One hard disappointment of the spring is word that the Farmers’ Market won’t come to Market Square soon, or for the foreseeable future. Of course it’s just a 10-minute walk away, on Mary Costa Plaza. But it will, at least temporarily, lose that continuity with this historic spot. There’s an irony: that a maybe microbe introduced at another farmers’ market, believed to have originated in a market on the other side of the planet, might result in the first year since 1854 that our Market Square hasn’t offered some kind of fresh produce.
Farmers’ market customers do tend to cluster. We lean over each other to get a better look at the peppers, or grab the last Cherokee Purple. Right now, the experts say, they’re not safe.
Among the many long-term effects of the Pandemic may be that it shakes the soundations on concept that has worked wonders in modern America. It has revived cities, packed brewpubs, restored urban neighborhoods, launched big festivals, made farmers’ markets thrive.
It’s the ideal of urban density. For the last 30 years in Knoxville, progressive urban planners have touted density as the long-neglected secret to success. For almost 60 years, in fact, since the 1961 publication of’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs (who spoke at UT in 1970, for our first Earth Day), density has been the key to urban success. Density makes cities work.
Density helps a city in two major ways–or groups of ways–each with lots of positive implications. One is what it prevents. It curtails sprawl, reducing traffic and pollution and the costs in injury and death associated with automobile accidents. Density also reduces the public expenses of longer and longer roads, water and sewer pipes, power lines, and schools. In theory, and some would claim in provable reality, density keeps taxes lower, because less public investment in infrastructure and services is needed. That was a major point most convincing to many Republicans in the resurgence of Chattanooga in the 1990s.
The other is what density adds. The concentration of residents’ activities, and investment near the city center creates, in a demographic sort of alchemy, yielding diversity, energy, and choice. As Jacobs observed, it’s not total population but density that creates the pageant of choice that makes a thriving, exciting city. A city of 100,000 contained in four square miles will offer many more amenities of all sorts than it would if the same 100,000 people were spread out over 40 square miles. In a high-density city, you might expect to find opera, gelato, innovative architecture, live jazz, crepes, synagogues, public transit, falafels, ethnic festivals, art galleries, cigar shops, sushi, independent bookstores, yoga classes, history museums, foreign films, street performers, and the kind of brewpubs that offer 40 kinds of ales and lagers.
But if you take the same population and spread it out, you’ll get hamburgers and pizza, gas-station convenience stores, chain groceries, and an occasional rock concert, preferably with bands that play the oldies.
With high density, every minority of consumers becomes big enough to support businesses to please it. People will happily walk five blocks to try something new. They are much less likely to drive 10 miles to do so. And along the way, on the sidewalk, they meet other people, friends and strangers, and discover what an interesting place their city is.
Although Knoxville is not considered a high-density city, even by American standards, in recent years it lately behaves like one, with Big Ears and Pecha Kucha presentations and that Saturday farmers’ market and its dozens of tomato varieties. There’s some interpretation of density at work here, whether it’s the rapid growth of a pocket residential density in the greater downtown area — I wouldn’t be surprised if twice as many people live within a mile of downtown as did 20 years ago — or just a density of activity and attractions that attracts people from all around our county of half a million. The results of the census will be interesting, if we ever complete that. But what has happened in Knoxville since the 1990s has been wonderful to watch. After so many years of browsing a vacant, melancholy downtown, to step into a brewpub or taco place, or art gallery or avant-garde musical performance, or lecture about local history, and to be surrounded by a crush of people–and not know any of them!–is an astonishing and gratifying thing.
Looking around America, the most exciting cities are the densest ones. When people talk about energy, arts opportunities, technical innovation, jobs for young people, they’re talking about the ones with the most people per square mile.
But in 2020 comes the cold reality that the critical element that almost magically makes cities exciting is exactly the same thing that makes them microbially dangerous.
The most dangerous cities this spring have been the most exciting ones: New York, Seattle, Milan, Chicago, Miami, New Orleans, London. New York above all, the City that Never Sleeps, the Big Apple, the Greatest City in the World, all those appellations reflections of the fact that it’s one of our densest cities. It doesn’t sleep because it has such a high density of people that every square mile has a critical mass of the minority of people who have reason to stay up all night to keep all-night businesses open.
And by a recent account, over 21 percent of New Yorkers have contracted the coronavirus.
Here, almost two months after the first local patient, the testing so far in Knoxville suggests less than 0.1 percent have gotten it.
In this case, our advantage may be that we’re not nearly as dense as New York.
Of course, it may be too early to jump to conclusions. There’s at least one other reason. East Tennesseans already self-isolate by habit. Around here, six feet is getting kind of close, anyway. Maybe it’s a Scots-Irish Presbyterian thing. And hugging people who aren’t actual aunts is still a new and alien practice in East Tennessee. It happens, but I don’t think we’ve ever gotten the hang of the casual embrace. And talking to people at a distance is what the field holler is for.
It’s not over yet, and maybe we’re lucky that Knoxville locked down just at the beginning of festival season, which only in recent years has attracted tens of thousands for big events almost every weekend from March into June. (I do wish we’d gotten one more Big Ears in before it happened.)
The fact that the word culture has a meaning in both the arts and epidemiology isn’t just a goofy coincidence. As applied to art museums and concerts, it’s the same word used in medical labs; culture comes from the Latin word for growth. Cultures all spread in similar ways, person to person, and perhaps most effectively in crowds.
Ideas, trends, styles, innovations–and money–tend to spread fastest in the places where viruses also spread fastest.
We can hope the ideal of density isn’t over. And there are some interesting exceptions that suggest there’s a way to handle density carefully. San Francisco is one of the most densely populated cities in America, and one of the most vital, in fields ranging from modern poetry and rock music to major technical innovation. It’s had a much easier time than expected with the coronavirus. Hospital beds are empty, ventilators are unplugged. But I looked at the numbers: San Francisco County, which is twice the size of Knox County in population, has seven times the number of Covid cases, and more than four times as many deaths. Although they’re feeling great relief that they’ve already “flattened the curve,” it’s still a much more dangerous city than Knoxville seems to be right now. Rates that are cause for relief in bigger cities would be scary here.
New Urbanists jeer at the ’50s, as a nadir of thoughtless urban design. But maybe it provides at least an example, with things we can study and maybe we can try again.
Knoxville’s history offers examples of both greater density and lesser density, broadly defined, and they may both be instructive.
As incredible as it may seem, as of the last census, Knoxville, the city, is about the same size as it was half a century ago. Estimates of Knoxville’s size today are about the same as population estimates just after Knoxville’s big 1962 annexations that added Bearden and Fountain City. The main difference is that in the 1960s and ’70s, Knoxville was a devoutly suburban city.
Suburbanization arguably began as early as the 1890s, as the affluent began moving away from downtown proper and toward the trolleyburbs. But they still lived pretty close to each other, still spent their days in a crowded downtown, riding crowded trolley cars. In 1900, Knoxville was about four times as densely populated as it is today. It was an exciting place, with all-night restaurants and 100 saloons and street performers and multiple different shows every night. It was also a place that had to deal with occasional bouts of smallpox and typhoid and quarantines.
Suburbanization picked up momentum with the introduction of the automobile a few years later, and the concurrent annexation of 1917, which offered urban amenities to people who were building houses on farmers’ fields. By the 1920s, it was practical for affluent people to live independently of public transit.
Much of it happened after the Spanish Flu, which hit Knoxville suddenly and catastrophically in October, 1918. Historians have remarked that America didn’t talk about that experience much after it was over, after it had killed two thirds of a million Americans (and well over 200 Knoxvillians). I’ve never seen an ad for a suburban development that hinted anything about it being safer from epidemics. But was it always in the back of our mind, maybe unacknowledged, when we started moving away from each other?
By the 1930s, early attempts to start a public art museum sputtered and died. The central farmer’s market was no longer the necessity it had been, with supermarkets proliferating throughout the suburbs. After prohibition ended in 1933, there were bars, but they were all beer joints, and the average Knoxvillian shunned them. Bars were for barflies. Wine and liquor bars weren’t even legal here between 1907 and 1972. With the exception of speakeasies, the bootlegging culture encouraged social distancing.
Meanwhile, vaudeville theaters, where people sat profitably close together, closed forever, and movie theaters got smaller. Street vendors and street performers became rarer than they had been in the Victorian era. Holidays like Fourth of July and Labor Day, once celebrated with big public events in the parks, became privately enjoyed days off, an opportunity for a backyard barbecue with the family.
For the most part, suburban-era Knoxville gloried in the Sort-of-Nearby: the Smokies’ hiking trails and trout streams, suddenly available after 1930; the several TVA lakes, Norris Dam itself, the Museum of Atomic Energy and other wonders of Oak Ridge, all attractions far from the city center that required some driving.
Knoxvillians who could afford it got houseboats or lake houses, or mountain cabins, and spent weekends there–no longer at the farmers’ market or the vaudeville theater or the ballpark.
Though attendance at football games stayed strong, that was just a few days a year. Attendance at city baseball games, much more frequent than football games, sharply declined, and in 1967, ended altogether, for several years. Chain restaurants began to outnumber distinctive local places, especially the downtown places where workers would cram in at the counter to stand cheek to jowl to eat a sandwich. And most downtown restaurants began closing after lunch.
Festivals, as we knew them, with lots of unrestrained people in the streets, had all but vanished by mid-century; the Dogwood Arts Festival entered our consciousness in 1955 as a series of self-guided automobile tours of suburban neighborhoods: the Dogwood Trails. Arguably our biggest civic event of the 1950s, the Dogwood Trails allowed us to celebrate dogwood season without saying hello to anybody.
We weren’t in lockdown. We still had the annual fair, the Veterans Day and Santa Claus parades, and football games and occasional concerts, always attended in folding chairs with arm rests separating us from our neighbors, but those were just occasional things.
And there were occasional intimations that things might be changing, in terms of social distance. For the most part, in the middle part of the century, nightclubs were places with chairs and tables where you could sit with your date and maybe another couple until it was time to dance. Couples dancing tried to stay out of each other’s way, just to minimize collisions.
There were sometimes exceptions. I was struck by an elderly friend’s description of the first time Frank Sinatra performed at UT’s Alumni Hall, in May, 1941. It was typical, he said, for UT dances to be polite affairs, with formally dressed couples dancing in recognizable steps. But when Frank started singing, everybody was so agog, they quit dancing, rushed the stage, and crammed in close to young Blue Eyes and to each other. At the time, that was memorably unusual.
By degrees, over the next few decades, crowding the stage became standard behavior. But not yet.
After 1945 or so, something that was really crazy and new was the concept of the drive-in. You could go on a date, eat a meal, watch a movie, get some ice cream, even pick up a gallon of fresh milk–or in at least one bootlegger’s joint, get a bottle of whiskey– without getting out of your car. In the 1950s, you could live an active life without coming within six feet of any stranger.
Without even intending to, Knoxville had started to practice social distancing. We didn’t have any reason to. It just seemed, at the time, novel and modern and different and undeniably convenient.
Knoxville wasn’t that exciting, in itself, and hardly different from many other American cities. But maybe it was safe.
Those younger people who embraced suburban car culture got older. To their children, suburban car culture was just the status quo, and boring.
Then, after the last Knoxvillians who remembered old, urban, crowded, fun Knoxville had died off, it charged back, in a big, enthusiastic way.
“Festival seating,” a profitable euphemism for maximizing large numbers of rock fans in a room without furniture, didn’t come into vogue until the mid- ’70s. Then came punk rock, when we discovered how much fun it was to slam into strangers, and then the mosh pit, a whole new concept in physical intimacy, the Sinatra phenomenon taken to the next level. By the 1980s, young people, if not their elders, were touching more strangers than ever.
Was it a coincidence that as this was happening in nightclubs late at night, we all rediscovered downtown?
I still don’t know whether the 1982 World’s Fair, with its 40-100,000 attendee days, played a major role in bringing Knoxville back downtown, as many assume. Or whether the influence of a few imaginative developers played a bigger role. It all happened during a tide of urban revivals across America–typified in the 1990s most handily in Knoxville’s area by the very different examples of Asheville and Chattanooga–prompted Knoxville city leaders to consider tax credits, facade grants, and other proven public investments. But late in the century, things started changing rapidly.
Especially since about 1990, Knoxville has done something altogether contrary to its former suburban self, concentrating its energy on its center. Statistics may become more available after the 2020 census, but it’s a sure bet that most of the old center-city neighborhoods, especially Old North and Fourth and Gill and the riverfront south, have more people living there than they did half a century ago, and downtown in particular is almost certainly more populated with permanent residents than it has been since before World War II.
Although it’s not clear that the overall density of the city proper has not changed much, if at all, in the last 50 years–assuming we do get the census completed this year, we’ll know more about that soon–the density of the county as a whole has almost doubled. A half-century ago, many people who lived in the county were farmers, or children of farmers. Today, most people in Knox County behave like city people; they have office jobs, go to shows and lectures and organized sporting events, eat out at restaurants.
At the same time the county has doubled, the city has rearranged its population and priorities. Downtown has seen a new density, with permanent residents–a few thousand of them, now, including hundreds on the one block of Gay known as the 100 block, which may be the most densely populated block in Knox County. Thirty years ago, as best as I can remember, that same block had no residents at all, except for the homeless shelter on the corner. But downtown has also seen a huge boom in number of hotel rooms–it’s a safe bet that until this spring, downtown hotels had hundreds more visitors per night than a generation ago, when we were worrying we had overbuilt hotels for the World’s Fair.
More dramatic than the residential shift has been a new density of activity. Downtown–as of last year, at least–has been the location of a dozen big festivals, some of them, notably Big Ears, which has become world famous, gaining recognition in newspapers and magazines around the world that may never have mentioned the word “Knoxville” before. Exciting new music is not ever likely to evoke a polite, socially distant response. That’s a major problem for all live music, and I know smart people are working on how to make it work in an uncertain future.
So far, Knoxville has enjoyed the good kind of culture conveyed by city life without–yet–suffering the worst of the sort of culture that spreads virally.
As we drive by to pick up ordered groceries, or attend church, it’s hard for folks of a certain age not to think of another era, and remember that the Dogwood Arts Festival, arguably our first attempt at a big festival since the Victorian era, started in 1955 not as a big downtown party but as a series of Dogwood Trails. Maybe we didn’t think about it then, but they were microbially safe, as they are now. Even though we had no mandate for social distancing in 1955, we seemed determined to observe it anyway.
A generation ago, people were making fun of the Dogwood Trails, as an embarrassing relic from the car-centric ’50s. (Nothing to do in your city? Fill up the tank and drive through the rich people’s neighborhoods!) But in 2020, people who live near them report they’ve never been more popular.
Are we doomed to start another cycle?
A return to the car-centric drive-in culture of 60 years ago might be a novelty to the young, and nostalgic to the old. We can hope this one strange spring is just a contemplative pause in Knoxville’s most exciting era in memory.
Researched and Written by Jack Neely, April 2020