Buildings and Blocks

Death and Life

If one had to name a single work that transformed the way architects and planners look at the cities for which they design (and in which they live and work) it would have to be Jane Jacob's first book, published in 1961, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In it, Jacobs - a journalist with no professional training in the building arts - took on the issue of urban restoration (as opposed to urban renewal) before the terms gentrification or authenticity became popular. She formulated strategies by which ordinary citizens could approach the important urban issues of our time, including diversity, safety, traffic, pollution (in all of its forms), economic sustainability, physical growth, rehabilitation and livability. And she provided a roadmap by which we could find our way through the physical, cultural and economic maze that we call our city.

Downtown Knoxville is often referred to, mostly by politicians and planners, as 'everyone's neighborhood,' a concept Jacobs invented and applied. The term alludes to the fact that the district is frequented by many people who don't live there, but rather visit for a variety of purposes. Its concentration of public and private offices, banks, restaurants, bars, cultural and entertainment venues, shops and parks - and their accessibility without having to drive from one to another - make it convenient, efficient and fun for the 22,000 workers using it daily. The 2,000 residents living in its midst keep the district alive after the businesses close, defining the difference between the city center (as downtowns are called in Europe) and Knoxville's suburbs, where movement of motorized vehicles along high-speed roads and between parking lots tends to segregate commercial and residential uses.

By implying shared ownership, the term enables local officials to ask for and justify public monies that subsidize its economic development. Big cities have always had the dilemma of how to fund services it provides to those who do not live within its boundaries. Why, a business person might ask, should I support schools when my children don't use them? One answer is that cities have a multiplying effect on the regional economy. Downtown workers not only create wealth, but spend part of their wages where they work. And in reciprocity, those who profit spend their earnings in the suburbs.

Has public investment actually improved things in downtown Knoxville? One could do the numbers and come to conclusions, but it's a fact that economic development had already begun several municipal administrations ago. The city center was sleepy in the mid-1980s, but still active and interesting. The Tennessee Theater, saved from demolition, was home to old movies and an occasional live music or theatrical performance. The Bijou had a busy concert schedule in spite of its leaky roof and inadequate mechanical system. The stately old churches were all busy on Wednesdays and Sundays. Miller's department store, occupying its distinctive mid-20th-century building, was doing fair business, and Watson's on Market Square remained a favorite of bargain-seeking clothing shoppers. There were a few popular, good restaurants: Regas and Harold's Deli at the north end of Gay Street, Line's Cafe in the old Sprankle Building, and the Lunchbox in its original box configuration next to the post office on Main. The west side of World's Fair Park was beginning to grow as a cultural center even before the Museum of Art found its new home there. The Candy Factory was truly everyone's community center, attracting individuals and groups from the multi-county metropolitan area, and the 11th Street Coffee House, located in one of the Victorian Houses, was a haven for young poets and musicians. Though sleepy, downtown was far from dead.

New development began before public subsidies became commonplace during the Haslam administration. Residents started to move into refurbished spaces on North Gay and in the Old City, along with some new restaurants and music venues. Lawson McGee library and the East Tennessee Historical Society were strong cultural magnets, and the construction of Krutch Park in the mid-1980s provided a needed oasis for hot summer days and a visual focal point to the existing activity. Revitalization of the streets and storefronts was given a boost when the arcades - concrete on Market Square and steel on Gay Street - were demolished, opening the sidewalks once again to light and air.

Controversy surrounded some of these efforts, however. The 1982 World's Fair, whose planning began a decade before, was mired in criticism and corruption. The new convention center was arguably an anachronism before it was even completed. Several plans for State Street - a jail and a planetarium among them - were floated and dropped, while the site of a stately brick warehouse is now a parking lot. The Knoxville Museum of Art remains an island in what was to become an arts district, a good idea that succumbed to real estate interests. The Old City is still struggling to survive in the shadow of one of the longest and widest highway access ramps ever built.

Recent projects, though, have successfully transformed their micro-neighborhoods: the Market Square entertainment and shopping district continues to thrive and grow; the reborn Riviera movie house has proven a stimulus to what is now called the theater district, where symphony, opera and dramatic performances share the refurbished stages of the Tennessee and Bijou with lighter fare. The new central bus station is a fine example of how, in the future, one might develop air rights over the stretch of James White Parkway that snakes alongside the city skyline.

In 2004, near the end of her life, Jane Jacobs published her last book, ominously titled Dark Age Ahead, where she offered stern warnings about humankind's evolving tendency to stray from responsible stewardship of the environment. Her method was largely apolitical, but her life was marked by direct action. In 1958 she joined the movement to save New York's Washington Square from the invasive construction of a multilane road, a project described with great pride in Death and Life. Participation in other difficult, drawn out campaigns characterized her life. It's not without irony that the movement to save Toronto from the building of a highway through its downtown is detailed in her last book. The outcome lead to her conclusion that "if you don't build it, they won't come," an allusion to the surprising empirical finding that when you close roads traffic has a tendency to simply disappear. The two campaigns, bookends to a remarkable career, epitomize this feisty woman for whom revolution meant a thoughtful but deliberate wielding of both pen and sword. One still feels her presence in the no-man's-land of James White Parkway as it dead-ends (for now, at least) in the woods of South Knoxville.

2011 Michael Kaplan. This article originally appeared in Metro Pulse
Photo: The end of James White Parkway