IN THE SHADOWS OF GAY STREET
Bradley J. Potts
Shadows stretch across a quiet street in fading day as I leisurely step down brick-laden sidewalks in the light embrace of a faint wind. A seemingly never-ending street encompasses my sight as lights dance in the distance through lofty retreats and across barren concrete, a seemingly artificial night brewing before me as city lights begin to shine. The street exudes an eerie feeling of silence in such grand surroundings; nightclubs, restaurants, lofts, all seemingly empty in a city center that would be believed to be hectic and brisk in pace of life. It is strangely ironic that Gay Street would contain a sense of reserved sadness for its great past and lonely present. Amid the rebirth of old and sullen buildings, there now seems to be present an odd coexistence of past and present, some strange intermingling of dilapidation with touches of fresh paint and brick.
Knoxville, Tennessee, has always been my second home, my other life outside of rural pastures and starry nights. I have dreamed of living in this great city for some time now since I last watched her lights pass behind me into shadow. As I traveled back into the night a strange sense of disappointment fell before me; I have traveled to this city several times and have developed a child-like sense of awe in its presence. But with age I have come to realize that those of us from rural backgrounds usually contain an archaic belief in the splendor and wonder of city-centers. Also with age comes the ability to see the whole picture and not the newly painted face of a once tattered excuse of a building. So as a city’s populace desperately attempts to revive its once flourishing downtown past, I write these pages to show what lies in the shadows of redevelopment and how my boyhood desires of high-rises and lofts has somehow survived the dilapidation of the site of my other home.
For nineteen years of my life I have called rural Latham, Tennessee, home. I have lived in the same home for seventeen years, surrounded by fields of corn and forests deep, secluded in the confines of gentle rises and small creeks of shallow water unmoving. My family has a strong Southern background and an unbending attachment to the slow, calm pace of country living. Travel was non-existent in my youth, our expeditions leading to the peace of Kentucky Lake and usually no further. Over the years I have developed a great love for my home, a deep connection with the landscape. But my home has always held a subtle feeling of encroaching walls, a steady sense of claustrophobia seeping through walls and trees alike. I recall stories from my Grandfather, a man of naval service in Korea, about far away cities with life and action bursting from every building and street. He spoke of these cities with a light in his eyes, his fondest memories of a time of hardship and toil, of people and places of such diversity that I had only viewed in films and books. The fire was lit within me, and the attraction grew with every passing year, to go to these cities to feel the electricity of night air and gaze upon an ever-changing landscape.
As time passed by we traveled more, stretching out our boundaries to Appalachia in Eastern Tennessee. Night fell as we approached Knoxville, and through my eyes I saw something of pure beauty. There are many cities in the world, some much finer looking in physical appearance than Knoxville; but there was something about the feeling of the city. As we passed through the lights of this gateway to gentle mountain peeks, mystery engulfed me with such a desire to see this place and know its people. The awe of a small child was at hand; the city was so distant to me, so different and mysterious, yet accepting and welcoming, and I wanted nothing more than to wander its streets. The attraction was born, and on repeated travels it has been a home to my contemplations and a refuge from the known world around me. And as this attraction has grown with age, my ability to block out the shadows of dilapidated buildings on my pristine image of Knoxville has lessened.
Knoxville’s Gay Street is not alone in the struggles to revitalize downtown areas; most cities are in some process of redevelopment that has involved the renovation of deteriorating buildings to allow for a new class of urban dwellers to refill their once vacant halls, a trend commonly referred to as gentrification (Jordan-Bychkov 394). The City of Knoxville has vehemently combated the gradual ruin of its city center. This vehemence, of course, comes in the form of aggressive, large tax breaks for any development plan “determined to have economic development benefits to areas of the city that have been targeted, through the requisite public processes, for redevelopment and/or for industrial development,” which will improve infrastructure and/or allow for Payment in Lieu of Taxes (City of Knoxville). Sterchi’s Lofts, claiming for themselves the title of “The South’s Finest Loft Apartments”, was one of the recipients of these incentives.
The first time I laid eyes on this building, its image was burned into my mind. I have thought for countless hours of gazing outward from its glass-paned walls into the city streets below, watching people going about their daily lives in the myriad dance of city life. From these thoughts, I have gathered that Knoxville’s attempts at refueling its downtown grandeur have at least been successful on this rural dweller. For all the decay and ruin, the image remains, a fixation of my aspirations and dreams. The freshness, the crisp new paint on a once fallen building, enhances the old city charm that resides in every corner of Gay Street. It is a faint sign of rebirth, of life returning into a once abandoned void; it offers hope for change and beauty. But the faint sorrows of alleyways and falling ruin do not even escape this pivotal picture of my meandering thoughts of the city.
contrast to these new, stylish loft buildings is the remnant of row
housing for lower income dwellers. Although
these dwellings have also been renovated, the distinctive flavor of the
building’s past can not quite so easily be painted over.
These townhouses were originally built for the working poor but
received a rather stylish makeover from developer Kristopher Kendrick
during 1981. They have been
well sought after since then and are contributing to the gentrification of
downtown Knoxville (Knox Heritage). But
their style alone paints an image of who once dwelt within their walls and
of what struggles their residents had to contend with during their lives.
There is a commercial gentrification occurring on Gay Street as well, with its own shadow dwellers looming in the backgrounds of pristine parks and cultural centers throughout the downtown area. The draw of culture on my mind has always been the strongest pull toward the downtown lifestyle I have experienced; strolling through city parks amid a diverse range of individuals, still retaining a common sense of belonging to the landscape, the sounds of jazz or the symphony echoing softly through the maze of streets and buildings. Even the hundreds of young adults pouring in and out of the various night clubs that dot the landscape of Gay Street have all played in my mind and thoughts. The cultural feel of a city is the one thing that I believe will not be pushed aside to the shadows of development; there is too much of a pull on prospective residents for it to be cast aside. But a new “subculture” can be seen developing about this “high” culture. New redevelopments such as the Tennessee Theatre and Market Square are typical facets of urban culture; however, I am sure the Fast Cash sub-culture was not intended to pop up next door.
Although the surrounding area of the Tennessee Theatre has been heavily redeveloped over the past several years, the same can not be said for the Market Square area. This Fast Cash sub-culture can be seen completely surrounding the area, with buildings that are falling apart or in the process of heavy reconstruction dotting the landscape while Market Square retains its quality of cleanliness and prestige. It is ironic how an area that contains numerous festivals and cultural events throughout the year can be encompassed by a zone of absolute destitution. As I leisurely strolled along the square I found myself in two totally conflicting states of being: one of comfort and security within the freshly laid foundations of the open park and city shops and another of fear and sorrow as I left the confines of light and quickly passed through the lonely shadows of empty buildings and their tattered remnants of glorious days past.
As I continued my trek through Gay Street I approached the old Warehouse Business District in North Knoxville, commonly referred to as the Old City. This is probably one area that is affected the least by gentrification; it would be very hard to attract new residential dwellers to the downtown area with dirty industry running rampant next door. As I walked further north from Sterchi’s and approached this aging district it seemed like the downtown borders were abruptly stopped by some railroad tracks; behind me was a hint of redevelopment, but before me was absolute decay. Some of these buildings, such as JFG Coffee, have been long abandoned for cheaper property taxes, better access to interstate transportation on the city’s outer rim, or perhaps the oblivion of bankruptcy. Some remained, but only those with direct access to the railroad lines. As I walked into this area I imagined myself standing again in Sterchi’s peering out of the new windows onto the landscape around me; to my north lies a dilapidated industrial sector save for a few stragglers, to my east an absolutely devastated Old City of broken windows and trashy streets, to my west some development but mostly the slum zone surrounding Market Square, and to my south the only area of substantial redevelopment surrounding the Tennessee Theatre. Was this the city I had dreamed of as a young boy? Or had I stepped into some twilight zone of waste.
As the twilight began to fade on my excursion to downtown Knoxville, my mind raced with many different thoughts. To see a city that I have loved passionately for years fall into a state of redevelopment and ruin was a troubling sight. All the beauties of gentrification can be seen all over Gay Street; the new lofts, parks, cultural centers, office complexes, and shops. But the darker side of gentrification seems to be glazed over by the sight and smell of fresh paint and mortar. I didn’t even have to walk fifty feet from Gay Street in some places to get to an area I would feel uncomfortable in with a body guard; the smell of the trash, the sight of the graffiti and filth covering aging walls of crumbling brick and stone. But still my night ended with meandering thoughts on living in this city, walking down its sidewalks and taking in every thing surrounding me.
Regardless of the distinctive decay shown throughout this city in these photographs, living in an urban center is still one of my major goals in life. People relocate to city centers for a variety of reasons: the location of their relatively new loft apartments to their office jobs, the numerous cultural activities that are on your doorstep, or just to live in a diverse environment of varying peoples and cultures. But the major factor that has led to the success of gentrification has been those, like me, who still retain that sense of awe as we walk into downtown Knoxville. No matter what deterioration may lie around us, we still have a strong attachment to the “urban life”.
It is almost as if the city defines me as a person at times. I feel so intimately attached with this city that I find it impossible to shake my belief in it. So much of my life is connected with Knoxville, my image of what I want to become and why I want to become that image. I want diversity in my life and the ability to accept change as an open invitation for growth and renewal; it is as if Knoxville’s destiny as well as my destiny are intertwined, defining one another and helping one another succeed. I have held this city in my thoughts and dreams since childhood, and even though I now see the entire picture unfold before my eyes, I still want to be in Knoxville, to exist in a city that defines my aspirations in life. The stories of my Grandfather echo in my mind, of happiness within a city of lights. And now as I stroll along brick sidewalks surrounded by both aged and youthful buildings, I have managed to retain the awe of being within my distant home’s confines, as well as the understanding that comes from age that perfection is impossible, that balance between both the light and shadow of redevelopment is what shall prevail. I have always believed that attachment to your home is like a relationship: you take the good and the bad qualities and find common ground on which to stand. And I am sure I will continue to love Knoxville for the rest of my life, even if I am standing in the shadows.
City of Knoxville. 2005. "Downtown Development Initiatives."
Internet: http://www.ci.knoxville.tn.us/development/incentives.asp (13 April 2005)
Jordan-Bychkov, Terry G. and Domosh, Mona. 2003. The Human Mosaic: A Thematic Introduction to Cultural Geography. Ninth Edition. New York: W. H. Freeman.
Knox Heritage, Inc. 2001. " Downtown Knoxville Walking Tour."
(12 April 2005)
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All text and images produced by Bradley J. Potts; images edited by J. Rogers
This page was last updated/revised on ... 14 Jun 2005