People who grew up knowing Central Avenue are just now getting used to calling it Central Street, as their great-grandparents did. It makes sense, by the pattern we’ve set up.
But we’ve complicated things, and, as is often the case, I got curious about the etymology of pavement.
In the early days, everything paved or rutted was either a street or a road, and the difference was pretty simple. Streets were short and in town, usually in a tight grid. Roads were long, usually more than a mile, anyway, and in the country. Parts of England are still more or less like that. But America got bored with the monotony of streets and roads, and started throwing in lots of other terms, some from other languages, some reflecting new technology.
Eventually, avenues were differentiated as streets that ran in a certain direction. In central Knoxville, avenues mostly go east to west. The French word Avenue is pretty interesting, in that it wasn’t often used in America before the Civil War. It originally indicated a long or broad street, like a boulevard, but eventually just became standard as a street that was perpendicular to other streets that are called “Streets.” In downtown Knoxville, some “Avenues,” notably Clinch and Cumberland, are indeed longer than any “Streets”—that is, with the exception of Central Street, which has often been called Central Avenue, and has a pretty confusing history all around.
That Street vs. Avenue distinction wasn’t obvious in Knoxville until the late 1800s. It was inspired, as many things were in those days, in imitation of New York’s pattern. It seemed to start almost as soon as New York became easily accessible by train. After 1858, and the completion of the East Tennessee & Virginia Railroad, many affluent Knoxvillians, including a goodly portion of those who made command decisions for the growing city, were familiar with Manhattan. A few prominent locals, like Max Arnstein, were former New Yorkers. Many more, from Charles McClung McGhee to Lloyd Branson, spent so much time in Manhattan it was practically a second home.
Some roads were called “Pikes.” As newcomers from other parts of the country sometimes remark, Knoxville has lots of pikes, perhaps more than most cities of the English-speaking world. It’s almost as if God just spilled a whole box of them right here. Many, perhaps most of them, were once toll roads, governed by a turnpike, or turnstile that let wagons through as they paid a toll. It makes sense, to me, to pay as you go. The word “Pike” enjoyed its greatest vogue in the late 19th century, when we had even more pikes than we do now.
We still call about a dozen of them pikes, even in this era, when even conservatives accept the fact that our roads are paid for by taxpayers.
Lots of streets we drive on are called “Drives.” Maybe the word was chosen to indicate a pleasant road for driving on, paved and with few stops. It first became popular in street naming in the 1920s and ’30s, and perhaps peaked in the 1950s, when Neyland Drive came through. But the word was introduced as a proper noun here early, as automobiles were just becoming popular among the middle class. In 1913, when the city joined two old east-side streets, Coleman and East Front, they called the result Riverside Drive.
Boulevards came in right after. I think Knoxville’s first “Boulevard” was North Knoxville’s Emoriland, in 1924, with Cherokee hot on its heels. They both seem like boulevards, by the international understanding of the term: broad, landscaped avenues with a median. Knoxville got so nutty about boulevards for a while that by the late ‘20s, even some ordinary short streets, like Forest Hills, later Forest Park, were called “Boulevards,” too. No law against it. Even if there should be.
The term “Parkway” was coined to suggest a vista of some sort. In some parts of the country, a parkway is by definition a scenic boulevard that excludes commercial vehicles like trucks. Pellissippi Parkway was first developed in the 1970s, as a very practical connection between Oak Ridge, I-40, and Alcoa Highway. It accommodates lots and lots of trucks. But you can’t deny the charm of alliteration.
Of course, we like to use the word “park.” What park is Parkside Drive on the side of? There are thousands of visible places to park. Maybe that’s it.
Garrison Keillor once remarked that we name our developments for what we destroyed to build them. That practice should get the same respect as any other kind of false advertising.
Maybe we should pass an ordinance calling for honesty in street naming. Big Plastic Signage Avenue. Obsessive Texters’ Highway. Diminished Sex Drive.
Much better, I think, would be to first offer communities a chance to redeem our street names by installing the appealing-sounding features they’ve always advertised. Put a park along the side of Parkside Drive, and along Pellissippi Parkway. Put some walnuts on Walnut Street, some locusts on Locust. If you have a “Glen” or a “Meadow” or a “Brook” in your street name, be sure you’ve got one. Put a forest on Forest Park Boulevard. And a park, and, if feasible, a boulevard.
There’s a suburban cul-de-sac off Westland Drive called Poet’s Corner Way. How many poets live there? Beats me, I’m just asking. But if we’re going to call it that, we need a reason. Of course, in London, Poet’s Corner is a place where poets are buried. That would work, too. But if there are no poets at all, living or dead, in Poet’s Corner, you have to wonder what’s going on there.
I’m not sure whether retrofitting to justify a name is a new idea. Magnolia Avenue was named for a long-lived widow named Magnolia Branner, who lived there more than a century ago. They weren’t even thinking about the tree. But names sometimes carry the power of suggestion, even without legislation encouraging it. Today it has more magnolia trees per mile than most city streets.
Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.
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