April 1 Special Edition: Let's Take a Stand, Knoxville!

We must protect Knoxville's status as the nation's parking-lot leader

It's no secret that Knoxville historically has been slow to preserve its architectural treasures. Even as downtown has been revitalized in recent years, some vital parts of its landscape remain underappreciated. We're talking, of course, about our parking lots.

People take them for granted. After a while, it becomes easy to overlook blank expanses of asphalt, or even to cut through them heedlessly on the way from one fancy-schmancy historic building to another. But next time you're walking around downtown—or driving around it in circles looking for somewhere to put your car—take a minute to appreciate the range of styles and eras available for short- or long-term vehicle storage:

Vintage Parking, aka "curbside" or "street" parking, the kind your grandmother used to use when she came to town to flirt with the boys at the soda shop. Just like grandma, you can pull right up next to the sidewalk, plop a nickel in the meter, and you're good to go! (By "nickel," we mean something more like 50 cents an hour. The point is, you can use real actual coins. Quaint!)

Modernist Parking, or "surface lots," the broad, sterile canvases, with their horizontal or diagonal cross-hatched lines, so evocative of 20th-century anomie. Does anything symbolize the "lonely crowd" age of urbanization so poetically as row upon row of empty metal machines, sitting silently for hours on end, on an empty half-block of land? Some of downtown's most architecturally significant surface lots have been periodically endangered by talk of constructing some kind of building on them, but so far most of those efforts have been fortunately forestalled.

Postmodernist Parking, casually referred to as "garages," the tiered, dizzying confabulations of swooping concrete that enfold space in an illusion of containment to create a place that is neither indoors nor outdoors but something magically suspended between the two. Progressing by ramps from bottom to top or top to bottom, the meditative driver experiences a metaphorical journey not unlike that of Dante. Or possibly Jonah, entering and then being delivered from the belly of a great, gray whale.

Recently, Knoxville has also enjoyed the emergence of a Neoprimitivist school, at the historic and rugged Jackson Avenue lot below the Gay Street viaduct. Open to all, free of charge, and only sort of loosely arrayed in haphazard rows, the parking here recalls the days of Tin Lizzies and gravel streets, an urban environment of grit and promise.

So take a look around and appreciate what we have. Someday in the future, when we're all traveling with jetpacks, your memories of our parking abundance might be all that remains of this most precious feature of our city.