Knoxville is the Best! Knoxville is the Worst!

Knoxville Skyline from the South Knoxville Bridge, June 2017
Knoxville Skyline from the South Knoxville Bridge, June 2017

Aren’t lists fun? On the Internet, they are one of the surest ways to get clicks no matter how obscure the topic or completely subjective it may be: Top Ten Football Teams of All Time, Top Ten Best Bands of All Time, Ten Worst Movies of All Time and on it goes. You’ve looked. So have I. We can’t help it and we can’t help arguing about the choices.

Knoxville appears on a large number of lists and they either make us puff our chests out a little or spit in resentment. How dare they say that about our great city? or Well, it’s about time they get us! The lists are silly for the most part. Puff pieces for clicks.

I think the first time I wrote about a list on this blog was in March 2012 when Knoxville made Advocates annual list of “Gayest Cities in America.” It seemed questionable at the time and, despite the gains we’ve made since then, still highly doubtful. I pointed out then that the criteria were intentionally silly, not actually applied in any sort of clear way and that a number of reasonable variables one might have measured were missing. I probably took it too seriously.

Since then we’ve made all kinds of lists and I’ve talked about a number of them. A quick search reveals plenty: In 2012, CNN Money declared Knoxville one of the ten fastest growing cities in America. Strangely our population is growing incrementally. U.S. News Real Estate pronounces us the 64th best place to live (Is that good?). says J.C. Holdway is one of the twelve best new restaurants in America (probably correct). Esquire agreed with that assessment. says we are one of the top ten cities where outdoor lovers can actually afford to live. CBS pronounced us one of the ten hottest real estate markets last year. Earlier this year, Buzzfeed listed 23 reason Knoxville should be on your bucket list.

Knoxville Skyline, July 2017

A couple have come along that might seem surprising in the first case and hard to accept in the second case. In the first, College magazine announced its, “Top Ten Pride Festivals of 2018.” This would be top festivals in the world, btw. So, you’ve got your New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, Toronto, Sydney, Australia and, obviously, at number two, Knoxville. We’ll get you next year New York City! I think we got bonus points for having our parade on Gay Street. The large crowds were also cited.

The list that got a lot of recent buzz was a naughty list put together by 24/7 Wall Street, which rated Knoxville as the 36th worst city to live in the United States. (Fun question: Could this simply be the inverse of saying we’re the 64th best?) The group noted most prominently that our poverty rate is 25%, while the national average is 14%. They also say that our property and violent crime rate are, “twice as common as they are nationwide.”

There are so many ways a list like that can be weighted for or against a locale. What’s more important, clean air or good schools? Low crime or cost of living? Low taxes or excellent city services? Good roads or good public transit? Air quality or general climate? Average educational level or access to green space?

The answers we’d give to each of those questions would not be the same. And even if we agreed, how do we measure each variable? The measurement used might result in wildly different results. Crime, for example, isn’t reported remotely the same from one city to the other, so how do you really compare?

Further compounding the issue of how a city rates is the fact that it’s different for each of us depending on our socio-economic level, our general personal happiness, whether we are a majority or minority in any number of variables and on it goes. Some people living in Knoxville never experience the best it has to offer for any of a number of reasons. They may have never heard of our best restaurants.

Night Skyline, Knoxville, April 2013

Some live in places or groups in which physical safety is a daily concern while others of us never give it much thought. Walkable spaces are the ultimate luxury for some of us while people with mobility challenges experience that environment very differently. Quality schools are critical concerns for many families while they aren’t necessarily given much thought by others.

So, it’s important to realize that your Knoxville and my Knoxville may be different places. For some of us it is a wonderful place to spend a life while others among us struggle. Maybe Knoxville – and many, many other cities – really is the best and the worst. What really makes a city great is if its people are devoted to lifting all its citizens to a better life in the place that belongs to us all. Let’s be that great city and let the lists fall where they may.