The Fountains of Knoxville: A Summer Afternoon at World’s Fair Park

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

There is one place in town where blacks and whites and immigrants mingle daily, in close quarters. They go there for one reason, because jets of cool water shoot out of the ground.

High above them, as if symbolizing this multinational congress, are the flags of 22 countries, among them China, Australia, Italy, Egypt. The countries have no association with each other except that they once participated in the same world’s fair.

I often find myself down at World’s Fair Park, on a summer afternoon, sometimes just to get a Coke and maybe some spicy snacks from the vending machines.

The Court of Flags, where Ronald Reagan spoke on opening day of the 1982 World’s Fair, was an awkward set of stepped concrete bleachers with the national flags in a single row behind.

Redesigned, it’s a much handsomer place now. The 21st-century Court of Flags has become a summer tradition for hundreds of people. Working people, perhaps non-working people, newcomers just learning their way around, along with an unfamiliar language, they all somehow find their way down here.

There and on the closely trimmed lawn they lay themselves out in public, on towels and blankets, in low chairs, bold, vulnerable, un-self-conscious. To the passerby of a certain age, the smell of the Court of Flags in 2016 can evoke memories of poolside summers during the Johnson administration, this potent fusion of fresh chlorine, tanning oil, and cigarette smoke.

The chlorine is important. In every group you see, there is one kid using these powerful jets, with obvious satisfaction, as a bidet.

The kids laugh and scream and chase and splash. The adults bring pizza and coolers and lawn chairs and make a day of it. Some of them are extraordinarily large people, and standard-sized swimwear covers a tiny percentage of their flesh. If one day they come naked, they may be less startling. If you find them startling now, it’s none of their concern.

(Everything’s subjective. They may well wonder who this weirdo is walking around in public wearing clothes on a hot day, moreover clothes that don’t even have words on them. What is he, illiterate?)

Then there are people down here from cultures that cover up more than I do, but for this afternoon don’t mind their kids having some fun. I’ve never played in a fountain before. Maybe I should.

Down there I often encounter one of my favorite librarians on her way to work. Carol notices things others don’t, and she modified my perspective in an agreeable way. The other day, she was barely able to contain her joy in the scene, this moment of happy diversity, rare elsewhere in town, maybe elsewhere in the world.

This week, some white field paint in the middle of the lawn spells out a word invisible from the ground but legible to balloonists and, barely, from the Clinch viaduct: HOPE.

***

Every afternoon at 4, on a summer as hot as this one, we would march through these asphalt corridors. Every day for six months was a sufficiently significant occasion for a parade, led by a brass band playing the World’s Fair theme, which I thought bore a strong resemblance to Sousa’s “Semper Fidelis March,” but I wasn’t going to mention it. Sousa’s lawyers might have spoiled the party.

At the fore of the brass band was a phalanx of five young men in red polyester shirts, telling innocent strangers looking at maps, posing for pictures, eating ice cream with their kids, to get the hell out of the way right now because an actual parade—inexorable, non-negotiable, deserving of their respect—was right behind them.

More often than not, I was one of those young men, a squadron of the crowd-control corps. Sometime, if you’re bored, try to carve a 50-foot-wide swath through a festival crowd of happy people not in a mood to be moved. But we did it every day. We were pros.

Still, it was a great relief when the skies darkened and a thunderstorm came up right at 4, as happened a dozen times that summer, it meant the parade would dissolve, and, being that we were still technically on parade duty, we could just peel off and go to the Strohaus for a beer. The Strohaus was the long old brick building known a century before, and in years to come, as the Foundry.

Given a choice of shouting at strangers and sharing a pitcher of beer with friends, I will often choose the latter.

***

Just northwest of the Court of Flags is an asphalt parking lot where most of the cavorters park. Those walking across can look down and see Second Creek running, sometimes rushing, south toward the river.

Right about there, 34 years ago, was the Philippines pavilion. Over the course of the summer, it developed a reputation for an outdoor restaurant with a tree-shaded dining veranda by the creek. It looked awfully appealing, but there was such a wait for a table that I never got to try it. I figured I’d get a chance after the hordes were gone, because I thought it was too lovely to end. It seemed like a fantasy from a pre-war novel about paradise, or a lot like the real restaurants that draw people down to the Riverwalk in San Antonio.

Surely, even if they couldn’t get the Filipinos to stay in town and operate it, Knoxville would try to replicate and perpetuate this creekside Eden, and that if the World’s Fair accomplished nothing else, getting Knoxville to rediscover its creeks would be a worthy achievement. But in the decades since, no one has tried anything similar.

Then I tried to imagine real Knoxvillians going to a restaurant like that. “Haw, haw,” they would remark. “I bet there are rubbers in that creek.” Perhaps there were. But people from Toledo, and St. Paul, and Tokyo, and Sydney didn’t seem to mind enjoying an early supper on that patio. Whatever shortcomings Second Creek has, it’s probably not much different from those of the San Antonio River, or the Seine, or the canals of Venice or Amsterdam.

Knoxvillians don’t dislike Knoxville like we used to. Maybe someday we’ll get there.

Jack Neely
Contributing Editor & Writer | jack@knoxhistoryproject.org |

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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