editorial (2006-03)

Naked City

Knoxville, with its leaves off

Naked City

It’s the dead of winter. The leaves are off the trees. Knoxville is, as it is every January, stark naked.

And like an obese man showing the symptoms of a misspent life, we don’t spend a lot of time looking in the mirror this time of year. We hope no one visits. We don’t want to be remembered this way.

Come back in April, we say. We’ll be dressed then.

In the spring, our blooming dogwoods and daffodils bring us compliments from strangers. In the summer, Knoxville’s lush greenness can astonish newcomers. In the fall, the changing colors of the oak and hickory bring people to this part of the country just to gawk.

In the spring, summer, and fall, we accept the compliments of newcomers, as if we deserve them, ourselves.

But for now, we can’t depend on lush oak and maple, kudzu and privet to hide behind. Even the more attractive weeds forsake us.

In the winter, we are as we are. All we have in the city of Knoxville are the things we made, ourselves. The architecture, the roads, the billboards, the garbage, everywhere. It’s humbling when a graduate student from a third-world nation arrives in Knoxville and wonders why Americans can’t pick up their own trash. Knoxville depends on foliage to cover a multitude of sins.

We can’t take much credit for our better months. This valley was even greener before we humans ever arrived and gave names to the flowers and trees. Dogwoods bloomed before there were people to call them dogwoods and propose driving automobiles past them.

Knoxville depends on foliage to conceal its true nature. Winter shows our habits in sharp relief.

And we’re dismayed to realize that what we are is trailers and mud banks and concrete walls and telephone lines and plastic signs for chain stores and big asphalt parking lots.

It might be a bracing therapy for Knoxville to move our festivals up a few months: invite the world to come here in January or February, when we’re standing here naked, as we are. Suggest that tourists from Ohio and Michigan drive through our neighborhoods then, snapping photographs of whatever interests them.

Winter also exposes our priorities. We’re notably thrifty about aesthetics, and public works in general. If we save money on architecture that’s never built, on public events that never happen, on superior teachers never hired to educate our kids or new books or computers never bought for their schools, what do we spend it on?

If a Knoxvillian spends four figures on a weeklong Caribbean cruise, nobody at the water cooler ever says, “What a waste of money.” It’s presumably what we all want to do, take our hard-earned money far away from Knoxville and spend it.

We may spend five or even six figures to send our kids away to a boutique college in another state. Statistics aren’t handy, but it might be an interesting study to determine why so many of them don’t come back.

Look around. Some appearances to the contrary, we’re not poor. We’re high rollers. We buy big cars, big TVs, big vacations, big houses in private subdivisions. The only place we’re grudging about spending money on is our community. The only thing we don’t want to spend money on are improvements to Knoxville that will last. That’s where we put our foot down.

If, in any given year, any one of us spends over a thousand dollars a year on foreign oil, as the average Knoxville driver does, we say, “That’s life, what are you gonna do.” And then we buy us some more.

But a tax of 30 bucks in that same year to build a new main library accessible to all Knox Countians year-round is considered unconscionable. 

That is, at least, what thousands of petition-signers decided in 2004, and to judge by radio chatter and graffiti, it can still raise hackles.

Taxes are how a community improves itself. If raising taxes to make specific needed public improvements is off the table, our options are limited. Maybe, if the need is there, private enterprise—an East Tennessee de Medici, perhaps—will step up and build something beautiful. They’ll spend millions to build a library, build a light-rail system, rehabilitate the McClung Warehouses, prepare free space for the Candy Factory artists, ensure that all schools have the facilities they need, and fix up Kingston Pike, Chapman Highway, Clinton Highway, and all the other ugly roads in town.

But maybe not in our lifetime. Until his or her arrival, we’ll have to depend on the taxpayer to take care of the city.

Every city is the city its taxpayers deserve. This is a low-tax community where the rights of the individual property owner are respected above all other considerations. Many citizens are proud of that fact. And this is the time of year when you can look around and tell.

Foliage is a wonderful thing, and we have every right to rejoice at its yearly return. But this time of year, we might be forgiven a daydream of making something of the city, on our own, that we can appreciate even in the winter.