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To Market, to Market: Downtown Knoxville, Tennessee

On September 3, 2007

As long as I can remember in my adult years, downtown Knoxville has been ebbing away. More than thirty-six years ago – damn, that is enough to stop this entry right in its tracks – when I first became a Knoxville resident by way of becoming a UT undergrad, there was a little life left even after dark. As I recall, Miller’s still operated on Henley and there were two movie theatres that attracted sell out crowds with the right film. I saw “The Great Gatsby” at one of them – even stood in line (boy, what a movie that could have been with Julie Christie as Daisy and Jack Nicholoson as Gatsby); I believe I saw “The Godfather Part II” downtown and that would have been 1974. A few friends from college and I had a night I’ll always remember watching “Superfly” in a packed auditorium. However, even I – a person who likes empty, silent movie theatres – stopped going to downtown movies after being the only person in a several hundred seat auditorium one day and having a heavy breather in a trench coat decide to sit directly behind me.

There was, of course, the brief exhilaration of the 1982 World’s Fair, until it actually arrived and then there was the excruciatingly slow sorrow of watching the site deteriorate and the vast majority of it torn down. After awhile, downtown was reserved for trips to Regas on special occasions, free offsite parking on game days and a trip to the Tennessee Theatre for “Gone With the Wind” or “The Great Escape”. The patient never actually died but it was definitely on life support.

So imagine my surprise when on a recent visit to Knoxville, I found downtown Knoxville sitting up in bed, taking solid food and talking about walking around not just on Saturday but on Sunday as well. Since that weekend the new Regal Riviera has opened on Gay Street so it could just be that this time a cure, not a relapse is the prognosis.

On Saturday afternoon I joined friends at the Downtown Brewery which, as you can plainly see,

is located in the old Woodruff’s building on Gay Street.

Even on the middle of a Saturday afternoon it was doing a fair amount of business. After settling into a tall round table at the front of the establishment, my companions and I started off with a very nice chips and salsa and some beer, followed by wings and some beer, followed by fish and chips and some beer, followed by a trip to the restroom and some beer, followed by some beer and another trip to the restroom. Either on the menu or on a poster next to the restrooms we discovered that apparently the site is under a curse of some sort having to do with the death of a white mule but by that time we had had several White Mule Ales ourselves, along with a sampling of the other house brews so all of us were a little hazy on that one – I do think the curse has something to do with a fire but maybe not.

After spending most of the afternoon discussing world events in the Brewery, we moseyed down to the Mast General Store. I give the store high marks for being open on Saturday afternoon and for having the guts to come downtown well in advance of many other developers; still, I was a little disappointed with its less than authentic feel, kind of like a dry goods store run by Cracker Barrel. Still, everyone who eats downtown should go there and buy something, just to say thanks that it’s there.

Market Square though was the true surprise. It has been several years since I’ve been to the Square, particularly on a Saturday, so I don’t know how long the area has been percolating like it was on this particular Saturday but things were hopping. Stores were open all around the Square including clothing boutiques, a couple of furniture stores and galleries, a vintage shop with 1982 World’s Fair tee shirts in the window and several inviting restaurants. A small crowd had already gathered to watch an open air Shakespeare performance later that evening and small children played in the shooting water feature.

Dancing water in Knoxville’s Market Square.

I never considered Knoxville to be a hotbed of women’s rights – notwithstanding Pat Head Summitt and the Lady Vols – so I was a little bit surprised to find this statue taking up a large piece of real estate in one corner of the square but still better late to the party than never.

Indeed, the atmosphere was so pleasant that the next afternoon I returned for lunch before heading to the airport for my flight home. Buoyed by finding ample, free, close parking, finding a good meal too was unexpected. In fact, though, a delightful repast was had at Trio Cafe which offered a varied menu of above average food at reasonable prices. The decor was cheerful and well designed and the staff was friendly and accomodating. I enjoyed Alaskan Salmon, steamed broccoli, sparking wine, a cupcake and a glass of milk for less than thirty bucks. Take that, Rachel Ray.

Trio Cafe
13 Market Square

Downtown Knoxville, however, cannot depend on my twice a year visits to sustain its new life. Downtowns don’t really live unless people live in them. It remains to be seen if Knoxville can fill the multiple condominium projects that have nested in its old buildings and along the waterfront and I didn’t see any drugstores or food markets – Trader Joe’s would be a great fit on Gay – that are absolute necessities for luring and keeping a resident population. Still, this time – maybe – with a little luck, downtown Knoxville has found the prescription for its ills.

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