Buildings and Blocks

Living on the Road

Recognizing the importance of the automobile to urban growth, the Swiss architect Le Corbusier in the 1930s attempted to the integrate the road with habitation in Algiers, then a part of France, by tucking multistory housing under a high-speed roadway that cut through the middle of the city. While L-C's radical vision never materialized, it was a bold attempt to reconcile the motor car with the "machine for living," a nickname given to the mass-housing designs he thought would revolutionize the way we live.

As one might expect, eighty years later, we're not even close to resolving the conflict between the automobile and the neighborhood. Some of our own main streets - Magnolia, East Fifth, Papermill - have been cut into unrelated pieces, a metaphor for a thinking process that is better at taking things apart than putting them together. Walls and fences used for prisons, for separating Mexicans from Texans, Arabs from Jews, Sunni from Shia, now enclose our neighborhoods, supposedly protecting us from intruders and the noise of moving ourselves and just about everything else from here to there and back.

Most citizens running about town, picking up and delivering their kids, shopping the malls and strips and big boxes, commuting to and from work, hardly pay attention to this evolving landscape and, when made aware of it, shrug it off as another necessary byproduct of the contemporary lifestyle. That's easy to do from the leather throne of an Escalade, but more difficult from the armchair in your family room if it looks out over the concrete and steel infrastructure of a modern city. That's the visual part. Out of sight are the electromagnetic fields from power lines, microwaves from mobile phone towers, air pollution generated by traffic moving around the clock at over 70 mph (in 55 mph zones), noise produced by the jake-braking of 18-wheelers slowing down, and cuts in the terrain causing erosion and runoff.

Dramatic examples of this mess exist in every part of town. Dutch Valley, once the quiet and beautiful site of dairy farms, was radically transformed in the early 1980s by the construction of the I-640 bypass which diverted through and connecting traffic around the city. The north slope of Sharp's Ridge was mostly uninhabited until the 1970s when the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) facilitated affordable rental housing through low-income housing tax credits offered to developers and Section 8 vouchers issued to renters seeking subsidies. While land close-in to the city became scarce and more expensive, parcels thought unbuildable, or at least undesirable, were available for sale at bargain prices. With the Ridge more economically feasible, a string of developments line its north slope, providing hundreds of simple but practical rental units. These include Hillside Place apartment homes near Broadway, a group of terraced apartments known as The Peaks, and the Christenberry Community, HUD-financed housing administered by Knoxville's Community Development Corporation and revitalized with new landscaping and bungalow-style porches.

While these neighborhoods fill a need for affordable housing within a few miles of the city center, their boundaries are demarcated by challenging topographic and man-made features. To the south is Sharp's Ridge, casting a long shadow over the units during winter mornings and afternoons. High-voltage power lines criss-cross the site generating electromagnetic fields, and the towering transmission antennas located at the summit of the ridge beam down megawatts of radio frequencies. The science on such radiation is incomplete, but one can imagine future consequences.

To the north sits the broad expanse of I-640, with its noise and air pollution. Open your front door and face a wall of sound - not the kind offered by Phil Spector. Asked whether prospective residents are bothered by the din, one of the managers said that their initial concerns are offset by the quality of the soundproofing once they inspect the units, a tribute to the power of technology.

Things aren't much different on the other side of town. At the east end of the I-40 exit at Papermill Road, widened to between eight and ten drive lanes, the Pilot Travel Centers corporate headquarters presides precariously over the highway. Recent billboards designed for Pilot by local artist Mike Berry show a giant cup superimposed on a composite of Knoxville's highways, suggesting how the company could transform the entire country, given the chance, into a land of roads, convenience stores and Sunspheres.

Just past Weisgarber Road sits a unique Tudor-styled complex called Londontown Apartments. It's a picturesque grouping of buildings, one that always attracted my attention from the highway, and now even more visible having lost a protective layer of trees when the road was widened. Are renters put off by living on the road? Not at all, claims one of the managers, who boasts a 90% occupancy rate for her 290 units. Residents seem more interested in their location and easy access to the highway than peace and quiet. That's not true at Westwood, one of West Knoxville's older and more beautiful neighborhoods of private homes, situated between the interstate and Sutherland Avenue. One resident told me that the construction of the sound wall "was a big improvement," but standing in the street nearest to the highway, the roar of the fast-moving traffic was evident. None of this has been encouraging to the quality of life, or property values.

In December 1948, at the very time Le Corbusier was designing the United Nations world headquarters in New York, the General Assembly of that body adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, stating that "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family." That standard specifically includes housing, and holds all governments responsible for how they provide for human habitation. Housing people near generators of toxicity while they breathe some of the worst air in the country raises questions about how, locally, we are living up to the optimistic promise of the Declaration.

2008 Michael Kaplan. This article originally appeared in the Knoxville Voice.
Photo: The view from Edward McKay: layers of roadways, walls, and power lines define the contemporary urban landscape