It’s the first day of Fall.
There’s a downpour.
And the streets will soon be shallow rivers.
Yet cars are out, flying their UT flags in support of the Vols’ homecoming match against a slapdash Marshall team. Temple Beth El and Heska Amuna Synagogue are packed, too, with folks celebrating the beginning of Rosh Hashanah. Somewhere farther west, Leslie Gibbs is throwing an extravagant, six-figure party for her daughter’s 15th birthday. Knoxville, for the most part, is in full swing, not missing a beat.
Still the rain comes in thick, fat sheets, which move eastward, leaving almost a fifth of our annual average rainfall. I’m supposed to hike Kingston Pike, to get a feel for the culture of the road, outside a car—where the Pike becomes increasingly hazardous to pedestrians the farther west you go.
I’ve walked a little less than a half-mile from the Old City to the convention center before the rain got the best of me. Already I’m soaked, my poncho proven useless. I have no wallet, no car, and no real desire to walk to Turkey Creek. I’m stuck on the pedestrian bridge that goes over Henley Street, watching the cars head toward campus, contemplating going home to grab a hot shower and watch TV. It’s not too late; I haven’t really invested too much time in my hike down Kingston Pike—I haven’t even reached the Pike. There’s every excuse to give up. Now the sun comes out.
I make it to Cumberland Avenue when the rains begin anew. Diehard Vol fans gather outside of Walgreens, because its roof stretches out to cover the sidewalk.
“Bet’cha Vols win by 10,” a scruffy-looking man yells at a plumper man in a giant, orange poncho. “Bet’cha Vols win by 10!” comes the same voice, weighed down by cheap beer.
“You know it,” says the poncho before jacking into his headset, tuned to the pregame.
The bars are packed, even the tofu-friendly Sunspot. Football fans will always find a way. Intrepid tailgaters are known to carry bottled beer into the Sunspot and, when confronted, they’ll often clam, “I got this on your patio.” The polite server will say, “Honey, we don’t have a patio.” The overworked servers will just throw any home-brought beers away.
On the street, everyone tries to duck the rain. Choruses of “Rocky Top” echo down Cumberland. Fans continue to profess that it is indeed great / To be / A Tennessee Vol . Football continues, and it will stay on the streets for six more hours, because the game has been postponed due to inclement weather. The gods must be crazy.
I move on, towards Third Creek and the beginning of Kingston Pike. The creek is working on submerging Tyson Park, swelling well past the picnic tables and onto the greenway. The water rushes by, picking up mud, churning into a dull shade of orange, which flows out and covers the rugby field.
I look at the corner of Kingston Pike and Neyland Drive, where the proposed Sorority Row will be built on the large green space on the edge of the Ag. Campus. For the first time, I’m on the Pike.
"The history of Kingston Pike is particularly interesting,” Carson Brewer wrote, back in 1973, “because a portion of the pike nearly two miles long, from Neyland Drive and Concord Street to Western Plaza, may become a scenic route through legislative action.”
That stretch of road did become a scenic route on March 21, 1973, when Governor Winfield Dunn signed into law a bill designating portions of Kingston Pike and Lyons View Drive as officially scenic. As a result, new construction projects over three stories tall were strictly forbidden between Neyland Drive and Western Plaza, where trees have grown huge over the past century, where some of Knoxville’s oldest antebellum houses are preserved.
The nearby temples are packed with the Jewish faithful, many of whom had to choose between religious duty and football—the rain might have made that decision a little easier.
There’s a bronze plaque to Max Friedman on the Cumberland Avenue overpass that’s named in his honor. Friedman, a Jewish businessman who served nearly two decades on City Council before his death in ’67, was once cornered by a group of holy-roller prohibitionists at a civic club luncheon. “I’ll be frank with you,” he said. “I think it’s a greater sin to tell a lie than to take a drink. And I’m not going to tell you a lie. I am going to vote for legal liquor.”
Friedman’s overpass is kind of a gateway to Kingston Pike, which once served as Knoxville’s frontier space in the early 20th century, where laws were little more than loose guidelines. Many early businesses had no official street addresses, existing on the borderlands of Knoxville.
Orientation : The original stretch of the Pike heads 15 miles westward, subtly bowing south from Third Creek, toward Campbell Station Road. Shortly before 1800, the road was lengthened another 20 miles to reach the town of Kingston.
Physical Profile : There are more paved parking lots along this 15-mile stretch than any other street in Knoxville. For many, the Pike has become the epitome of suburban sprawl, as the commercial energy of old downtown began moving west more than 30 years ago, seduced by new shopping centers and vast, empty, undeveloped possibility. “The interstate bridges the gap between us and the culture of Downtown Knoxville and the University,” Bob Grimac wrote for West Side Story in the early ’80s, a paper that was distributed to West Knox residents to highlight development projects in the area. “West Knoxville proves a balanced community for all her citizens,” Grimac continued, “Two years ago you had to drive six miles to a hamburger stand, if you lived in Cedar Bluff…10 miles if you lived in Village Green.”
As optimistic as his outlook of the growing West Knoxville was, he concluded, “Sorely lacking in this general area are parks. The beauty spots which dress up other cities, are scarce in Knoxville.”
Brief Cultural Profile : In 1792, Knoxville had a population of about 2,000. The 1st County Court of Knoxville commissioned a Pennsylvania native by the name of Charles McClung to engineer a public highway from Knoxville to Campbell Station in what is now the city of Farragut. McClung’s design was mapped on top of a series of bridle paths, which had been used to connect the Cherokee Nation for hundreds of years. The road, when complete, closely followed these ancient trails, with only the slightest deviations from the original paths.
Prior to McClung’s road, an average trip from the Knoxville courthouse to Campbell Station was a five-hour trek. That trip was shortened by nearly half, if you were lucky enough to have a healthy team of horses. When the road was extended to Kingston, locals began calling it Kingston Pike.
“The road bed was dirt with no rock and few bridges,” the historian Russell Briscoe wrote. “In bad weather it was difficult to travel, as were all roads of the time. McClung, however, had done a masterful job of engineering and very little change has been made in its original route to this day.”
In 1866, the Kingston Turnpike Company was chartered to “modernize the pike.” This modernization included grading and paving. It actually began to look like a street by today’s standards. Next it became a toll road for a short time, until 1892. And, with plenty of convict labor, there was a paved Kingston Pike all the way to Campbell Station in 1893.
“Over the historic old road traveled the early settlers to populate Middle and West Tennessee,” wrote News-Sentinel columnist Carson Brewer in 1973. “Andrew Jackson traveled the road many times on horseback, but after he became President, by private coach. James K. Polk also traveled over this road on his trips to and from Washington D.C.”
The history of Kingston Pike is a history of movement. Metro Pulse has written about the architecture of eateries that began appearing on the Pike from 1925 to 1965, when the road was a major tourist attraction. It wasn’t uncommon to see buildings that were constructed with rounded, glass-brick walls. As Jack Neely calls them, “streamline-moderne.”
Everything has a peculiar stop-n-go quality. Maybe, if people stay in one spot too long, business suffers.
Perhaps this sense of commercial urgency comes out of the Pike’s former status as part of the “Broadway of America,” a large network of highways that began at Asheville, N.C., moving through Arkansas and beyond, all the way to California.
Other scenic routes that incorporated Kingston Pike were the Dixie Highway and Lee Highway. The former was promoted by Florida tourism promotions to encourage folks to make the drive to Miami Beach, the latter began at the home of Robert E. Lee in Arlington, Va., working its way to New Orleans.
Kingston Pike, for better or worse, was all of these highways at one time. Current Google maps still label long stretches of the Pike as “The Broadway of America.”
It was never marketed as a place to visit, but as a place to pass through.
Back then, Kingston Pike wouldn’t have been recognizable to most Knoxvillians today. The pastoral nostalgia that once drew out-of-towners was lost sometime in the late ’60s, when the Pike west of Sequoyah Hills started developing rapidly.
Cars whoosh by, kicking up roostertails as they pass. I keep wearing my poncho, content in believing that some part of me is still dry.
As I walk, “The Ballad of Thunder Road” runs through my head.
Blazing right through Knoxville, out on Kingston Pike, / Then right outside of Bearden, there they made the fatal strike. / He left the road at 90; that’s all there is to say. / The devil got the moonshine and the mountain boy that day.
Modernist poet Wallace Stevens was in Knoxville in 1918 on business with The Hartford insurance company. He was known to walk from downtown to Lyons View Road. In a letter to his wife, Stevens wrote: “The Tennessee River makes a great bend through woods and cliffs and hills and on the horizon run the blue ridges of the mountains. I saw no end of irises in people’s gardens.... And, of course, I saw many boys and girls, both black and white, loafing in pleasant places. I feel quite sure that I rather like Knoxville.”
It’s one of the few wholly positives memories of Knoxville at that time, just a year before the race riots of Red Summer, 1919.
The Knoxville Stevens saw no longer exists too far past Sequoia Hills. John Nolt, UT professor of philosophy and regular contributor to the Hellbender , says that when suburban sprawl continues unchecked, the middle areas, between the city proper and the newest developments, lose business. Maybe that’s what happened to the Bi-Lo, which was sort of a lifeline for many students living on Sutherland Avenue. Nowadays, during the warm months, you’re likely to see an impromptu game of cricket in the empty parking lot.
Yes, Gertrude Stein we’ve said it before: There is a there there, if you look hard enough. Bennett Gallery and the nearby Hanson Gallery, along with a string of new art spaces that are appearing on nearby Sutherland Avenue, go far beyond the Thomas Kincaid du jour . There’s real art, much of it local—some of it highly experimental, such as Bob Ichter’s Fauvistic-inspired paintings at Hanson. On Homberg Drive, the Actor’s Co-op is having its most experimental season in years. Hedwig , the German transgender rock opera, made a big splash at the Black Box Theatre. There are six martial arts dojos. And five dance studios, including Ballet Gloria.
There’s Toddy’s, which has recently moved to a new location only a few blocks east of their old store. Its hole-in-the-wall bar remain in its original location; they still offer free hotdogs for late-night drinkers. Across the street is Opal’s Lounge, a relatively quiet, laid-back bar that few seem to know about, known for its stellar jukebox. Long’s Drugstore, whose lunch counter has been in operation for more than 50 years, is still going strong, unaffected by change.
Here, the concept of Bearden Village, which was designed as a hub of activity for the internationally colorful neighborhoods along nearby Sutherland, is now over five years old. Still, neighborhood activists say that the area will become more pedestrian friendly, to allow for a downtown feel in one of the more traffic-heavy parts of town.
Down a little, farther in Bearden, there’s Union Jack’s, nestled just off the Pike, a throwback pub with real dartboards, not the electronic boards that seem to be the norm all over town, gadgets leftover from a electric fad in the early ’90s.
On Bearden Hill, Well By Nature is said to have a professional acupuncturist on staff.
Every now and then, there’s a place on or near the Pike that doesn’t seem to be moving quite as fast as everything else.
The sun comes out again as I walked up Bearden Hill. Rainwater flows down, streaming with gasoline rainbows.
The sidewalk ends after Northshore intersects the pike. The shoulders of Bearden Hill are, fortunately, wide enough to keep me out of traffic. I have yet to meet another pedestrian outside of Cumberland. No one walks here. For years, when this area was growing, city codes didn’t even require the construction of a sidewalk.
I head past PF Chang’s, and enter the vast buildup along Kingston Pike. A light drizzle begins as I descend. An antique gallery occupies the space that once housed The Spot, where local rocker Dave Landeo perfected his guitar chops.
It’s been eerily quiet here lately, after dark.
I walk quickly. A few UT fans shout woo-hoos at me as I pass Kingston Alley. Kickoff is still an hour away. West Town Mall’s parking lots are busy. Traffic slows while cars navigate around some minimal flooding.
Further west, there’s some impressive flooding where N. Peters Road meets the Pike. A section of an auto repair shop’s parking lot was completely submerged. A few cars were in water up to their windshields.
The nearby Baker-Peters Jazz Club, located in a house that was built in the 1850s, seems out of place, forgotten by development. Later, the self-described “funky and free” jazz group Tease Louise will be setting up around 9 p.m. Business as usual.
"I use the term desert,” Nolt says of the area. “There’s so much asphalt out there, nothing grows on it. It’s biologically dead. It’s a suburban nightmare.”
For many, the suburban nightmare seemed to be coming to an end in 1988 when a Texas firm began developing Windsor Square near Cedar Bluff. Planners and developers were calling it the last large piece of commercially developable land on Kingston Pike between Knoxville and Farragut. At $100,000 per acre, the 80-acre development was seen as a real-estate milestone.
In an interview with the Knoxville Journal , Jeff Fletcher, a land appraiser and chairman of the Metropolitan Planning Commission, said, “I think it’s the highest price that’s ever been paid for a large piece of land like that. One hundred thousand dollars an acre is a very, very trend-setting price…. It freaks us out, but it’s all relative. You go to Texas, or even Nashville, and that kind of price, to someone outside of Knoxville, can sound relatively inexpensive.”
But Windsor Square wasn’t the last big development in the area. In 1995, the Turkey Creek Land Partners purchased 410 acres between Lovell Road and Campbell Station. With over 1.5 million square feet of retail space, a million feet of office space, and a half-million feet of restaurants and entertainment, it’s the biggest single development in Knoxville’s history, and it cut through 22 acres of wetland, which infuriated environmentalists. Development on the Pike had finally met with East Tennessee’s most delicate of ecosystems.
Charles McClung’s original road was all grown up.
“It wasn’t a wetland to begin with,” Jim Nixon, one of the original land partners, told the Volunteer Valley Business Journal in 2001. “We spent a lot of money on it. It’s a wetland now.”
Last year, Mayor Bill Haslam dubbed Turkey Creek a “retail mecca.”
To this day, Nolt and other environmentalists won’t step foot in Turkey Creek.
There’s still a natural world out there. It exists as an island, surrounded by multi-million dollar developments. I don’t see any this time, but I’ve seen them before: Families of muskrats, in the middle of the buildup, finding a way, in spite of it all. Its future unknown.
I placed a jar in Tennessee, / And round it was, upon a hill. / It made the slovenly wilderness / Surround that hill.
Knox County Metropolitan Planning Commission records estimate nearly 36,000 motorists make their way through Farragut each day on Kingston Pike. As early as 1977, reports found that Kingston Pike and I-40/75 carry more than 40 percent of all the traffic in Knoxville.
The wilderness rose up to it, / And sprawled around, no longer wild. / The jar was round upon the ground / And tall and of a port in air.
A friend drives me back to Knoxville. “It’s kind of a long drive,” he says. My feet are raw from rubbing up against wet socks for six hours——I stare out the window as we head east on I-40/75. Hundreds of billboard posters cover the pike, like a canopy. Their messages blur, chanting expensive babble. I remember seeing several small posters along the Pike. They say: “RE-ELECT NOBODY. They’re the ones that got us in this mess.” I want to believe that these posters don’t just represent the views of a radical group from Fairfield Glade, Tenn., but a real ideology, something viable.
It took dominion everywhere. / The jar was gray and bare. / It did not give of bird or bush, / Like nothing else in Tennessee.
—Wallace Stevens, “The Anecdote of the Jar”