Knoxville: the city after the city
Knoxville was prosperous before: the tall buildings on Gay street, the once warehouses and factories, are proof of it. Sepia photographs show a hundred seated men and women in hats, eating beef sandwiches at long tables. The cars were grand, the streets were packed. Today, old serene buildings all over the city hint at this past, like the grand Sterchi hotel just to the north of downtown, now converted into roomy dark apartments, which I nearly moved into.
Residents say that eleven years ago, there was almost nothing downtown. The whole area was a gloomy ruin, the once bustling factories and warehouses become vast empty shells of brick and broken glass (the picture I am painting here may be an exaggeration). Cormac McCarthy must have felt quite comfortable setting an early novel here (for years his ex wife owned a restaurant in town).
Now there is a new Knoxville. Campaigners, contributors, mayors of both parties have succeeded in regenerating the city centre, to my eyes, very well. Knoxville's downtown has businesses, apartments, cafes, restaurants. Bars are busy most nights on Gay street, in the Old City, and on Market Square.
Yet the new city bears the marks of its hasty newness: it has grown up with three Walmarts, and all the other malls, not far down all the main roads. It does not attempt to supplant them. It is easy in this new Knoxville, therefore, to buy authentic truffle-flavoured balsamic vinegar, but hard to buy a cheap tin of beans. Easy to buy an electric guitar or a handmade banjo—harder to buy a mop or bucket. In the farmers' market, you can buy a stool cut from walnut, or a bench hewn from cherry, but if you want a plain and sturdy desk, the sort that Ikea excels in, you will need to look on Google maps. A jar of kim chee, a tub of real Thai curry paste—I have begun to consider mail order.
The edges of the city remain rough, and taking a bus after ten pm leads to the overhearing of strange, sad conversations. At the top of Gay Street, every day, all hours of the day, a mass of the homeless gather under the bridge and chat, looking hopeless.
What has been done so far, however, I have to say, looks pretty good. There are buses, after all, and free trolleys, too. I remind myself I am still very new, and know almost nothing, having not yet touched the music, comedy, theatre, art, and open mics. And the city is still changing: an Urban Outfitters is due to open, heading down from my old home, Philadelphia. Economists are starting to say that the next four years should be good ones for the American economy, and so Knoxville will probably grow further and faster.
Every First Friday, the art galleries open late, and on the grassy park beside Gay Street, dancers perform in the early evening, giving way, after the sun sets, to fire dancers and drumming circles. I stood there, this Friday, watching a few confused parents survey the dancing, their eyes clouded, their child in its push chair for a moment forgotten. This new city seemed to have taken them by surprise.