Searching for Institutions in the Ever-Changing Old City

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

was recently startled by a story I’d read before. It appeared in The New York Times in February 1999, 17 years ago this month. It was called “Notorious and Proud of It.”

The byline belonged to Nancy Bearden Henderson, a Chattanooga-based writer who often writes about Atlanta. She was the one who called me back then, for some historical background on the Old City. She and I met at Sullivan’s Diner one sunny afternoon and talked about saloons and whorehouses and gunfights for an hour or two.

I wasn’t with her when she and her husband roamed around the neighborhood that evening. She found a few things I didn’t know about.

By then the Old City had been around, as an entity by that name, for 15 years or so, but it had never been singled out for such prominent press. The story was a sensation in the neighborhood when it came out, photocopied on oversize sheets and taped on shop windows. The Old City was proud of its “Notorious and Proud of It” story.

Anyway, I didn’t think about that for years. While working on another project, I encountered that story online and reread it. Articles always look new when they’re online. When somebody finds something I wrote in the 1990s, they often respond to it assuming I wrote it yesterday. Henderson’s story was, exactly as I recalled it, a cheerful story, polite by Times standards. It could as easily have run in Southern Living. She liked the place, liked every place she dropped in on. She poked a little gentle fun here and there, but offered no criticism.

But I was struck by one very odd thing. The Old City still described online is a parallel-universe version of the Old City we know today. Or like the paradoxical landscape of a dream, where everything seems familiar, but diverges radically from reality. I reread it again, because I couldn’t quite believe it was true.

Not one of the places she recommends in her upbeat review is still in business. The ice-cream parlor my daughter and I used to frequent known as the Big Dipper; the historic space known as Patrick Sullivan’s Saloon, where groups angled for the corner window table to spend a Sunday afternoon; Sullivan’s Diner, where we met, which was a very different restaurant run by different folks; the capacious and trendy JFG Coffeehouse (“plank floors and brick walls and a backgammon table next to a huge assortment of glass-enclosed, made-from-scratch delicacies including cheesecakes and flaky apple streusel.”)

She also mentions Lucille’s, the wonderful restaurant where I could rarely afford to eat, but knew well as a lush late-night jazz club; the severely eccentric Tri-City Barber Shop, where Walter, if he let you come in at all, would tell incredible tales; the JFG Coffee factory, where you could hear coffee beans rattle in the pipe that stretched overhead across the street; and Jackson Antique Marketplace and Big Don’s Elegant Junk, two very different emporiums of curiosities. All places that I remember fondly, but that aren’t there anymore.

She does briefly mention the Melting Pot, but just as the underground site of the already-defunct nightclub Ella Guru’s, which she had heard of. (The national fondue chain’s Knoxville location is now the Old City’s oldest restaurant.) And she described an exuberant sidewalk display at Big Don the Costumier. That building’s been torn down, but Ramona is still in the neighborhood. Just ahead of the bulldozers she moved around the corner, where she thrives, if a little less conspicuously than in the old days. Also, it might be splitting hairs a bit to say that 195 Degrees, which she does mention, isn’t still there. The place that opened as Java in 1991 became known as 195 Degrees for a couple of years in the late ’90s, and then it was Java again. It’s had some ups and downs, and several changes of ownership, but is basically the same place. Lately I have a hard time finding a seat there. Either it’s doing better than ever or the laptop era has given its customers a motive to camp out there all day.

She did not mention Barley’s, and that surprised me—until I realized Barley’s probably wasn’t there yet. An Asheville import in its earliest incarnation, I think it opened later that year.

That was just 17 years ago. In a lot of downtown neighborhoods in a lot of cities, you can return to favorite restaurants you first knew on a trip with your grandparents or with a college chum. Bigger cities tend to nurture their oldest places.

Over the weekend I heard a radio story about the best food cities and how most of them have long traditions. Galatoire’s in New Orleans, extolled in the story, has been at the same address for well over a century, keeping its lovable idiosyncrasies along with its reputation for rémoulade.

Despite an intervening flood, some fires, and a big wind or two, New Orleans still supports almost all the restaurants and bars I remember when I first beheld the place as an astonished teenager in 1977. Most of them haven’t even changed much.

A lot of the restaurants and bars that would be recommended in New York or Chicago or Boston or San Francisco might include the same ones recommended by travel writers 17 years ago or even 70 years ago. Old cities tend to stay recognizable. Why not Knoxville’s Old City?

And why not Knoxville? Suburban Knoxville has shed most of its decades-old institutions, too. Citywide, our oldest restaurants hark from the 1950s, the suburban postwar television parking-lot age: Rankin’s on North Central, the Freezo just down the street, and Long’s lunch counter on Kingston Pike.

We just don’t have multi-generational institutions. We’re fickle. None of us will live to see Knoxville with a restaurant that has the tradition of a Galatoire’s or an Antoine’s or a Commander’s Palace. That’s one thing we can’t create. We can only pick our best contenders, and support them in hopes that maybe our great-grandchildren will talk about how they’ve been coming there for generations.

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.

Share this Post