cover_story (2006-32)

Cape Cod, Mass.

Rehabilitating the Homeless

Providence, R.I.

Community Art in Low-Income Housing Projects

Pittsburgh, Pa.

Another City, Another Strip

Charlottesville, Va.

A Real College-Town District

San Antonio, Tex.

Riverfronts at Pedestrian Pace

Portland, Ore.

Transit Innovations

Dublin, Ireland

Literary Tourism

London, England

Tourist and Taxi Alternatives

Chattanooga, Nashville and Memphis, Tenn.

A Historic Hotel

If you’ve never been to another city and thought, if only for a moment, Why can’t we do that in Knoxville , maybe you don’t travel much.

And if you’ve thought about stealing an idea, don’t lose any sleep over it. Every great city steals good ideas from other great cities. It’s what cities do for a living.

Knoxville stole several street names from Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York. New York stole its name from York. Memphis stole its name from ancient Egypt. West Knoxville developers swipe street names from London. We stole the name of our Civic Coliseum from Rome. Rome stole its architecture from Athens. Everybody steals from Athens. Nashville thought the idea of having a Parthenon in town was a pretty good one, so they took it. Paris had already done something similar.

Sometimes the imitations turn out to be more successful than the originals. The famous Riverwalk in San Antonio, which is mentioned in this feature, has spawned imitations all over North America, but was itself inspired in the 1920s by a young architect’s visit to Aragon, in Spain.

In 1893, Chicago put on a World’s Fair, taking the idea of municipal theft to a new level, establishing a model city of monuments and parks just so everybody could steal from it. Knoxville did. Even if the only thing we stole that lasted was the name of a neighborhood called Lincoln Park.

It often misfires, of course. In recent years, there have been proposals to build a Wintergarden like Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, and Habitrail-like inter-building tubes, like those in Minneapolis. Unfortunately for those who liked the wintergarden idea, they were part of the same proposal.

Much of what seems to work best in Knoxville today—First Friday gallery crawls, free outdoor concerts, lakefront marinas, upscale downtown condos, sidewalk cafés, youth soccer leagues, a giant fireworks event called Boomsday, a riverwalk and bike trail, street festivals (even a Dogwood Festival)—were pirated from other cities. We probably wouldn’t have a symphony, or an art museum, or even a giant football stadium if we hadn’t first noticed how well they worked elsewhere. None of that was invented in Knoxville. Judicious theft is three-quarters of municipal success. We just need to remember, always, to add our own spin.

Cape Cod, Mass.

“It taught me that there was a different way of responding to homelessness than just emergency shelters,” she says. “The basic idea is, rather than giving people emergency shelter and not requiring anything from them in return, you give them trust and a responsibility to keep the community going. It’s caring about them enough to hold them accountable.”

As an adult, Davis found herself living in Cape Cod, an idyllic, seaside region of Massachusetts with a surprisingly high incidence of homelessness; there are about 300 homeless people at any given time. Working at an emergency shelter, she witnessed the problem firsthand and began envisioning alternate solutions. Could a model based on the farming community her great-grandfather founded work in Cape Cod?

Davis drew up a detailed outline of how such a community might function. She proposed that the farm would be occupied by up to 60 residents, who would live in dorms and spend their days farming the land and learning vocational skills. “Rather than worrying about where they’re going to sleep tonight, they’re putting their energy toward something constructive. It’s really setting up a model where, rather than being recipients, the homeless are being treated as a vital component of a community,” Davis says.

In 2000 Davis presented the plan to the federal government, which responded with a housing grant to cover half the cost of purchasing a 47-acre tract of land in the Cape Cod town of Sandwich. She named it Dana’s Fields, after her great-grandfather’s Danish farm.

Initially, the town of Sandwich was hostile toward the plan, arguing that it would drive property values down and attract undesirable residents—criminals, drug addicts and the mentally ill. “They didn’t want the homeless in their backyard,” Davis explains. But Massachusetts’ so-called “anti-snob” zoning law, which allows zoning code exceptions for affordable housing, permitted Davis to go though with the plan. 

As construction begins, Davis’ vision is growing clearer. Instruction will be offered in areas such as computers and restaurants/hospitality, with a local culinary arts school volunteering instruction in the latter; food will be harvested from the land and on-grounds greenhouses; support and case-management services will be offered; and additional facilities will be built by the residents themselves. “These are skills that our local economy needs,” Davis says. “That’s how they’ll get jobs.” Meanwhile, outdoor activities such as horseback riding will foster a sense of self-reliance and healing. “It’s very therapeutic, working with the animals and the land,” says Davis.

Once the homeless are back on their feet, they may opt to pursue jobs elsewhere but continue living in Dana’s Fields’ low-income housing. The farm itself will be largely self-sufficient, with additional funding from donations.

Dana’s Fields is only one product of the housing-first approach that several cities across the United States are adopting. Rather than putting a Band-Aid on the symptoms (i.e. providing short-term shelter, but failing to address the situation that initiated the homelessness), the housing-first approach attacks the problem of homelessness from its roots.

It’s an approach that is at the cornerstone of Knoxville’s own Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. But could a housing-first model similar to Dana’s Fields reasonably be implemented here in Knoxville? It would likely run into similar roadblocks as it experienced in Cape Cod—funding, personnel, nobody wants it in their neighborhood, etc. But it’s a novel idea, and it might be worth a shot.

Providence, R.I.

Schlanger, a professor of art at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn., set up shop in a run-down five-car garage across the street from a Smith Hill crackhouse, where he set to work casting concrete statues of various endangered species native to Rhode Island. He offered to pay kids off the street minimum wage to assist him, made possible by a grant from a Providence youth program. Ten signed onto the payroll.

Over the course of a month, over 200 statues were created. To each one, a tag was attached, giving the name of the endangered species it depicted and outlining information about its plight. The statues were then given to residents of the neighborhood to place in their front lawns, as Schlanger hoped residents would identity with the animals as metaphors for their own survival.

Digital images of the actual animals were displayed as an art installation at the Smith Hill library, where sculptures were placed outside in an outdoor garden. A map of the residences with statues was created. 

In the end, the project not only engaged the community, but it gave it something unique and meaningful to be proud of. It’s a concept that Knoxville would do well to keep in mind as it continues its struggle to revitalize the city’s poorer neighborhoods—art does not discriminate, and neither should we.

Pittsburgh, Pa.

It’s where Pittsburghers go for fresh pasta or Italian sausage or bok choy. There’s parking in the street and in surface lots here and there, but on a Saturday afternoon, a lot of folks just walk from store to store to store until they get tired.

It can make a crazy optimist think of Sutherland Avenue. The neglected near-western artery already has some specialty shops, an interesting incipient art-gallery trade, and an ethnic character, thanks to nearby residences of foreign students and Mexican immigrants. Near the university, adjacent to the bike trail, it has an almost-walkable scale, and already the merest whiff of the aroma of Pittsburgh’s Strip—speaking of aromas, it will also soon have the JFG Coffee plant—and it would seem the likeliest place to found something similar. Or just encourage its natural evolution.

Charlottesville, Va.

The Cumberland Avenue Strip has had its ups and downs over the years, but has never had anything to compare with the business district of some smaller schools in some smaller cities—like Chapel Hill, Athens, or especially Charlottesville.

There, a section called the Corner, dozens of bars, boutiques, diners, and coffee shops, faces Jefferson’s venerable old campus. And they all seem to have their own distinctive character. Some are ancient, like a cramped old gyro shop; some riff on the latest hip-hop fashions. Do college-town atmospheres just evolve naturally? Maybe, but to look at the college section of Charlottesville, it seems almost as if chain franchises and uninteresting businesses have been banned by municipal ordinance.

According to city authorities, there’s no such ban. But chains who insist on their own way of running things may be intimidated by a few of Charlottesville’s idiosyncrasies, including a historic-overlay district established in the 1960s that keeps the place intact, a string of 40 smallish businesses—and a parking exemption that allows development without demanding that each development include designated parking places. A narrowing of Main Street to two lanes, with a consequent widening of the sidewalk, in the ’90s, slowed traffic and made the Corner a more a pedestrian neighborhood than ever. If chains don’t like it, local businesses seem to thrive. On one weeknight evening not long ago, there appeared to be more students out at the Corner than there typically are on the Cumberland Avenue Strip.

Back in Knoxville, even after the loss of lamented places like the Torch, the Quarterback, the Cat’s Meow, the Place, Raven Records, Sam & Andy’s, and the Last Lap, our Strip still has some charms: four, maybe five establishments that would be noticeable to visitors and memorable to alumni. But the trend of recent decades seems to lead only to greater and greater automobile accessibility and more and more dominance by chain franchises. One more building with sidewalk frontage is torn down in favor of a new building recessed behind a parking lot.

Call it free enterprise, but it’s as if some governing authority had decided, We know what the modern UT student wants—he wants to believe he’s on I-40, at the Cookeville exit. Cumberland Avenue should take the demise of O’Charley’s outdoor café culture and serve the crowds that used to pack its tables something new and distinctly different with it.

San Antonio, Tex.

But the description already fits for San Antonio’s world famous Paseo del Rio, AKA the San Antonio River Walk. Stretching nearly three miles from the city’s north end Municipal Auditorium to the King William Historic District in the south, the River Walk has been evolving for nearly 70 years now.

The project that became the River Walk was seeded in the 1920s, when a group of women founded the San Antonio Conservation Society to save the San Antonio River from being paved over, a plan that had gained favor after a major flood killed 50 people in 1921. The SACS’s efforts led to a plan—the fancifully titled “Shops of Aragon and Romula”—from landscape architect Robert H.H. Hugman, who along with engineer Edwin Arneson oversaw creation of the River Walk’s cobblestone paths, arched bridges and entrance steps between 1939 and 1941.

But the River Walk remained primarily an underutilized public park until 1968 and the coming of the HemisFair world’s fair to San Antonio. It was at that point that a new emphasis on downtown and riverside redevelopment began evolving the River Walk into the thriving tourist attraction it has become today. Topping the list of significant new developments: the Hilton Palacio del Rio, the first of several top-flight hotels that now operate on or near the downtown riverfront development.

According to Evelynn Bailey of the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau, San Antonio is now the No. 1 tourist destination in Texas, with the River Walk and the Alamo vying for tops on the city’s list of most popular attractions.

The elements in the River Walk should all sound strangely familiar to any Knoxvillian who’s been paying attention: a plan for an underused, roughly three-mile stretch of riverfront; plans for a center-city anchor hotel; determined downtown redevelopment efforts; the leavings of a World’s Fair. So what can our city learn from a fellow rivertown a thousand or so miles to the West?

“Probably the biggest thing is patience,” says Bailey. “It’s a continual process. Even now, the River Walk is still growing.”

Bailey notes that current plans call for the Walk to be extended through all five of the city’s historic Missions (of which the Alamo is one), stretching its length to a whopping 12 miles.

There are several obvious differences between the River Walk and Knoxville’s own riverfront plan. For one thing, the Knox development plan doesn’t call for a round-trip “Walk,” per se, though there is a section of the development area set aside for a waterside promenade.

And our plan is arguably less tourism-centric, oriented instead toward mixed-use development friendly to locals and visitors alike. Keep in mind, however, that Robert Hugman had little idea what he’d wrought when he set forward a blueprint for a park-like paved stroll back in 1930 or so. “The River Walk was much more of a local thing until downtown got going with HemisFair,” Bailey notes.

Knoxville’s riverfront plan calls for public and private development to unfold over 20 years. Some of the elements are similar to elements in the San Antonio River Walk—the aforementioned promenade, or the festival lawn planned near James White Parkway, which is not unlike the River Walk’s own outdoor theater.

Other components might even be coveted by folks in our sister city, including the Boathouse Row that would occupy the south river bank, or the outdoor recreation center slated for a South Knox quarry.

How will Knoxville’s riverfront compare to San Antonio’s River Walk in 20 years, when the current plan will have allegedly reached fruition? No one knows, but we’ll all have fun finding out. Perhaps it’s best we remember that it took San Antone 70 years to get its riverfront development to the point it is today. Even if our plan runs 15 years off schedule, we’ll still have beaten them by half.   

Portland, Ore.

As a model of urban comfort and amenity, however, Portland enjoys a solid reputation, bolstered by its modern streetcar line, light-rail system, traffic-calming initiatives, and strict enforcement of its urban-growth boundary. What might such initiatives mean for Knoxville? The answers: High cost and low controversy, not necessarily in that order.

Knoxville pulled up its streetcar tracks decades ago, where Portland reused some trackage still in place when it refurbished and extended the old line and bought new cars to carry passengers from the Portland State University campus at the downtown’s southwestern edge to a rejuvenating shopping district a little less than five miles away to the northwest. Opened in 2001, the cost of bringing the expanded line into service was under $100 million, borne locally, without federal dollars, through general revenues and increased parking fines and enforcement. The cars themselves, built in the Czech Republic, mirror those that course their way almost silently around the sterile streets of the Austrian capital of Vienna and cost about $2 million apiece.

It’s a pricey system, even with Portland’s existing-track savings, and it’s tied in with a much longer suburban light-rail system that was paid for mostly out of federal funds Portland garnered when its leaders scrapped an already approved freeway to nearby Mt. Hood.

The first 33 miles cost more than $500 million, including equipment, and another line half that long is expected to be double that cost, which relies heavily on federal grants. The light rail is expensive to operate, and those local costs are borne by a payroll tax and helped along by a city mandate that 1,600 businesses in the urban district with more than 50 employees provide their 400,000 workers with light-rail passes. That could be a tough sell in Knoxville, regardless of any federal participation.

The design of the light-rail and streetcar systems, with stations extending outward from street curbing to the rails, is a traffic-calming device in itself, but Portland has a host of others, including traffic circles at a number of street intersections, and a broad program of speed bumps, including the development of rubber speed bumps. The total Portland investment in traffic calming is difficult to put together, although it has run into the tens of millions of dollars and has required the expansion of public rights-of-way onto some previously private property.

Knoxville has a limited speed-bump program, concentrated in a few residential neighborhoods to discourage through traffic. And there are a couple of small traffic circles in the Fourth & Gill neighborhood, but that idea isn’t being sold here. Traffic circles prevail in many European cities, where they do calm traffic in Amsterdam, for instance, but tend to be regarded as little racetracks in Rome.

Like Portland, Knoxville has a state-mandated urban-growth boundary, but as applied here, it is mostly seen as a deterrent to the unfettered proliferation of city annexation initiatives. In Portland, it was used to encourage central city “densification,” and its success or favor is argued. It worked to “densify” new residential construction in the city, but it also widened suburban sprawl outside the district, causing the city to continually expand the boundary.

Requiring high-density development here would raise the hackles of private property-rights advocates, whether or not it might encourage widening of suburban, low-density sprawl.

Some of Portland’s best and least-controversial initiatives, such as its extensive development of bicycle lanes along urban arteries, are already gaining momentum in Knoxville. But the reason may be that they cost a lot less than transit expansion to include rail links or specific traffic-calming devices, and Knoxvillians seem to accept them better than, say, a mandate—or at least a broad set of bicycling incentives at public cost—for transit-alternative bicycle commuting, which Portland could easily be seen as enacting sometime in the future.

Dublin, Ireland

There’s the Bloomsday festival on June 16, celebrating all things James Joyce and commemorating the events in his tome, Ulysses . There are literary landmarks scattered throughout the city, with the Dublin Writers’ Museum being a particularly popular draw. There are guided and self-guided literary walking tours, and literary pub-crawls are just as popular amongst bookworms as they are amongst barflies. The appeal is universal: Even tourists who wouldn’t touch Ulysses with a 10-foot pole can be spotted leaning precariously over the railings of double-decker tour buses in an attempt to snap photos of the Martello Tower or Davy Byrne’s pub—two famous Dublin locales noted in the novel.

While Knoxville can’t lay claim to any James Joyces, we do have a James Agee, and a Cormac McCarthy, and a healthy literary tradition all of our own. With a little prodding, it could blossom into a cultural draw not just for nerdy English scholars, but anyone with an appreciation for literature’s ability to connect the present with the past. Last year’s James Agee celebration—a weeklong succession of films, talks and tours—was a success by all accounts, and it makes sense to build on that momentum with further literary events in the future. A self-guided tour of Knoxville’s literary landmarks, many of which we walk past everyday without acknowledgement, wouldn’t be a stretch, either, and literary pub-crawls are always a hit.

Other cities in our region have already taken a hint. More than a decade ago, for example, Asheville, N.C., began installing whimsical sidewalk art to show, without making a big snotty deal out of it, where O. Henry’s office was, with small statues, brass objects or mosaics imbedded in the concrete. Some of them are part of a 1.6-mile urban walking trail, but they may be best encountered accidentally, as little serendipities.

Knoxville could do something at least as good: a busted parking meter to illustrate a scene in Suttree ; a roll of Life Savers to illustrate a scene in A Death In the Family ; some lead type to show where Adolph Ochs began his remarkable career in journalism…just a little creative showing-off. Is our homegrown brilliance really a secret worth keeping?

London, England

Even the slowest pedestrians can walk from one end of downtown to another in less than half an hour, sans rickshaw. Not to be discouraged, we can still learn a thing or two from another friend across the Atlantic.

London, a city whose public transportation system is eons ahead of ours, has popularized a gimmick to bring in tourist dollars. It’s working, and the concept is spreading worldwide. The London Duck Tours take up to 30 passengers on an amphibious journey through the streets of London and the waters of the Thames. These amphibious trucks are revamped DUKWs (pronounced “duck” in civilian parlance), a type of vehicle that was originally used during WWII to storm the beaches of Normandy.

Leftover DUKWs have always found post-war use. In the late-’40s and ’50s, abalone fishermen in California used the trucks to carry their catches straight out of the water and to the fresh markets. Nowadays you can take a DUKW tour in Philadelphia, Portland, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Boston, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Halifax, San Francisco, Dublin, Liverpool and even Chattanooga. Amphibious tours have become so prolific that it may be argued that any city without DUKWs just isn’t happening.

Anyone who’s called a taxi in this town knows that there’s usually a horrendous wait. It’s often considerably longer than the dispatcher’s estimate, as 30 minutes turns into an hour, or however long it takes a taxi get downtown from McGhee Tyson airport.

The free trolley service’s late route and the KAT bus lines have allowed many bar-hoppers and Sundown in the City-goers to party hardy, without the buzzkill of keeping a designated driver in tow.

There’s a budding taxi service that is rumored to frequent London’s pub districts. The idea is a simple one: provide service to people who drive to the pubs, those people who aren’t apt to call a cab and leave their cars after a night of drunken revelry. Sure, it happens; a few weekend warriors will drive to the pub, and get thoroughly sloshed, far worse than they had anticipated. Rumor has it that, to help minimize this breed of drunk driver, a couple of plucky gearheads in London came up with the idea of using ultra-light motorcycles.

Of course motorcycle-taxis aren’t a novel concept. London’s Virgin Limobikes have been picking up new arrivals at Heathrow airport for years. And, in Thailand and Vietnam, the “motobike” is the preferred mode of transportation for tourists and locals alike. But this new, ultra-light business is something totally different, the result of a rare stroke of logistical genius.

Here’s how it works. Instead of calling a cab, an intoxicated partier, after realizing that driving home is a bad idea, will call for an ultra-light. Shortly thereafter, a funny-looking, almost clownish biker will arrive. His mini-motorcycle can be folded up compactly, and be safely placed in the customer’s trunk. The motorbiker will drive the customer’s car home, and the ultra-light will then be unpacked and driven back to the bar district. The customers will go about their business, secure in the knowledge that their car is safe and sound.

Knoxville probably isn’t big enough to sustain that kind of service, not yet. But it’s certainly a cool idea. We’ll know that downtown revitalization is here to stay when we get a kitschy ultra-light service of our own.

Chattanooga, Nashville and Memphis, Tenn.

In some cities, installing a real historic hotel where one doesn’t exist would seem a challenge to the time-space continuum. However, Knoxville actually still has two old hotel buildings that were converted to office use 30 or 40 years ago, the 1929 Andrew Johnson, now used as an office building mostly for the Knox County School system, and the 1919 Farragut. The AJ once hosted Sergei Rachmaninoff, Jean-Paul Sartre, Amelia Earhart, Tony Perkins, Duke Ellington, and famously, perhaps fatally, Hank Williams. The Farragut tucked in Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Merv Griffin, and South Vietnam’s President Diem, among others.

And that’s not even counting the much-smaller Lamar House, which operated as a hotel for more than a century. Parts of it seem underused, and might offer potential for at least a bed and breakfast, or youth hostel. Another thing downtown needs.