I’ve called it a gateway drug before and it really is. David Dewhirst put it nicely when he said, “The City People Home Tour is the very best tool for downtown Knoxville to illustrate to a curious public the uniqueness and pleasure of urban living.” What he said. For Urban Woman and myself, years of City People tours certainly had a cumulative impact. We didn’t feel we could live in some of the homes we saw. Others amazed and impressed us. And that’s before the explosion of style-choices in downtown Knoxville homes.
The tour marks its thirtieth anniversary this year and I found it interesting to look back at some of the early tours. In 1985, City People joined with Knoxville Heritage to present the tour with the theme, “Two Hundred Years of Living in the Old City.” It included 11 residences, a stop at the long-defunct 200 East Gallery and a “buffet tea” at Annie’s, which is also now long gone but very fondly remembered. While touting the “fine, exclusive residences and offices downtown,” the press release noted that the last year had been a tough one for the center city in that, “two tenants were lost, two warehouses burned” and development generally slowed due to “turmoil in the banking industry and wrangling over the site concept.”
I found it interesting that adult tickets were a pricey (for the 80’s) $15. A phone number was given for reservations and an address to mail in checks. Very quaint. The tour ran for three hours.
The 1995 tour was divided into the green and the orange tours to correspond with the trolley routes of the time. Nine stops were offered with one at Key Antiques, which no longer exists. Kendrick Place, the Pembroke and King’s Row found their way on to the tour as they had ten years earlier. A helpful map centered on “Market Square Mall” was included. Visitors were encouraged to plan a dining experience during their visit to the city, to The Soup Kitchen, Market Square Restaurant, Lucille’s, Manhattan’s, Hooray’s, Regas and Zosha’s, all of which are now closed. I have memories of eating at six of the seven. Still open, and also on the suggested list for dining, was Chesapeake’s and the Bistro at the Bijou.
By 2005, the tour stretched to six hours. I suspect this was about the time Urban Woman and I tuned in to it, though it might have been a few years earlier. “See Our City” was the theme that year, seventeen locations were included and the tour stretched all over the downtown area from Cook Loft to the Old City and over to Henley Street. The brochure listed a total of six businesses which would be open during the tour. If comprehensive – and I suspect it was – that’s pretty shocking when you consider how many downtown businesses are open on a Sunday afternoon in 2015. Of those six, three are still open and doing well: Bliss, Bliss Home and Earth to Old City. Nine restaurants were listed and ten years later, six of the nine are still operating downtown, which is pretty impressive for that business sector.
So, clearly many things have changed and much progress has been experienced over the last thirty years. Citizens who took that first tour and left town at that point would barely recognize the city as it is today. I suspect the same might be said thirty years from now.
This year’s version of the City People Tour will be different in several respects from previous tours. Buskers will greet patrons at several locations, for example. It will also include two days and begin during the First Friday celebration and coincide with the Market Square Farmers’ Market. Homes may be viewed one day or the other or spread over both days. It starts at 5:30 tomorrow and runs until 8:00 PM. Saturday’s hours are 11:00 AM to 4:00 PM.
Another emphasis for this tour will be public transit and parking. The City People website highlights several parking options, including the Civic Coliseum Garage (which does cost $5, while the others are free – but if you show them your receipt for an advanced ticket, it is free, as well). There are a variety of check-in points and all check in points and homes are on the trolley route, which patrons will be encouraged to use. As always, the trolley is free and one trolley will be a “prize trolley” sponsored by Smart Trips. Three different check-in points are also available: the KAT center (which if you’ve not seen it is worth seeing and the trolley stops directly beside the front door), the Arcade Bldg. (618 S. Gay) and the Century Bldg. (312 S. Gay).
You’ll not only have the opportunity to see a wide range of urban homes and to learn histories of the buildings, you’ll also find interviews with the owners included in your booklet. Some have lived downtown only a few months and one has lived downtown for twenty-four years. You’ll learn what they like about downtown, where they lived before and what drew them to an urban environment. You’ll even find out how they deal with their cars while living downtown. You’ll also meet many volunteers, most of whom live downtown and can answer your questions about life in the city.
You can find all the information you need at the City People Home Tour site, including parking and ticket information, the tour stops and information about the buildings on this year’s tour. You may purchase tickets directly from that site or at any of the check-in points on the days of the tour. No need to mail in a check ala 1985.
Urban living generally and living in downtown Knoxville isn’t for everyone. But many people are discovering it is a place they want to be. This tour can help you understand why people find it attractive and, perhaps, help you sort out whether it might be for you. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you that it’s a gateway drug. I’ll see you there. I wouldn’t miss it.