Kevin Jeske-Polyak: The long strange trip

Beth KinnaneGet Up & Go, South Knox

When Kevin Jeske-Polyak moved to South Knoxville, he didn’t have a neighborhood. So, he created one and the Southside Waterfront Association (SWFT) to go with it. The neighborhood is comprised of the CityView at Riverwalk condominiums and the 303 Flats apartment complex, both located west of Henley Street between Blount Avenue and the southern bank of the Tennessee River.

“I was looking at maps of the city and saw all these defined neighborhoods,” Jeske-Polyak said. “There’s over 100 of them, but there wasn’t one for where I lived.” After talking to a friend who had worked with the city’s Office of Neighborhoods to create one, he decided to do the same.

Kevin Jeske-Polyak

“What I found after moving here was an interesting opportunity to build community and draw neighbors together,” he said. “At CityView, we have primarily older professionals and retirees. At 303 Flats, most of the residents are UT students, mostly seniors or those pursuing master’s or doctoral degrees. We take up about two city blocks, but there’s a lot of knowledge and experience to share between these two developments.”

To that end, he has organized bi-monthly social hours, the addition of butterfly garden beds along the river, and a neighborhood newsletter/website that allows residents to check off their areas of interest and/or expertise to connect with like-minded neighbors. While acknowledging that most of the residents at 303 Flats will be moving elsewhere after three or four years, he feels that those connections will help those young graduates in the future, for example, when a newly minted law student needs some references from practicing attorneys. His efforts gave him a nomination for the Diana Conn Good Neighbor of the Year award.

The journey to his current professional and residential status took a circuitous route. A nomadic childhood following his father’s work took him from Illinois to Pennsylvania to Connecticut and, finally, Tennessee where he spent his senior year at Gallatin Senior High School before coming to UT-Knoxville. While working elsewhere post-college, he made the choice to move back here.

“For me, life began, in terms of having a sense of place, when I came here to go to college,” he said. “I think it’s important to make the distinction that I wanted to come back. In fact, some might say foolishly, because I didn’t have a job when I returned.”

Jeske-Polyak, now 62, has an entertaining resume, with much of his young life filled with restaurant work, then non-profit work with AIDS Response Knoxville and eventually landing a job with Community Television, where he now serves as the general manager.

“What I found once I started there was it was a way to continue to help people and non-profits,” he said. “But with that platform, I could help a lot more of them, help them communicate their message.”

He and his husband, Drew, lived for about a decade in a houseboat on the Tennessee River before moving to CityView. Right now, he’s looking forward to getting some activities back on the calendar after the cancellations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve recently held socially distanced Sunset Celebrations on Fridays and Saturdays under their 40 x 20-foot tent, and anticipate the return of “Neylgate,” a neighborhood tailgate party for Tennessee Volunteer home games.

He’s also ready to bring back One Cup at a Time, where the residents of CityView set up a free coffee bar for the residents of 303 Flats on their way to morning classes.

Now that’s being a good neighbor.

Beth Kinnane is a freelance writer and thoroughbred bloodstock agent.

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