From time to time, I’ve written about people who make downtown interesting and people who have related to downtown for far longer than the current resurgence. Barbara Boulton may hold the record for continuous downtown living in the modern era and her connection to downtown goes back even further. I met with her recently to learn more about the interesting journey that led to this and to get some of her remembrances of downtown from the 1980s and 1990s.
Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, she grew up in nearby in Milan, Michigan. Her family had been there for generations, and she was of the first generation to leave, though she remains close to friends from the town dating back as far as elementary school. Raised by her mother who worked retail and, eventually, a stepfather who worked with the utility company, she also lived next door to her grandparents.
Her mother worked in Ann Arbor until she got a job at one of the few stores in Milan. She later met “the one single man living in Milan.” Each of their spouses had died about the same time and “the grandmothers got them together.” Her stepfather, Lou, came from Cleveland, Ohio, where his father had been one of the founders of Sears and Roebuck. After the war he became an engineer.
Barbara’s mother was determined that Barbara would go to college. Barbara feels that the limitations her mother faced in life made it important to her that her children become more educated. Barbara graduated high school in 1970 and attended Western Michigan to become a teacher, as her mother had suggested. “Your choice for a woman were teacher, or nurse, or mother.” She got an education degree and did her student teaching in Kalamazoo.
“Then, it occurred to me I actually had to get a job and I was, shall we say, under-ambitious. I didn’t really want a job, didn’t have any goals, and I’d met a guy . . .” She met him when she first arrived at college and were a couple until he “dumped her” close to the end. She said she was adrift awhile. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to do anything, so you go to graduate school.”
She didn’t finish a degree at that time. “Then the boyfriend called from New Mexico, and he realized there pretty much weren’t any women for him there in that small town. So, he called me, and being the stupid woman that I was, I rushed right back. Packed up the cat and I was gone.” They spent a year-and-a-half in New Mexico where he was a pilot “flying rich people around.” When he lost his job, his brother got him a job in Knoxville, and she moved with him to this new city in 1978.
“It was close to my birthday, and we went to Wendy’s to celebrate.” She said they had no money. After living in “a run-down house in South Knoxville” for about nine months, he dumped her, again. “Apparently they do have women here and he found one that liked him.” She knew no one here except his family and a couple of friends she’d made working at Arby’s.
She got a job as a staff person at the front desk in the UT library and moved to Fort Sanders in 1979. She got to know the law students and took the opportunity of free tuition to get a master’s degree in Library Science. “I became motivated when I was trapped here by myself.” The job was a good one for the time and she lived two blocks away from the library.
In the early 1980s she says law school was less competitive. “It was segueing from being the place where all the hippies go to save the world to being like it is now . . . It never occurred to me that I could become a lawyer. Where I grew up there were no lawyers.” She five years after taking her job at the law library, she entered law school at age 32, in 1984. “Women had to fight really hard. It was still an attitude of ‘She’s just doing it for a hobby. She’s going to get pregnant, so why do we bother with her?'”
Judy McCarthy was in law school at the same time. She and Dennis (Cormac’s brother) later became long-term downtown residents (1997-2009) having second careers as attorneys. They would later be Barbara’s neighbors and Judy would be her boss for a time.
Barbara said she saw law school as a pathway to becoming a reference librarian in the law school, as opposed to a clerical worker. “There were a lot of people who attended law school because it was a fine intellectual experience. That’s not even close to being true.” On the day she graduated in 1987, her parents took her to Regas restaurant and then to Mackinac Island for a weekend.
It had occurred to her that to get a job as a reference librarian she would have to kill someone locally or move to another city. Neither option appealed to her. “I knew I couldn’t pull the killing off.” She was still living without air conditioning in Fort Sanders where she sat for eight hours a day studying for the bar. “I passed the first time, and no one was more surprised than me.”
“I had no plan at all. I was just going to look for a job.” She clerked with John Valliant downtown during law school, starting in 1985, which was her introduction to working downtown. She walked from Fort Sanders each day to the offices which were in the building that is now the Embassy Suites. She was also a “runner,” which meant she literally ran around downtown in the mid-to-late 80’s delivering documents in the pre-e-mail era. “I got to go in all the smelly, musty buildings.”
“Downtown closed at 5:00 pm.” She said it was very busy for lunch with TVA still filling their buildings, but afterward, there was very little. She said there were lots of lunch options open on Gay Street and other streets at the time. Pete’s was one of the few restaurants open then (at its original location) that remains open today, in addition to the Lunch Box. There was a place that served fish where all the lawyers ate on Fridays.
She pointed out that this daily gathering and interacting of lawyers and their staffs is no longer as prevalent downtown. With the advent of electronic communication there is no longer a reason for them to be near each other and many have moved to the suburbs. “It’s not the same place,” which she said makes her a bit sad.
She got her first job utilizing her law degree as a combination attorney and head of the law library maintained by Wagner, Myers, and Sanger. They were one of the few law firms that had an actual law library.” After about a year there, in 1989, she got a job with Lewis Thomason, also on Gay Street. “They had hired about fifteen lawyers at the same time.”
Barbara has battled several serious injuries in her life. The first was when a boy she dated flipped his new car when they were in high school. Not long after going to work at Lewis Thomason, she had her first serious fall as she walked to work. All the streets were ripped up and “that was the first time I broke my elbow. I broke my nose and was in the hospital. It was when the earthquake hit San Francisco. When I got hit by the car (later) is when the Iraq War started.” She would fall again walking downtown in 2008 and 2018, suffering serious injuries each time.
She got out of the hospital and soon had enough money to move to downtown proper. She rented a unit at Kendrick Place at the end of the row of homes adjacent to Chesapeake’s, making her an official downtown resident in June 1990, a full 19 years before I would become her neighbor in the same row of homes. She rented from the man who ran Ruby Tuesdays in what is now the L&N Stem Academy. There are mirrored windows in her unit today that came from the building.
She decided she liked it and she could afford to buy it. Just before Christmas is when she was hit by a car. She was crossing Henley Street (it was tunnel-less then) with friends after showing them her new place to go to lunch at Ruby Tuesday. “My pelvis was destroyed; my hips were in places they shouldn’t have been. My face was totally broken, for the first time. My elbow was broken again. My shoulder was broken, and all the flesh was scraped from my thigh . . . I was in UT Hospital for two months and in Patricia Neal for three months learning how to walk. They didn’t think I would walk, and they were training me for a wheelchair.”
She eventually returned to work, part time in a wheelchair. Her parents stayed to help her, forfeiting their usual winter in Arizona. Her stepfather built interior railings in her apartment to make it more workable for her. Her mother cooked for her and took care of her clothes. They left town and, after working for a few months, she bought the home in August 1991. She said after all these years, she’s still excited about having air conditioning.
The law firm fired her in 1993, as they had fired most of the other lawyers after they had served their usefulness. She said she learned that is not unusual practice in the legal world. She said it was a fun job and they worked with her while she was injured, so she appreciated them. She returned to Wagner, Myers, and Sanger where she would work for the next twenty plus years. She retired just a few years ago.
For many people, Barbara is best known for her volunteer work. Soon after leaving law school she became a coach, judge and co-coordinator for the local Mock Trial Competition. Around 1994 she began helping with the KMA’s Alive After Five series, which led to volunteer more often with the KMA, including giving “just about all of my free time” the summer of 1995 for the Rodin exhibit. Also, in the 90s she volunteered for Visit Knoxville and the Junior Olympics and other events after the convention center was built.
Looking for other volunteer opportunities, she began work with the Friends of the Knox County Public Library, the East Tennessee Historical Society, and WDVX. With the E.T.H.S. she is working with Gay Morton to construct “a database which will enable persons to find out where their East Tennessee Civil War veteran ancestors are buried and confirm their service during the Civil War. We currently have 18,000+ soldiers in the database and are still looking for more.” She also served on the board of her HOA, on the Knox County Public Library Advisory Committee and the KMA’s Volunteer Advisory Committee.
After her 2018 fall, which resulted in a three month stay in a rehab center and two additional months recuperating at home, she continued to work on the ETHS project from home. “While I was in the rehab center, I got word that both the KMA and the Friends of the Library had nominated me for Volunteer of the Year with the Volunteer East Tennessee organization and also for Volunteer of the Year on the state level.”
I asked her to talk about the changes she has seen across all those years. She said, “When I started working downtown, I would walk home at 6:30 or 7:00 and there was nobody on the street from the Butcher towers to Fort Sanders. The only people on the street were male prostitutes on Market Street. “Single men would cruise around . . . and the prostitutes would be hanging out on the streets. And then there was me.”
“If I wanted to eat lunch on Saturdays (in the early 1990s) there was Arby’s sometimes open on Saturday and sometimes not. Pete’s and the Lunchbox were not open on Saturdays. Subway was open in the same spot.” Tomato Head began to open on Saturdays where there would only be a few people who happened to be working downtown on the weekend. “There was no reason for anyone to come down here.”
I asked what made her want to live downtown and she said, “Because it didn’t occur to me that it could be any different.” She said Scott Partin and Mahasti Vafaie, along with Scott and Bernadette West deserve credit for seeing the potential that she couldn’t see. “I had never been here when it had been anything.”
She said the changes were “very slow.” She said, “When Watson’s left (1998) I was horrified. All of us were horrified. Then they divided it up and did it right . . . When the TVA tower people began to dwindle that also meant the lunch places struggled, then some of them started opening at night.” She said when the Wests were arrested, she “thought this was the end.” She said the strip was deteriorating and dining places in the area were dying out.
She said when she moved downtown, as far as she can remember there were people in the Pembroke, Kendrick Place, and Ryan’s Row as well as scattered lofts elsewhere, but not much more. When Sterchi Lofts were converted in 2002, the move toward larger developments began in earnest, with the Holston, Burwell, and other buildings following. She said of the Sterchi Buildings that when they started that project “that was a good sign.” She’s thankful downtown buildings fared better than those in Fort Sanders.
Still, for someone who has seen all the changes and has mobility issues, she says, “Downtown is hard now because for me walking at night or weekends, there are too many people. You don’t want to discourage people from coming downtown, but it’s harder living here, I think. If you are going to go out to eat, you have to do it on Tuesday nights . . . I can’t go to dinner on a Friday night and stand in line. I just can’t do it.”
“It’s also noisier.” She said the loud cars and motorcycles have gotten much worse on Henley. She said a partier recently did damage in front of Kendrick Place and they’ve had others banging on the doors late at night. She said she has seen over the years and continues to see lots of interesting behavior from her balcony overlooking the Chesapeake’s parking lot.
She’s lived most of her adult life in the city. “Now it seems sad,” she laughed, that she never moved anywhere else. “I stuck it out even through the male prostitutes. She also noted that she never learned to drive because she didn’t need to. She’s worked it out and living and working downtown made that possible.
She said it is “personally hard” to live downtown and she knows the end of her time downtown is approaching. I knew because of my injuries this day would come.” She renovated her house several years ago “so I could stay here as long as possible . . . I can take care of myself, but it’s a struggle . . . If I had a smaller house, I think I could do a lot better. It’s not going to happen right away because it’s going to take me about eight years to pack up everything, but it’s what I have to do . . .”
When that day does come, it is possible downtown will lose its longest-running resident. If you’ve read this far, you understand that will be quite a loss. We’ll miss Barbara when she’s gone and downtown will be a little less colorful.