Steve & Who? But is It Art?

Chapman Highway has one major, albeit odd, retail presence that Kingston Pike and Turkey Creek don't Local officials seek answers to policy questions concerning public art

City Beat

"This is eerie,â” someone was overheard to remark, at Steve & Barry's, the big new clothes store, which opened at the Chapman Ford Crossing shopping center last Wednesday. Walk into the supermarket-sized store, and it looks more like a trendy mall boutique than a discount outlet, with relatively muted lighting, hardwood-ish floors, roomy aisles, and multiple plasma-TV screens showing, alternately, news-like advertisements and music videos. The place has a lightly indie-rock sense to it, with high-concept fashions, some of them being advertised, Big Brother style, by Sarah Jessica Parker, ever-present on the video screens, advertising her clothing line, Bitten. â“Fashion is not a luxuryâ” is Ms. Parker's manifesto. â“It's a right.â”

What makes it genuinely eerie are the prices. Everything is under $20. Cargo pants, polo shirts, jeans, blouses, everything. Even the tennis shoesâ"a variety of mostly synthetic, â“high-performanceâ” basketball shoes approved by Knicks' star Stephon Marbury, and allegedly just like those worn by â“Starbury,â” who loaned his nickname to the brand, are just $14.98 a pair.

Customers, who seemed divided between honest working people of all ages and young trend seekers, seemed a little stunned by the place, wandering around agog as you might if you were trespassing in an old church. You wouldn't have to be a reporter to want to ask, â“What gives?â” Local clerks referred this reporter's questions to the manager, who, like Steve and Barry themselves, is known mainly by his first name. But â“Darrenâ” declined to take the call, with instructions that all questions, even the simplest ones about the new store at Chapman Ford Crossing, have to go through the corporate office in Port Washington, N.Y., via its website. They don't advertise a phone number on the website, and don't seem eager to answer e-mails.

The peculiar store at Chapman Ford Crossing is just the second Steve & Barry's in Tennesseeâ"the first is in Antioch, in suburban Nashvilleâ"but Steve & Barry's is a national phenomenon. A Business Week article in April, 2006, described the astonishing growth of the company started by a couple of college kids at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in 1985. (You won't find Steve and Barry's full names on the website, but, for the record, they're Steve Shore and Barry Prevor.) They made an early success of selling T-shirts and other casual clothing, targeting young adults, but nothing like the last couple of years. There were about 70 Steve & Barry's stores in late 2004; there are now at least 200.

According to Business Week , they've created a sensation by underpricing Wal-Mart, as much as 40 percent. Steve & Barry's accomplishes this feat, that BW article explains, via â“the cut-rate deals it negotiates with landlords,â” sometimes in long-vacant spaces, like this former Wal-Mart space on Chapman Highway; by saving on advertising, which Steve & Barry's apparently doesn't do much of, relying on a combination of sensation and extremely low prices; by offering â“modestâ” salaries to its employees, many of whom are very young; and by buying from overseas factoriesâ"not so much in China, as Wal-Mart does, but in Africa, which doesn't have to deal with U.S. quotas and duties as do Asian sources.

Buying from sweatshops brings its own hazards, of course. A failed strike against a clothing factory in Kenya last year was reportedly put down forcefully, prompted some picketing against Steve & Barry's stores in the United States.

Obviously aimed at teenagers and young adults, the company seems to be on the cutting edge of retail, and in many ways seems to offer a whole new retail paradigm (â“When was the last time you saw something really new?â” goes its only slightly over-the-top website. â“Steve & Barry's is about change.â”) Given the company's World-of-Tomorrow affect, it may seem a little ironic that Steve & Barry's offers no online sales. To buy what they sell, you have to go to the store. To the kids, it may seem like a new idea; and it may be another secret to keeping costs down.

Cities often try to recruit companies to fill vacant spaces in town, but that apparently wasn't the case with Steve & Barry's. Bill Lyons, policy director with Mayor Haslam's office, as well as City Councilman Joe Hultquist, say they heard of the new store only when it arrived. Chamber Partnership Director of Economic Development Doug Lawyer says, â“It's a great story, I think, but it's one of those things that just happened.â”   He says it was a deal worked out by an Atlanta broker. About 60,000 square feet of the old Chapman Ford Wal-Mart had been converted for office use for First Tennessee Bank, but Steve & Barry's got the remaining 72,000 square feet of it.

It's certain to add to the retail gravity of what some had already dubbed, if a little snarkily, â“Chicken Creek.â” The area just to the south of Chapman Ford, near John Sevier, has attracted several large chain stores, including the new, larger Wal-Mart and, lately, a Lowe's, as well as several big new restaurantsâ"and the offices of Nova Information Systems, which converted an old K-Mart/Kroger shopping center. Employing more than 1,000, Nova may be one of the drivers of the growth in that area about five miles southeast of downtown.

For whatever it's worth, Knoxville now has a Steve & Barry's; and South Knoxville has a significant retail presence that West Knoxville doesn't have yet. â" Jack Neely

There was a time when Knoxvillians seemed to care little about public art; the commemorative statues and sidewalk exhibitions that residents of other cities took for granted just didn't seem to fit in our staid little burg.

But all of that's changing; within the last year or so we've seen a new women's suffrage monument on Market Square, a series of modernist pieces on temporary display in downtown's Krutch Park, and an elaborate veteran's memorial planned for the fountainside lawn on World's Fair Park. And with the newfound interest in public art has come a new set of problems, questions that range from what constitutes an â“acceptableâ” public art display, to who will cover the long-term maintenance costs some art pieces require.

Knoxville Senior Director of Policy Development Bill Lyons announced earlier this month that city officials are working to develop a Public Art Program to guide and manage art installations in public places. According to Director of Communications and Government Relations Margie Nichols, the first step will be appointing a committee to study public policy in other cities, to determine the structure of a permanent commission in charge of managing public art.

â“Nashville and Chattanooga, for instance, already have really good public art policies in place,â” Nichols says. â“There's no need to redo the work they've already done. We'll take what they've done policy-wise and adapt it to our needs.â”

Nichols says the initial committee will consist of no more than 15 â“internal and externalâ” members, representing both local government and local arts organizations. The list of candidates is still a work in progress, she says, but will probably include representatives from both the Arts and Cultural Alliance and the Knoxville Museum of Art, among others.

â“How do we go about acquiring art? What about donated art? Commissioned art?â” Nichols says. â“These are the kinds of questions we have to look at. And do people need to donate maintenance funds whenever they donate art? It can be expensive to maintain a piece of public art. We want to have a system in place, not just a situation where we just put out people's leftovers.â”

Some may see the new public art initiative as a response to recent controversy over downtown-area art pieces that have been criticized as inappropriate. In particular, a fiberglass bear statue, installed by a local attorney in front of the Art Market Gallery at 422 South Gay Street, drew criticism because it is decorated with images inspired by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The statue is entitled â“The Awakening and Renewal of America: September 11, 2001.â”

According to Lyons, the controversy was only one of many reasons local officials decided to examine policies on public art. â“It was a little part of it; it underscored the need,â” he says. â“But the issue is a lot bigger than that.â”

â“It really started with the veteran's memorial [slated for development in World's Fair Park],â” says Nichols. â“We realized then that we didn't have any process to manage a project like that. Then the Market Square suffrage statue came about. That's when we really decided we needed a policy in place.â” â" Mike Gibson


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