A Decade of Surprising Twists and Turns Continues

The Selfie That Started it All, June 2010

It was ten years ago today that I started a blog to fill a void that I felt on a personal level. Urban Woman and I were spending large amounts of time in downtown Knoxville and dreamed of one day moving to the center city. A chance breakfast, a dreamy walk on Labor Day 2009 and a special property for sale escalated our plans and by November 2009, we’d moved downtown. In those short weeks in between I wondered if we were crazy, if we would be safe and if our new home would hold its value.

We’d looked online and found very little being written about day-to-day life in downtown Knoxville. By June 2010, a friend of mine, young adult author Deborah Wiles, convinced me I should write a blog about life in the city. On June 1, 2010, I published a selfie taken with a point-and-shoot camera and dubbed myself Knoxville Urban Guy.

I had no plans beyond writing fun little articles about the city we loved. A lot of the early posts were silly. The first was just a really long paragraph with no photos. There were certainly people who knew far more about downtown and some of them made sure I understood that fact. Still, I was startled to find I actually had readers. Several dozen of them! I’d hoped people considering a move to downtown might find something I wrote, but the well was much deeper than that: Downtown was capturing the attention of more people than it had in years.

But I also love cities because they are real. There’s no Cinderella’s castle, there’s no sanitized safe-zone or cul-de-sac. I wrote 26 articles the first month and they became steadily more serious. In June and July I wrote about homelessness and other urban issues. In August 2010 I wrote a series about the neo-nazi march downtown and got a lot of notice for the photographs and the coverage. More readers joined.

Preston Davis Assaults Urban Guy, Krutch Park, Knoxville, August 2012

I wrote about businesses and development starting early on. I didn’t know any of the business owners or developers and they didn’t know me, so the articles were often just a photo and a description. There were very few interviews. I worked on my writing, my photography and my knowledge of business, development and urban design.

It was 2013 when a friend suggested I could have ads and make money. I’d tried Google ads and the Amazon affiliate program, but I made about a dollar a day from those sources and they simply were not worth the trouble. I pitched ads to Visit Knoxville, Preservation Pub, Tree and Vine and Knoxville Downtown Realty. They said yes, and the hobby became a business.

By May 2014, I was earning enough money that I felt I could take the chance and retire from my job in public schools. It was a great decision and the blog continued to grow. I got spots on local news stations. Benny Smith gave me the wonderful opportunity to host a radio show for three years. I got to work with Jack Neely in a series of videos (included in the tabs above) on Knoxville Weekend.

I’ve published nearly 3,000 articles and over 30,000 photographs. I’ve covered major stories and stories so minor, I was probably the only person who cared. I’ve covered a fascinating range of topics and I’ve gotten to know (and introduced readers to) some of the best humans I’ll ever hope to meet. Readership has grown into the thousands and I’ve learned so much from so many of you and, thankfully, become friends with many of you.

Knoxville Urban Guy does Pecha Kucha, Relix Theater, Knoxville, November 2014

One thing that has always been steady throughout the ten years has been a city that just keeps getting better. We had just come out of the great recession when I started writing and the biggest challenge was keeping up with businesses as they opened and developments as they were announced. There was so much to celebrate. I’d considered having a big party on the event of the website’s ten year mark and the incredible decade for the city.

As always, what happens next in this journey is rarely what I expect. It’s not possible to throw a party in the middle of a pandemic. I never imagined just a short time ago that I would be writing about a medical and economic crisis. An empty downtown was a relic of the past, not something possible in 2020. Until it was the reality.

As if a pandemic wasn’t enough to keep our focus, a new wave of protest has swept the country in response to some of the most painful video most of us have ever seen, as a grown man called for his mother while dying underneath the knee of a policeman. This weekend, that distant event impacted our city.

On Friday night an organized protest was held by our local Black Lives Matter group. Mayor Kincanon issued a statement and at least one city official addressed the group outside police headquarters as their protest began with a prayer. A caravan of cars drove through the city with some walking down Gay Street. Unlike some protests around the country, it was peaceful. No property was damaged. No one was arrested.

Saturday, I noticed a conversation on social media about a protest for that night. No one seemed to know who was behind the action. None of the local groups, including Black Lives Matter, claimed responsibility. The Facebook event notice was reported and taken down. Several other red flags appeared, including that it was planned for dark.

For the second consecutive night, Knox County Sheriff’s Department helicopters flew in patterns around downtown, making for an ominous atmosphere. Meanwhile, downtown was more packed on a Saturday night than it had been for months. Not quite like old times, but very active. As the crowds cleared out, a group formed on Market Square sometime around 11:30. Over the next hour or so, planters and garbage cans were overturned and two windows were smashed – to the Chamber of Commerce and Ruby Sunshine. The group later did some damage on the Clinch Avenue viaduct.

A man was arrested attempting to leave the Market Square Garage. He had ten guns of various sorts and an assortment of drugs in his car. Police haven’t made clear whether he was involved in the riot. One other person was arrested for throwing an object and hitting a police officer. Footage was released by Ruby Sunshine of the people throwing objects at their window. There were claims of police using pepper shots of some sort to disperse the crowd.

While the coverage of the protests around the country have focused on the black participants, given that a black man’s death was the trigger, a theme is emerging that white people, whether allies or intruders, Antifa or White Nationalists, are behind much of the looting and destruction. The man leaving the garage with the guns was white. Many of the people in the footage outside Ruby Sunshine are white. A white man has been identified as the arsonist who burned the Nashville Courthouse.

So, 2020 just keeps on giving and the topics I’ll be covering continue to evolve. It’s not where I thought we’d be after a decade. In the midst of the chaos of protests, helicopters and a riot, of the fear and uncertainty of a pandemic, and the economic struggle in its wake, it’s easy to become discouraged and worry that we’ll not recover the momentum we’ve enjoyed for the last ten years.

But we will. Good things are happening even as we have our struggles. I wondered about safety a decade ago and despite everything above, I continue to feel very safe in our downtown. New businesses are waiting to emerge, artists are making great art and development continues. Most of all, I have great confidence in the good people in this city. We will survive. We will thrive, once again. All of us together, white and black, old and young, and yes, even masked and unmasked.

I’ll end this with a video posted to Facebook on Saturday night. Yassin, one of those great humans I’ve met on this journey, was called downtown because of a disturbance outside his falafel business. It apparently wasn’t related to the other mayhem and was soon resolved, but that put him downtown in the aftermath the craziness on the square and he posted a very emotional video appealing to the better angels in our government and of each other. Welcome to the second decade of Inside of Knoxville.