cover_story (2006-22)

County Commissioners Diane Jordan and Tank Strickland

“I don’t like the word ‘projects.’ I like a neighborhood.” — Sarah Moore Greene

“It’s more than just a grocery store. It’s about total social redevelopment. To me, it’s kingdom building.” — LeRoy Thompson

It’s muggy outside on Saturday evening, and the strip of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue where Holiday Market sits is bumping. The Market is primarily a gas station, but its concrete plot also hosts a couple of makeshift businesses; a man under a tarp sells multi-colored hi-top basketball shoes, and another tent houses Lissa’s Wings and Things, where a customer is slathering his hot dog with mustard before chomping in on it. There are lots of people milling about and volleying shouts across MLK to the people on the other side, sitting in lawn chairs or patronizing Tammy’s Fried Green Tomato stand. The smell of grease wafting from it is thickly glorious.

Hanging a right and heading farther away from highly traveled Magnolia Avenue, the roads are empty and quiet. People nod lazily from their porches. Some of the pastel, historic houses are newly renovated with manicured lawns, but others are dilapidated, boarded, and empty. Despite them, it’s hard to believe the sleepy, picturesque neighborhood has been called “the gun zone.”

A couple more right turns and stretches of neighborhood lead to “The P.”—that’s what everyone here calls the sprawling housing project, Walter P. Taylor homes. It seems that not many residents hang out in their apartments. The grounds are teeming with people. One teenage girl with a listless expression yanks a boy’s hair into tight cornrows on a front stoop. A younger boy sporting similar, shorter braids tiptoes surreptitiously behind a friend to squirt him with an uzi-style watergun. Some people smoke cigarettes and talk. Every unit has a long metal clothesline perpendicular to it, and some are drooping with laundry, either all white or colored. Skinny dark jeans with studded butterflies in the back pockets indicate a teenage girl lives here. There’s a roomy turquoise muumuu waving beside it. The clothes must take a long time to dry with the air so hot and moist.

East Knoxville is full of contradictions. Everyone seems to know each other, yet there are many divisions. It’s at once vibrant and apathetic. The community’s disparities seem to be reflected even in the housing stock; some renovated houses seem to swell and boast their beauty, while others just go on decaying. It seems a neighborhood on the brink of reclaiming its identity, one that only some old-timers remember.

In the center of the neighborhood at Five Points—the intersection of Martin Luther King, Olive, McCalla, and Ben Hur—stands the shiny new Metro Village Market, an IGA food store. The attractive brick and stucco shopping strip also houses a gas station, a Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, a Knox County Clerk’s office and the forthcoming J-R’s House of Fashion.

LeRoy Thompson stands at the deli counter inside Metro Village, surveying luscious vats of macaroni and cheese, green-bean casserole, fried chicken, catfish, and other Southern specialties. Thompson, who co-owns the store with Norman Wright, postpones his lunch to stroll around, pointing out the aesthetic choices. The store’s interior is spacious, warmly lit and colorful. “We were really going for that Fresh Market feel with the colors and the spaced-out aisles,” and the products are also all top of the line, he says. The stars of the meat department are fresh fish and huge slabs of ribs, coated with a special seasoning that has Thompson raving.

On the other side of the store, rows of water-flecked purple cabbage sit beside huge collard-green fronds. Produce manager Joey Holland inspects a cart of perfect-looking tomatoes. “This is the best place I’ve ever worked,” he says, blinking hard behind thick owlish glasses. He obviously takes a lot of pride in his job. A few minutes later he runs over breathlessly. He forgot to mention, “We’re the only store in town that sells creasy greens!”

Wright, who actually came out of retirement to join Thompson in the venture, has been in the grocery biz all his life; his family owned the old Cox and Wright grocery on McCalla and Fern from 1947 until the early ’90s. “I’ve known LeRoy since he was raised coming to our store,” he says. “It’s a great neighborhood. It gets a bad rap sometimes, but 99 percent of people are just honest, hardworking people.”

The majority of the shoppers here at the moment are black, with a few whites interspersed, but both Wright and Thompson see the grocery as a venue for breaking down Knoxville’s racial barriers. “I love seeing black, white, Latino and Asian shoppers together, and there’s no sense of fear,” says Wright. “We want that Andy Griffith-type store. We’re friendly and we carry your groceries out to your car. Cashiers will say, ‘Hey Miss Jones’ and ‘Hey Brother Charles.’”

That sense of community is almost always on display outside the store, where two patio tables function as an informal meeting place. Today, Knox County Commissioners Tank Strickland and Diane Jordan are having lunch from the deli with coworkers. “I come here for lunch all the time, and for my groceries. I’m here pretty much every day,” says Strickland. “It’s really a gathering spot.”

Everyone knows Thompson, and he makes his rounds, talking charismatically and shaking hands. But then it’s time to get down to business. Leading the way to his gleaming new black, fully loaded Denali SUV, Thompson explains that he wants to tour the surrounding neighborhoods. “On the news, you don’t typically hear about the good things about this area—the hardworking, God-fearing, wonderful residents here,” he says. “As a developer, I wanted to invest in East Knoxville because I knew that these areas were not inferior to the West, North and South.”

In his sleek, silver button-down shirt and his luxury wheels, it’s obvious that Thompson, a former Pittsburgh Steelers running back, is well-off. But his childhood wasn’t so cushy. He points out several small homes and one run-down apartment building where he once lived. “All of the houses I grew up in are boarded up,” he says.

Thompson winds through the serene neighborhoods in Holston Hills, with the obvious agenda to negate the concept that East Knoxville is dangerous, or “the hood.” “See how nice these houses are? You don’t see that on the nightly news,” he repeats intermittently. Still, he acknowledges that there are problems; blighted properties, ramshackle rental properties, and of course, Walter P. Taylor. He’s hoping the grocery and subsequent developments can be a catalyst to change all that. “I’m most proud that we were able to accomplish this right in the middle of a socially deprived area.”

The city’s Five Points Redevelopment plan has been gestating for a long time, waiting for the right elements to coincide for the grocery complex to come to fruition. Thompson says this push began a little over three years ago when Knoxville’s Community Development Corp. filed a request for proposals to redevelop the area, and Vice Mayor Mark Brown made the project his campaign platform. Money was, of course, the main issue. Three million dollars had been secured through a federal Empowerment Zone grant, and Knox County, KUB and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development were all contributors. “Then our company stepped in, and that had always been the missing piece, the private investor,” says Thompson.

Of course, the entire plan itself entails much more than just a shopping center, but many people see Metro Village as a beacon of change. “I think this community has been ripe for a while,” says Renee Kessler, the city’s Director of Community Development. “It’s the beginning of a complete transformation. Now that we’re infusing the retail sector, we want to work on the housing stock. There’s a lot of excitement about reinvesting in the community.”

A man named Alan J. Milton Jr. shuts his eyes and rubs a hand across the chest of his white sweater as he chimes in, “I need you to survive!” Later, he explains that he’s a part-time preacher who takes his ministry into Walter P. Taylor, where he once lived. “We’re only in the middle of the beginning. This is one blade of grass in the scheme of what needs to happen in East Knoxville,” he says. “Now we have the Metro Village, but we need a skate rink and some more places for youth to go.” Though he appreciates that public housing helped him get off the streets, Milton says there needs to be more attention paid to Walter P. “I believe it is a challenge and it can be breathing hope into this area,” he says. “The next step is to get to the heart of the people—Walter P. Taylor. It’s a culture unlike any other culture.”

Different people, of course, have different ideas about what the redevelopment should entail. George Howard, a skilled laborer who is at the grand opening with his family, says, “I’m very excited about the grocery. It alleviates a lot of problems for people that don’t have cars.” Howard’s brilliant blue eyes cut toward his nearby wife and children, signaling for her to retrieve the pudgy toddler writhing in his arms. “It would be nice to see something like you see out West or on Merchants. It’d be good to get a Red Lobster or a Texas Roadhouse.” But as for locally owned business, he’s hesitant. “If the money was available to help locals get businesses started, and it’s gonna be a legitimate business, that would be good. But we’ve got enough people selling shoes and things out on the corner.”

Some residents are skeptical of the redevelopment plan in general. Eugene Downs, an elderly but sprightly Walter P. Taylor resident with piercing eyes and scruffy gray hair reclines on one of Metro Village’s patio tables. “What they’re trying to do is keep all the blacks in one neighborhood. They don’t want us going down to West Knoxville.”

The logic may be a bit convoluted, but historically, such an accusation could account for some of the conditions today. “Prior to the urban renewal movement in the ’60s, Five Points was the melting pot of the area,” says Doug McDaniel, who works at Tribe One and co-authored the historical book Park City . There was a notable Greek community, as well as many black and white-owned businesses, reportedly thriving cohesively. “The urban renewal came in and tore down a lot of the black neighborhoods [such as those where the Coliseum and Safety Building now stand] and businesses and moved them into the projects. It kind of broke the back of a vibrant area.”

It would seem, though, that the current development is an effort to uplift the neighborhood, to revert back to those days of economic vibrance. Thompson is a firm believer that if the community can support the grocery, it will act as a catalyst for other improvements. “I don’t know if, economically, East Knoxville will have the chance to catapult itself like this again if the community doesn’t demonstrate that it can sustain this place,” he says. “It’s your community. It’s your store.”

Thompson has big dreams for the community he grew up in. He’d like to be able to get a scholarship program started if the grocery does flourish. “This is an opportunity for African Americans and our community as a whole to collectively work together,” he says frankly, gazing at a gray tavern with barred windows as the Denali cruises past. “You don’t want juke joints? You don’t want all these check-cashing places? If you want more quality places, you have to support the ones you’ve got.”

Lest any of Thompson’s cheerleading be misconstrued as self-promotion, he points out that, financially, he wouldn’t be hit too hard if the grocery went under; his development company is extremely successful. His interest here is purely in seeing the community thrive, and his attitude tends to be one of tough love. “My gloves are off. I’m not sugar-coating anymore,” he says. “African Americans need to reinvest in their own community, so that young people see themselves owning businesses, rather than being the clerk. When African-American businesses tell me they can’t make it here, I don’t buy it. Baloney!”

The Denali pulls up to a small brick house, an unexpected stop on the tour. The home, Thompson says, belongs to Sarah Moore Greene, the 94-year-old woman celebrated for being Knoxville’s first minority member elected to the school board. Subsequently, she’s worked on various committees and was recently appointed to the tax equalization committee board. “They’ve run me ragged this morning,” she says, feigning exhaustion. With hardly a wrinkle on her expressive face, Greene seems to possess boundless energy. There are at least 20 Mother’s Day cards displayed on her coffee table, though she doesn’t have children of her own. “Everybody here in Knoxville calls me Mama Greene. I had LeRoy’s mama in kindergarten. I have all kinds of kids, and it doesn’t stop at the color line—Jews, whites, everybody.”

Greene reiterates Thompson’s hope that Metro Village will be a community catalyst. “That’s the only place I shop, well, at least for everything I can find there,” she says. “I’ve lived in this community for over 60 years. When I first came, there were a lot of shops—a Cas Walker store, dry cleaners, drug stores, dress stores, shoe stores. It’s all faded away, but now it’s coming back.”

Becky French Brewer, the other coauthor of Park City who grew up in the area, remembers a similar scene. “Burlington was a little village of it’s own: bakeries, a cafeteria, five and dime stores. Everybody went there. Five Points had candy factories, the old Pickle Grocery stores and Dean Planter’s tobacco warehouse, the largest tobacco warehouse in the world until it burned down in the ’60s.” Burlington, the community that neighbors Five Points to the East on MLK, is also included in the city’s redevelopment boundaries. It’s easy to imagine the area’s row of empty storefronts as a thriving small business district.

Still, plenty of Hope 6 residents say the prices at Metro Village are higher. Belinda Cantrell points out the discrepancy between Lipton noodles, which she says run $1.59 at Metro Village and five for five dollars at another store. She also says she buys meat in bulk at Chicken City for better deals.

There is some heated shouting coming from the house across the way from Eula Johnson’s place. Standing in between the cracked-open screen door and the doorframe, she squints her eyes disapprovingly and says, “I’ve lived here 25 years. It’s rough around here. It’s nothing but a drug zone now. Fighting, shooting, there was somebody shot over there just last week.” She points vaguely, deeper into the heart of The P., somewhere. On the rumor that Walter P. could become a Hope 6 community, which would entail demolishing the projects and aiding residents in owning homes built in its place, Johnson seems indifferent. “Yeah, I guess I’d try it out,” she says.

A couple units over, a young couple named Michael and Shelly Chandler while away the hot May afternoon playing dominoes on a card table, shaded by an upstairs neighbor’s concrete balcony. Of the new grocery store, Michael says, in the hardened voice of someone much older, “It’s nice. It’s about time.” Shelly has a similarly nonchalant attitude toward living in The P., where she was born. “It’s just home,” she says, clinking the dominoes with her nails.

Neither Michael nor Shelly have jobs, and neither seems to be too concerned about it. Still, Michael points out, “The best thing down there is [County Clerk] Mike Padgett’s office, so people can get their licenses and IDs to work.” As for the possibility of the Hope 6, Shelly says, “Oh, we don’t want that. I just don’t see it happening in The P. People aren’t going to let them come in and tear down their homes. I don’t know if it’s history or territorial or what.”

Thompson and Brown both express enthusiasm about the possibility of a Hope 6 coming here, hoping it could mirror the positive effects of the one recently established in Mechanicsville. Greene also favors the plan. “When it was first built, Walter P. was really nice, but you wouldn’t know it now,” she says. “I’d like to see them torn down and rebuilt as single units. You just can’t put too many people together like that. And I don’t like the word ‘projects.’ I like a neighborhood.”

For now, though, Knoxville’s unlikely to be able to secure the federal Hope 6 funds for Walter P. “We had explored the possibility of applying, but it is not possible for us to do so at this time because the competition has gotten so much more than it was when we first got it in ’96 [for Mechanicsville],” says KCDC Director Alvin Nance. “We could make a strong case for most aspects, but we don’t have the leverage money.”

On Shelly’s lap perches Junior, Michael’s baby with a previous girlfriend, whose drooly heart-shaped mouth is in a permanent smile. “You could walk this whole project and know everyone, and people will help you out,” Shelly says, defending her home. “Why can’t they just fix up the buildings that are already here? We’ve been asking for simple improvements, like heat and air.”

But some problems are more serious than the lack of AC. Kristi is 19 years-old, with the long skinny legs to prove it. She holds a newborn, her second child, and stands in the yard watching the rest of the kids. There are six toddlers running around, sometimes shrieking in innocent pleasure, sometimes swarming around one little girl who’s happy to shove a forkful of buttered noodles into the other kids’ mouths when they give the open-mouth signal. Kristi actually worked at the IGA briefly before she was about to have her baby. She desperately wants to get out of The P. “I’ve been here since I was a baby, and I do not like it. It’s too violent. There’s shooting every night, and the cops don’t help. It seems like they’re scared,” she says in a shy, but grave voice. The sun flashes on her gold-colored mouthpiece that covers her four front teeth, etched with an indistinguishable design. “We do need some help down here. I want to better myself, and I need to get another job.”

Addressing blight and land mismanagement is another priority. In the Five Points/Burlington neighborhoods, KCDC has designated more than 700 residential properties as blighted, and is currently renovating 25 of them. “It’s a slow process. Nothing is a quick fix,” says Nance. “We’re hoping to stimulate interest from the private market in the community in order to increase ownership.”

Blighted, vacant properties aren’t the only land issues. The city’s façade-grant program will aid existing businesses, like the bleaker gas stations and storefronts on MLK, improve their aesthetics. Also, many sources for this story danced around the term “slumlords,” referring to the many rental properties here that are allowed to wallow in dereliction. McDaniel stresses the needed passage of a criminal property nuisance ordinance, which would crack down on bootleg apartments and codes’ violations.

While a mix of rental and owned housing can be healthy for a community, the redevelopment concept seeks, at least, to increase home ownership to create more of a balance. Knox Housing Partnership continues to encourage and aid first-time homeowners in the area. The theory is that people take a more vested interest in the community and the property when they own a house. “One of the reasons we got Wells Fargo as a tenant is that they are looking at emerging markets where renovations are happening,” says Thompson.

While there are still a good number of hurdles, the momentum is there in East Knoxville. Redevelopment of Knoxville’s urban neighborhoods—a trend that’s spread like a benevolent, uncontrollable weed throughout Old North Knoxville, Fourth and Gill and Parkridge, the borough just across Magnolia—seems inevitably headed for Five Points. It’s very much a part of the concentrated effort in reclaiming downtown and its surrounding areas. “Downtown and Park City [the historic term for East Knoxville neighborhoods] died simultaneous deaths when the two became cut off by the interstate,” says Brewer. “But I believe that downtown is coming back, and this is going to be the next area for people who want to live near downtown but not on concrete. Before the ’burbs were born, the people who lived in these neighborhoods were the ones who worked downtown.”

And though the area’s commonly called East Knoxville, its proximity to downtown should be noted. It’s a quick trip by car, bike, foot or bus from downtown or any surrounding neighborhoods, as Thompson stresses in hopes that these neighborhoods’ residents will come check out the new IGA. “Everyone is now on the same page—that you can’t just redevelop one part of town,” says Vice Mayor Brown. “You have to improve the whole city’s livability in order to make downtown viable. The arteries that lead to downtown must be viable.”

Instilling community pride, or more of it, is also of utmost importance. “It’s sad to me when you go to other cities and their MLK Boulevard is dilapidated,” says Brown. “One of the greatest things we can do as a government would be to be able to take a visitor from out of town around Knoxville and be proud to show them all parts of town.”

There’s a large poster of Martin Luther King, Jr. hanging near the entrance of Metro Village. It’s printed with the quote, “Keep the dream alive.” Intangible racial issues might not technically be part of the redevelopment plan itself, but the image of Wright, who’s white, and Thompson, who’s African-American, standing together in their store seems to foreshadow some progressive results in our city’s race relations, should this economic spurt happen in East Knoxville. “This is an example of keeping his dream alive,” says Wright.

For Thompson, that dream is evident in everything he says. Pulling the Denali to the side of Linden Avenue, he explains his vision with an ever-present mix of excitement and stern intensity. His hands gesture animatedly over the steering wheel in cadence with his words, but his face is still, eyes focused straight ahead. “It’s more than just a grocery store,” he says. “It’s about a total social redevelopment. To me, it’s kingdom building.”