It’s Festival Season. That’s a phrase I’m still getting used to, in regard to my home town.
This isn’t the Knoxville I grew up in. To be best of my recollection, Knoxvillians used to hate each other. To say we were balkanized would be an insult to the actual Balkans.
If you were a Knoxvillian, you were once quite sure that most other Knoxvillians were either snobs, or rednecks, or dirty, or dangerous. We made fun of their trailers just as we made fun of their McMansions. No self-respecting Knoxvillian would be caught consorting with Knoxvillians.
Maybe it went back to the Civil War and its bitter and complicated divisions. Maybe our geography, natural and artificial, played a role. Knoxville’s a place of rolling meadows and craggy ridges, of blind turns on country roads and 12-lane highways, of places where you can see across a mile-wide lake—or, 30 miles away, the oldest mountains in the world. There are other places where the closeness of hills and trees prevent you from seeing the stranger next door.
The nation has rarely been more sharply divided as it is today, they say, and I believe it. But something different and contrary has happened on the municipal level. As America has split apart, Knoxville, the city, has become more united than it has been in memory.
I don’t mean politically. As the precinct returns showed in November, Knoxville has neighborhoods much bluer than Massachusetts and much redder than Alabama. But we’re now more likely to know and like—or at least not mind—people with different lifestyles in different parts of town.
I heard more resentment of investment in downtown 20 years ago than I do now. How dare politicians spend money downtown without spending an equal amount in Cedar Bluff, they said.
It was about the same time that what people talked about in downtown bars was the essential corruption of the suburban lifestyle, symbolized by people who drive SUVs. There was a bitter edge to it, and it wasn’t just the trendy disdain that comes with tribal cool. There was a real sense that suburban complacency was inhibiting Knoxville from rising to the next level. From being, for example, a city that could host real street festivals.
In 2017, a lot of people drive SUVs. A lot of people don’t. Each have their reasons. Even suburbanites like downtown. Sometimes, bizarre as it would have seemed, SUVs dominate the downtown parking garages.
And a few of the downtown pioneers of the ’90s are now living in the suburbs.
We’re human. We like variety. Sometimes it’s fun to live like our former enemies. Now that we have the option of variety for ourselves, we’re happier with each other.
Knoxville does offer variety now. We’ve got gun and knife shows, sure, and we always will. But we’ve also got Asian festivals, Latino festivals, a surprisingly huge opera festival. And the most famous event that happens in Knoxville, judged by the press it gets in the newspapers of the major cities of the western world, is not a football game, but a multi-ethnic avant-garde music festival called Big Ears.
This weekend, we’ve got St. Patrick’s Day. It’s not an ordinary thing.
Even if it won’t be written up in the international press, this Friday marks what may be the biggest celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in Knoxville in more than 100 years.
It was once a very big deal here. We celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with parades on Gay Street before we celebrated Halloween or Labor Day or Mother’s Day.
In the early 1850s, hundreds of Irish refugees arrived in East Tennessee, to work on the railroad. Some Knoxvillians ridiculed and abused the Irish. Early Irish didn’t much like Knoxvillians, either. In a letter home, one Irishman described Knoxvillians as a “gloomy” people who had very little going on culturally.
The Knoxville they found was a moribund town whose main claim to fame was that, 30 years earlier, this cluster of rough houses had been capital of a state.
Stranded with unreliable riverboat access, Knoxville didn’t have festivals, or auditoriums, or much music except in the church. There was little industry. Locals could see the marble, and lumber, and coal, but couldn’t budge it very far.
Irish laborers helped bring railroads, which changed and to some extent reinvented Knoxville. The arrival of Germans and Swiss at about the same time—things were bad all over Europe in those days—did their part to broaden Knoxville’s perspective and potential.
For a generation, the Irish kept to themselves. They abided in Irish Town, a community on the north side of downtown, where they had their own boxing champs, their own rugby teams, their own bakeries, their own parties. Eventually, though, Knoxville got to know the Irish well, because many of them ran saloons.
The Irish and fellow European immigrants brought their own ideas that changed Knoxville. One of them was a taste for good beer. One of them was a previously unfamiliar holiday called Christmas. One, I think, was a general sense of fun.
They also brought a festival, perhaps our first festival of any sort. St. Patrick’s Day was, by the 1870s, an occasion for all-night dances and parades down Gay Street, welcomed with green bunting unfurled from every building. It became a de facto celebration of the end of winter.
By then, it was a general celebration. The non-Irish, and others so many generations removed from the old country that they’d forgotten they were Irish, had joined the party. It faded in the 20th century. But this Friday, once again, we’ll see a St. Patrick’s Day parade right down Gay Street, just as it was when it was cheered by actual Irish.
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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