Love and Theft in the City: Is Downtown Knoxville Safe?

Knoxville Skyline, February 2018
Knoxville Skyline, December 2016

Do you feel safe in the city? Is that a false sense of security or is Knoxville a safe place? Is downtown more or less safe than the rest of the city?

I’ve lived in the Knoxville area for nearly forty years. While I’ve lived in various parts of the city, from south Knoxville, to Rocky Hill and farther west, I’ve always been drawn to downtown. Even in the 1980s and 1990s, there were reasons to be downtown, whether it was the Community Shares Mardi Gras on Central, Ella Gurus, taking the kids to Spaghetti Warehouse, shopping the Watson’s basement, Fort Kid, Hot Summer Nights, the International Festivals on the World’s Fair Park and concerts at the Bijou and Tennessee, there was always something. Remember the Mercury Lounge before Preservation Pub?

Still, in 2009 when we decided we might like to live downtown, we had some hesitation. A big consideration was safety. We wondered what happened downtown late at night after we traveled safely home from a night in the city. We wondered about the safety of our car (cars at the time). Would the car be vandalized or worse, stolen?

With nearly a decade downtown, I can say that we’ve successfully navigated roughly fourteen vehicle-years without our cars being once damaged or stolen. In complete disclosure, I should acknowledge that someone once smeared a very expensive burger all over our windshield. I never understood why, but was sure it hurt them more than it hurt us.

As for personal safety, we’ve never felt unsafe downtown. I wrote once about being shaken down for $5, but that’s it. I walk around downtown, sometimes in the early hours of the morning, with an expensive camera strapped across my shoulder and never fear someone will take it. I’ve even left it, as recently as during this year’s Big Ears Festival and it’s always been where I left it, sometimes under the guardianship of some helpful soul.

Knoxville Skyline, February 2018

We’ve never had our home broken into downtown, though once in the last decade we knew someone who did, unfortunately, have that experience. I don’t recall a business being broken into, either, though that might have happened. I’ve known businesses to have problems with shoplifting and, within the last few months, someone passed some fake $100 bills out to some of those same businesses. I know one person who lost his wallet to a pickpocket.

As for violence, I’ve seen one fight in the last decade. That said, I watched some young guys squaring off like they wanted to fight after Boomsday several years ago. They dispersed without anyone being hurt. I’ve seen guns downtown, but they have been openly carried and that is legal. It doesn’t make me feel any safer, but it’s where we are as a culture.

I’ve been aware of car-jackings a couple of times. Once was in the Market Square Garage and once was on Western, but the guy came through downtown.

All of this is anecdotal. Though I pay attention to downtown, I’m only one person observing. For a more accurate view of downtown crime – or crime in any area of Knoxville, the Knoxville Police Department provides a helpful guide to crimes of every sort. You can check it out here, complete with filters for particular crimes and for periods of time. It’s eye-opening in that there is more crime of every sort than I would have imagined. And its all over town.

Knoxville Skyline, July 2017

Knoxville doesn’t compare well to other U.S. cities in crime statistics. That’s a surprising piece of information for many of us who feel so safe. While Knoxville scores very well in a range of lists published annually of best places to live, retire or visit, it generally loses points because of crime. According to the website, Knoxville gets good grades in every category except crime. According to their stats, we have roughly twice as much crime in most categories as other cities. Surprised?

This all came back into focus for me recently as I’ve had two friends have cars stolen in the downtown area in the last few weeks. According to the police website above, the rate of car theft is spread pretty evenly around the city. Downtown, Sequoyah Hills and West Town had about the same number of cars stolen recently.

Crime is driven by numerous variables and one of the auto thefts in question illustrates the point. I recently profiled artist Mark Carson English. What I didn’t mention in the article was that the night before his van full of art was stolen in the Old City. I didn’t want to take the focus off his profile.

Knoxville Skyline from the South Knoxville Bridge, June 2017

For me, it was even more personal. I own a piece of his art and I lent it to him for his music-themed Big Ears exhibition just minutes before the van — with my art inside, as well as many other works — was stolen. Also inside were all his credit cards, identification and more. He was most heartbroken over a special messenger bag his daughter had given him.

The cell phone was found quickly, as it could be pinged. It had been left behind. And then, after four days, a call was placed to the police department by the young man who had taken the van. He told them where he was and turned himself and the van in to the authorities. All the art and items were recovered. He said he and his mother were homeless and desperate. It’s easy to vilify people who commit crimes, but it’s often complicated.

The single thing that both auto thefts had in common was that the keys were left in the car. It was easy for the vehicles to be taken. We so believe that our city is safe that we sometimes make it easy or tempting for crimes to be committed. We can’t avoid or prevent all crimes, but we can sometimes make them less likely.

Imagine by Mark Carson English, Knoxville, March 2019

So, I still believe our city is safe. I’m still not worried when I’m out late at night. I expect my car to be there when I return. But going forward I will have a piece of once-stolen art hanging on my wall to remind me that crime does happen.

We live in a city and, while I’ll continue to believe the percentage is small, there are people who for whatever reason, will take advantage if given the chance. As much as this feels like Mayberry, it’s actually an urban environment with all that that brings: the glorious and the ignoble.

So go out and enjoy this glorious city and this particularly great era to be in this place. But be aware, careful and don’t make it easy for bad things to happen.