Knoxville’s first Earth Day started out with a bang, 50 years ago today — even if not many of us noticed it. UT had just unveiled its Graduate School of Ecology, with well-known zoologist Jim Tanner leading it. Tanner was a bit of a national celebrity; almost 30 years earlier, he and his wife, Nancy, had been the last to confirm a sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker, now believed to be extinct.
A vigorous celebration effort centered on UT campus, and Circle Park, which hosted a “Celebration of Life.” The day saw a comprehensive cleanup effort of Third Creek, and bus tours of Knoxville’s ugliest sections, a not-so-subtle satire of the Dogwood Festival’s most popular feature, called Deadwood Trails. (Unfortunately, maps of the Deadwood Trails are elusive.)
The big event of April 22, 1970 was the visiting lecturer. Often when you survey visiting lecturers, they’re obscure professors and authors whose names are known today mainly to graduate students. But on Knoxville’s first Earth Day, the lecturer was a 53-year-old author named Jane Jacobs. She was already controversial for her outspoken opposition to urban highways and housing projects; the commissioner of the national Urban Renewal Administration had denounced her point of view, that often historic buildings are better for a city than housing projects.
But maybe her name wasn’t as recognizable as some of the other UT speakers that spring, like Dick Gregory and William Kunstler–not to mention Richard Nixon and Billy Graham–but she was much respected; her speaker’s fee, $1,650, was high by standards for university lecturers in 1970. Somebody at UT was keen on Knoxville hearing her message.
That Wednesday evening, 200 showed up at Alumni Memorial Hall to hear her talk, part of a series called “Man and His Environment.” Maybe it wasn’t a bad turnout for a typical author, but probably seemed small in that big space where everybody from Carl Sandburg to Eleanor Roosevelt to Bob Hope had drawn much bigger crowds.
Her fame has only grown since then, and in 2020 the woman who wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities is known and quoted by mayors, architects, and urban planners as the godmother of the New Urbanism movement.
She died in 2006 at age 89, but her books have remained in print, and she’s been the subject of festivals, symposiums, a major biography and several documentaries, most notably Citizen Jane: Battle for the City in 2016 (she was voiced by Marisa Tomei). She’s even portrayed during a rally in New York in one episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, as the charismatic urban activist who inspires the title character.
And she was right here, half a century ago tonight.
Unfortunately, what she said on what was probably her only visit to Knoxville isn’t recorded. If anybody was one of the few there that night, or knows anything about what Jane Jacobs said in Knoxville on that first Earth Day, please let us hear.