New Project Set to Beautify Downtown’s Most Visible Alleyway

Armstrong Alley, Knoxville, October 2012

There are many alleyways in downtown. Some are used as delivery points behind businesses while others seem largely unused. Downtown residents often view them as short cuts to their next destination. Sometimes homeless people or simply visitors to downtown who have no public restrooms tend to use them for relief points. Probably visitors who aren’t used to cities see them as dangerous or threatening.

A friend told me some time back that he expected alleys to be a real focus in terms of usefulness in the near future. As real estate, he predicted they would become valuable. It appears that others are thinking along the same lines.

Armstrong Alley, Knoxville, October 2012

Armstrong Alley, Knoxville, October 2012

Armstrong Alley, Knoxville, October 2012

The current alley in question is being called the Armstrong/Strong Alley. I don’t like the sound of that and, while it may be very historically correct, it’s just clunky. I don’t know who either person referenced might be, so I’m going with Armstrong Alley. You have the assonance without the redundancy. In the end, it’s just the alley between Market Square and Gay Street, running north/south paralleling Gay.

It’s got some interesting surfaces that have become covered with graffiti, some of which had potential to be a bit attractive, but most of which is simply tagging. Often one tag covers another, which I suppose taggers understand, but it’s just garbled ugliness to the rest of us. There are also openings to homes on the Gay Street side and I wonder what those people think about the plans.

Flier posted throughout Armstrong Alley, Knoxville, October 2012

Armstrong Alley, Knoxville, October 2012

Armstrong Alley, Knoxville, October 2012

And what are the plans? You can get the details here, but basically the idea is to clean away the graffiti and replace it with commissioned art. It’s called the Artist Alley Revamp Project and donations are being solicited for paint and related supplies. The proposed facelift is slated to begin the last week of October and to run for about a month. The group making this push is looking for thirty to forty artists of all sorts to beautify specified areas of the alley.

The idea is that, hopefully, vandalism will decrease and foot-traffic to view the new art will increase. One hopeful sign is that despite the fact that the alley is littered with graffiti, no one seems to have defaced the wonderful building facade painted on the back side of the Millers building in the alley. The end behind 36 Market Square has recently been painted to cover the accumulation of tags and defacement.

Freshly painted end of the Armstrong Alley, Knoxville, October 2012

Armstrong Alley, Knoxville, October 2012

Armstrong Alley, Knoxville, October 2012

It’s interesting that this is happening so close to the former graffiti wall that used to reside on the side of 36 Market Square. No doubt it got trashy, but it also served up some credible art along the way. Maybe the alley just around the corner from that location can live up to the artistic promise of the old graffiti wall without the trashiness.

Tree Growing in Armstrong Alley, Knoxville, October 2012

So keep an eye out for the changes. I’ll try to take some pictures all along so people who can’t get downtown can see what’s happening. I’d love to see it turn into another sight that everyone wants to take in when walking around downtown. I do hope the tree growing out of the building is left alone, but I suspect it will be removed sooner or later. So, what do you think? Is this a good thing to try or a waste of time? Will you be interested in walking through the alley to see the art?




    Here is the link to all the photos taken prior to the priming.

  2. Nearly an hour after the post went up regarding the lack of Preservation Pub support, We the curators, received a response from the owners of Preservation Pub. The response made clear that there was a misunderstanding of the events to take place in the alley. Since we are placing art work rather than adding blank white walls, the Pub was delighted to jump over to our side of the fence and take part in this wonderful project. Thank Preservation Pub owners for taking the time to look into the project brief as well as STUCK INSIDE KNOXVILLE which opened the door to resolve this minor issue.

  3. Aaron, thank you for the wonderful update on the history behind the name.

  4. Well its interesting to see the opinions of the locals. It’s always good to hear the thoughts of others when doing something that will benefit many.

    Though it is unfortunate that Preservation Pubs owners will not speak on behalf of the pub, rather their cleaning lady is sharing her negative opinions as those of the establishment.

    Enough said about that though.

    We believe that some have not taken the time to review the brief regarding this awesome project.

    Yes the artwork that currently occupy the walls in the alley were wonderful a few years back when they went up. As time went on, the art became covered with tags etc.

    Still there were many space with empty walls. These walls then slowly became the marking grounds for taggers as well as the back doors to establishments which share the alley.

    We all enjoy a bit of well done graffiti, and the plans to revamp the alleyway are not in place to keep graffiti out but instead bring many artist together to do 50-60 pieces and take there time. The revamp plans include many artist all with eclectic works. Some very well known here in Knoxville, others just starting to branch out into the world of art while some are even children. We have left this event to be an open opportunity for any artist of any age and want as many helping hands and smiling faces as possible. We have made attempts to reach friends of previous alley artist so that they may contact them and give them the opportunity to come back and do a new piece.

    What some don’t seem to understand is that we are not taking the approach of the alley on the opposite side of market square. We don’t want to paint over everything and leave blank white walls. We don’t want to make the alley look like a “well lit strip mall”. The Artist Alley Revamp Project is underway to bring in more artist, put up many new works, but address it with proper preparations and consent of business and building owners.

    Everyone is on board except Preservation Pub. We , the curators have made multiple attempts to work with them and receive their permission. Yet we have been unable to reach the owners after many request and visits to the Pub. So we revisit them today. Our plans were to tie up any loose ends before the priming is done next week.

    As we entered Preservation Pub, we were met inside the door by the same lady we see so frequently hanging posters all over downtown for upcoming events. She also happens to be the cleaning lady at the Pub. Soon after we entered and explained that we were there to receive permission for use of the alley wall space on their building, she kicked us out and locked the door.

    We can’t seem to understand why Preservation Pub of all places would not want the same graffiti artist they have on their building now, to come out and do really nice pieces while they are able to take their time and not have to worry about business owners or law enforcement coming down on them. Regardless, we understand if they don’t want to partake in this event and thus will not section out their wall space to artist but rather leave that as the area for taggers. After all, that is what the Pub claims they like to see on the alley walls.

    With anything involving change, there will always be that one!

  5. KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says:

    Wow. I have had posts with more comments, but I think we may have set a record today for length on two of them. Obviously this post struck a chord I didn’t expect. I think I have to do a follow-up post rather than trying to respond to all these comments which are so passionate and articulate. Look for more in coming days and in the meantime, keep responding if there is more to say.

  6. KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says:

    Posted on behalf of Preservation Pub:

    Hello Urban Guy, We tried to add this comment to your post on Strong Alley, but it said we’d entered the wrong password (we couldn’t figure out where we were supposed to enter said password, so here is the comment!):

    Over the years, we have greatly enjoyed the various alley vandalisms of such noted artists as Cynthia Markert and Brian Pittman, both of whose artworks sell for thousands of dollars in galleries around the country.

    All day every day, we watch as people– tourists and locals, models and rockers, amateurs and professionals, enchanted participants all– take uncounted photographs of colorful clothes and painted faces posed against the vibrant graffiti of Strong Alley.

    Meanwhile, we watch as no one photographs the Market Square’s opposite-side alleyway, the clean and freshly painted one beside the Parking Garage.

    As our Downtown revitalizes, is it inevitable that people will attempt to snuff out the very energies that them there in the first place? Is it inevitable that the gentry will decide that the noise of street musicians and vibrancy of graffiti art must be eradicated to make way for the perceived safety of national chain stores lined up all quietly and cleanly in a well lit suburban strip mall kind of place?
    Preservation Pub

  7. I believe it’s Strong Alley, not Armstrong Alley. It’s a loss of depth when some of these old names are forgotten — years ago they were important, in that residences and businesses sometimes had addresses off these decidedly second-tier streets. Some of them we’ve managed never to forget (e.g. Journal Place), some we’ve rediscovered as a sort of re-creation of a sense of place (e.g. Fire Street, Marble Alley), and some have completely disappeared as the city has developed (e.g. Gunter’s Flat, which was, incidentally, in much the same location as part of Fire Street). There are a couple alleys in North Knoxville that have kept their names, because they’ve had houses on them for the last hundred years, and they have to have an address from somewhere.

    Names are important. It’s one thing to look at an old building or place and say, “I like that because it’s old.” It’s another layer of meaningfulness to look at an old building and say, “That’s old, here’s why that’s important, and here’s its connection to our history.” Both ‘Strong’ and ‘Armstrong’ are old Knoxville names with history. Drury Paine Armstrong built Crescent Bend; his son Robert Houston Armstrong built Bleak House (Confederate Memorial Hall); Robert’s daughter Adelia Armstrong Lutz built Westwood across the street. So in near west Knoxville, there’s a neat family architectural progression of historic houses. The Strongs don’t have so much of a built legacy remaining. Dr. Joseph Strong built a beautiful and substantial house, the masterpiece of Tennessee architect Thomas Hope (who also designed Ramsey House in east Knox County), downtown, but it was demolished for an onramp to James White Parkway. Benjamin Rush Strong gave a bequest to UT in honor of his mother, Sophronia, which was used to build Strong Hall. A sister was married to Gideon Morgan Hazen (whose house, Middlebrook, is the namesake for Middlebrook Pike). Their son Rush Strong Hazen was a wholesale grocer, whose building still stands in the Old City. He married Alice Evelyn Mabry. Their daughter, Evelyn Montgomery Hazen, was the last resident of Mabry-Hazen House, the museum located just east of downtown — so there’s another connection, though the ‘Strong’ name is lost.

    Anyway, those are, in one sense or another, “who either person referenced might be,” with some explanation of the great jumble of old Knoxville families, and why the name itself should remain part of the bigger story. It may be clunky, but it’s a layer in the story of our little city.

  8. I love this idea! I would definitely use an alley to look at the art. I adored the graffiti wall when it was up. In fact, that was a one of the factors that convinced us to move here. It had some gorgeous art and really added to the feel of the city. I loved walking down there and checking out all the different bits of beauty amongst the mess. I wish they’d do the same down Fire Street Alley.

  9. Seems this would really do nothing more than promote more graffiti.

    • Thanks for the post & update. Good idea to put a location and a process in place for street art. As for this idea “promoting more graffiti”, this is the time to enforce graffiti taggers targeting other buildings & spaces (sidewalks, KUB poles, street signs, etc). This is “your” place to put your spray paint.

  10. John in Knoxville says:

    I walk through this alleyway fairly regularly and I admire the graffiti that is found there. While not all of it is awe inspiring, it certainly provides an interesting promenade. In my humble opinion, Strong Alley (and that is what it is usually called; see Jack Neely) is one of the most “urban” feeling spots in the city. Good capture Urban Guy!

  11. It’s a good sign when even non-spaces like this get some attention, but I doubt graffiti art will draw many people into an alley.

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