Knoxville's Ever-Changing Public Image

Surveying a few hundred years of media descriptions reveals a city of stark contradictions

You can't blame romantics who like to think of Knoxville as remote, tucked away in a pastoral mountain valley. Somehow, though, it's been on major national routes for most of its history. It's been described in the national press, even the international press, for two centuries. Sometimes that's been good for the city's ego. Not always; it was, famously, a remark in a 1947 best seller alleging that Knoxville was the ugliest city in America that prompted a whole new Dogwood Arts Festival. That annual party was born soon afterward, in a how-dare-he fervor.

As a result of his unsettling superlative in Inside USA, John Gunther became a municipal pariah, Knoxville's household demon. Which isn't really fair. Before he came here, Gunther was best known for defying the Gestapo to write exposés of Nazi Germany; later he wrote Death Be Not Proud, a memoir of his own son's slow death of cancer. And even in the offending book, Inside USA, Gunther loved Tennessee in general, thought TVA was one of the best-run organizations in the entire world, and—this must have twisted the Knoxville knife a little—was crazy about Chattanooga.

And what Gunther said about Knoxville was not the worst thing a writer ever said about Knoxville.

Knoxville has enjoyed, or endured, several distinct spells of good and bad press. Though each review reflects a visitor's limited view of the place, some consistent patterns suggest travelers' impressions may reflect Knoxville's real peaks and valleys over the years. Depending on whom you read, and when, Knoxville can sound like a paradise on Earth, or the very depths of hell.

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At first, the press was mostly kind. Only adventurers came here, several of them Frenchmen fleeing the Terror. Most were impressed that way out here in the woods, near the settlements of sometimes-hostile Indians, was a very lively little settlement, with busy stores and several taverns, "not counting tippling houses."

In 1797, Louis-Philippe, duc d'Orleans and the future Citizen-King of France, wrote in his diary, later published, that Knoxville "would be quite picturesque, if not for the wearying regularity of streets and houses." He added, "Five years ago there was not a single house here"—a slight exaggeration, unless he wasn't counting log cabins. "Now there are over 100.... Our horses are indifferently cared for, but the common board (where we are obliged by custom to take our meals) is not bad." Louis-Philippe was Knoxville's first restaurant critic.

Then he adds something a little prophetic. "Nashville is much smaller than Knoxville, but infinitely better situated." Nashville did become the state's capital—but 46 years later.

Knoxville lost its own capital status in 1819, and, stranded without railroads or even good riverboat transportation, had little reason to go on. One traveler after another visited the once-famous city in the mid-19th century, expecting to find more than they did. British geologist, translator, and playwright George William Featherstonhaugh dismissed the struggling town with a bit of dry wit. "At about noon we reached Knoxville, a poor neglected-looking place, which notwithstanding makes a great feature on the map," he wrote in 1834. "There is steamboat navigation from Knoxville... when the water is high enough; but to judge from the inactivity of the place, there is very little commerce going on."

After the railroad and a few other improvements, even a Market Square, arrived in the mid-1850s, Professor G.H. Stueckrath, in the 1859 edition of the New Orleans-based DeBow's Review, offered early evidence that things were looking up for Knoxville. "We will venture the prediction, that Knoxville will be the emporium of no inconsiderable commerce, and the centre of Athenian elegance and intellectual refinement, as well as the focus of the health and pleasure-seeking society, of the South."

The Civil War, bringing with it about five years of military occupation and two damaging assaults, was a major setback. Ohio Union officer Orlando Poe, who'd known of Knoxville's historic past, came expecting a "great place" in 1863, but found "a small, insignificant, worthless town."

It was another place just afterwards. In the 50 years after the war, descriptions tend to emphasize Knoxville's industry and briskness of pace. "Quite a flourishing place," assessed John Barber and Henry Howe in 1867 in their survey of what were then considered "the Western States." In 1868, the Richmond Whig called Knoxville "perhaps the widest-awake and liveliest town of its population, not only in Tennessee but in the Southern States..."

In 1872, even the Chattanooga Times threw Knoxville a bone: "there is an air of newness about our neighbor that I was not prepared for.... I was surprised by the lusty vigor displayed by the merchants and manufacturers, and at the general air of freshness and growth everywhere visible." Knoxville was "rapidly acquiring a look of solidity seen only in our older and wealthier communities."

In 1883, the Pittsburgh Chronicle compared Knoxville to Atlanta and Roanoke as emerging Southern industrial cities. "The population of the city is 20,000 and growing rapidly," remarking in particular about the city's growing marble industry.

The book series American Cities, by Andrew Morrison, noted that by 1891 Knoxville was becoming a popular stopover for tourists. "Travelers agree, with singular unanimity, that it is the best-built city of its size in the South. It is modern in its architecture.... in its schools, churches, theatres, places of suburban resort, electric street lights and electric street railways—in all characteristics, a City of Today....

"Kindly and warm, likewise, is the social air in Knoxville.... Knoxville is, in a word, characteristically many-sided, city-like, metropolitan."

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Adjectives like that can surprise 21st-century Knoxvillians. Even when they're trying to flatter, modern-era travel writers emphasize Knoxville's presumed mountain roots, using terms like "hillbilly pride" (The New York Times, 2008); "Natives speak with a mountain twang.... They are of frontier stock and can turn feisty" (Travel Holiday, 1992).

Assumptions that Knoxville is chiefly populated by former mountain folk didn't start appearing until after World War II. A century ago, even two centuries ago, visitors noted a much more diverse population. In 1805, French botanist Francois-Andre Michaux remarked that the most dynamic Knoxvillians were a contingent of former New Englanders, "much superior to the others in their morals, their knowledge, and their industry." In 1810, Samuel Ramsey called Knoxville "the rendezvous of foreigners as well as Americans." In 1855, Irish journalist-refugee John Mitchel was impressed with the number of Germans in Knoxville, but added that the city's "most agreeable ingredient" was its prominent Swiss subculture.

A promotional description from 1889 claimed that "possibly no city in the country is more cosmopolitan. Eastern, Northern, Western, and Southern people mingle in about equal proportions." And that 1891 Morrison text emphasizes Knoxville's unusual combination of North and South. "Here verily is a community tolerant, politically." More than any other Southern city, Morrison claimed, Knoxville exemplified "the connubiated Blue and Gray. Welcoming the man who brings his wealth of industry, of enterprise, of capital to participate in its privileges and advantages; and tolerant of its Negro minority."

The early 20th century brought the Reform movement, and many who visited saw the underside of urbanity. Temperance and other morals reformers came to Knoxville and saw mainly the Bowery, the district of cocaine parlors, whorehouses, gambling saloons and flophouses along First Creek downtown. In 1906, militant prohibitionist Carrie Nation came for a week-long stay and declared, "I have seen worse things in Knoxville than I ever saw in any town, and I have seen a good many."

The city could still charm, on occasion. In 1913, Pennsylvania conservationist Gifford Pinchot wrote, "The beauty and commercial importance of the region of Knoxville, the initiative, energy, and hospitality of its people... combine the vigor of the North with the warm-hearted generosity of the South." He may have felt obliged to flatter. He was chairman of Knoxville's National Conservation Exposition.

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However, beginning in the 1920s, and thickening and intensifying in the 1930s, Knoxville became subject of some of the most withering criticism ever directed at any city. A shot across the bow came in 1925, when a Boston bookseller named Jennie Bly, writing under the name Audrey Allison, wrote Adventures of a Book Agent. "I have never found a more peculiar town [than Knoxville]," she wrote. "The buildings, most of them, have a whacked-up look about them. Even Gay Street has a rickety appearance."

She added, "It is a good business town... and the people will buy, although they seem gruff and uncivil." Her description was obscure, even at the time, but hinted at what was to come.

The 20th century's second quarter, between the world wars, should have been glory years for Knoxville. In 1930, the nationally promoted Great Smoky Mountains National Park was finally open for business. When Chapman Highway was the nation's main entry to the park, Knoxville was the self-proclaimed Gateway to the Smokies, ready to supply accommodations at the new Andrew Johnson Hotel, the tallest building in East Tennessee, and dozens of smaller hotels and motor courts.

Then, in 1933, the Tennessee Valley Authority arrived, with 3,000 employees, including hundreds of educated professionals from big cities; TVA had grand modern ideals about living, planning communities around the valley.

Knoxville might have seemed positioned to be a model American city.

It didn't work out that way. Maybe, ironically, the fact that the region had so many new attractive amenities—both lakes and, for the first time, easily accessible mountain trails and vistas—allowed Knoxville to stop paying attention to its own personal hygiene.

Ernie Pyle, the Scripps-Howard "roving columnist," was generally a cheerful, friendly guy. "I like Knoxville," he wrote after an extended visit in late 1935. "The people are grand. They are friendly and courteous. In stores the clerks are so decent. So different from some bigger places I know," said the D.C. resident. Considering Knoxville was a Scripps-Howard city that carried his daily column, the compliments may have been necessary to couch his other, more startling observation.

"Knoxville is dirty," Pyle wrote. "People say it is the dirtiest city in the world. There is an almost constant cloud of smog over the city. When you get up in the morning, you look as though you'd been working in a coal mine all night. Some people carry three handkerchiefs to work." By contrast, he said, Birmingham, reputedly the Pittsburgh of the South, was surprisingly clean.

Filth is a constant in mid-century accounts of the city. A few months after Pyle's visit, Knoxville welcomed an unlikely short-term resident: Belgian-French novelist Odette Keun, who was, among other things, the former longtime mistress of novelist H.G. Wells. She was at work on a nonfiction book called A Foreigner Looks at TVA, and Knoxville makes for an especially colorful chapter. "I spent a scorching, blistering, sweltering Southern summer in one of the ugliest, dirtiest, stuffiest, most unsanitary towns in the United States," Keun wrote. "I speak with feeling, for the summer and the town combined have turned me into a haggard, desiccated old woman before my time." Keun was about 48. She went on to use probably the worst adjective ever applied to Knoxville in a major international work: "corrosive."

She claimed she tried to write to one of the newspapers, proposing "the City Fathers should be put in the stocks, and all the rotten eggs the Tennessee Valley could produce [be] flung at their heads, until they promised on the Bible of their ancestors to clean up the streets of the town; teach its inhabitants not to spit... and repair the decaying privies of the sewerless quarters so that the expected tourists should be just a little less stifled by the reek." She said the paper politely declined to publish her letter, for her own safety.

Soon after, Swiss author Annemarie Schwarzenbach—she still has something of a cult following in Europe—wrote a book about her travels in America, Jenseits von New York. She describes Knoxville's extreme inequity; even in 1937, much of the city didn't have electricity or modern plumbing. "Whole neighborhoods are provided with neither electric lights nor running water," she wrote. "A wreath of such dark neighborhoods closes about Knoxville."

There were others. In early 1945, Jean-Paul Sartre, reporting on America's domestic war effort, wrote an article in Knoxville about how American cities were dying at their cores, the center of town becoming "polluted." Just after the war, British conservative author Malcolm Muggeridge wrote about the Knoxville area as "sad, desolate... shabby, broken down." He complained that in Knoxville he had a hard time finding a bookstore.

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It was in this context that John Gunther appeared. "Knoxville is the ugliest city I ever saw in America, with the possible exception of some mill towns in New England. Its main street is called Gay Street; this seems to me to be a misnomer.... Knoxville, an extremely puritanical town, serves no alcoholic beverage stronger than 3.6 percent beer, and its more dignified taprooms close at 9:30 p.m.... [I]t is one of the least-orderly cities in the South. Knoxville leads every other town in Tennessee in homicides, automobile thefts, and larceny...."

In 1952, Fortune ran an unsigned essay that seems almost an explanatory annotation to Pyle, Keun, and Gunther's descriptions. "The city of Knoxville is built on red-clay hills above the Tennessee River, close to the picturesque tourist-drawing Great Smoky Mountains. But only on the campus of the University of Tennessee and in the good residential sections (out Kingston Pike way or in Sequoyah and Holston Hills) is the natural beauty of the setting used to advantage. Gay Street, the shopping center, is old, narrow, and crowded, and the side streets fall away in further drabness; the whole is smudged with soot from locally mined soft coal. The businessman-mayor says people won't pay enough taxes to make it possible to change things; others say the rich old-timers and landlords who own the downtown real estate are content to leave the city alone; the sons of the old-timers are beginning to stir, but the majority of the businessmen are too busy for civic projects (‘My work, my family, and my church take up all my time'). The result is a prosperous but nondescript town. Almost everyone thinks something should be done, but nobody does anything much. They like it fine the way it is."

Not much had improved by 1961, when The New Yorker's Phillip Hamburger visited for a quick essay about urban renewal. "There is very little to be said for downtown Knoxville," he wrote. "The visual burden is overpowering, and an attempt has been made to ease it by introducing canned music into as many public places as possible. It is a daring form of civic therapy, the notion that what the eye cannot tolerate the ear may, in some small measure, assuage.... Knoxvillians take their minds off downtown by turning to the mountains and lakes."

Blaming Knoxville's ugliness on its greater region's beauty, in effect, was paralleled in a sports story. In 1967, Pulitzer-winning reporter J. Anthony Lukas came to a similar conclusion when he visited to write for Harper's about the decline of professional baseball in Knoxville—which he described as "a slow-moving town on the slow-moving Tennessee River." The chief culprit, he thought, was TVA, which lured Knoxvillians out of town to its new lakes. "The sporting stores of Knoxville, which once used to sell chiefly bats and gloves, are now filled with outboard motors and water skis. Many a man who used to go out to see the Smokies [baseball team] at night can be found these summer evenings lolling by a beer cooler in the back of his boat on Norris Lake trolling for walleyes and bluegills."

There was a spell, after the international excitement about TVA had died down, when Knoxville didn't get written about much. It got its semiregular page in Southern Living, which never offers any criticism of anybody. When they came to Knoxville, they always boosted the Vols and the Mountains. That duo became the default way to say something nice about Knoxville.

But home football games are relatively rare, and saying the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is Knoxville's main attraction is kind of like saying the main reason to visit Baltimore is the Atlantic Ocean. It's close-ish. But what about the city? Southern Living never said anything bad about Knoxville, but in a 1980s interview, the magazine's executive editor, Philip Morris, offered some pretty harsh words about Knoxville's sprawl. Morris, who had taken an interest in urban design, condemned the city for allowing Interstate 40 to define its growth. Knoxville lacked "curb appeal," said Morris. "The interstate is going to set the tone from now on, and I think it could get much worse."

Of course, plans to host a world's fair seemed to invite abuse. It was a skeptical Wall Street Journal story in 1980 about world's fair plans that spawned the recently renovated phrase, "Knoxville, a scruffy little city of 180,000 on the Tennessee River." Two years later, during the fair itself, Carol Curtis of Forbes described Knoxville as "an undistinguished industrial town in the heart of Tennessee coal country.... Though it is 30 miles from the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, little of the natural beauty has rubbed off."

While conservative business publications kept trashing Knoxville, the Fair era's most positive description may have come from a journalist from the People's Republic of China. In a book about America called Two Years in the Melting Pot, Liu Zongren wrote, "Looking up and down the river, I wondered why Americans spend thousands of dollars to travel to other countries for a vacation. The scenery along the Tennessee River is at least as beautiful as that along the Li River, the legendary scenic spot in Southern China.... I was able to explore Knoxville, a medium-sized city built on low hills and covered with lush, green trees and grass. The Tennessee River runs under highway bridges and its banks are hardly touched by man. It is a beautiful city, but what I liked most about it was its quietness."

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Ten years later, well-known West Coast cultural critic Ann Powers had an equally positive, but different, impression of the place, emphasizing Knoxville's alternative-music scene. Though others, including brash country rocker Steve Earle, have compared Knoxville to Austin, Texas, Powers was the origin of a catchphrase that's been repeated over the last 20 years. "Knoxville resembles Austin without the hype," she wrote in San Francisco's SF Weekly. "The alternative scenes is fresh as a baby and just as curious.... We wandered off into the streets, where stray dogs howled. F--k Club Med! This was all the paradise we needed."

Things were getting better, but that ugly monicker stuck to Knoxville like gum on a shoe. When it came back around, though, it wouldn't be about downtown. Internationally popular humor writer and polymath Bill Bryson may have been a little affected by the fact that he'd just spent a few weeks hiking the Appalachian Trail, but when he mentions Knoxville in his 1998 best-seller, A Walk in the Woods, he describes an unspecified suburban-Knoxville strip of chain stores as "a ceaseless unfolding pageant of commercial hideousness." Bryson noted that his companion seemed "unnerved" by suburban Knoxville. "‘Jeez, it's ugly,' he breathed in wonder, as if he had never witnessed such a thing before."

But the following year, Garrison Keillor visited with his show, A Prairie Home Companion, and remarked, on camera, to public-TV reporter Colvin Idol about how Knoxville looked from his room in the Hilton. "It's just the most beautiful city," he said. "It's a city that looks like cities I've seen in picture books when I was a child, with the hills and the river running through it and the steeples. It could be a German city on the Rhine, it could be a city in Provence. It's a magnificent city."

Since then, it seems, most journalists have been kind, apparently thanks to downtown's revival. In January 2005, Mary Ann Anderson, of the Knight Ridder newspaper chain, made friends here when she wrote a rich, interesting, and colorfully upbeat feature story about Knoxville that appeared in several major newspapers nationally. "Knoxville is very cool—and not climatically speaking—in that it's pretty much laid back, a little bit funky, and a whole lot clean and friendly. It draws you in slowly; its beat is quiet and alluring, not loud and brash like its close Southern cousins, Nashville and Atlanta.... Knoxville has transformed itself from a country bumpkin into a world-class city."

In 2007, The New York Times praised downtown's revival. "Knoxville's downtown, particularly the north end, is now alive as it hasn't been in half a century, with hotels, theaters, concert halls, bars, galleries, restaurants, coffee shops, and clubs open past midnight during the week and on weekends." The same year, Frommers.com's Jamie Ehrlich wrote that Knoxvillians are "visibly, overwhelmingly, happy.... After the time I spent in Knoxville theater, festival, and museum-hopping, what struck me most was Knoxville's dedication to promoting and encouraging music and arts.... After a few days in Knoxville, this jaded New Yorker found herself thawed and renewed—it was impossible to feel like an outsider in this charming, dynamic city, and to not start smiling, too."

The following year, the Times gave Knoxville it's envied "36 Hours In" treatment, exhorting the city's "intrinsically lazy, soulful feel" and recommending several worthy and unusual restaurants and quoting the "Austin without the hype" line.

While Southern Living will keep pushing the Vols 'n' Mountains default button—"It's a serious football town with a laid-back mountain vibe," they said again, just six months ago—publications are starting to notice some other interesting things, too. In the last 10 years, both the Boston Globe and Germany's Die Welt, not to mention two BBC documentaries, ran stories emphasizing Knoxville's literary heritage. Early this year, an overtly football-bored writer for the Nashville Tennessean praised Knoxville's "world-class theater, art, boutiques, festivals, fine dining." The International Biscuit Festival got recommended last year in Parade, and Knoxville's unusual combination of two historic theaters got enthusiastic raves from several music-industry professionals during AC Entertainment's Big Ears festivals of 2009 and 2010; New York Times critic Ben Ratliff called the Bijou "one of the best-sounding rooms I've experienced in this country."

Knoxville's still plenty ugly, in spots. But maybe, now, they're less obvious in a short visit.

Each description is true, in its own way, in its own time. Each writer sees the place through his own prism, a fact that may have prompted novelist Cormac McCarthy's brief description of his hometown: "this obscure and prismatic city." The place looks different depending on your angle. You don't have to live here very long to know that Knoxville is fast and slow, clean and dirty, big and little, booming and decaying, provincial and cosmopolitan, beautiful and ugly. It's what makes the place so interesting enough to write about.