Vacationing in Mechanicsville

While away a sunny afternoon in one of Knoxville's most historic neighborhoods

I was in one of those old-fashioned cafés you used to find in small towns in the Deep South, with a broad veranda and a screen door that creaked and slammed lightly and an old top-loader soda-pop refrigerator. There was an upright piano in back. A fellow from the kitchen played a bit of a tune.

The big sunny dining room had high ceilings and art on the walls. The genial host served unusual sandwiches. Retro, in some ways—when was the last time you had a fried baloney sandwich?—but served on flat bread, an herby, flexible focaccia. Garnished with fruit and a little brownie, whether you need one or not.

Visible through the windows across the street was a lovely little park. On another corner was an old-fashioned brick fire station from the days of horse-drawn fire wagons. There was no traffic at all except for a bicycle.

And it occurred to me I'm lucky to have a vacation as handy as Mechanicsville.

The restaurant is known by its mailing address, 501 Arthur St., and from the right vantage points on a sunny afternoon, that intersection looks like an American paradise. The modernized Terminix office doesn't quite fit in, but if you keep your back to it, much of Mechanicsville could be a movie set for a remake of Meet Me in St. Louis or The Magnificent Ambersons.

It's named for its original residents: The word "mechanic," by the parlance of the 19th century, applied to factory workers, especially the guys who worked in the Knoxville Iron Company. The guys who worked for the foundry, Knoxville's busiest industry right after the Civil War, lived in a place that naturally became known as Mechanicsville.

The last remnant of the iron foundry is actually called the Foundry, on World's Fair Park. If that seems far away from Mechanicsville, it's just because the highways, and our habits, make it seem so. As the crow flies, it's right there, perhaps not even requiring the flying.

It's one of Knoxville's oldest neighborhoods—the very oldest, by some reckonings—and the houses, no two exactly alike, reflect a community that liked ornament but not ostentation. They say some of the old iron fences still visible in the yards came from the iron factory.

They all have front porches, but unlike houses with quaint front porches in some new suburban neighborhoods, people sit on these front porches, and call out to others on the street. The earliest residents were blacks and Welsh immigrants, who lived along the same streets. There's an old story, almost too lovely to be true, that in the twilight, after supper, when the dishes were put away, one neighbor would step out on a porch and begin singing an old Welsh hymn or folk song, others would pick it up, and soon the whole neighborhood would be a vesper choir.

Deaderick Avenue's a pretty walk, past the Moses Center, the temple-like elementary school built in the '20s and now the training academy for Knoxville police. Then there's a two-story triangular brick building, lush with climbing vines, which was a grocery a century ago. Of the three old wedge-shaped commercial buildings in Knoxville, two are in Mechanicsville—as if, a century or more ago, people wanted to make the best use of every square foot of this real estate.

College Street used to be known, before World War I, as Clinton Pike, and was originally the western boundary of Mechanicsville. It heads north toward Knoxville College.

You'll need to spend at least two summer afternoons in Mechanicsville, because your itinerary requires you to stop in for lunch at Pauline's. On University Avenue (near the site of Brother Jack's, the legendary barbecue place you still hear stories about), it's set up like a clean fast-food operation, agreeably noisy. They serve stuff you can't find elsewhere, though the fried-baloney sandwich is a Mechanicsville favorite, as it probably was 100 years ago. At Pauline's, a fried-baloney sandwich on white bread is known as a Bolo. Don't embarrass yourself by asking. It's yours for $3.50.

Hot wings, barbecue wings, drumsticks, four for $3. Some call the place Marky Mark's, after the deceased founder, and the Marky Mark is a very large hamburger. And unlike most places in town, Pauline's knows how to treat a catfish. Pork chops, hot dogs, fried okra for a side, with sweet tea. On one recent visit, the wait for the food to cool off was longer than the wait for the food.

Then walk up the hill by Hope VI, the agreeably retro mixed-income housing project that tries, with some success, to look like the old Mechanicsville, past Maynard Elementary and the Danny Mayfield Memorial Park, to the college, founded by the Presbyterian Church in 1875 to educate freed slaves. It has some serious problems, but the tree-shaded campus of dignified old brick buildings is one of the loveliest spots in central Knoxville. If beauty and the best views of the Smokies could earn revenue, Knoxville College would be comfortably in the black.

These Victorian-era buildings on their hilltop, some of them built by the students themselves, make for a lovely, but kind of poignant, walk. Some of them are labeled with signs announcing upcoming renovations in years that have already come and gone. But they're still here now. Tiny Knoxville College has more 19th-century buildings than the University of Tennessee does. Frederick Douglass spoke here. So did, about 80 years later, Martin Luther King Jr. In 1960, students at this small college led the way in the sit-ins that desegregated Knoxville. Lots of successful black professionals all over America today are graduates of Knoxville College.

Just west of the college is Brandau Street, and the home of Charles Cansler, black attorney, author, and educator. When Booker T. Washington came to town, he'd stay there.

Much of the neighborhood below the college hill was known as McAnally Flats, and was once pretty rough, and the locale of some gritty scenes in Cormac McCarthy's novel, Suttree.

Mechanicsville still has an edge to it, but on a sunny afternoon with so many people out on their porches giving you the once-over, and so many dogs in the yards disinclined to give you the benefit of the doubt, a pedestrian from downtown can feel like he's the scariest thing in Mechanicsville today.