My Town, Too

Acknowledging the kaleidoscope of ideas that make downtown work


After a well-intentioned beautification project coated a plywood wall of graffiti, including both taggings and some examples of genuine art, in crimson paint a couple of weeks ago, there was new life almost immediately.

A defiant rabbit in cowboy boots appeared, protesting, â“It's My Town, Too!â”

Someone else scrawled, â“Let Art Grow Like the Kudzu, Let It Drip From the Rooftops.â”

The Art Wall, a.k.a. Wall of Freedom, won't last. If all goes well, a worthy developer will buy the building, confiscated by the federal government after the owners' marijuana-trafficking conviction, in the auction anticipated to take place by early summer. In a year or two, this plywood wall may give way to display windows of retail shops.

But the flap over the Wall Avenue Wall may be one clue about bigger issues. It suggests that Knoxville may never succeed, at least not in terms of a goal that everyone agrees on. We all have different definitions of urban success.

Some, including a downtown business owner whose letter appeared in these pages a few weeks ago, defend even the â“taggers,â” those who just scribble a spray-painted name or word on other people's property. Others we've heard from are on the opposite end of the spectrum: They're opposed to all graffiti, including artistic graffiti by professional artists on otherwise idle plywood. Some are also opposed to the practice of putting posters on bare plywood. People tear them off walls that aren't even their walls, and imagine that they're accomplishing something good for the city.

Several years ago, perhaps by some error, a representative from Metro Pulse was present at a meeting of prominent civic leaders, most of them middle-aged men in dark suits. All sat quietly together and listened to a presentation of some sort about the future of downtown Knoxville, which was then believed to depend on building a major attraction there.

Part of the occasion was in honor of an elderly Knoxville booster who was retiring from the field, an old man obviously admired by the other men in the room. When he spoke, he left a note of warning for his younger colleagues. He spoke with some dread of a dual plague that he believed threatened to undermine downtown's revival.

Some might have expected him to mention something about bad architecture, reckless development, or ill-considered highway construction. But here were his grim concerns: One was skateboarders, whom he called a hazard to pedestrians, and likely suspects in much of the vandalism of downtown buildings. The other threat to downtown Knoxville, to his mind, was the existence of newspaper boxes.

To him, a successful downtown would necessarily be a clean, tidy place, a place that looks just like it does in architectural drawings. Newspaper boxes were impertinent obstructions, clutter that mocked the beauty that architects and gardeners and street cleaners labored daily to create and maintain. The ideal downtown, some might gather, would be something like a perpetual-care cemetery, only with people who are still alive.

The old man got a standing ovation. Some who applauded hoped they were applauding the old man's worthy career rather than his closing comments. After all, many other downtowners wouldn't agree. Like anyone, skateboarders should be stopped and punished if they endanger pedestrians or damage property. But they seem mostly a healthy sign for a downtown, an undeniable indication of the voluntary presence of youth. Maybe a few skateboarders are rude, but they're kids, and some of them are actually worth watching. And someday they'll grow up and buy things.

And we have appreciated newspaper boxes even before they distributed our product. They're all daily windows onto the broad world, much needed in a town with no newsstands. As late as the '90s, several city newspapers were available via downtown boxes: The Atlanta Constitution, the Nashville Tennessean, the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times . On a walk around last week, we couldn't find a single one of them. There are plenty of newspaper boxes, mostly taken up now by advertiser booklets and these damnable local weeklies. And there's USA Today , which always reassures us by making the news seem so clean and fluffy.

Anyway, it seems clear that some downtown boosters' ideal downtown, and other downtown boosters' ideal downtown, are often different and sometimes mutually exclusive. Some think the elusive liquor store that opened last week on Gay Street is a dangerous development. Others strongly disagree. Some earnest downtown boosters have fiercely opposed selling alcohol in street parties, as at this weekend's predictably jovial Rossini Festival. Some want a downtown of impressive skyscrapers or chain stores of proven success; others prefer human scale and local ownership. Some think businesses need adjacent parking lots; others think downtown is healthiest when everybody has to walk at least block or two. Points of view are kaleidoscopic.

And some don't like posters. We think posters, for musical shows, lectures, and festivals can make a place look lively, animated, like a place where things are going on. You don't even have to go to the shows advertised to find some enjoyment in that fact.

Anyway, when they do fix up the building on Wall Avenue, what'll we do for a forum for posters and spontaneous art? There aren't many other boarded-up eyesores left to turn to. The city may just have to find a place to build another vacant building.


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