Here’s what this is not: a comparison between Asheville and Knoxville. I haven’t attempted a comparison between two cities in about three years and recently I was told by someone who remembered the last one that it “was the stupidist thing I ever read.” I think that’s the correct quote. And to their point, it is a bit naive to compare cities unless you know them very well. Inevitably the better points of one or the other are overlooked and the more subtle variables which make life better or worse often aren’t obvious in a casual observation.
So, in more recent years I’ve taken to noting things in other cities which are different. Some of them seem like ideas we should consider for ourselves and sometimes I notice ways that we’ve got something going a little better. A recent stop in Asheville offered an opportunity to look at another city through my downtown Knoxville lens. We’d spent a night in Abingdon and drove from there, just over a hundred miles, to Asheville via US 23, which is a beautiful drive, mostly through national forests.
We’ve rarely gone to Asheville for the day, usually opting to spend the night, so this was a little different. Whereas we’d normally pull into our hotel parking lot or garage, I had to find public parking. Since it’s one of the constant complaints about downtown Knoxville, I paid attention. It turns out there are several centrally located public garages. The first hour is free and every hour after is a dollar with a maximum of seven dollars for a day.
I was impressed. I mean, who could complain about that, right? Try parking in Nashville, Atlanta, Memphis or New Orleans for that little. Surely, this is an idea we could replicate to quell the complaints back home, right? So as soon as we returned, I checked. I didn’t know the hourly rate since I pay a residential monthly rate of $37.50 per vehicle. Guess how much more it costs to park in Knoxville. Are you ready? The same thing it costs in Asheville! We are cheap, people. If you don’t have seven dollars to park all day long, then you might want to wait until the evening when it is completely free! How much more can we do?
OK, so that’s the same, but were there differences? Certainly. We stopped into Malaprops which is a great book store and bought a thing or two. It’s an awesome book store with a coffee shop and marvelous books. Still, Union Avenue Books is also awesome and great coffee waits just next door at Just Ripe, so, while Malaprop’s is great, I think we’re OK on that front.
On the street several things caught our eye. The garbage cans and recycling bins are pretty cool. There’s no confusing the two like sometimes happens in Knoxville with one labeled “Recycling” and the other bluntly labeled “Landfill.” I spotted beautiful iron water bowls which included a spot for tying a leash for a quick run inside a store. Also on the street, an obvious outpost for the police right in the middle of the action – and it was paired with public restrooms. Two things we could use in downtown Knoxville. I know the police are nearby and often patrol, but just seeing the little station was a good thing. And restrooms – what else can I say?
On the retail front, the most noticeable difference to me was the fact that they have so much more. Why is that? They are a smaller city, though their downtown population may be larger, so how can they support a far more extensive retail district? Street after street had interesting shops without walking a block or more past parking lots, holes in the streetscape or crossing major thoroughfares with fast-moving traffic.
Then there’s the detail of exactly what they have. Two types of stores appear to be in every large city – or even small one with much of a tourist component – that we travel to: A tea room and a spice shop. In downtown Asheville, The Spice and Tea Exchange pulled Urban Woman right in. We didn’t buy spices on that trip, but we bought salt and pepper grinders so we can move to sea salt for our table.
We’d enjoyed a similar spice shop in Abingdon and a great shop in Franklin this past fall. If these places can support a spice shop, couldn’t downtown Knoxville? And while I’m not a big tea room kind of guy, why wouldn’t a small tea room work somewhere downtown? Dobra Tea in Asheville is only the latest we’ve noticed. Surely there’s enough tea culture in Knoxville to support one here.
We enjoyed the art in the Kress Emporium and I noted how much Asheville-centric art is generated. I know we have some, but I would like to see more. The best surprise there was finding the beautiful art of Knoxville’s own Cynthia Markert. It was like seeing a friend from home in an unexpected place because it was, well, seeing a friend from home in an unexpected place. She’s a Knoxville treasure and owning a piece of her art is worth the financial sacrifice.
On the restaurant front, I always think downtown Knoxville has more than its share of eateries. I know some people complain about the quality, but I think some of them are quite good and I don’t often think, “I wish we could get more restaurants downtown.” One category of restaurant, however, is largely missing from downtown. If you want ethnic food, the choices are pretty limited. There’s a French restaurant, a Falafel restaurant at lunch, a crepe restaurant and a Mexican restaurant. I suppose you could add Shonos and Nama as Asian and Cocoa Moon has a mix of Latin and Asian.
Still, I’ve mentioned before that there seems to be something missing on the ethnic food front. I’ve been told that the reason we don’t have such restaurants downtown is the high price of rent for a store-front. The thinking went that these types of places thrive in low-rent strip malls. Well, take a look at downtown Asheville. In our tiny little walk-around, we spotted the Jerusalem Garden Cafe featuring Mediterranean cuisine, the Thai Orchid and The Med featuring Greek and Mediterranean food.
Less ethnic, but also interesting, we spotted a moonshine bar and restaurant and an interesting deli called Mojos. And we didn’t even eat at any of these, but rather at Rhubarb, a restaurant we’ve enjoyed many times. Why is it possible for this variety of restaurant to appear in downtown Asheville, only to be impossible for downtown Knoxville?
Finally, but certainly worth mentioning, there were also real dry goods sorts of stores. I could have purchased a pair of shoes and a shirt at several different stores. That’s not so easy in downtown Knoxville. Sure we have some shoes in Mast General Store and great t-shirts in Nuthin’ Too Fancy. For the trendy among us Urban Outfitters will have your threads. For those of us who happen to be male and well out of our twenties or thirties, there isn’t so much to chose from.
So, again, not an attempt at saying one is better than the other, just an attempt to point out some things Asheville has going on, which we might be able to emulate. Thoughts?