It’s My City, What Are You Doing Here?

Bicyclist on Market Square

Did you bristle a bit when you saw that headline? Did you think, “Urban Guy has really lost it now. He’s become a megalomaniac?” Well, no. All of you who read me regularly, know I love downtown and I love mixing it up with various groups who pass through or inhabit the city. Still, we’ve all probably had days when we had a fun vibe going downtown and we felt someone or some group impinged on our plans.

Frisby in the middle of Market Square

I first became aware of the growing tensions between a couple of groups several years ago. I attended a 100 Jubilee show at the Bijou in January 2009 and part of the entertainment was a comedy/commentary group called the Booze Hounds Gandy Dance. The humor is raunchy, which I get. I’m not offended at humorous sexual or drug/alcohol references. But I don’t enjoy humor at other’s expense delivered in a mean-spirited way and I thought their humor about homeless people and mountain people was simply cruel.

But here’s what really caught my attention: They mercilessly lampooned people who live in West Knoxville. I realize stereotyping anyone who lives in that part of town has been perfectly acceptable in certain quarters of Knoxville for a long time. The basic riff, of course, was that they are rich, out of touch with the “real” people and arrogant. Still, it was what they said next that really set me off: They made fun of people who move into downtown condos. I realized in their view, I’m a stereotype if I live in the west and I’m a stereotype if I move downtown. It seemed the only “good guys” were the poor bohemian types who live downtown. I’ve worked hard, saved my money and I’ve been very lucky, so I can never be one of the good guys.

Hacky Sack on the Square

Of course, the counter-point to the west Knoxville bashing is on display anytime there is an article about downtown in the Knoxville News Sentinel. Downtowners are slammed in various ways and the area is invariably described as a dangerous wasteland by people who do not seem to have been downtown in years. If the article is about a failed venture, the responses are even worse.

I did move into the city later that year and, as you all know, I love living here. But the tensions are apparent in numerous ways. Soon after I started the blog last summer I was introduced to some people who have lived in downtown for years – which means before “people like you moved here” – and that point was emphasized. I initially took the introduction as polite only to realize later I was being sent a message: “This is my city, what are you doing here – and how dare you write about it?” To which I might respond, “Is this a city or a junior high school?” The attitude has persisted among certain long-time residents, though obviously this is not so with many others.

Motorized Scooter on the Square

Then a similar discussion erupted at the Metropulse earlier this year when Michael Haynes wrote an article entitled “A Schism of Downtown Viewpoints” in which he detailed the tension between those who live in the city and those who visit the city. A couple of readers responded and took umbrage with what they felt was the implication that one group has more rights than another downtown. It is easy for a writer to have the words on the page or computer screen misinterpreted, so you might read the article, then the response and decide for yourself.

There are also tensions between other groups. I recently got an e-mail from a reader in which she wrote in part, “My husband and I were on Market Square yesterday evening.  We wanted to enjoy a nice afternoon and walk together.  We stopped at Rita’s and got a gelatto.  Then we sat down to enjoy it there on the square . . . a group of twenty somethings started throwing a football around practically over our heads.  The cop on site said NOTHING to them.  We ducked for a few minutes, then decided to find another place to enjoy our afternoon.  There were also 5 kids on scooters . . . (but) the cop singled out 2 skate boarders and ignored the kids and the ball players.  Am I an old fogie for thinking that there are more appropriate places for these activities?  How do ‘downtowners’ feel about it?  I loved the energy and activity there, but I really thought those folks overstepped bounds.”

Scateboarders on Union Avenue

Good thoughts and questions. I responded that just the day before I had witnessed a patron exiting Soccer Taco and as she attempted to skirt the game that is often outside their door, she was struck by a soccer ball and her drink splashed onto her blouse. She laughed, but I’m sure others wouldn’t have done so. Personally, I’ve been nearly run over by bikes flying down the sidewalk and nearly hit crossing the street at a crosswalk by people flying through the intersection in their cars.

I’ve previously discussed being accosted or asked for money on the street (here, here, here, here and here). Sometimes the request is accompanied by a story and a rejection isn’t taken kindly. There is a particular group of homeless people – I’ve heard them called “Travelers” – who are particularly aggressive. They are young, travel in groups, always have dogs in tow and are perfectly willing to obstruct a sidewalk simply to make the point they can and “what are you going to do about it?” I’ve heard them curse me when I refuse to give them money and say that a “rich man don’t know what it’s like to be poor,” which makes my blood boil for several reasons.

Soccer outside Steamboat on Market Square

So, there are tensions. It may be simplistic, but I tend to think of them as growing pains. For a number of years in the early nineties, the only place to be downtown was the Old City. Over time the center of interest shifted to Market Square. Most people who come downtown now land in that relatively small space. The Old City is still kicking (as I detailed in my recent series on Jackson Avenue) and the 100 block has it’s own charm, but that’s about as far as most people venture. This didn’t matter for years because the numbers involved were so small. Now the numbers are very large, particularly when there is an event, or as has often been the case lately, multiple simultaneous events. Increasingly crowds are thick throughout these areas even on weeknights.

What will resolve these issues? The obvious answer is that nothing will change some of these dynamics, many of which are as old as cities. I do think it can, and I believe it will, get better as we expand our view of what constitutes “downtown.” Businesses in search of locations off the square have started the move to Jackson Avenue, to the 100 Block, to the Daylight Building on Union Avenue and up Market Street. Can we break the patterns of so many who don’t venture to these areas so that we can spread out and all have a good time? The answer to that question may determine the long-term prospects of a vibrant center city and will certainly impact the satisfaction of those of us who choose to live, play, work or worship in the city.