cover_story (2006-40)

How we got from there to here

It’s still there, on its different plane, its slightly altered dimension apart from the rest of downtown. The scale’s smaller, the altitude’s lower, and it’s an exception to the parallel lines that describe the downtown rectangle that starts from the river. The Old City’s like a northeastern annex to downtown—a patch of some other city imperfectly pasted onto the central business district. It’s a distinctive place, like nowhere else, with its impulsive jumble of old architecture, looking almost like a set for a low-budget movie about Studs Lonigan . People may forget what happened in any given strip mall, but the past adheres to the Old City like soot. That’s its asset, and its liability.

Of all the places in Knoxville that have the acquired the specific gravity to be called a “neighborhood,” the Old City may be geographically the smallest, just a cross of streets that seems fallen off the table of downtown Knoxville. You can stand in the intersection of Central and Jackson and see the whole thing.

But within that small space is an astonishing diversity of activities that draws hip-hop fans, antiquers, dramaturgs, Moms shopping for a kid’s birthday cake, middle-aged cigar smokers, born-again Christians, home decorators, neo-folkies, neo-hippies, neo-punkers, and a few tourists who come just to gawk at the others.

The Old City was reborn 20 years ago, or was it 25, with a certain retro dynamic, a shameless appeal to nostalgia. Today suburbanites who have lost their stomach for the nightlife could easily assume that it had, itself, become an artifact of the past, a fond memory from the ’80s and ’90s when we got silly at a St. Patrick’s Day street party, or took our kids to Spaghetti Warehouse, or cheered the sax like hepcats at Lucille’s courtyard, or saw some legendary bluesman up close, at Ella Guru’s.

There is, on the one hand, more going on after dark, especially in terms of live music, than ever before, and probably bigger wee-hour crowds than the place has seen since the city banned saloons in 1907. (For a short history of the district see www.metropulse.com .) The Old City has East Tennessee’s highest concentration of music clubs, maybe 10 of them within a two-minute walk of each other. Blue Cats and Barley’s both host nationally or at least regionally well-known rock, country, and folk acts on a semi-regular basis. Later at night, in its spartan brick bunker that sticks out for its plainness in this flamboyant neighborhood, the Pilot Light challenges, sometimes ambushes, its audiences with edgier bands: no Billboard stars, but often acts that have awed music writers in the big-city alternative press. The huge Red Iguana is one of the city’s most popular dance clubs, and the biggest hip-hop venue in town. New City Café offers Christian-based folk and rock on a regular basis, and Java features all-ages shows jammed with sober teenagers. Sullivan’s, Manhattan’s, Back Room Barbecue, Hanna’s, and the Urban Bar advertise live bands or DJs regularly, too.

After midnight, the sidewalks are sometimes teeming with hundreds of nightclub customers. First-time visitors make inevitable comparisons to New Orleans’ French Quarter.

A hot-dog vendor pushes his cart on the sidewalk after midnight, and a new pizza place caters to the crowd, for three nights a week, sometimes packed until it closes at 4 a.m.

Meanwhile, the Old City has seen a modest growth in residential development—one building at the south end of the district, stubbornly vacant even during the Old City’s most famous days, now contains three luxury condos, all occupied. Add the large condo project Fire Street Lofts, recently completed and almost fully occupied on the neighborhood’s western fringe, and it’s easy to believe there are more people living in the Old City now than in more than half a century—and more affluent people than have lived here, ever.

And most Old City restaurants, a couple of which require reservations, seem to be doing very well. Pasta Trio’s big windows serve as an advertisement for its popularity; you can pass by it several times in a night without spotting an empty chair.

At the same time, both Jackson and Central show a puzzling number of street-level vacancies, “For Lease” and “For Rent” signs. Some restaurants that used to have a lively lunchtime business now don’t even open until evening. Some think street-level non-restaurant retail activity— stores , that is—may be at a 20-year low.

The Old City Market, the small subterranean grocery/convenience store welcomed as a godsend when it opened about three years ago, now sells mostly snacks; shelves that used to have canned foods are now loaded with dry goods, even clothes. The several times we tried to drop in, it wasn’t open, with no hours posted. Neighbors say it closed due to damage from the recent flooding, but add that in previous months the grocery’s offerings had been spotty.

The architecturally clever mini-mall above the Melting Pot known as the Atrium, which once swarmed with customers during holiday season, is now nearly empty. A door marked “Downtown Development” opens into a bare office. Or it would, if it weren’t deadbolted.

The Old City Merchants Association, of which Scott West was once president, seems to have disbanded.

Old City people have been talking about Market Square a good deal lately. Especially after dark, Market Square and the Old City are downtown Knoxville’s two main nodes of activity.

Most Old Citizens like the spruced-up square, and are known to recommend a favorite Market Square restaurant or shop to a customer. And the regard goes the other way, too. One of the volunteers working the doors at a small Old City festival last weekend was a prominent Market Square entrepreneur.

The Old City still has bigger crowds on a typical weekend night than the square does, but boosters of Jackson and Central can’t help but notice that the appeal of the square lured a few businesses away from the Old City and also took some of Jackson and Central’s old reputation as the city’s official downtown party and festival spot. Hopeful rumors that the city and AC would next year move Sundown in the City to the Old City, where the popular free-concert series was held during the square’s construction, are apparently unfounded.

And beneath the surface, there’s some quiet exasperation that the city has spent millions more dollars on Market Square in the last four years than on the Old City in its entire history.

Paul Trausch is owner of 121 West Jackson, the former home of Earth to Old City. The unusual environmentally themed gift shop opened here in the early ’90s by the West family, recently in the news after some members of the family were indicted for drug-related money laundering. The store now has three locations, none of them in the Old City. The four upscale apartments upstairs are all occupied, and there’s a waiting list, but Trausch says he hasn’t found the right tenant for the ground level, which was a design firm for most of the period since the shop closed. He says most of the interest has come from the restaurant/bar sector which dominates the Old City, but “that’s not what my wife and I want to do.” He’s holding out for a retailer. He’s had interest from a photographic concern and a vintage-clothing store.

“The city has put so much money into Market Square it’s hard to believe,” says Trausch. “Meanwhile, they have totally neglected the Old City, which has been supporting downtown for years.”

Many Old City stalwarts say something similar.

“We’d like more help from city,” says Duane Carleo, proprietor of the new South Central pizza place called Davinci’s and also part owner of the restaurant-nightclub Hanna’s, across the street.

“Beautification. Look around. We’ve got no trees, no flowers, nothing. You can go up to Market Square, and it’s beautiful.”

Others envy the square’s façade-improvement grants. Though Market Square’s a little older, the current architecture in both spots is about the same age, mostly late Victorian, and has some of the same issues.

Old City proprietors and landlords are especially interested in getting a Market Square-style solution to the perennial parking issue. The city built a capacious and convenient parking garage, usually free on weekends and after business hours, beside Market Square, with a measurable positive impact on business. Free parking is hard to come by in the Old City, where some have been pleading for assistance for years. People obviously find ways to get there, late at night, at least, but it still has the most-expensive after-hours parking in town. Five bucks is a typical evening rate. It’s the only place in Knoxville where it’s more expensive to park in the evening than in the daytime.

Three years ago, Gloria Testerman, wife of former mayor Kyle Testerman—the couple owns a block of buildings on Jackson Avenue, including their own reportedly elegant condominium—made a plea for a KCDC study. She specifically proposed building a multi-level parking garage on a big empty spot of West Jackson, now one of the parking lots that charges premium prices in the evenings.

Various sites for such a project have been considered; that site reportedly has complicated ownership issues, and the large asphalt area behind John H. Daniel is owned by that men’s clothing company, which reportedly has resisted the prospect. (The venerable men’s tailoring concern swims against the Old City current in more ways than one; a letter to Donald Rumsfeld, taped in the window, dated July 2005, praises the embattled Secretary of Defense, recommending, “Stay the course. Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.”)

At this writing, there’s no solid prospect for an Old City parking garage. Besides the property issues, KCDC’s Dan Tiller says there’s no money coming from the city, still cash-strapped over the convention center, for such a venture. A private residential development that might include about 190 public-parking spaces near the Old City, at the northwest corner of Gay and Jackson, seems stalled, pending talks between the Atlanta developer and the city, and major engineering concerns.

More likely is a more modest initiative, supported by a petition submitted to the Knoxville Transit Authority board last week, and endorsed by Mayor Bill Haslam, to add the Old City to KAT’s free orange-line trolley service, which goes from downtown to UT all day on weekdays. Though KAT officials say an experiment with a lunchtime line a few years ago was a failure, supporters think a more regular all-day service, perhaps with evening routes as well, would be more successful. Jill Van Beke, of Haslam’s administration, sounds positive, while admitting that the added loop might mean somewhat less frequent service to other downtown stops.

KAT already offers weekend-evening service between the Old City and UT. Some make fun of it as the “drunk trolley,” not necessarily as a criticism; considering the transportation alternatives for people who’ve been drinking in bars, a “drunk trolley” could be one of the noblest public amenities around.

The city has, or had, its reasons for favoring Market Square. The comprehensive 1998 Urban Land Institute study of downtown Knoxville in the face of a convention-center proposal identified Market Square as “the heart of downtown redevelopment.” Though the report repeatedly mentioned the Old City as an important amenity, the report claimed that Market Square, then run-down and underdeveloped, was “of the utmost priority—it must produce a mixed-use, 24-hour activity center in the heart of downtown…sufficient city funding should be allocated to move forward….” Without a pumped-up Market Square as a walking-distance amenity for the convention center, they said, the whole project would likely fail. Market Square, seen as essential to the success of the most expensive building project ever—and, through the sales-tax recapture provision which applies to businesses within the CBID, as a way to help pay for it—became a city priority. (The Old City also contributes to that tax-recapture bonus, if slightly less completely; for reasons no one seems to remember, Barley’s, one of the Old City’s most popular businesses, is not included in the CBID.)

Subsequent private proposals like the Worsham Watkins plan, which attempted to connect the square to the fair site, failed, but kept Market Square on the city’s front burner. Eventually, the whole Chamber Partnership, and the CBID, moved their offices there.

Meanwhile, the convention center has sputtered anyway, but the die is cast.

Talking to Old City entrepreneurs, it’s hard to tell which is stronger: the resentment for being left out of discussions of downtown, and consequent distributions of public money—or pride that the neighborhood has survived, and often thrived, without major public help.

“We tend to get left out a lot,” says Renée Sanábria, proprietor of Java, the 17-year-old coffee house that sells between 100 and 200 cups of coffee every day, 363 days a year. “There’s very much a DIY ethic down here. If we want to do something, we do it ourselves.”

Frank Gardner is one of the Old City’s original investors. “I feel like I should be cast in stone and put on a sidewalk somewhere,” he laughs. More than 30 years ago, he and Kristopher Kendrick bought  the old Sullivan’s Saloon building, the neighborhood’s turreted architectural landmark, then threatened by neglect. It was more than a decade later that they were finally able to open it as a bar and restaurant. Long proprietor of Jackson Avenue Antiques, Gardner is still a major player in the Old City, now in charge of Manhattan’s, Sullivan’s, and Backroom Barbecue, which is merging with Sullivan’s as one big restaurant.

“The Old City was developed by private individuals,” Gardner says. “Call them visionaries, entrepreneurs, whatever you want to call them, they did it without public help.” He sounds almost proud of that, but he wouldn’t turn down some assistance. Gardner is a polite, friendly guy for a landlord, but sounds a little frustrated when it comes to the issue of public help.

In the latter ’90s, when the Old City suffered a general downturn, Gardner says, “The city was getting tax revenues, and saw the big falloff down here. I never understood why they didn’t try to help. Help with supplying affordable parking, at least. At the time, they said they couldn’t do that.

“Parking lots down here were just gouging people,” he says. “The city said they couldn’t help. Funny thing, they made it work for Market Square.”

To be fair, the district did get some public help here and there; in 1999, the city pitched in $35,000 for the Old City Courtyard, sometimes well-used for festivals, like the 2003 Sundown series, and the annual ska festival, which brings in thousands. Around the same time, KUB invested almost twice that much to resurface the streets in a more manageable version of the intersection’s original brick surface. But the investment’s never been anything on the six or seven-figure scale seen on Market Square, Gay Street, or the riverfront.  

“We need to make sure the Old City is included downtown. There’s not a trolley route downtown. People at hotels, tourists, can’t get to the Old City. If they do, they’re always asking, ‘How can we get back to our hotel?’ The Old City is left out of the loop.”

Signage is another concern Old City entrepreneurs have mentioned over the years. Tourists often walk around downtown and never come across the Old City. To get there from the rest of downtown, they have to cross Summit Hill, the highway-like divided road. The fact that it’s a diminutive place makes it less than obvious. Last Saturday evening, a man with a British accent was standing at the intersection of Gay and Jackson, talking on a cell phone. “I’m at the corner of Jackson now, by the bridge. Where is it? I don’t see it!”

And there’s not much to lure you. Its diminutive size and off-track location keeps it invisible from much of downtown. Only the JFG factory sign rises above the skyline to tell you where it is. The old coffee factory, which has kept the neighborhood fragrant since the 1920s, was scheduled to have moved to Sutherland Avenue by this past summer, but is still there.

Despite his complaints, Gardner’s found reason to expand his business—for the first time since the ’80s, Manhattan’s is growing in size, soon to include an oyster bar, he hopes before fall is over. That accounts for one of the puzzlingly empty retail spaces.

In a few weeks, Christmas decorations will be going up on Gay Street and in Market Square. “Do you see any decorations from the city in the Old City?” Gardner asks, and answers, “No, you don’t.”

“But I’m upbeat about the Old City,” he says. “I wouldn’t be here if I weren’t. We do go through some peaks and valleys, no question about it.”

At Legacy, Janice Fuqua sells, by her own description, “vintage clothes, furniture, a lot of kitsch,” most of it from the ’50s and ’60s. “It’s the funky end of the collectibles.” Her store’s like a museum of mid-20th-century American pop culture. With a suburban-1960s hairstyle and glasses to match it, she fits right in.

She opened the place on South Central about a decade ago, and at one time had much more traffic than she does today. “I had big parties. I’d stay busy sometimes until 11 or 12 o’clock. Now it’s like a ghost land on Saturdays. It’s not the same crowd.

“Foot traffic has dropped off. During the day, it’s me and Java. At least, that’s what it seems like. And there’s the new hair salon. That’s nice.” She says she sometimes has as few as six customers in a day—though in the 15 minutes she talked to a reporter in the early afternoon, three earnest browsers walked in. 

“Lucille’s would bring people in,” she says of the much-lamented live-jazz restaurant and bar that, with its predecessor Annie’s, was popular for about 15 years. “Some tourists, more sophisticated people. They’d come in and buy stuff. Now it’s college kids. They bring money to drink with, and nothing else.”

“For me, it’s a triangle. Me, Java, Pilot Light. We all have the same customer base. It’s not mainstream Knoxville. The artist/musician crowd is kind of the mainstay.”

“There are too many restaurants and bars,” Fuqua says. “Not enough retail to keep the day traffic going.

“One thing that caused the downfall is that one or two people own way too much property. You want a place like Asheville, you need more individually owned, small businesses,” says Fuqua. As landlords and entrepreneurs expand their holdings, there may be a trend in the opposite direction.

She says she suspects one major landlord who owns a couple of nightclubs across the street “wants to turn it into another Strip,” while another major absentee landlord “is content to let buildings sit unoccupied.” It’s a complaint voiced by several business people down here, that certain property owners are asking rent higher than what the market will support for many street-level spaces, and that the price doesn’t come down even after the place sits vacant for months.

Kristopher Kendrick, widely regarded as the founder of the Old City, still owns much of it. He bought the Patrick Sullivan’s Saloon when it was a slum in the early ’70s. “Everybody wanted to commit me. It was a labor of love,” he says. “Anything I could afford to buy, I’d buy. That’s what I did, just to keep it from being torn down. I never dreamed I’d make a living out of it.”

At 72, Kendrick lives at another historic building he owns: the St. Oliver, on Market Square. The Old City’s godfather knows about the its booming nightlife only by hearsay. “I’m never out after 8,” he says. “I go to Sullivan’s for Sunday lunch. That’s my nightlife.”

He’s happy about the Old City’s successes, mentioning a couple of restaurants, but also a lesser-known antique imports firm on East Jackson called Old City Collections. “All the designers in town use them. They have such high-quality merchandise, furniture, rugs, light fixtures.”

He says the only Old City vacancies he’s aware of are in buildings now owned by the John H. Daniel Co. on Central, including the former oriental rug store. “I don’t think they even want to fool with renting it,” he says. “Those people make so much money in their clothing business, they’re not interested in being landlords.”

“The only thing we have available, and it’s not really available, because we really need it, is the building we’re using for storage.” He does occasionally sell an antique building accessory to customers who want to visit by appointment.

“Since we sold the Emporium, we badly need it. There are things I’m just not prepared to part with at this point in my life.” In a similar situation is the old Big Don’s “elegant junk” shop. It’s officially for sale, but it’s said that the owner wants $350,000 for it. Ramona Buttry, who has worked daily at the Costumier since before there was anything called an Old City, has always viewed the renovated district’s fortunes with an almost amused detachment. As a costume supplier for numerous parties and plays, her business is not much affected by how well the restaurants and bars are doing. She did fine in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when the place was desolate, and she stays busy now.

Caught on a Wednesday afternoon, she says, “I’m tired. I’ve had customers, and I just finished 60 costumes for a Maryville High play.” As she’s talking, four portly young people in Goth colors appear; they drove into Knoxville from Morgan County just to look for pirate costumes.

Asked about the prospects of the Old City, she offers a mischievous smile and says, “It comes and goes, doesn’t it?”

Across the street from the Old City’s seniormost entrepreneur is one of its newest.

The Old City has always bred one-of-a-kind businesses, and Lox, one of the district’s newest retail establishments, is one. It doubles as a modest consignment art gallery.

Significantly, it occupies a spot formerly inhabited by Barnes & Barnes, a beauty salon that moved to Market Square a few months ago. The transition seems symbolic of recent changes here.

“We do more punk-rock styles,” says proprietor Brynn Phillips. “There’s not any place in Knoxville that does that. We do dreadlocks, extensions, mohawks. That’s what people want, people our age, anyway.” Phillips is 25, but has a couple of years’ perspective in the Old City; she used to work at Java.

After a couple of months in business, she says, “It’s going really good, actually. More people are moving to this area. A lot of our clients live right around here and on Gay Street. We’ve gotten quite a few walk-ins.” Her haircuts, beginning at $20-28, are lower than most beauty salons.

“It’s such a perfect spot,” she says. “Barnes & Barnes had an older clientele. In the Old City, you get a younger crowd.” In the last couple of years, she says, “we’ve seen a lot more people walking around the Old City. In that period of time, it’s getting to be more of a hangout, especially for people my age and younger. Market Square is more upscale. The Old City is more like the punk-rock scene.”

Even older denizens appreciate that mood. Retired public-radio disc jockey and Knoxville Symphony Orchestra violinist Norris Dryer has lived in a South Central walkup for about a year and a half. “I like to call it Knoxville’s Greenwich Village,” he says. “It’s the closest thing we have. In New York, Greenwich Village is defined as the opposite of the Upper East Side, the Upper West Side,” he says. “Here, that’s Market Square. It’s a little seedier down here, a little more diverse. It’s a very interesting neighborhood.”

It’s funny to remember when things were the other way around. In 1994, when Market Square was home to Mercury Theater, the Printer’s Mark Bookstore, and the Snake Snatch, the News-Sentinel quoted some young artsy sorts as favoring Market Square as bohemian mecca; they called the Old City as it was 12 years ago “snobby” and “pretentious and expensive.”

Today, though, almost everyone in the Old City refers to the rest of downtown as “up there” and the Old City as “down here.” It might be useful, as was proposed more than a century ago, to distinguish them as Uptown and Downtown.

The punk hairdresser’s former employer, Renée Sanábria, has been proprietor of Java for four years. The mother of all Knoxville coffeehouses of the espresso era, Java opened in 1989, a decade before the first Starbucks made it to town.

“I’ve got a lot of caffeine junkies that come in here. Half the time I use the espresso machine, it’s for a redeye. I sell about one cup a day of decaf.”

She also sells a surprising variety of offbeat food, including a vegan chili that has become locally famous, and there’s a significant lunch business.

“It’s more of a community than a store,” Sanábria says. “I see it like a salon during the French Revolution.” It sounds like hyperbole, but some days, sitting in the midst of caffeine-fueled conversation, it’s credible. “It’s a place where people with interesting ideas can come together, where alternative ideas are discussed.”

She’s upbeat about the Old City, which she thinks is improving. “It’s now more daytime-friendly” than when she bought the business four years ago, she says, thanks in part to new businesses like Davinci’s, Lox, and Magpie’s, the well-known bakery which moved in across the street a couple of years ago.

“With the punk-rock salon and Host up there, it’s getting to be like Little Five Points,” she says of the boho commercial district in Atlanta. Host, brand new tenant in a former clothing-store space facing Jackson, is a work in progress. It’s where a couple of young self-described street artists silkscreen T-shirts for local restaurants and others, plot provocative performance-art events, and sell art on commission. It’s presently more an idea than a retailer. Partner Craig Kandel says they hope to sell records someday. A record/CD store of any sort has been mysteriously absent from downtown for years.

Host is “A place to do whatever comes, whatever we need to do, that we can get away with,” Kandel says. “A space to execute whatever comes into our brains.”

As much as Sanábria likes it, she says the neighborhood needs a lot: brochures about the neighborhood for visitors and an updated website, to begin with. City websites concerning the Old City are often embarrassingly dated. One prominent arts organization’s website still recommends the Platinum Lounge, an Old City nightclub that closed years ago. In fact, its whole building was bulldozed for the interstate widening project early last year.

Mention the CBID, and Sanábria says, “CBI Who? We don’t have anyone encouraging businesses to move down here. Market Square got a lot of help from the city. Down here, there’s such a DIY ethic. Everything goes to Market Square. I don’t want to feel bitter about that, but I wish the city would see downtown as a whole.”

Like a lot of downtown entrepreneurs, even the most liberal ones, she mentions the homeless. Except she doesn’t use that euphemism, favoring a more old-fashioned term.

“The bum situation is something I have to think about all the time,” she says. She employs four people in her business, and says she rejected one applicant who was otherwise “absolutely perfect” for the job just because she was too small and vulnerable. “People will take advantage of you,” she says.

A patron of the Knoxville Cigar Company, across the street, says even his firefighter colleagues are intimidated by panhandlers. Some blame the proximity of the mission on Gay Street. Property owner Trausch says the panhandlers are more a problem here than in his former home of Chicago, and scare his tenants.

David Chappell of the Complex is repeatedly astonished at assumptions he hears about the Old City in West Knoxville. “They think it’s too dangerous! I feel safer here than I do at the parking lot at West Town at nine o’clock at night. Yes, you’re probably going to get panhandled, and if it bothers you, you can go into any store and call the police. As long as we have the Greyhound station (a block away to the north), and the missions, we’ll have some of that.” Most cities have panhandlers, but he says, flatly, “Denver does not have the problem,” thanks to legislation that forbids it.

Davinci’s Pizza is a plain, simple place, by Old City standards, but it offers one unusual amenity concerning its hours of operation. Proprietor Carleo says the Old City reminds him of downtown Hoboken, in his native New Jersey. He thinks it’s on a strong upswing.

“It’s definitely changed for the better in the last couple of years,” he says. “There are more residents. It’s definitely going up.”

He shrugs about the vacancies visible from the street. “Restaurant business comes and goes,” he says. “I think there were more vacancies three or four years ago.”

Unlike some retail spots, Carleo is in a position to capitalize on both daytime and nighttime traffic. Davinci’s is the first downtown restaurant in several years to keep serving deep into the wee hours. “We do good lunch business,” he says, and with a large, meal-sized slice of multi-topping pizza for $2 flat, tax included, it may get a reputation as downtown’s least expensive lunch spot. But they do more business other times of day.

“We’re the only place in all of downtown that’s open ’til 4.” It’s understood that he means 4 a.m., Thursday through Saturday nights—that is, Friday through Sunday mornings. “We get hit pretty hard after the bars close.”

Several make it sound as if there are two distinct demographic groups vying for dominance of the Old City. The college-age nightclubbers (the “puke on your shoes crowd” as one calls them) and the smaller but more loyal and regular demographic of artists and musicians who live in the area and sponsor events like the new silkscreen workshop and art gallery known as Host, whose First Friday event in September invited visitors to indulge their secret fantasies of being monsters attacking a model city. It was such a success that people are talking about it a month later.

But the Old City’s a complex place, and several businesses don’t fit that same us-versus-them dynamic.

At the Complex on a Friday morning, a middle-aged woman from Philadelphia, in town for a convention, is trying on some earrings made from prismatic glass by a technique refined for the space shuttle, and seems a little mesmerized. Looking in a mirror, she’s reporting what she sees carefully, as if from outer space. “Oh, yes. Greens, purples. Now it’s gold!”

“Now hold your hair up,” says proprietor David Chappell. “Oh, yes,” she says. “More golds.” 

Chappell calls himself a dinosaur, an independent businessman who deals mainly with suppliers and customers. The upscale shop he runs in the Old City fit in very well when he opened it here in 1992, when he remembers the West Knoxville wealthy would arrive in furs and Mercedes, especially to go to Annie’s/Lucille’s or some of the other shops and galleries in the area.

He’s among the last to represent a market that was once the Old City’s focus. George Scott, who was the longtime proprietor of one of the neighborhood’s first retail establishments, Old City Mercantile, has made a study of the evolution of the place, which he characterizes as the crucible of downtown Knoxville’s revival. He says that in the first years after Kendrick, Benny Curl, Peter Calandruccio and others renovated the Old City, the neighborhood’s original concentration was women. To be more specific, affluent, mature women from West Knoxville. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, when the Old City was a district of quiche and chablis and torch songs, they came here to find fashion accessories and home decorations, or to try some haute cuisine and listen to some soft jazz. Scott considers his business a success, but left the Old City in the late ’90s when his original clientele seemed to be dwindling there. It’s different now, Scott admits, but he’s still fond of it.

Chappell still caters to that original clientele. He calls his stock “approachable art. My things are by-and-large handmade. I deal with glass blowers and potters. My pieces are somewhat expensive, but not all of them. People think they are expensive; they see the $1,000 vase, but don’t see the $15 piece next to it.”

He mentions the Barbara Mellen earrings the Philadelphia lady was trying on for size, which are just $20 a pair. “They’re internationally distributed, but I’m the only one in Tennessee who sells them,” he says. “I sell four dozen pairs a month.”

Originally from Michigan, Chappell was once employed as a dramatic costume designer in New York. He later taught costume design, but in the early ’70s bought an odd store on 17th Street. Run by a couple of Peace Corps vets, it dealt mostly in South American imports, and was called the Artists’ Complex. He quit 17th in the late ’80s when he didn’t like the direction the once-eclectic Strip seemed to be heading (“fast-food joints and beer joints”) and first tried his luck at Western Plaza. He did business there, but had some taste issues to deal with; he didn’t like what his customers demanded. So in ’92 he moved to the Old City.

A year or two ago, some overheard him threatening to quit, but for now he seems to be staying put.

“The neighborhood is a rollercoaster. Ten years ago, the Old City was more developed than Market Square is now. The neighborhood was more hopping than I’ve ever seen Market Square. We had a variety of things, shops, restaurants, entertainment venues.” He’s skeptical of the opinions of the young about either place. 

“That’s why they’re so myopic, they’re too young, they don’t remember it. I’m a senior citizen, and I’m cranky.”

He does have quite a few complaints, some of them legitimate. The construction that has closed the Old City off from the interstate is one shared by Gardner and others.

 “Market Square is a shopping mall without a roof on it. It’s too ‘of the moment.’” But when a customer asks for a recommendation of a lunch restaurant, he immediately mentions the square’s La Costa, calling it the best Mexican food he’d had in America.

If you were to guess who sells the biggest-ticket retail item in the Old City, it wouldn’t necessarily be Chappell’s handmade vases. 

The Knoxville Cigar Co. isn’t punk, it’s not frat, and it’s definitely not female. On a weekday afternoon, a man in a short-cropped gray beard, a blue blazer, and a straw hat is sitting in an easy chair in the window, smoking a cigar and reading a magazine.

The place is much bigger and deeper than you think, about 2,200 square feet just in the public portion, with a sort of bar in back, where people sit at stools, order cigars from across the counter, and smoke them. Calling it nostalgic doesn’t quite cover it.

If an affluent urban American male, who died in the ’30s or ’40s—say, Babe Ruth, or Al Capone—were revived and sent to 118 S. Central for reorientation, there’s not much that would startle him. Lots of dark wood, the smell of a good cigar, fine briar pipes in the display case, and, in the private clubroom in back, a poker table. Okay, there’s also a big-screen TV back there, but it’s on only for football games and fights. The background music sounds something like the hit parade on CBS radio in 1939.

It’s not a very busy place in the daytime, but often has customers, sometimes very laid-back customers. The guy in the straw hat hardly moves during our half-hour visit.

“We get all kinds, college kids of the legal age of 18 up to 75,” says Chris Whaley, an enthusiastic tobacco aficionado who’s the equivalent of bartender. “We open at nine,” he says, “but sometimes there’s nobody before noon. Then from two to nine on the same day, we might be slammed. Twenty-five is a good crowd. If business is booming, we stay open ’til 10.”

The place has been here for four years. “The Old City is a great place for it,” says Whaley. “The bar scene, there always seems to be something going on down here.”

Many customers come in alone, looking for something to do, and their specialized library gets a workout, Whaley says. “We have pipe magazines, poker magazines, golf magazines, gun magazines. You name it.”

The cigar bar in back is also a display case with the widest variety of pipes in town. One, carved by well-known pipe craftsman Jess Chonowitsch, goes for $2,000.

Dave Frazier’s sitting at the cigar bar. He’s a Knoxville firefighter, and says the place is especially popular with his colleagues. He got acquainted with the Knoxville Cigar Co. while he was recovering from a shoulder injury suffered during a fire. He’s happy to show a reporter around the private room shared by members of the Locker Club. There’s a domino table, an eight-chair poker table, the big-screen TV, a sink and a refrigerator, and 20 humidors, each with an engraved brass nameplate. Twenty guys pay $300 a year to be members. “A lot of people’s wives won’t let them smoke at home,” he explains. The Knoxville Cigar Co. is a rare solution to that problem.

So older retailers like Gardner, Fuqua, and Chappell say foot traffic is down. Phillips, Carleo, and Sanábria all claim foot traffic is up.

As always, a lot of how the Old City is perceived depends on perspective, and one’s own experience with the place.

In the next few weeks, heavy-metal band Gwar is playing Blue Cats, as are the cult proto-grunge band Melvins. The Pilot Light is drawing Steve MacKay, hardcore saxophonist formerly of the Stooges. Even the Red Iguana, the chain dance club that draws undergraduates by the hundreds and is generally regarded with skepticism by those who’ve never visited, has recently drawn nationally known hip-hop performers like Paul Wall and Haystak.

And just down the sidwalk, on Nov. 2, the Knoxville Cigar Co. will host a cigar-tasting event which may pack the joint.

The Christmas-shopping season may not be the big deal in the Old City it once was, but when customers come down to see shows and sundry other events in the Old City, Davinci’s may serve them pizza, and Lox may cut their hair, Magpie’s may sell them a fancy cake, Java may sell them a cup of coffee. If it all gets too noisy, the rich people upstairs may call the cops. It’s a neighborhood. A weird neighborhood, maybe, but a neighborhood.

“To have a business down here, it takes a certain kind of rebel,” says “approachable art” purveyor Chappell. “Each rebel has his own wagon to pull, and if you can get them into a parade, more power to you.”

Today, one retail businessman says he’s “very happy” with the Old City, while another admits, “I could make so much more money on eBay.” But it’s the place, that matters, this odd intersection that reminds some of Little Five Points, or Greenwich Village, or downtown Hoboken or, as one teenage regular relates, Diagon Alley, the secret business district in the Harry Potter stories. “It’s small and hidden, with lots of weird stuff, just like that,” she says.

Janice Fuqua recently had some out-of-state customers, a couple of them from Berkeley, Calif., who noted the unusual radio station she was listening to, WDVX. “I said it’s just up there, around the corner on Gay Street, and they went up to see. I was really proud of it.”

She adds, of herself, Java, and Pilot Light: “We’ll all stay in business whether we make any money or not. It’s what we do.”

The Old City: A History

by Jack Neely

Depending on how you judge it—and true to form, everyone judges it differently—the Old City, as a renovated retail/entertainment district, is about 20 years old.

Annie’s surprising little bistro opened in early ’83. At that time, there was an art gallery, a couple of studios, the office of a lifestyle monthly, and of course Big Don’s junk and costume shops, which were already down here in the ’70s.

But it was about 20 years ago, when Manhattan’s, formerly a Greek-owned chili parlor of the 1920s called the Manhattan Café, reopened as a bar and nightclub, that college kids and middle-class professionals from West Knoxville started going down to the Old City expecting to find something to do.

Part of the appeal was the novelty of the place. Though for more than a century the intersection of Jackson and Central has been the fulcrum from which addresses all over Knox County are counted—and determined to be East, North, West, or South—it was one part of downtown that many white middle-class West Knoxvillians, even those who shopped downtown at Miller’s and Penney’s, had never seen except when lost.

When the Old City began stirring, the old central business district had been deteriorating into an unglorified office park for years. The affluent residents were long gone, the last movie theater had closed, and most of the department stores had moved to the malls. Much of what retail remained was dowdy and very conservative, open just during bankers’ hours, seeming to cater to older folks who hadn’t yet heard about the malls.

The Old City was suddenly there, East Tennessee’s best chance to experience the unpredictable fun of urbanity, even if it was concentrated in this one four-block cross, hardly more than a couple of acres.

It boomed for about a decade, drawing thousands to its big St. Patrick’s Day street parties and big, weeks-long Christmas festivals. By 1992, according to entrepreneur George Scott, who has assembled a presentation about the Old City’s growth, almost 90 percent of the district’s floor space was occupied by either residents or retailers, and the Old City supported close to 50 businesses.

Beginning sometime in the mid-’90s, the place started to stumble.

It was the summer of ’96 when, in a dark and untended parking lot near the Old City, a young woman was kidnapped, taken to another part of town, and raped. A couple of years later, a young man who had challenged a couple of toughs in a nightclub was shot to death in a drive-by. Though the incidents were very unusual, statistically on a par with a rabid bat attack, they spooked Knoxville. The miscreants were all caught and charged, but the press jumped on the story as if the Old City itself were to blame. Similar crimes had happened elsewhere, even in West Knoxville, but there’s something about the brick walls of a downtown that holds memories longer. Some Old City sorts are still bitter about the daily’s almost comical “CRIME IN THE OLD CITY” coverage, with pulp-novel graphics, and statistics about robberies and break-ins presented prominently even as police were insisting that West Town Mall had worse numbers.

The local TV news was, if anything, worse, using shaky cameras and spooky angles, à la Blair Witch Project, to give viewers a chilling look at the perilous Old City. Frank Gardner remembers when a prostitution bust on Magnolia, several blocks away, was covered by a reporter standing “on the scene” with the Old City Mercantile in the background.

The coverage was hyperbolic, but the situation was a faint echo of another time when the city was condemned for ignoring the serious problems down on Central Street. During the era when most of these buildings were built, murder was as common as cocaine.

Everybody who talks about the Old City’s past simplifies the story a little. It was the red-light district. It was the immigrant district. It was the Warehouse District. It was the African-American district. It was called “the Bottom.” It was called “Irish Town.” It was called “the Bowery.”

In fact it was all those things, sometimes several of them at once. One thing it wasn’t, though, was the “original” or “oldest” part of Knoxville. In other cities—Jerusalem, say—the “Old City” is the ancient section from which the city grew. But this northeastern neighborhood, downhill from Gay, was a relative latecomer, hardly developed at all until Knoxville was more than 60 years old. The original city of Knoxville was on high ground, prudently snug on the bluff overlooking the river. The lower area, when speculators developed it at all, was relegated mostly to some mills that used First Creek to run waterwheels and evacuate waste. Part of it was fetid swampland, known a little euphemistically as the Flag Pond. Some blamed it for the deadly plague that afflicted Knoxville in 1838.

It changed, suddenly and radically, in 1855, when the half-forgotten former state capital of Knoxville finally got railroad service. The bottomland was better suited to railroad elevations than the real old city up on the hill, and the East Tennessee and Virginia and Georgia lines, which eventually coalesced into part of the Southern Railroad, came through. It was motive enough to fill in the swamp for Knoxville’s first freight and passenger depot.

The movement to embellish the area into an urban commercial district was apparently led by the man for whom the Old City’s most distinctive building is named. Patrick Sullivan was an Irish immigrant and Union veteran whose successful saloon became the hallmark of a neighborhood.

Beginning in the 1850s, the Irish, who came to the growing town to work on the railroad and other local industries, settled around the northern fringes of downtown because it was near their work and especially because it was near the only Catholic church in East Tennessee. Immaculate Conception was established up on the hill overlooking what came to be known to a generation as Irish Town.

Originally there were only a few mills in the area, attracted to First Creek, but the proximity of the railyards made it equally attractive to wholesale businesses, which could unload directly from freight cars. Jackson Avenue was built to serve that purpose; buildings on its north side could unload from freight cars in the back, and sell to customers in the front.

Central, a pre-existing street then known as Crozier, was the corridor from the riverfront wharves to the wholesale/warehouse district. It catered to the needs and desires of itinerant working men: saloons, pool halls, whorehouses, cocaine bars known as “drugstores,” sandwich shops, and occasionally a missionary church. At one time, the street supported 20 legal saloons. It became known matter of factly, even in news reports, as the Bowery, likely for its similarity to the rough Manhattan neighborhood. It was a dangerous place, often visited by reformers; fights were everyday affairs, and it was not unusual for the Bowery to see a murder nightly for a week or more.

Still, it was an exciting place that captured the imagination of an open-minded reporter now and then, and sometimes witnessed things never before seen in East Tennessee. Tamales and chili, probably the first Mexican food ever seen in Knoxville, were sold on the Bowery section of Central around the turn of the century, when other Knoxvillians were subsisting on boiled chicken. What was probably Knoxville’s first internal-combustion automobile was the one manufactured by hand in a bicycle shop on Vine near Central by a young bike mechanic named Cowan Rodgers around 1899.

Prohibition came to Knoxville early, partly thanks to the efforts of Wild West outlaw Harvey Logan, a.k.a. Kid Curry, apprehended after shooting a couple of Knoxville cops in a Bowery saloon in 1901. For zealous prohibitionists, the Kid provided the bad example they needed, proof that saloons were no good.

Because rents were cheap, the area remained appealing to Knoxville’s poorer classes, which included blacks and immigrants, which, very early in the new century, included a significant number of Greeks. By 1910, Greek commerce in Knoxville was concentrated on one block between Vine and Jackson, which then supported several Greek-owned restaurants.

By then, the more prosperous Irish were leaving for the suburbs a few blocks to the north. Irish started out poor, but were upwardly mobile. Greeks followed their paths out. Blacks didn’t. In the early 20th century, Knoxville blacks began struggling with Jim Crow restrictions stricter than any they’d known in the late 19th century.

Though most of the buildings and businesses were still owned by whites, the old neighborhood catered more and more to the blacks who still lived nearby. By then, the area was known as the Bottom. A few blacks, like the enterprising Cal Johnson, did own businesses in the area. Besides his famous chain of saloons, in both black and white parts of town, he established one of the city’s first cinemas, a short-lived experiment on Central. Soon, though, there’d be a large and permanent black movie house at Central and Vine known as the Gem.

Knoxville was content to leave the area unimproved for most of the 20th century. Suburban whites in need of manual labor would drive down there early in the morning where, at the corner of Jackson and Central, black laborers would line up for yard work. Some remember the various secondhand shops of Central as like a Middleastern bazaar. It was this era that Cormac McCarthy described in Suttree : "along Central where loud and shoddy commerce erupted out of the dim shops into the street…a market ripe with sweat and the incendiary breath of splo drinkers…” Splo has various definitions, but is always illegal alcohol.

A lot of what happened in the early 1980s had to do with a colorful Sequoyah Hills hairdresser named Kristopher Kendrick. He bought Sullivan’s old saloon and some other buildings in the early ’70s, but it wasn’t until the mid-‘80s that he found interested developers. Most Knoxvillians never heard of the Old City until 1983, when Annie’s opened.

Annie DeLisle was a onetime professional dancer from England and the ex-wife of novelist McCarthy, who had recently moved to Texas. Though some claimed the restaurant she opened was Knoxville’s finest, quite a few were dismayed by her choice of location. Many West Knoxvillians needed specific directions about how to get there, and where to park.

There was at the time a design studio on Jackson called Handprints, and a few hangers on, like Big Don’s Elegant Junk and its companion business, Big Don’s the Costumier.

Something new was going on downtown, some spell was broken, and even those cynical about the taste or earnestness of the venture have to admit it may have had something to do with the World’s Fair.

In the decade or so before 1982, with the exception of a half-dozen favorite restaurants, like Regas and the Brass Rail, Knoxvillians avoided downtown after dark. UT students stayed on Cumberland Avenue; everyone over 22 stayed on Kingston Pike, or, better yet, at home. The Bijou offered a few good shows, but the Tennessee was still showing mostly old movies, and those rarely. Most of the big shows were over at the Coliseum complex, which, supported by its own parking garage, and separated from downtown by a long featureless walk, was just too far away to have much effect.

The Fair seemed to break habits. Knoxvillians didn’t want to stop coming downtown for fun, and began attending some desultory post-fair festivals and occasionally peeking in on some new businesses.

The Old City grew slowly and warily. A monthly lifestyle magazine called CityTimes moved in next door to Annie’s in 1983. Staffers’ business cards said “in the Old City,” a phrase that still puzzled most.

The Old City didn’t thrive right away. Sullivan’s was still dark, subject to break-ins of kids who just wanted to see the alleged whorehouse up the dangerously rotten stairs. East Jackson Avenue was almost all decaying warehouses.

In the summer of 1983, a large group of offbeat artists and musicians, a consortium of hippies and punk rockers more acquainted with the Cumberland Avenue Strip threw a Happening of sorts at a warehouse at 200 East Jackson to launch a new art gallery. Known as 200 East, it would later move two blocks west and be incorporated underneath a freewheeling upstairs nightclub called the Planet Earth. Manhattan’s opened, then Sullivan’s, and the idea seemed to grow on its own.

In spite of the neighborhood’s overt appeal to nostalgia, the Old City introduced Knoxville to some startling new ideas. Hundreds of Knoxvillians tried their first real latte or cappuccino at Java.

JFG, the 60-year-old coffee plant around the corner on West Jackson, followed Java’s lead with a coffee shop adjacent to a working coffee factory. The Old City coffeehouse thing struck many Knoxvillians as so freakish that many assumed it was a passing fad.

And about the same time Ella Guru’s fomented in its basement laboratory on North Central, across the street from Annie’s. Local bars and restaurants sometimes featured well-known bands, but with a couple of short-lived exceptions on the Cumberland Avenue Strip, none ever made a habit of it. Ella’s, opened by enterprising public-radio disc jockey Ashley Capps, offered live music by accomplished recording artists several nights a week. It was Knoxville’s first modern live-music nightclub, and arguably its best.

Ella Guru’s offered some rock ’n’ roll, but it was set up for customers seated at tables, and more conducive to jazz and folk and acoustic country. Among the performers who played in the small club in its short history were major performers: Wynton Marsalis, Nanci Griffith, John Hiatt, Leon Russell, John Prine, J.J. Cale, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, John Lee Hooker, Brian Eno, King Sunny Ade, Sun Ra, Jonathan Richman, Vince Gill—and a little-known Garth Brooks, who later mentioned his early days at Ella’s in a song.

Ella Guru’s closed in 1990 amid problems with the city’s newly expanded entertainment tax, as well as difficulties with the landlord, but it had started something. Today, the near-legendary Ella Guru’s is a quiet fondue restaurant called the Melting Pot. But AC Entertainment, the nationally famous booking agency of which Capps is proprietor, lines up the musical acts for Bonnaroo, America’s biggest music festival—as well as the Old City’s Blue Cats, which in the last few years has hosted the likes of Norah Jones and John Mayer.

The Old City introduced ideas to Knoxville that are taken for granted by people who’ve never even visited the place, and it continues to.