cover_story (2006-03)

A PEDESTRIAN CHALLENGE: West High students walk through greenway construction. UT’s institutional Golf Range Apartments are in the background.

FROM TAJ MAHAL TO RED ONION: Shahid Masood, one of the international retail pioneers in the Sutherland area, is converting his Indian-Pakistani grocery to a pizza parlor.

BEST SELECTION OF OLIVES IN TOWN: Walter Ajlouny, the new proprietor of the Holy Land, which will soon be the only Middle-eastern market on Sutherland.

ONLY ON SUTHERLAND: The Middle East is only a few steps from South of the Border in this building across from the National Guard Armory; La Ilusion is a new Mexican market, serving a local clientele.

On a single quarter-mile stretch is a middle-eastern grocery; a small Indian-Pakistani grocery; an Asian grocery and gift shop; a Mexican grocery, billiard hall, boot store and, soon, a taqueria. Within that same length are two fresh-produce markets and a convenience store, and, nearby, a supermarket; in one way or another, most of them have learned to accommodate the global tastes. Though they have customers all over town, and comprise the business district of a neighborhood with a higher residential density than most areas in West Knoxville, they all serve one unusual demographic, hundreds of international students who live in UT’s graduate-student and married-student housing complexes, Sutherland Avenue Apartments and Golf Range Apartments.

For the last five years, all indications were that the neighborhood’s international flavor was doomed, as UT discussed its tentative plans to divest itself of its student housing on Sutherland, to replace it with new housing much closer to campus.

As of a few weeks ago, however, UT has chosen to keep the Sutherland properties as a university-related residential area. In fact, the area will soon host more students than it has in recent years—perhaps almost 50 percent more. The university decided to sell Kingston Apartments, the notoriously out-of-scale “Tide Box” near Tyson Park, and relocate its residents onto Sutherland.

On paper, corralling UT’s residents, especially those who don’t have access to cars, closer to campus, made perfect sense. It would have made it possible for international students, many of whom don’t have access to cars, to walk to class. Some speculated that, depending on how it was done, such a move could be good for downtown redevelopment.

According to UT sources, what tipped the balance was, in large part, those modest-looking stores on and near Sutherland the existing amenities that evolved over the decades and would be difficult to duplicate elsewhere.

“Businesses have sprung up to serve the students; the services they need are very close there,” says UT Associate Vice President for Space and Facilities Betsey Creekmore. “Cleaners are there, restaurants are there, shopping is there—everything they need.” She cites a survey UT conducted which indicated that graduate students’ preference for staying put on Sutherland was convincing.

So UT chose to keep the Sutherland apartments, and, as if to add more punctuation to the surprise, to move more than 200 more households into them, probably beginning with the next school year. UT plans to put Kingston Apartments up for sale late in the spring and move its occupants into the Sutherland complexes.

The Sutherland complexes are currently underoccupied; of 840 units, only 572 are being used, leaving a hole of serendipitous size to take in the refugees from Kingston. They’re not much to look at, and some residents complain of maintenance or insect problems, but UT housing sources say they’ll be thoroughly refurbished within a year or so after the move.

Through the 1990s, the aspect of the neighborhood that was most surprising to longtime Knoxvillians was that it had two competing Indian-food groceries only a few doors away from each other. However, in spite of UT’s vote of confidence in the neighborhood, the only remaining Indian-food store will be closing soon. The enclave may ultimately be at the mercy of other, larger forces.

In terms of the life that thrives on it, Sutherland Avenue may be Knoxville’s single most interesting street. It has trailer parks and check-cashing services, but also comfortable middle-class residences and the city’s toniest modern cemetery. It’s also where we go for specialty tiles, European-car repair, and outdoor gear, but it also has construction companies and pet-care boutiques.

It has what’s reputedly the region’s best indoor climbing wall, the National Guard Armory, a gravestone shop, cheap hot dogs and authentic calzones, and what has been described as Knoxville’s most ethnically diverse high school.

Culturally, Sutherland Avenue seems permanently in flux. Its history is sufficiently fascinating. Benjamin Sprankle, the developer originally from Altoona, Pa., who built several buildings in the Union Avenue area of downtown—two still stand, the Pembroke and the Daylight—developed Sutherland Avenue about a century ago. For a time it was known as Sprankle Avenue, but Sprankle named it Sutherland in honor of his favorite Presbyterian minister, Robert Sutherland, a Canadian cleric who had been pastor of Second Presbyterian Church when it was located downtown.

It was at first entirely residential; one section near Forest Heights was known as Sprankletown. Closer to town was Marble City. The whole city of Knoxville had previously gone by that nickname, but in the early 20th century, the moniker condensed around Sutherland Avenue, due to the profusion of marble-cutting mills, and the stonecutters who lived near them. Among them was Albert Milani, the Italian immigrant whose career flourished in the 1930s; his unusual stony house still faces Sutherland near the ethnic section.

In the 1920s, Sutherland Avenue became the site of Knoxville’s first McGhee Tyson Airport. The neighborhood was the site of Knoxville’s first fatal plane crash. Planes landed there until the current site of the airport, in Blount County, was cleared in the latter 1930s.

West High, one of the first high schools built after the dismantling of old Knoxville High, went in on part of the old airfield in the early 1950s. About the same time the originally all-white high school was thriving there, Sutherland also had a reputation, in the largest dry city in America, as a bootlegger’s depot.

By then, another part of the field was being used by golfers; the Forest Hills Driving Range was a popular attraction well into the 1960s. Sutherland Avenue was literally the outskirts of town; the western end of Sutherland served as Knoxville’s city limits until 1962—until then, the north side of the avenue west of Third Creek was unincorporated.

In the early ‘60s, still dealing with a generation-long wave of servicemen taking advantage of the G.I. Bill, UT, desperate for space, bought some cheap land along Sutherland, part of the old airfield. There the university built two large housing complexes on it: the white-concrete Sutherland Apartments and the redbrick Golf Range Apartments, which immortalized the driving range it abolished. Both were built more for function than form.

Suddenly, by 1966, there were 840 residences there, mostly occupied by married students, many of them former servicemen, and their spouses. The sudden student population had a big impact on local business. At first, it was all the to-be-expected sort of thing, convenience stores and Laundromats. For years, the closest thing the strip had to an international retail presence was a Dutch Maid Cleaners.

Over the years, the makeup of residents at the apartments changed. UT was enrolling many more international students at the graduate level, and new private apartment buildings all over town catered to UT’s married students and others who preferred not to live in a dorm.

Built in the ‘60s for married-student housing, they now house a variety of students and even faculty who have little in common except they choose university housing, and favor apartment-style living to dormitory-style living. The Sutherland complexes emerged as perhaps UT’s highest concentration of foreign students. It was a phenomenon even the students themselves, many of whom came from areas less ethnically diverse than Knoxville is, often found exciting.

“When I first arrived I was amazed about the cultural diversity of the area. In the building where I was living I had neighbors from India, China, Taiwan, Brazil, Republic of Georgia, and the states,” says Martin Nuñez, a graduate student from Argentina. “Pretty high diversity I should say. In Argentina you find this diversity at a city scale, not in a 20-apartment building!” He remarks that it took a whimsical jaunt to Cotton Eyed Joe’s to convince him that the whole of Knoxville wasn’t as ethnically diverse as Sutherland Avenue was.

“On my last birthday that I had there, at one point we were 14 guys, from 13 different countries. Can you believe that? It’s amazing! There were two Brazilians, and the rest were people from India, Sri Lanka, Rumania, Colombia, Spain, China, Chile, Peru, Thailand, Republic of Georgia, Russia, the states and myself from Argentina.”

The diversity couldn’t be contained within the plain walls of the apartment buildings; it came to reflect itself in the surrounding businesses.

In the early 1980s, an Indian couple, Needraha L. Mannar and Rao Lakshman, opened a small gift shop in the same building as a Smoky Mountain Market, called Neelam’s. Around 1987, the Oriental Super Mart opened at the corner of Sutherland and Lebanon, selling a wide variety of Japanese, Korean, and Chinese groceries and cookware.

By 1990, Neelam’s Gifts was morphing into Neelam’s Natural Foods and Spices, a grocery which introduced many Knoxvillians to Indian food. Soon after, Shahid Masood opened a competing store, the Indian-Pakistani grocery, Taj Mahal, a few doors down the street. A couple of years later, Sue Hamas opened the Holy Land, a grocery catering mainly to Arab students, right in the middle. By then, the neighborhood struck even immigrants as “exotic.”

In the mid ‘90s, the addition of a large supermarket nearby, the Bi-Lo on Forest Heights, added to the neighborhood’s convenience for those who don’t drive.

Some community activists and city planners took notice and incorporated the ever-more interesting international neighborhood into a concept called Bearden Village, a plan to make the old Bearden/Sutherland area, once a strictly automobile-dependent suburban area, a commercially diverse pedestrian neighborhood, something like a downtown. The fact that foreign students were able to live without cars seemed to suggest that others, including old Knoxvillians in the middle-class neighborhoods of Westwood and Forest Heights, might be able to enjoy that option as well.

Knoxville’s first-ever bike trail connected the Sutherland apartments with Tyson Park, near UT, and the city arranged to support the village idea with a new greenway system, extending the old Third Creek Bike Trail to Bi-Lo, with further plans to build a whole new greenway along Sutherland Avenue.

But just as it began to seem something like a phenomenon, and an asset to the city—some had begun to compare it to international-market neighborhoods in bigger cities—a university document threatened to pull the rug out from under it. In 2001, the D.C.-based consulting firm of Anderson Strickler recommended that UT consolidate its student body by selling its more remote housing units, including those on Sutherland, to be replaced by new ones to be built much closer to campus. UT gave every indication it would follow that advice, with prospects of building new residences on the south side of the river.

That major move remained Plan A until just this past fall, as UT made tentative plans to build residences on the south side of the river, on space once used by the agriculture campus and still known as “the farm.”

There was available space on the farm, it would have been a pretty place to live, and via improved pedestrian access to the Alcoa Highway Bridge, would have been walking distance from campus. What it lacked was stores. According to Betsey Creekmore, “At the farm, you would have needed your car to go anywhere, for essentials or entertainment.”

About a year ago, university officials were hinting that building student housing downtown to replace the Sutherland properties might also be a possibility. That prospect was exciting to downtown boosters who presumed a large international presence would help the mix downtown, perhaps prompting ethnic-style markets to open in the CBID.

Tim Johnson, UT assistant director of housing, says, building residences for grad students downtown was discussed, but eventually rejected as too expensive in the current real-estate climate. “It was discussed at length,” he says. “The biggest issue we had to deal with was the cost.”

He cites what he called “a growing recognition” of the value of the status quo, which included the ethnic markets and produce stores of Sutherland Avenue.

The student-residents we spoke to seem happy with the decision. “Location is great! Location is the best!” says one young mother, Paula Federico, of Argentina. She says it’s “weird” to be so car dependent. “However, living in Golf Range we can do some groceries without using the car, and ride the bus if we need to. The city has nice parks and bike trails that we enjoy. In general, we find all we need in terms of shopping.”

There are fewer international graduate-student applicants to UT, as is true of most American colleges, partly as a result of tighter visa restrictions following the Sept. 11 attacks. Some observers have the impression that the decline of Indian students at UT has been especially precipitous.

Five years ago, this short stretch supported not only Arabic and Asian groceries, but two competing Indian/Pakistani groceries, one of which had added a small cafe. To Knoxvillians starved for rare evidence of an invigorating diversity, Sutherland Avenue was a favorite exception. It seemed only to be growing.

By this summer, though, the strip will probably have no Indian/Pakistani groceries at all.

After some well-received experiments with an in-store restaurant, Neelam’s closed around 2002. Its onetime rival, the Taj Mahal, is getting out of the Indian-groceries business, too. Shahid Masood still has one long two-sided set of shelves of Indian-style food, everything from whole turmeric to ground sumac to dhanajiru  powder, Persian tea and masoor and canned dates. He expects to sell it all off in the next few months and convert the room to tables for his growing pizza business, the Red Onion. The menu includes no Indian or Pakistani dishes. He’ll be taking down the Taj Mahal sign soon.

Business in Indian groceries was brisk when he opened the place in 1991. “I was doing very good in that,” he says. “This was the biggest store.” Now, he says, he has only 20 or 30 grocery customers a week.

What’s different, he says, is that people can buy many of the things he sells at Bi-Lo, Wal-Mart, Sam’s. “You can buy basmati rice at Kroger’s now,” he says. He mentions in particular Wal-Mart’s global connections and its system of stocking nearly anything a customer wants.

One international graduate student we spoke with cited, among Sutherland’s advantages, the fact that it was “about six minutes from Wal-Mart.”

Masood also says many Knoxville internationals drive to Atlanta for the weekend to buy specialties like dried fish, or meats only sporadically available in Knoxville, like lamb and goat. Neelam’s once sold halal meats, and Masood once tried to run an eastern-style butcher shop out of his grocery; the demand was there, but he found it frustrating. “There were too many restrictions from the USDA,” he says.

Furthermore, he found that many Indian students bring their own spices, “They use it for three or four years.”

That phenomenon isn’t limited to Indians. South American Federico has lived in Golf Range for three years, but has rarely patronized the area’s Hispanic stores. “In general we bring enough yerba and dulce de leche from Argentina where it is much cheaper than in any Latin store here. Other than that, we find everything we need in a regular store.”

Gesturing toward the remains of his grocery, Masood says, “Now the stuff just sits there a long time.” Those who buy Indian groceries don’t have to buy very often, he says. “But every day they eat.” He says that even on this international row, there’s now much more interest in pepperoni pizza.

The Red Onion has a good reputation in the neighborhood, and he’s doing good business; he delivers to athletic teams at West High, and to church groups on Sundays. “I’m much happy,” he says. He expects to sell out of groceries by mid-year.

Meanwhile, Walter Ajlouny, who bought the Holy Land from the Hamas family last year, seems optimistic. He’s new to town, from Michigan by way of Long Island, but is kin to one of Knoxville’s more successful Palestinian families, the Jubrans, who have run the Falafel Hut and other businesses in Fort Sanders. He’s surprised at how expensive meats are in Knoxville—ground beef, steaks, and chicken are more expensive than they are in New York, he says.

The store has been known for its mostly Arabic/Middleastern selections for several years. It features several sorts of olives, stored in open vats near the front; he says he sells some products not readily available in supermarkets, like authentic yogurt, certain kinds of cheese and molasses, and rose and orange waters, useful in baking pastries.

He’s expecting to diversify his store’s mostly Arabic selections, adding several other varieties: he mentions Greek, Hebrew, and Croatian specialties. He estimates that about half of his clientele are connected to the university; the fact that maybe half aren’t is an indicator that this strip has become important to the city of Knoxville, not just to the students who live in UT housing there.

Sutherland may be losing Indian/Pakistani cuisine, but another ethnic group is new to the neighborhood. Last fall, La Ilusion Market opened adjacent to the Holy Land. The energetic young proprietor, who calls herself Rosie, displays cowboy boots in the front window and has pool tables in the back room; in between is an all-purpose convenience store with an emphasis on Mexican foods. She explains that ilusion means hope; she’s hoping to open the restaurant part, the Taqueria, within a week.

“There are many Hispanics living near here,” she says. When asked about their clientele, Sutherland’s other merchants tend to point across the street, toward UT housing. Rosie points in the opposite direction, north, toward the modest residential area between Sutherland and Middlebrook. She says a great many working Mexicans live up that way. (On Newcom Avenue, less than half a mile away, is perhaps Knoxville’s closest thing to a Spanish-speaking business district with a Mexican bakery, grocery/convenience store, and pool hall.)

The fact that the strip also supports two competing farmers’ markets may not be coincidental. Farmers’ markets may seem the very definition of domestic—few stores of any kind sell more East Tennessee products than produce markets do, and these two are American-run—but the fact that two of them thrive, hardly a block from each other, may owe a lot to internationals’ culinary habits.

Donny Ernst is the relatively new owner of Farm Fresh Produce. He’s a longtime Knoxvillian, a member of the Knoxville Rowing Club, and a figure skater over at the Ice Chalet. As owner of a landscaping business, he long maintained a sideline in specialty firewood for area barbecues, but got into retail produce just last year when he bought into this place.

The morning before he spoke to a reporter, he said, a produce truck came in from Greeneville; the driver seemed gloomy about the market for fresh fruit and vegetables, which he said has slacked off markedly in the last 10 or 12 years. The general perception is that only older East Tennesseans bother with fresh produce, and that young folks favor fast food.

“Our younger generation is just not buying as much produce.” However, Ernst doesn’t seem so glum. The market for homegrown produce doesn’t seem depressed in this unusual neighborhood. 

“They eat better than we do,” Ernst says of internationals, be they Asians, Africans, Arabs, or South Americans. “They eat this fresh produce. They come in every day, and they buy every day. In their country, they go to the market every day, so that’s what they do here.” He speculates they may not have much storage area in their apartments.

The cashier, Veronica McElyea, says, “We like it, because we get to know them.” They cater to the internationals; in addition to the Grainger County tomatoes and sweet corn to be expected in any East Tennessee farmers’ market, they carry whole ginger root, leeks, mangos, shallots. Because their Asian customers request it, she says, they stock Japanese eggplant, Napa cabbage and sometimes bok choy.

Their honey is all local, but Ernst says Arabs and others buy more of it than most Americans do. Surprisingly, he says, some old Southern staples like collard greens sell better to internationals than to Southerners. “And sorghum—it moves.”

He does sell to the residents of the middle-class Sequoyah-Bearden area, but says internationals make up 40-50 percent of his clientele.

The residential complexes are about two miles west of UT as the crow flies, somewhat farther by automobile: an amenity many, perhaps most foreign students don’t have. They commute to campus by bus—the Sutherland Avenue KAT buses—the 90 and the UT bus, the 50—is often standing-room only. Some longtime Knoxvillians who take it from the Bearden area have found themselves the only English-speaking person on a crowded bus.

Residents seem split about the quality of public transportation from Sutherland Avenue, perhaps depending on what they were used to at home.

It may seem a little perverse, the fact that UT goes to unusual lengths to accommodate students with cars on campus—while a large number of students without cars tend to live off campus, out of walking distance of classes.

With some help from Tim Johnson, associate director of housing at UT, here’s how we understand a little bit of how it evolved: At the time the Sutherland complexes were built, they were aimed at married and/or graduate students who were almost by definition older and more established than undergraduates, and more likely to have acquired cars.

Today, many of the graduate students who choose to live in student housing tend to be internationals, and many of them don’t have cars or licenses to drive them.

A bigger problem with this section of Sutherland, though, and it’s hard to describe it politely, is that it’s damn ugly.

Many of Sutherland’s parking lots dump into the street without clear definition; sidewalks haven’t been fully repaired in years, in some cases disintegrating, in other cases erased altogether by a careless developer hungry for a couple of feet of parking.

On a recent Saturday, a young Asian couple pushed a grocery cart down the automobile lane of a sidewalkless segment of road, unintimidated by cars in front of them and behind them.

There’s chain-link fence, bad signage, trash and rubble. Trees and shrubbery along the street is rare.

Few of the buildings were built to be looked at. None of them have any more character than any other strip-mall building, and some of them seem designed more for industrial than retail use, made of concrete or corrugated steel.

The whole is not much improved by the UT housing, itself: stark, plain victims of ‘60s architectural trends, with a functional bleakness that on a bad day could pass for Soviet. They’re cheap, even within the context of an unfashionable fashion.

For thousands of internationals over the years, this has been their first impression of America. More than their remoteness from campus, it’s the appearance of the buildings that seems to trouble the students we spoke to. “As you should notice, the buildings are not aesthetically pleasant at all,” says one recent resident, Martin Nuñez, of Argentina. On rainy days, he says, it’s easy to feel that “you are living in a really depressing place.”

Graduate student Paula Federico has been living in Golf Range since 2003; she and her husband Marc have been raising a little girl there. She likes many things about living there, especially the convenience to stores.

“The most important thing we do not like is the appearance in particular of both UT apartment complexes—and, in general, the appearance of the stores and houses located on Sutherland,” she says. “In general, houses do not have nice gardens, and some look really bad, with a lot of clutter on the outside. And stores on Sutherland seem not to care a lot, or have neat fronts or parking facilities. There are almost no plants, bushes or trees on Sutherland going east.”

Merchants’ anxiety about UT’s prospective sale of the complexes is twofold. One was the possibility of the UT students leaving; the other was anxiety about what might start happening in ugly, cheap apartment buildings after the students are gone. “I was fearful about what it would become,” says Ernst. “You can tell by the look of the buildings...” He trails off, perhaps reluctant to say the word crackhouse .

The stretch has never been much to look at, and at the moment, it’s a wreck. Caterpillar backhoes are ripping up the sides of the road, as police direct traffic into a single lane.

Things are getting worse before they get better. It’s part of a city/state/federal effort to build a greenway—a 10-foot-wide paved trail with a green buffer—along Sutherland from Tobler west to Westwood and Bearden Elementary. If it’s half what Greenways coordinator Donna Young hopes, the change in the appearance of this section of Sutherland Avenue will be dramatic.

“I think it will totally change the whole face of Sutherland,” says Young, citing the badly defined parking and lack of sidewalks. “It will be shocking.”

She elaborates, “It always disturbed me that it looked so awful. Instead of sloppy shoulders, it will be curbs pulled out to the edge of the road, greenways, and greenery.”

Almost half a decade after the first time we interviewed neighborhood activist Terry Faulkner about the imminent future of a new-urbanist pedestrian neighborhood which would be known as Bearden Village, her enthusiasm about the slow-arriving Sutherland greenway sounds undiminished. “It’s going to be gorgeous!” she says. “It’s the first streetscape project in Knoxville of this length and scope.” She foresees a day when they’ll have festivals along the greenway in “this wonderful international place,” offering examples of the cultures and cuisines of the many nations represented by the people who live near here.

The parking lots of these apartment buildings are never full, and some of those cars that are there look as if they haven’t been driven in a while. And every day at 3:30, hundreds of kids of all known shapes and colors tumble out of West High onto the sidewalks, walking in both directions on Sutherland Avenue. A laser counter installed near this western end of the Third Creek Bike Trail last spring clocked about 50 pedestrians per hour.

The neighborhood is, in spite of itself, already one of Knoxville’s most pedestrian neighborhoods. Unlike most residential areas of Knoxville, Sutherland is pedestrian-possible, but it’s a long way from being pedestrian-friendly. The greenway will only be a partial solution.

“It would be nice to have better sidewalks,” says Federico. “I always feel unsafe to cross Sutherland and walk with my daughter’s stroller to the groceries on the other side.” 

The greenway will be only on the south side of the street, adjacent to the UT housing. On the north side, where several businesses say as much as half their clientele arrives by foot, there are still no plans for a proper sidewalk.

It’s hard to tell what the future holds for these interesting blocks. More graduate students will live there soon, but fewer of them may be international. And of the internationals, fewer of them may need to buy specialty foods and other products, as more of them become available in the chain supermarkets.

On a sunny afternoon in January, in the plain but quiet courtyard of Sutherland Avenue Apartments, four women dressed in Islamic chadors sit at a picnic table, speaking Arabic in modest tones, as a middle-aged Latino couple walks by. Around the corner in the parking lot, three young Asian men laugh. Someday before long, they will all leave Knoxville and perhaps never return. For them, Sutherland Avenue, good and bad, is a temporary condition.

Some of the residents we spoke to won’t even be here long enough to see the greenway finished. Its future holds more significance for the people of Knoxville, for whom it has offered a rare taste of international culture. UT’s decision, coupled with the completion of the greenway, is probably not the last chapter in the history of what may be East Tennessee’s least-predictable avenue.