Monday, September 08, 2003

Downtown Snobbery

On Sunday the entire Perspective section of the Knoxville News Sentinel was taken over by a piece on what the future Mayor of Knoxville should know about our town. Scott Baker has put together what is actually an interesting profile of my hometown, and how different the attitudes are between residents of different areas of the city. I haven't had a chance to read the whole thing yet (church and NFL wait for no man) so haven't gotten to the East and South Knoxville sections yet, but I will and probably will comment on them later.

However, the Downtown and West Knoxville sections deserve commentary. I'll start with Downtown first - you can read the whole thing online here.

[Disclaimer: I grew up in Fountain City, which is the northern-most suburb of Knoxville while still in the city limits. I lived on the UT campus for three years, and since then have lived in West Knoxville and West Knox County. I currently live outside the city limits - barely - so have no vote in the upcoming election, but still consider myself a life-long Knoxvillian.]

'At lunchtime on a steamy summer day, John Griggs ambles along the Market Street sidewalk, past rumbling machinery that drowns out the street preachers, on his way back to the Miller's Building, where he works as a sales manager for ImagePoint.

"I think this will be a beautiful addition when it's finished," Griggs says of the square's facelift. "A vibrant downtown is what makes major cities attractive."'
Here's a common misconception. Sure, a downtown area is probably most visible to tourists, but it's not necessarily what makes a city attractive to perspective residents. It's a component, but not the only thing.

'Perched on a tall chair just inside the entrance of the Tomato Head restaurant, Anne Thomas-Abbott, a high school teacher who lives in South Knoxville, says the mayor must develop plans "to accommodate a growing population without creating a whole city like West Knoxville."'
And now the first major bit of downtown snobbery. I put up with this for a year or so on K2K until I had to stop participating. There's a stereotype among hard-core Downtowners that anything beyong Sequoya Hills on Kingston Pike is an endless series of strip malls, concrete, and soulless subdivisions full of zombies and Republicans (not necessarily mutually exclusive). While this can be argued in the abstract, the reality is that there are many open spaces, parks, restaurants, theatres and good people that Knoxville should be proud of. A "whole city like West Knoxville" is not a detriment in the way she means it. And this means a lot, coming from a native Fountain Citian who never even travelled any farther west than West Town Mall until after High School.

'"But progress shouldn't come at the expense of historic preservation, cautions Ed Smith, the owner of Knoxville Recycling Co.

"The flavor of our community is our heritage," Smith says. "People don't come here to see new buildings. We need to be very careful what we allow to be destroyed."'
I'm not sure what this is supposed to mean. People only come to Knoxville to see, what, Blount Mansion? The Bakers/Peters house? My great-aunt's old privy? Sure, it's important to preserve what needs to be preserved - places with real history, relevance and architectural distinctiveness. Old Knoxville High has been preserved, as has the old Courthouse and both are still in use when they could have been torn down long ago. However, saving buildings just because they're old is foolish. The Smith/Allen house at Cherokee Country Club is one example - sure, it's a pretty home but it has no particular history behind it other than to certain long-time Knoxville families - but the truth of the matter is they don't own it anymore, and it's in the way of a business' expansion. The same goes for the old building downtown that has longed housed "Pete's" restaurant (who has subsequently vacated, IIRC). It was built by a freed slave a century ago, but that seems to be its only claim to cultural fame and definitely does not have a pleasing architectural style. And it's not what people come to Knoxville to see.

'But a parking shortage, not shoplifters, is what vexes Yee-Haw co-owner Kevin Bradley.

"It's a terrible problem," Bradley says. The shop, which has clients all over the country, couldn't survive by relying on downtown shoppers, says Bradley's partner, Julie Belcher.'
This is absolutely true. I've had to visit downtown a couple times recently for business, and had to drive around and search for parking each time. I don't always have cash or change with me, so it's not always convenient to feed a meter or pay a lot attendent (when you can find an empty one). I don't know what might solve this problem, but I don't agree with those who think bikes and public transportation are the silver bullet keys to easy downtown access.

'"They need to clear out some of the homeless people who scare young women," she says. "I had a guy growl at me this morning."

Downtown residents tend to downplay the safety issue. For example, [Old City business owner Scott] West says that homeless people wouldn't stand out if more visitors crowded the sidewalks."'
This is the quote that almost made me fall out of my chair. Assuming the homeless people will just fade into the background if there are more people downtown is asinine, and an insult to the homeless. The comment would have made more sense if it were concerning rats than the homeless, but apparently he thinks they're fairly equivilant.

And even the analogy's wrong. More people would mean more homeless, and still more people would mean still more homeless. That's not the way to deal with the problem.

On one of those downtown visits last summer I had the occasion to drop my son off at the Y, then had a chance to get some breakfast. I thought about sitting in Market Square to eat, but the overwhelming number of menacing homeless people that apparently live there made me think twice. I ended up eating in my car.

I don't share other peoples' romantic views of the homeless, noble humans who have retreated from every day society. Neither do I consider them rats to be covered up by the rest of humanity. That is one problem I hope the next mayor finds a way to deal with fairly, humanely, and with the dignity all humans deserve.

Next: West Knoxville

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