We've been hearing for a long time—the last 10 years, or 20 or, let's face it, all of our collective lives—that Knoxville's behind the curve. There's always something exciting and new going on in the big city that hasn't made it here yet. And even when it does, some wise guy's handy to say, "Aw, Atlanta had that three-and-a-half years ago."
So what is it that the With It cities have right now?
Surely there's something. An intrepid Knoxvillian in New York 30 years ago might be astonished to encounter an iffy commodity called "sushi," and, down the street, something else called "rap." Or "yoga classes." Or "Democrats."
On a return trip five years later, the Knoxvillian might have been equally surprised to witness further oddities called "espresso" and "latte," and even "cappuccino," served in places called "coffee shops." Where you'd sit and drink coffee when it wasn't even mealtime. People just went in and drank these fancy coffee drinks and read the paper or talked. Imagine.
Later on, the big cities got brewpubs (You brew beer? Right in the bar?), techno dance nights, gallery walks, skate parks, grunge, swing dances, Thai cuisine, Americana music, Indian restaurants. Then, a few years after that, cigar bars, hookah bars, cereal bars, wine bars, martini bars, raw-food bars. And cupcakes.
Knoxville finally got all those things. The only problem was we got them after the big cities got them, perhaps after most American cities got them, and often after they'd peaked in popularity in the big cities. And when they got here, they served mainly as an opportunity for the well-traveled to boast about how wearisome they are.
Knoxville has been imitating hip American culture for decades now. Just not quite fast enough.
As a public service, to prevent future municipal shame, we thought we'd troll for new trends in big cities that haven't gotten here yet, in the hope of jump-starting interest in them here. It turned out to be a bigger challenge than we realized.
THE SUSHI PARADIGM
We don't hear much of what we're missing until we get it, and are simultaneously told it's too late. Take hookah bars. When the first one opened here about two years ago, some were fascinated, and gave it a try. Others said, "Oh, isn't that funny. Seattle had those months ago. It's so 2005."
Sushi was like that, too. The very first time I tried sushi, sitting on a floor barefoot at Tomo in the Old City about 20 years ago, somebody had to say, "Ha, ha. Asheville had sushi back during the Civil War."
Sushi may be the standard by which we'll judge all urban trends for the rest of our lives. It was undeniably new, unlike anything else in middle-class American cuisine, and, like many trends, bizarre, questionable, or even repulsive at first. But it's a benchmark as a trend because it eventually changed the way we live.
Unheard of in most of America in the '70s, sushi first arrived in the Knoxville consciousness as a freakish and disreputable rumor of the mysterious Orient. When it was an urban-hipster trend in the '80s, most Knoxvillians were asking, "Do people really eat that stuff?" But one sushi place opened in the unpredictable Old City, our cultural wharf, where our first espresso shop had opened before that. By the late '90s, sushi was sold by the plastic tray in Knoxville Krogers. In 2009, Knoxville teenagers now go out for sushi almost like other generations went out for pizza. As a trend, sushi sets the standard.
Can there be another sushi out there?
THE TRENDY KNOXVILLIAN'S WISH LIST
Of course, there are brand-name stores the Knoxville market doesn't have yet, old and new: Macy's, Ikea, Bloomingdale's, Urban Outfitters, and, the college kids tell us, something called Bebe, a fashion chain which is now just on the West Coast. That's not exactly what we're talking about here.
And some fashions in clothing appear, crest, wither, and die before ever appearing on the sidewalks of Gay Street or Cumberland Avenue. Plaid is reportedly in. But plaid has made more than one trip through Knoxville over the years, though, even before Lamar Alexander's run for governor. Fashion's hardly place-specific, anyway. New York's famous for fashions, but New Yorkers are likely to boast that their clothes came from France or Italy. Anybody can wear whatever fashions they want to. It's not like it's an experience unavailable to the Knoxvillian—even if some complain bitterly that their favorites are available only by catalogue or online.
Visit New York, and it may seem as if you spend most of your time in more expensive and more crowded versions of the same pursuits we have here. Some things may taste better, or look better, or sound better—but phenomena so new they'll make the Knoxvillian say, "What the hell is that?" seem now to be few and far between.
We informally polled friends who live in big cities but were familiar with Knoxville, and asked them what's going on there that's not going on here. We seem to have stumped several of them. One colleague suggested "Sneaker Boutiques." These aren't just tennis-shoe stores, though they are literally that. They're essentially art galleries of sneakers, where you can purchase, at a premium, artsy hand-painted sneakers, or just admire high-end athletic shoes or even vintage models from a generation ago. So far these seem to be mainly in the urban North and on the West Coast. It made our Knoxville wish list until a correspondent more trendy than we are noted that we now have one. It's called Swagger, located in the unique old wedge-shaped building at Lyons View and Kingston Pike.
Are we catching up—or are the big cities just slowing down? Or is the thesis wrong?
Maybe it's the slowing global economy. Maybe it's the fact that America's so distracted by trends on the Internet that they no longer look to cities for inspiration. Most of the exciting new stuff in our national culture in the last 10 years has appeared in technology, and for the most part it's everywhere at once: Facebook, iPhones, Twitter. Some of which also broadcast trends globally, at the speed of light, without respecting municipal limits.
Big cities still do offer some interesting things we don't, but they're probably not as freakish and paradigm-shifting as sushi once was. Here are a few we've come up with.
Some cities, especially college towns, have recently begun sprouting bicycle cooperatives, which promote bicycle riding through safety and repair workshops and bike-donation or lending programs. Durham, N.C., has a vigorous one which seems well known. There are others in Charleston, S.C., and in several college towns in the Midwest. Knoxville has bicycling groups, bikes trails, and a supportive Transportation Planning Organization, and may be ripe for a Co-op.
The green movement emphasizes consuming locally produced food, largely to minimize the environmental impact, and seems to be folding in with the Depression trend in some convenient ways, as many try to shop local for food—and do much of the preparation by hand. The word "artisanal" is suddenly used in connection to food preparation. In Brooklyn, non-professionals are learning to make their own cheese, their own pickles, and even butcher their own pork chops, in organized workshop settings. It's possible that, in 2009, a young New Yorker is more likely to have participated in butchering a pig than a young Knoxvillian has. Our grandparents might have found that surprising to hear.
Perhaps taking the brewpub ethic to restaurant retail, some Brooklyn eateries are combining coffee factories with cafes, butcher shops with restaurants. In some ways, it sounds like Market Square in the 1930s. (In trend-watching, there's often no way to prove whether you're behind the times or on the cusp of a revival.) The Farmhouse, near Atlanta, emphasizes food grown on its own property—not unlike Blount County's Blackberry Farm, maybe, but ramped up a couple of notches to become part of a New Urbanist community called Serenbe, something like an upscale cooperative which has drawn national attention.
The farm-to-table movement may suggest that the premise of this article is untrendy, in itself: The trendiest culinary ethic today is to be local and authentic—in other words, to be like we were before we started chasing trends.
Perhaps a second cousin of the above is a New York fad of getting away from the hoi polloi of the restaurant routine by paying a fee, maybe $20-$50, to a chef who cooks up a meal specially for the group, usually in the chef's home. The dinner is formal, around a long table, like in an Agatha Christie mystery. Some such clubs are considered "underground," under the radar of the tax man and the health inspector, and the best known of them, Whisk & Ladle, courts some subversive mystique. With the possible exception of Knox Heritage's progressive dinners, it hasn't caught on here yet. (Some underground New York bars operate that way, too—but that's nothing new for Knoxville.)
The game, not the cellphone or the insect, both of which we have in abundance. The British game Americans once associated mainly with the background scenes of countless Masterpiece Theatre episodes is trendy in New York at the moment not because of the English, but because of Indian and Caribbean immigrants who play it. It's been popularized, in part, via the bestselling 2008 novel, Netherland, which is about murder, immigration, terrorism, and cricket.
We've heard of unconfirmed sightings of pick-up cricket games in the vicinity of the Sutherland Avenue apartments in the last couple of years, and sporadic attempts to start an some kind of cricket league at the University of Tennessee, but it's all pretty inside. It's safe to say most Knoxvillians have never seen a real cricket game.
In recent years, other prosperous cities have experimented with hotel-as-art-project, hostelries energized with sometimes-wacky themes. A trendy new New York hotel is a deliberately gritty place meant to be reminiscent of the Bowery, with tiny rooms and shared bathrooms. Some fancier theme hotels offer rooms, furniture, and bedspreads of all one color, or rooms that look like whimsical art pieces, or rooms with sexually suggestive names instead of numbers. Some have unusual features like rooftop bathhouses. A Miami hotel called The Tides includes this line in a description: "Topless sunbathing is allowed at the pool; small dogs are welcomed."
Lest anyone get such notions about their stay in Knoxville, our hotels seem to cleave to the Holiday Inn's old advertised virtue of "no surprises." With the exceptions of a couple of small, mildly eccentric boutique hotels downtown, Knoxville hotels seem content to keep the showers warm, the towels clean, and the cable TV expensive. You could kidnap a sleeping guest from one Knoxville hotel, deposit him in another, and chances are he wouldn't notice the switch until he tried to find his car.
However, a project announced with some fanfare in the daily would have launched a new hotel called Indigo on Lake Avenue near Melrose Place, with several unusual elements, like an ever-changing decor, "spa-inspired bathrooms," and a music library. Hotel Indigo is an international chain that seems determined to take the big-city wacky-motel ideal to the masses. Its Knoxville experiment seemed to have stalled, or perhaps evaporated—so we were surprised, just in the process of finishing this article, to find websites referring to Hotel Indigo Knoxville in the present tense: "Our downtown Knoxville hotel is an oasis for travelers who seek an escape from the ordinary...." Another announcement includes this line: "Surprisingly, Indigo celebrates change and renewal, so you never know what experience is next."
One website mentioned a February 2009 opening, so we went down there to see what they mean. At this writing, it's still an old Best Western with a fence around it and broken windows. Some construction workers at the condo project next door say they sometimes see folks over there working on it.
Further research disclosed another website, apparently more up to date, offering July 14 as a perhaps more realistic opening date.
We'll have to see if it's what we're talking about. The more recent descriptions of Hotel Indigo sound a little more conservative than the early ones did. Maybe the surprise will be that it will be another Knoxville-style hotel.
Wildly Whimsical Architecture
The kind that makes you stop your car and call the police, the kind that when you see photographs of it you assume it's a computer-generated image because there's no such thing in the real world. Sometimes called post-structuralist or expressionist, it's characterized by wild angles and curves that might have been impossible before computer-assisted building technologies. These are functional buildings that look like sailboats, crumpled paper, or dying salmon. Especially as popularized by architect Frank Gehry, it's been the most talked-about trend in architecture since the 1990s. Knoxville has nothing remotely like it. Part of it, of course, is that designing buildings that seem to defy both gravity and reason costs gobs of money, often in the nine figures—but then again, the Knoxville Convention Center was comparable in expense to many of the famous contemporary buildings of the world, the ones that make the covers of magazines and sets of James Bond movies—including Gehry's Guggenheim Museum of Modern Art in Bilbao, Spain.
Few post-structuralist buildings exist in the conservative South, but since 2001 downtown Columbia, S.C., has sported a sculpture that fits the motif: a fountain that looks like a giant earthquake-ruptured fire hydrant. Called Busted Plug Plaza, it's not universally beloved, but it's added to that staid old capital a welcome bit of whimsy.
In the fashionable mind, the sophisticated French innovation known as fondue is associated strictly with an era: the trend-plagued 1970s. When a fondue restaurant opened in the Old City in the 1990s, certain urban sophisticates found it hilarious that Knoxville was finally catching onto the fondue craze. ("Fondue? Does Knoxville have Earth Shoes yet? How about Pet Rocks?") Of course, a lot of fondue-savvy wise guys may not have known that it was a Florida-based chain, and a relatively new one that would keep growing well into the 21st century. Today Melting Pots are in most cities, even thriving in Coolsvilles like Seattle, Portland, and Austin (they've got two!), and now crossing the border into Canada. Those cities probably didn't get the grief about being out of step; that's a Knoxville specialty.
Long before our first fondue restaurant, Knoxvillians of the legitimate fondue era may have been as trendy as anybody; they just kept their trendiness discreetly at home, behind closed doors and among consenting adults. By 1973, it's safe to say thousands of suburban Knoxvillians had harvest-gold fondue sets in their closets, perhaps gifts from tennis partners or group-therapy buddies. Many had even used the pots once or more: for a stylish Sunday-evening get-together where they swapped fondue recipes and their favorite lines from All in the Family. However, many of those sets were in Goodwill shops before Knoxville finally had a fondue restaurant, and when it opened it struck sophisticados as droll. In the Clinton era, it was understood, we no longer partake of the molten fromage. As if.
America's the world's biggest consumer, but we don't consume comprehensively. We consume in waves. The American consumer's job is to observe the wave and consume only within it, preferably before it crests. Not afterward. Never afterward. People need to understand that swing dancing after it's over—that is, after the second time it was over—is simply no longer fun. Smoking a cigar isn't nearly as satisfying as it was during Clinton's second term. A martini consumed after 2006 no longer intoxicates, and it's irresponsible for the stylish consumer to assume it will.
Some trends, however, especially culinary ones, seem to prevail beyond the peak and fade. Consider the several new-ish varieties of once-exotic cuisines: Vietnamese, Indian, Japanese, Thai, Arabic restaurants. The only cities that had them in 1980 were cities with immigrant populations large enough to support them. Now, after initial periods of trendiness, they're all considered mandatory, de rigueur for any American city.
Is there an ethnic cuisine we're missing now? The first one that comes to several minds, though it's hardly a new trend, is Ethiopian. Wat and injera and interestingly spiced Ethiopian finger foods had people talking in the big cities back in the 1980s. Though local culinary hipsters were complaining about the lack back in 1990, Knoxville has no Ethiopian restaurant. To get an Ethiopian restaurant, you first need, perhaps, an Ethiopian. They're not unheard of in Knoxville, but scarce.
No fad, and no longer new, it seems to have settled into America's urban culture, and is still growing. Charlotte, Raleigh, and Nashville have Ethiopian restaurants now, and an Ethiopian catering service has recently opened in Asheville, offering regular feasts which have been selling out.
(One cause for anxiety in introducing certain trends is the Knoxville Factor. Some of the early Thai and Indian dishes served in Knoxville restaurants disappointed connoisseurs, and it wasn't always the chef's fault. In the 20th century, some have observed, there was a cultural membrane around the city that demanded everything that entered pass our particularly high threshold for blandness. Knoxvillians like to attend new restaurants, just to stay hip, but then insist that the Asian dishes be gelded of their spices until they taste something like a familiar Sunday-night casserole. Then offer their compliments to the chef.)
It's not that Knoxville's pathologically out of touch. Often urban national trends make it here roughly on time—but don't venture out in public. Home fondue sets, for example, were popular in Knoxville 20 years before Knoxville had a fondue restaurant. Home-brewed beer has a similar backstory. Knoxville's first brewpub was the place now known as the Downtown Grill & Brewery. It opened in 1994 as the Great Smoky Mountain Brewing Co. But by then, Denver reputedly had 40 of them.
However, strong homemade ales had been popular in the garrets of Fort Sanders for more than a decade before that, at least among the gustatorily ambitious and technically inclined. Like fondue, its narrative predates listings in the Yellow Pages.
It's only been in the last 15 years or so that Knoxvillians have shown any inclination to share their innate trendiness with strangers in a public setting. Through the Cas Walker era, at least, Knoxvillians were often skeptical about the prospect of encountering other Knoxvillians, especially in non-Vol circumstances. And sometimes phenomena are locally popular years before a prospective retailer can convince investors or loaning institutions. Bankers, some prospective entrepreneurs are disappointed to learn, aren't always on the cutting edge, even when it comes to discerning the next profitable thing.
Trends do serve a purpose, even for the proudly non-trendy. Even after a trend has peaked, like fondue or cigars, they continue to offer us options. Thai or sushi? Hookah or cereal? Any given Knoxvillian may never choose any of those options, but has to acknowledge that a few years ago, he didn't have them. Options are good, even when they started out as trends.