On a recent Wednesday, I took a stroll through downtown Knoxville. It was after 7 p.m., and I walked from the Locust Street garage through Market Square, Krutch Park then down Gay Street to the Bijou. While there was a performance at the Tennessee Theatre, it wasn’t a night of many events. It was what you might call “normal busy,” what is, now, a typical evening in our revitalized center city.
There were people on restaurant patios having drinks or dinner, getting their exercise or out walking their dogs. Traffic wasn’t heavy, but it was consistent, some heading in, some heading out. It’s a stark contrast to just over 30 years ago when I worked downtown during the last two years of The Knoxville Journal. Back then, with a few exceptions, by the time 7 p.m. rolled around, downtown Knoxville was shuttered up and gone to sleep.
The decline of downtown as a retail district can be specifically pinned to the opening of West Town Mall in 1972 and Knox County’s ever westward expansion. It wasn’t helped by the opening of East Towne Mall in 1984. Though the Old City had its renaissance in the 1980s and early ’90s, the rest of downtown was suffering from a profound failure to launch back to relevancy beyond a primarily financial and legal district.
A night on the town would start at Lucille’s (formerly Annie’s), Manhattan’s, Ella Guru’s or Hoo-Ray’s then skip over most everything south of Summit Hill Drive before landing at Lord Lindsey’s on Hill Avenue to dance the night away.
I was living in Kentucky when our forever mayor, Victor Ashe, started stirring things up to get downtown going again around the year 2000. Ashe put the Knoxville Community Development Corporation in charge of a Market Square revamp. Bill Lyons was president of KCDC at the time, and the short of that was working with property owners/new investors to bring crumbling buildings back to life with new businesses or residents in them.
There’s a reason there’s a pavilion on the square named in his honor.
It began with a redo of the actual square, with a ribbon cutting 20 years ago. So perhaps that could be considered when the rebirth started. Though they both were hosting events to that point, the Tennessee and Bijou theatres were due for some updating that started in 2005 and 2006 respectively. Ashley Capps helped keep both places busy as well as drawing people in with Sundown in the City (anyone remember Saturday Night on the Town?).
While the past 20ish years is certainly when the pedal hit the floor, seeds had been planted a decade or more, earlier. It’s not that there were no people living downtown by the early ’80s, it was just not a destination neighborhood. And that’s being kind.
Enter our godfather of historic preservation, Kristoffer Kendrick, and his purchase of some row houses on Locust Street at Union Avenue. Now known as Kendrick Place, that restoration began in 1981.
And there’s the Tomato Head (originally the Flying Tomato) that Mahasti Vafaie opened on Market Square near Union Avenue in 1990. There were plenty of breakfast/lunch spots downtown at the time, but the Tomato Head has been a stalwart for over 30 years now and has weathered every change that came. The business has now expanded in its original location as well as to Kingston Pike. You can pick up Tomato Head products like hummus at the grocery store.
But the one that has seen it all over the past 40-plus years is the Bistro at the Bijou. It was a favorite watering hole of us journalists back in ‘90-’91, when it was just The Bistro, before “By the Tracks” required an addendum. Opened in 1980, Martha Boggs became restaurant manager in 1993 before becoming its owner in 2009. She’s seen a lot come and go over the past 30 years, but hers is the downtown eatery that has lasted the longest.
“Us old timers get forgotten a bit amongst the new and shiny,” Boggs said, offering a different perspective on downtown. “Knoxville’s evolution has been incremental.”
She gave a nod to Capps – “the shows were attended just as well before (the theatres’) renovations as they are today. I saw some great stuff.” – as well as Kevin Bradley’s Yee-Haw Industries.
“When there was only a wig shop on Gay Street and before the first brewery, Kevin was printing ‘Art for the People’ and was a huge draw for downtown. … I used to go to Annie’s for the jazz and Ella Guru’s for killer shows,” Boggs said.
“They were still rendering beef and pork at the Lay’s plant and roasting coffee at JFG. After 2 a.m., it got to smelling pretty funky. Manhattan’s was a great place for fun, food and friends. I am so lucky to have been here for all that. I’m proud to be old Knoxville. I loved it when it was edgy and empty.”
I still have and wear a full-length camel coat my grandmother bought me at Watson’s in 1987. Downtown Knoxville’s heartbeat was always there. It’s just louder now.
Enjoy these photos of downtown: