Monday, June 6, 2011

It's My City, What Are You Doing Here?

Bicyclist on Market Square
Did you bristle a bit when you saw that headline? Did you think, "Urban Guy has really lost it now. He's become a megalomaniac?" Well, no. All of you who read me regularly, know I love downtown and I love mixing it up with various groups who pass through or inhabit the city. Still, we've all probably had days when we had a fun vibe going downtown and we felt someone or some group impinged on our plans.
Frisby in the middle of Market Square
I first became aware of the growing tensions between a couple of groups several years ago. I attended a 100 Jubilee show at the Bijou in January 2009 and part of the entertainment was a comedy/commentary group called the Booze Hounds Gandy Dance. The humor is raunchy, which I get. I'm not offended at humorous sexual or drug/alcohol references. But I don't enjoy humor at other's expense delivered in a mean-spirited way and I thought their humor about homeless people and mountain people was simply cruel.

But here's what really caught my attention: They mercilessly lampooned people who live in West Knoxville. I realize stereotyping anyone who lives in that part of town has been perfectly acceptable in certain quarters of Knoxville for a long time. The basic riff, of course, was that they are rich, out of touch with the "real" people and arrogant. Still, it was what they said next that really set me off: They made fun of people who move into downtown condos. I realized in their view, I'm a stereotype if I live in the west and I'm a stereotype if I move downtown. It seemed the only "good guys" were the poor bohemian types who live downtown. I've worked hard, saved my money and I've been very lucky, so I can never be one of the good guys.
Hacky Sack on the Square
Of course, the counter-point to the west Knoxville bashing is on display anytime there is an article about downtown in the Knoxville News Sentinel. Downtowners are slammed in various ways and the area is invariably described as a dangerous wasteland by people who do not seem to have been downtown in years. If the article is about a failed venture, the responses are even worse.

I did move into the city later that year and, as you all know, I love living here. But the tensions are apparent in numerous ways. Soon after I started the blog last summer I was introduced to some people who have lived in downtown for years - which means before "people like you moved here" - and that point was emphasized. I initially took the introduction as polite only to realize later I was being sent a message: "This is my city, what are you doing here - and how dare you write about it?" To which I might respond, "Is this a city or a junior high school?" The attitude has persisted among certain long-time residents, though obviously this is not so with many others.
Motorized Scooter on the Square

Then a similar discussion erupted at the Metropulse earlier this year when Michael Haynes wrote an article entitled "A Schism of Downtown Viewpoints" in which he detailed the tension between those who live in the city and those who visit the city. A couple of readers responded and took umbrage with what they felt was the implication that one group has more rights than another downtown. It is easy for a writer to have the words on the page or computer screen misinterpreted, so you might read the article, then the response and decide for yourself.

There are also tensions between other groups. I recently got an e-mail from a reader in which she wrote in part, "My husband and I were on Market Square yesterday evening.  We wanted to enjoy a nice afternoon and walk together.  We stopped at Rita's and got a gelatto.  Then we sat down to enjoy it there on the square . . . a group of twenty somethings started throwing a football around practically over our heads.  The cop on site said NOTHING to them.  We ducked for a few minutes, then decided to find another place to enjoy our afternoon.  There were also 5 kids on scooters . . . (but) the cop singled out 2 skate boarders and ignored the kids and the ball players.  Am I an old fogie for thinking that there are more appropriate places for these activities?  How do 'downtowners' feel about it?  I loved the energy and activity there, but I really thought those folks overstepped bounds."
Scateboarders on Union Avenue
Good thoughts and questions. I responded that just the day before I had witnessed a patron exiting Soccer Taco and as she attempted to skirt the game that is often outside their door, she was struck by a soccer ball and her drink splashed onto her blouse. She laughed, but I'm sure others wouldn't have done so. Personally, I've been nearly run over by bikes flying down the sidewalk and nearly hit crossing the street at a crosswalk by people flying through the intersection in their cars.

I've previously discussed being accosted or asked for money on the street (here, here, here, here and here). Sometimes the request is accompanied by a story and a rejection isn't taken kindly. There is a particular group of homeless people - I've heard them called "Travelers" - who are particularly aggressive. They are young, travel in groups, always have dogs in tow and are perfectly willing to obstruct a sidewalk simply to make the point they can and "what are you going to do about it?" I've heard them curse me when I refuse to give them money and say that a "rich man don't know what it's like to be poor," which makes my blood boil for several reasons.
Soccer outside Steamboat on Market Square
So, there are tensions. It may be simplistic, but I tend to think of them as growing pains. For a number of years in the early nineties, the only place to be downtown was the Old City. Over time the center of interest shifted to Market Square. Most people who come downtown now land in that relatively small space. The Old City is still kicking (as I detailed in my recent series on Jackson Avenue) and the 100 block has it's own charm, but that's about as far as most people venture. This didn't matter for years because the numbers involved were so small. Now the numbers are very large, particularly when there is an event, or as has often been the case lately, multiple simultaneous events. Increasingly crowds are thick throughout these areas even on weeknights.

What will resolve these issues? The obvious answer is that nothing will change some of these dynamics, many of which are as old as cities. I do think it can, and I believe it will, get better as we expand our view of what constitutes "downtown." Businesses in search of locations off the square have started the move to Jackson Avenue, to the 100 Block, to the Daylight Building on Union Avenue and up Market Street. Can we break the patterns of so many who don't venture to these areas so that we can spread out and all have a good time? The answer to that question may determine the long-term prospects of a vibrant center city and will certainly impact the satisfaction of those of us who choose to live, play, work or worship in the city.

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At June 6, 2011 at 3:10 AM , Blogger Andrea said...

I enjoyed reading this.

At June 6, 2011 at 9:59 AM , Anonymous Greg said...

"Growing pains" is probably a good explanation. I moved to Manhattan about 6 months ago, and I've been happily surprised by how civil everyone is. In the most crowded situations (Macy's parade, Times Square at night, rush hour subways, etc) everyone has been on perfect behavior. The people understand that they have to respect each other to make it all work.

In the photos with this post, the square and streets are virtually empty so it's not surprising that people feel free to play games and ride skateboards. If there was a crowd I think the sisters and ballplayers would move off to emptier areas.

About panhandlers - there are surprisingly few in Manhattan, and aggressive ones are very very rare. The police don't put up with it, and the citizens don't either. Older women who are obviously down on their luck will get money, but male beggars rarely get anything. That's the only way people have to discourage panhandling.

At June 6, 2011 at 10:02 AM , Anonymous Greg said...

I hate auto-spellcheck! "Sisters" is supposed to be "skaters."

At June 6, 2011 at 10:43 AM , Anonymous Jessica said...

Downtown artists aren't much better. And then there's the "hippies" from farragut that drive down in their SUVs and pretend they care about the world while snubbing anyone that doesn't own a hula hoop or a set of glow poi. It's everywhere and there's not much we can do about it really. Just gotta be good to ourselves and our family and forget about everybody else.

At June 6, 2011 at 2:44 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The only way to grow the downtown is to learn to deal with the numbers. Crowds attract business, and business makes downtown more vibrant. Growing pains are a good way to describe it, but thankful that it is growing, even if that means more of West Knoxville descending on downtown on the weekends. I'll take that over a dead downtown any day.

At June 6, 2011 at 3:41 PM , Anonymous Greg said...

Anonymous said it well. "Crowds" are the sign of a successful city. People on the street attract more good city stuff, which attracts more people. It's a positive feedback loop.

Folks who don't like "crowds" can happily avoid them in the 'burbs and countryside. Folks who like being around other people will continue to head downtown. I don't really think there's a problem to be solved.

At June 9, 2011 at 8:19 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

What I think is happening is simply "haters gonna hate", you know? Unhappy people are going to find something to pick at and will pick at it until it bleeds. I used to live in South Knox and LOVED it - I was right close in South Knox, too. We moved to Alasks and then moved back and found a place (with cheap rent!) in West Hills. It's lovely and the school is wonderful. My husband is a photographer and I'm a I'm sure we don't fit what some nit-picky folks think we should be. We're downtown all the time (almost every single day)too, as are a ton of our neighbors. Several of my friends who live in 4th/Gill or out north or downtown or FC have said, "Y'all just don't seem like the West Knox type." Grrrr. It's just a damn part of town, you know? With good schools and nice shopping (Jerry's and Nostalgia and McKay's oh my!).

Anyway, I appreciate your attitude and your dedication to the city. You always find positive things to add on here (and on the News Sentinel comments - oh yes I've seen ya!).

At June 9, 2011 at 8:46 PM , Anonymous Knoxville Urban Guy said...

Hey Everybody,
Good comments one and all. I do think crowds are a good and necessary part of growth. I'm not sure when the situations in the pictures are crowded that people here understand as quickly as they seem to in Manhattan that maybe their fun is messing with somebody else's good time. In that way we have to develop a more urban etiquette that we've just not had here before. Prejudices between groups probably will persist, I just hate it. I've lived in South Knoxville, Rocky Hill, Far West Knox County and downtown and I'm pretty sure I've been about the same guy wherever I've lived.


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