A Summer Afternoon in Fountain City Park

Scene & Heard: All Around Town

Slices of life from Knoxville's neighborhoods: north, south, east, and west

What makes Knoxville unique? We often point to the cultural and entertainment offerings downtown, but most residents identify Knoxville with their own neighborhoods outside of the center city. And while they may exist far apart, sometimes in very different circumstances, these places collectively make up the Knoxville experience—whether you personally know about them or not. In this first edition of an ongoing series, we're visiting different parts of Knoxville to simply record what we see, profiling the scenes and lives that help define our city. These may be familiar places we've all heard about, or curious things that may surprise even their neighbors—but they're all Knoxville, and they're all worth getting to know.

On a bright Saturday, Fountain City Park can seem like a color rendering of Paradise from a Jehovah's Witness brochure. Children romp and couples hold hands on this micro-topography of small stone foot bridges spanning a clean, shallow creek, with picnic tables and swingsets beneath towering oak trees. Maybe it's the moist summer, maybe it's the newer additions, the young willows and magnolias that give it more dimension, but the park seems lusher, greener this year.

Over here, beneath a shelter, there's a birthday party, with multi-colored helium balloons; over there, in another shelter, there's a baby shower, with more balloons. As the clean-up crew for one party pops the balloons to get them out of the way, an engagement party arrives, bringing more balloons. A helium-balloon recycling concession would do good business on a day like this, with no up-front investment.

A family roams barefoot in the creek, kicking though the pebbles as if they're looking for clams. A little downstream, three boys are knee-deep in the creek, preoccupied with a rotten stick about the size of a kielbasa. Two of the boys are preschoolers; a slightly older, chubbier one speaks to his inferiors with some authority. He's holding the stick. "I can make it a speedboat," he announces, and plunges the stick at the water's surface as the other two watch attentively. Four 20-ish young adults with bohemian hair ride the swings wildly, almost desperately, as you do when you think maybe it's your last chance to swing on a swingset. The circuitous trail has a sign that says no bicycles, but you see kids and adults on bicycles, none of them going fast enough to cause a stir. No one is in a hurry, especially not to leave.

So many and varied people are here today, it's almost like Bonnaroo without the clatter. People are dressed as casually as they might at a rock festival, some barefoot without shirts, and some of even look like they dressed looking at album covers: one cluster like Green Day in 1995, another like Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1974. Which makes the day's exception all the more startling. In the heat of the early afternoon, over near the old library, the modern building with the Dutch-girl roof, women of ages impossible to guess arrive in ones and twos and threes. All are wearing dresses and all are also wearing large hats which look, from a distance, like Easter bonnets. They're dressed as if for church on Sunday, on Easter Sunday, maybe, in 1948.

The building, which has an art gallery, is closed for the day. From outside you can hear strains of flute music. It's hard to see inside, through the glare, but there are dozens of people seated at tables with table cloths and flowers, and they all appear to be female.

It's as puzzling as a dream. The heat may be getting to you. You go across Hotel Avenue to the Creamery Park Grille, and take a seat at the counter with a window overlooking the park for an ice-cream cone and a Coke. The intuitive menu ranges from Mongolian Pork Chops to Cheeseburger in the Park, which comes with a milkshake. It's after 3 o'clock, but a talkative young woman at the counter, who has just finished one dish, asks what the quiche du jour is. It turns out to be chicken, bacon, and Swiss. That appeals to her, so she orders it, "with a little grits on the side."

Fountain City is proud of its park, the site of Fountain City's namesake, the tiny spring which emerges from a rock hill into a stone-lined pool to form First Creek. The park, an ancient camp-meeting site, owes its existence to the most interesting individual who ever lived in Fountain City. Attorney, author, world-traveler, John Webb Green was a wealthy man who was such an advocate of public transportation that he had his chauffeur drop him off at the bus stop every day to catch the Broadway bus to his office downtown. He liked public parks, too, and in 1932 used personal resources to donate this one to his beloved Fountain City. Son of a Confederate officer who was killed in the war, he became in his extreme old age an advocate of civil rights; one of his last efforts as a lawyer, in the 1950s, was to obtain an injunction to block an angry segregationist group, organized by out-of-state insurgents, from rallying in his beloved park. Today it's maintained by the Lion's Club, which raises the $25,000 a year to maintain it.

The heat of the afternoon subdues the squeals from the playground, and for the first time, there are empty picnic tables. Sometime after 4:30, women begin to emerge from the Art Center. Some of the women are elderly; at least a couple are girls. All are wearing hats. One wears a hat sculpted like a Disney teakettle. The event that drew them, it turns out, was the first annual Summer Rose Tea, a women-only, hats-required fund-raiser for the Fountain City Art Center, which sponsors arts education for both schoolchildren and adults, as well as operates this sunny gallery. Their classes span oil painting and jewelry making, clay sculpting, and even "conversational Italian." They'll throw an Italian-themed supper dance on August 21. Puzzling parkgoers seems to be a specialty with the FCAC.

The fund-raiser was a success; about 60 attended, including the eight flutists who comprise the Grace Notes Flute Choir. As women in hats had tea and ate fancy desserts off 19th-century French china, on tables with white tablecloths and red and white roses in vases, the eight female flautists played Pachelbel, Bach, Bizet.

A bargain for $15 and the contribution of one fancy dessert, it was the obviously agreeable idea of Sylvia Williams, the executive director of the Fountain City Art Center. "It was something new," she says. "It's not easy to survive as a non-profit. You have to be diverse and adaptable. And we don't want to get bored. "