Knoxville, Naked: The Things You Notice When the Leaves Are Gone

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

It’s a new year. We need a municipal resolution.

There’s a common assessment of my old employer, Metro Pulse, one of those paradoxical aphorisms that seems to explain the whole thing away: We were a victim of our own success. We should have known better, a friend said, than to be so convincing. All of our campaigns succeeded. People ride bikes to work 100 times more than they used to. We have many more microbreweries, now even wineries and distilleries. We have more live music in more nightclubs. We have much, much better festivals. Thousands live downtown now. It’s easier to walk around the city. Buying local is a thing. And, dear to my heart, Knoxville’s much more cognizant of its unique and sometimes peculiar history than it used to be, when people used to vaguely refer to it as a college town in the Appalachians. And that history is often instructive, even inspiring, about those other presumably modern ideals.

Even the ancient Market Square farmers’ market, which when we started was represented by one stubborn old man with a few bushels of stuff in the corner, came roaring back and now draws thousands.

All those ideals were throttled in cover stories and multiple columns in the 1990s. Columns are easy. Other people did the hard work.

Movie theaters downtown? A radio station with a live daily show of indigenous music? A Knoxville Marathon? An avant-garde music festival that’s internationally famous? An innovative local tamale stand? A quarter century ago, when I got into this weird business, all that was crazy talk.

I sometimes thought people read Metro Pulse just to shake their heads and chortle.

What’s next? Has Knoxville finally arrived? I hear my 26-year-old daughter and her friends talk about their hometown in very different tones than anyone did when I was that age.

I’d be interested to hear from readers about what Knoxville still lacks. One persistent problem is most evident this time of year.


I’ve recently seen lots of out of state plates. People from all over the country, visiting Knoxville for the holidays.

Winter is no time to show off our hometown. What colder months do, November through February, is demonstrate once again, as if we didn’t remember from last year, what we look like naked. We learn, again, how much we depend on natural foliage to consider ourselves presentable.

Look around. Every neighborhood is gorgeous in July. I’ve driven travel journalists around town in summer. Even in our most modest, untended neighborhoods, they always say, “Wow, this is beautiful.” Everywhere there’s a forgiving canopy of green.

Without the broad green leaves, though, we see ourselves as we really are.

It was in the bleak midwinter 36 years ago that Wall Street Journal writer Susan Harrigan had a look around and dismissed Knoxville as a “scruffy little city.” We’ve learned to be proud of that adjective, but she intended it in a limiting way, implying Knoxville was a disorderly, unkempt town with little curb appeal, and little potential.

This time of year, we can still see Harrigan’s Knoxville clearly. In winter, most of Knoxville still looks like Anywhere, or worse. Anywhere with a nasty cold.

I’m a little proud, and a little concerned, that there’s an official commercial paint color called “Knoxville Gray.” It’s a rich gray, with some greenish-bluish complexity to it. It looks better than most of Knoxville does this week.

Knoxville in winter has a few agreeable spots. Almost all of them parts of town that we developed a long time ago, before I was born. With very few exceptions, we don’t build pretty anymore. And since there’s more and more buildings that are bland and unnoticeable, what we do notice are the bright colors. And for the most part, the bright colors are on things that aren’t supposed to be there. When the leaves are brown and the grass is beige, what we notice about Knoxville is the trash. Beer cans, 20-ounce plastic Coke bottles, a bright orange shredded-plastic pompom, Styrofoam cups from a drive-through that advertises on TV.

It’s how we assert ourselves, prove to people of the future that we were here. Use a Styrofoam cup once. Whether it makes it to the landfill or not, it will outlast its user by several centuries.

It’s in every neighborhood. Even wealthy people’s lawns. Maybe even especially wealthy people’s lawns, because they’re the ones who are so often out of town, and not there to notice.

In the commercial stretches, it’s worse.

What Knoxville is, many visitors come to learn, is lots and lots of asphalt, plastic signage that was designed for us in South Bend or Anaheim, and cheap architecture that’s not architecture at all. And maybe, more than the bright-colored trash, the bright-colored cars.

Modern automobiles are designed to intimidate. When we buy a car, it’s not just a means of transportation. It’s our personal monster, protecting us from a mean world, perhaps expressing the suppressed indignation almost all of us harbor about something. Cars look uncompromising and invincible. Until the first ding, at least.

Even cars that appear to be designed for supersonic speeds spend most of their short lives sitting still, squatting in parking lots and driveways. In a parking lot, cars look like wasps who died angry.

And in Knoxville, cars are our most conspicuous architecture. Drive down Kingston Pike just once, and you’ll see 20,000 of them.

A favorite restaurant rebuilt, and over the holiday I heard about their heroic fight against a neighborhood’s new guidelines for improving itself.

It’s their right to have a parking lot in front. That’s the way our granddaddies did it, dadburn it. It’s their right to make their city look like cars.

Maybe that’s our next frontier. Suburban architecture that’s not designed in Detroit. If we can figure out how to do that, we can make this city look like something even in the wintertime. Let’s build some actual architecture, the sort of thing people will think of when they think of Knoxville.

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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