clarification to the Knoxville Police Department.

Andie Ray, proprietor of the dress shop Vagabondia, has been enjoying the saxophonist’s daily performance near her business. As president of the Market Square District Association, she welcomes the development.

“We are very much in support of street performers,” she says. “We think that there’s an important distinction to make between street performers who enhance a downtown and make people want to visit—and panhandlers, who more likely chase people away.”


Wednesday, May 17

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Tuesday, May 23