Seema Singh-Perez was one of four women elected to City Council last year – a record for Knoxville. She stood out because she is one of two women of color serving on that body – also a record – and because she is foreign born (a native of India). But it was her party affiliation that got her national attention.
She is a Bernie Sanders-style Democratic Socialist, which, according to common wisdom, should have made her an underdog.
But she won handily, and as her first year in office comes to an end, she’s carving out a space for herself as someone who is unafraid to go it alone.
Her most recent show of independence came in late November when she held down the short end of an eight-to-one vote to approve a colorful (critics say garish), $500,000 aluminum sculpture to be built at the intersection of Summit Hill Drive and Gay Street in the former Cradle of Country Music Park. Site work is expected to add another $200,000 to the project’s cost. Representatives of the Mayor’s Public Arts Committee informed bidders there was no need to stick to the original theme, which was an homage to the days when the Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round packed the 100 block of Gay Street with long lines of fans.
After other council members praised the sculpture (which has since been discovered to be a clone of several other such installations by the New York artist), Singh-Perez said she intended to vote no.
“I think art is for the soul,” she said, “but it’s also three blocks away from where, just about a month ago, we cleared underneath the bridge where people were homeless.”
She said she approved of cleaning out the homeless camp, which the city has turned into a daytime park.
“But the juxtaposition of it happening so close by, to me, feels like an insult. It feels like we have other priorities we need to spend our resources on. The whole project costing almost a million dollars, I can’t get on board with that.”
Arts & Culture Alliance executive director Liza Zenni told Singh-Perez that she has asked a city official who works with the homeless to make public art a part of the redesigned under-the-bridge park, saying she’d like to see it become “fun and interesting.”
She predicted that the new park will be an open, welcoming space that everyone will enjoy.
“Why shouldn’t our homeless people have a beautiful place to be, with a beautiful canopy overhead where they can lean back and see the sky?”
Back in June, Singh-Perez bucked a new noise ordinance aimed at shutting up downtown street preachers and musicians by requiring them to have permits for amplified sound, something she believes to be an unconstitutional infringement on free speech.
She had plenty of back-up from the arts community, including Abby Roach from Asheville (aka Abby the Spoon Lady). The law director checked into it and decided that the term “amplified sound” was too broad and recommended setting a decibel level instead. Singh-Perez still didn’t vote for it.
“Others didn’t have an issue with it,” she said. “It’s not free speech, with a permit. It’s free speech.”
She thinks that $40 million is too much to spend on a new police station, and she also has strong feelings about the Recode Knoxville project, which she sees as an opportunity to promote affordable housing.
“It seems that with Recode, the citizens’ comments all come from single-family neighborhoods – homeowners. People who are doing well and aren’t willing to adapt or adjust and let others into their neighborhoods. Fifty-three percent of Knoxvillians rent, and we’re not hearing from them. They’re just not at the table.”
Singh-Perez said there’s a lot of unanimity among council members, and she’s not concerned with popularity or being part of any faction.
“I do what I feel is right, what I can sleep with. No animosity. I actually feel appreciated for it. And I don’t feel pitted against anybody. I just think it’s important to have different points of view discussed. Other council members pay attention when I’m speaking, and we’ve got good people on council who are quite open-minded. I don’t think anybody comes there not ready to listen.”