When people think about downtown’s renaissance, most probably think of the past decade. A tremendous amount of work has happened both on Market Square and Gay Street in the past 10 years. But one of downtown’s districts has been fighting more than twice that long to revitalize itself. Even as much of the center city lay dormant, the Old City has struggled to reinvent itself since Annie Delisle opened the doors to her small restaurant there over 30 years ago.
For a new generation of Knoxvillians, many of the Old City’s current businesses have become popular destinations. Some may even seem like institutions. But nearly all have a late 20th century revitalization heritage. The Melting Pot, a perennial favorite for anniversaries and promsters, was once the venerable Ella Guru, Ashley Capps’ legendary music venue. Barley’s, one of the Old City’s most visible stalwarts (from James White Parkway, anyway), began its life as a restaurant in the form of the Spaghetti Factory. And the Urban Bar and Corner Cafe, with perhaps the most attractive patio in downtown, did a stint as the new location of Hewgley’s Music prior to its initial conversion to a restaurant as BW3. All of those are examples of the reincarnation that has been ongoing since the old bowery buildings were first rehabilitated.
But the district to which downtown can fix its seminal resurgence, and still serves as a lively entertainment destination, has been largely overshadowed over the past decade. Some would say even longer. While it’s possible you might not recognize the 500 block of Gay Street, or even parts of Market Square from a decade ago, the intersection of Jackson and Gay has remained remarkably familiar despite its evolution.
With downtown’s development trajectory showing its strongest push north along the Central corridor toward Happy Holler, the Old City is poised to become the front door for many visitors coming downtown. Over the next few years, the Jackson Avenue ramps that lead down from the revitalized 100 Block of Gay to the Old City are slated for a major revamp, along with a new stretch of greenway that will form a more direct connection with the World’s Fair Park. Yet even with the numerous plans from the city, as well as residential development now crossing the railroad tracks with the addition of apartments in the former White Lily Factory and proposed residences at the old Knoxville High School location, the Old City doesn’t get the attention that Market Square and Gay Street seem to garner.
I won’t say it’s a snub, exactly. But the powers that be have been giving the Old City short shrift for a while. One of the most glaring examples has been signage intended to direct people into the district. For several years now, the one at the exit from Neyland Drive onto Hall of Fame has (un)helpfully directed people looking for the Old City to turn right toward the river, and the opposite direction from its target. It’s part of a wave of directional signage that went up years back, most of which seemed to have been created and installed by someone who had no familiarity with downtown Knoxville at all.
Rumors persist that the city is working on a brand new set of signs as a part of a long-anticipated wayfinding project. But over the now several years that the project has had its fits and starts, a legacy of misdirection has remained. What’s worse is that even new signage that has gone up in the meantime does little to help visitors find their way to the Jackson and Central. For example, new bicycle route signs, installed at Fourth Avenue and Central point riders headed downtown through Emory Place to Gay Street, but make no mention of the Old City only a few blocks down Central. If you’re on foot downtown, you won’t find much in the way of cues to its whereabouts either. Maybe (maybe) the Old City will get its due with the new signage. But I’ll believe it when I see it.
Perhaps the biggest omission—the most-needed piece of the puzzle to connect the Old City with the downtown’s revitalized core—is trolley service. Though it was briefly the termination of the now defunct Orange Line, not one trolley runs on Central these days. Downtown needs to institute an evening line that can connect all of its pieces and make a commitment to the businesses of the Old City. A visit to a downtown as small as Knoxville’s shouldn’t be a choice between visiting one district or another. Too many visitors never find their way to Jackson and Central and that needs to be remedied.
It’s time to shift the enthusiasm that was evident during the most recent revival back to the area that never gave up on downtown, and show the Old City some long-overdue love.