cover_story (2007-14)

A Fair Legacy

What remains, 25 years later

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A Fair Legacy

by Jack Neely

It has to be admitted, right off, that the 1982 World's Fair was a failure. Not because it didn't make money; it allegedly did, 72 bucks or some such. Not because of the housing fiascos or the collapse of the Butcher banking empire. All that was secondary to the Fair itself. It's not that it wasn't fun; it was fun, especially when it was polka night at the Strohaus.

But the Fair was conceived in the wake of the Arab oil embargo, and its stated purpose, and reason for getting so much government funding, was to enlighten America about new and sustainable ways to use energy--specifically to wean us off petroleum. We didn't yet know how troublesome our need for petroleum could be, but even conservative Republicans, like Congressman John Duncan, Sr., talked about the importance of energy independence by 1990, at the latest.

The Fair tried, maybe, but nobody paid much attention. U.S. per-capita demand for oil dropped in the years just before the Fair, but after 1982 demand for old-fashioned petroleum rose again, to heights previously unknown. By 1990, the average automobile was actually less energy-efficient than it had been before. In America's growing hunger for more oil, one world's fair wouldn't even be a hiccup.

Optimistic observers saw the unusual participation of the People's Republic of China in the Fair--their intricately cluttered pavilion was just south of Cumberland Avenue--as a harbinger of a new era of East-West cooperation. Some remarked on the irony of the Chinese pavilion, which was full of shopkeepers, as being the most capitalist of all of them. And maybe it was. But the same decade also saw the horrors of Tienanmen Square.

And the Fair raised Knoxville's profile, but it turned out to be a mixed blessing. Some Knoxville businessmen noticed that just after the Fair, national news reports on NPR and the TV networks referred to Knoxville as "Knoxville"--and not "Knoxville, Tennessee," which implies folks might not know where Knoxville was, or get us mixed up with the one in Iowa. In a city starved for compliments, it seemed like one, albeit a particularly subtle sort flattery. But it has to be admitted that first occasions to hear the word "Knoxville" on the national news had to do with one of the biggest bank collapses in history. The Butcher brothers, who bankrolled much of the Fair, saw their empire crumble just three and a half months after the Fair closed its gates. They claimed it all had nothing to do with the Fair, which had been almost exactly as successful as hoped.

The Fair had some consequences, of course. As I write, I have a plastic spoon in a paper cup of Fritos, chili, green onions, and cheese. The paper cup is marked "Petro's." Sold for years in the little mall inside Plaza Tower, it's a roughly square meal for three bucks, and portable, an efficient lunch. A name that evokes petroleum may not seem the wisest choice for a savory dish; it may make sense only to those who remember a very weird event a quarter-century ago, a world's fair that had an energy theme.  

Though 25 years ago, the credulous boasted that the Petro, launched as the World's Fair signature dish, would catch on like the hot dog or the ice-cream cone, in the 21st century the small chain is still strictly a regional phenomenon, and mainly a Knoxville one. But it is at least that. I had to wait in line to get this one.

The World's Fair appeared to have every intention of changing history, of having consequences that were at least nationwide, even global. There's no evidence that it did. Mentions of the Fair in histories of the '80s are rare, and if there's been a single article about it to appear in a national magazine or major-city newspaper since 1982, it's very hard to find. Nationally, its cultural legacy may be one jeering 1996 episode of The Simpsons .

But the 1982 World's Fair did have consequences within the city limits of Knoxville. It may have changed the way we think about this place, and to some extent, the way we live here.

There weren't many aspects of this World's Fair that made it very different from most others, but one feature did genuinely surprise visitors. Many previous world's fairs had been built on cowpastures on the edges of the host city; this one went in right downtown.

From its conception, the Fair had one purpose not mentioned in tourist brochures and TV commercials: It was intended to redevelop a blighted tract of formerly industrial land. The Second Creek valley, dominated by the L&N freightyards, was nothing to look at, unless maybe you're Tom Waits, working on an authentically bleak lyric. The old L&N station hadn't seen a passenger train in over a decade. The Victorian houses along 11th Street were vacant and rumored to be slated for demolition. That fate also seemed likely for the old Miller's Warehouse, which only the grayhairs remembered had once been a candy factory. Most of the area between downtown and Fort Sanders was a gray, sooty wasteland where homeless people occasionally turned up dead.

And look at it now. It's now a pretty well-used green park with monuments and fountains and an art museum and a convention center and a playground and a restaurant and an offbeat chocolate factory.

The Fair rendered that, at least, with the help of several million in public assistance after the Fair. Though there are big question marks associated with the only two remaining structures actually built for the Fair--the underused Sunsphere and the deteriorating and off-limits Tennessee Amphitheater--the park in general has to be considered a success, home to concerts, beer festivals, and lots of random hot weekend afternoons with the kids in the fountains. A new creekside greenway will connect the park to Volunteer Landing before the year's out.

Another aspect that made our fair stand out from other World's Fairs, whose architecture tended toward the futuristic, was that several of its buildings were restored historic buildings. There were about a dozen in all, a train station, a freight depot, an iron foundry, an old candy factory, several Victorian residences that had previously been slated for demolition. That approach was unusual for a world's fair, and it was also pretty unusual for Knoxville.

Knoxville Heritage, now Knox Heritage, had been founded in 1974, but eight years later, with the admirable exception of the Bijou, a '70s renovation project, Knoxville was never known for its historic renovations. However, the months after the World's Fair saw more and more renovation, and preservationists say that rendering useful, attractive buildings from ones that had been forgotten eyesores may have had a galvanizing influence on preservation by showing what was possible.

After 1982, all the international pavilions, along with the geodesic dome and the solar home, were torn down, as planned; it may have seemed particularly ironic that some of the futuristic buildings meant to be permanent were also torn down, even the multi-million-dollar glass-and-steel U.S. Pavilion and its big IMAX theater. But all of the historic buildings on the site somehow remained, and most saw further use as restaurants, galleries, and shops.

One downtown district in particular underwent a startling transformation almost immediately after the Fair. One of its pioneers was Annie DeLisle, a British-born dancer living in Knoxville due to an ill-starred marriage to novelist Cormac McCarthy. She became familiar to many Knoxvillians during the Fair as the English-accented hostess of the Candy Factory. Immediately after the Fair, she opened Annie's, the first restaurant/nightclub on Central, in a run-down warehouse area never previously known as the Old City.

And things began to stir elsewhere in town. Maybe it was the World's Fair, maybe it wasn't, but it seems as if it was only after 1982 that the Old City seemed like a fun place to visit, and that previously run-down Fourth and Gill and Mechanicsville and Old North seemed like places for young middle-class people to live.

It's often assumed that the Fair didn't have its advertised rejuvenating effect on downtown. Certainly several plans for the Fair site itself went awry, development proposals failed, and the Fair didn't give the city the sustained titanic push some hoped for. We never got the promised Energy Center that would confirm forever Knoxville's destiny as Energy Capital of the World.

However, without indulging in the fallacy the Romans called post hoc ergo propter hoc --after this therefore because of this--we have to admit that the circumstantial evidence suggests the Fair may have had profound and positive consequences for downtown.

Even those of us old enough to remember downtown Knoxville in 1981 find those memories unsettling.

Just before the Fair, two historic downtown hotels had recently closed, and Knoxville had only one major hotel downtown, the relatively remote Hyatt. Today there are five, not counting the hard-to-categorize St. Oliver. The city had never gotten around to building any real, permanent art museum. Popular downtown mega-events like the weekly show Sundown In the City and the Rossini Festival were unknown before the World's Fair era. There was hardly any place to have big public events, downtown at least.

Downtown offered no public parks at all. No open space to have a party or see a concert or throw a football. Market Square was still trying to be a semi-covered mall, Volunteer Landing was a mud bank with no sidewalk, and Krutch Park just was a few typed lines on an unpublished will.

Except for the occasional veterans' or Christmas parades on Gay Street, Knoxville tended to celebrate holidays almost privately, in separate communities. Public events to which Knoxville was invited, and expected, were rare. The main exception was the annual Dogwood Arts Festival, a sober daytime art market popular among the rural elderly.

The first nighttime street parties of the modern era had plausible associations with the gathering World's Fair effort, which was already in the planning and financing stages by October, 1978, the date of the first Saturday Night on the Town. It was the climax of a new fall cultural festival called Artfest, boosted by several who were also involved in the Fair, among them Mayor Randy Tyree. It featured international food, a variety of live music outdoors, an occasional movie or play.

Artfest was an independent effort; organizers say would have happened even if the city wasn't trying desperately to sell itself as a world's fair host. But the Fair, and the habit of driving into town, may have boosted its numbers. Some were awed that as many as 8,000 citizens voluntarily came downtown to that first Saturday Night On the Town in 1978. In 1983, the year after the Fair, the estimate was 125,000. After the Fair, some remarked wistfully that they'd gotten used to the idea of coming downtown with their families. Knoxvillians had gotten used to coming downtown at night regularly to see the Fair, and didn't want to stop just because the Fair had closed.

For years after the Fair, the Fair site, still known noncommittally as "the Fair site," spawned whole new festivals. Riverfeast was a competitive barbecue party commenced in 1983 and, often overcrowded, seemed a victim of success--as well as a smaller-scale chili cookoff held in the old U.S. Pavilion, which tarried on the site for several years after the Fair. Indian powwows, an annual international festival, an occasional circus, and lots of concerts reminded people that despite one failed development proposal after another, "the Fair site" was still there.

Homecoming '86 was a popular city festival centered downtown. Boomsday, the Labor Day   fireworks party near the old Fair site, started in 1988. The first Rubber Duck Race was held, again not far from the Fair site, in 1989. Later still were numerous other festivals-- Rossini, the revamped Dogwood Arts Festival, the Brewers' Jam, Sundown in the City -- which might all be considered at least nieces and nephews, if not direct progeny, of the Fair.

The World's Fair even changed how Knoxvillians celebrated old holidays. For decades, Knoxville had celebrated the Fourth of July in a desultory manner, with lots of separatist parties, private picnics at distant lake houses, modest fireworks shows at Fountain City Park or Chilhowee Park or even some corporate-sponsored events in suburban parking lots. Many Knoxvillians just went to Gatlinburg or elsewhere in the mountains for the occasion. There was hardly ever a big city party until the Fourth in 1984, when the city sponsored a symphony concert and fireworks show, the beginning of an annual tradition. Several who came to that first one said they missed coming out to the Fair.

The Knoxville Track Club had hosted running races before the Fair, but most were held in suburban and rural areas. The first marathon ever held in Knoxville avoided the downtown area completely, staying to the north side. But the Expo10,000 was such a success, many more followed. Today, most running races in Knox County, including this past weekend's marathon, are centered around the downtown area. The downtown runs, as some fundraisers have observed, tend to be the most popular ones.

Knoxvillians, a practical people, never got around to building an art museum until it was proposed as one answer to a problematic piece of property. The Knoxville Museum of Art went in roughly on the site of the Japan Pavilion.

The Fair seemed to spark among Knoxvillians a new, and very different, interest in downtown overall. In the years just before the Fair, most downtown businesses existed to serve the nine-to-five office workers and perhaps library or government-office patrons. Downtown still had lots of clothing shops and two department stores, most of which kept bankers' hours and seemed to have better days behind them. However, musical performances, for the most part, had long since moved away from Gay Street and toward the Coliseum or the UT campus. Downtown's movie theaters and most of its better restaurants faded. By 1982, even the much-beloved S&W was closing forever, and most Knoxvillians regarded downtown a regrettable necessity--not a place to enjoy or celebrate; certainly not a place to tarry long after dark; definitely not a place to live. With few evening restaurants and fewer nightclubs, downtown was hardly a distraction. Most UT students stayed on the Strip, west of 17th.

By the end of the decade, with new parks and events and attitudes toward historic buildings, Knoxville after the Fair began to seem a different place altogether. Today, there are far more evening restaurants and nightspots, and probably more live music and drama than there have ever been. Knoxville became, sometime in the last 25 years, a fun place to live.

Ascribing all that to a world's fair would be a stretch. But for Knoxville the World's Fair became, at least, one more weird story to tell.

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