Thursday, February 12, 2009

Identity crisis?

B's post from yesterday got me to thinking about a topic which I've thought much on before but not come to many conclusions: What is Knoxville's identity?

The smaller mid-sized cities in this country seem to do best for themselves when they project a strong and mostly positive image. Think of Asheville. Austin, Texas. Savannah. Boulder, Colo.

Growing up in Memphis, I always thought of Knoxville as that city where UT is and nothing more, and I don't think I'm alone in that thought. As a student at UT, I thought of Knoxville as a city full of rednecks. That was partially my fault for not giving it much of a chance, but I don't think I'm alone in that thought either.

This is roughly my one-year anniversary of returning to Knoxville after a 3 1/2-year absence, and Knoxville certainly doesn't hold those same identities in my mind. Sure, there's still UT and rednecks, but I've come to love how the city embraces its local music scene. There's a funky, progressive edge thanks to things like the Big Ears festival. There's a love for the outdoors (though for the record, I don't think Knoxville does a good job of embracing the Smokies ... it seems like that's left to Pigeon Forge/G-burg).

Remember when the NY Times said the locals call Knoxville "The Couch"? Yeah, I'd never heard that moniker for Knoxville in my life, but I can see now why it works. People seem to come to Knoxville never intending to stay, but then they never leave.

So I'm curious what everyone else thinks. What is Knoxville's identity? What do you think Knoxville wants its identity to be? What should it be? Is it even important that Knoxville has a strong, dominating identity? Why is The Modern Gal asking so many questions? ... Ok, you can skip that last one.


Anonymous said...

First of all, if you're taking votes, I'm for "Cyberdelic bullet aimed point-blank at the heart of the future."

Sadly, I don't think this is a majority viewpoint. As a carpetbagger, new in K-town, it seems like a common sentiment is "Good place to raise kids," a story of decent, hardworking folk escaping the Babylonian decadence of the metropoli. This is also how my friends from Morristown talk about their choice to live there, except in their case Babylon is Knoxville, and only in Morristown can good-honest-people afford to live and teach their offspring to live the path of the good-honest-people.

So (for emegrees, anyhow) Knoxville is the Morristown of Philadelphia/DC/Nashville/Whathaveyou. Smaller, cleaner, cheaper, decent-er. Sigh.

(This said, I'm totally open to "Capital of the techno-trancendental revolution", if we can get Jack Neely on board :)

Anonymous said...

I think youre right, that Knoxville doesn't do as good a job as it should aligning itself with the Smoky Mountains. That's how I think of it, though; and that's how I sell it to friends and family members who ask about where I live. That's the draw for me, anyway. No, it's not a Mountain town, but it's a town in the valley of the Smokies, and that's what makes it home to me.

If it makes you feel any better, I am a yankee who had NO IDEA what BIG ORANGE country was before I moved down here. Sure, I knew UT had a football team, but I didn't know it was this crazy. So for me, Knoxville was never a University or a College Town. In fact, I don't think that Knoxville does a very good job of being a University town. (Case in point: our pathetic strip with mostly chain restaurants and NO individuality whatsoever). It probably does a very good job at being a football town, but I dont care much about that.

Anonymous said...

That first anonymous makes us other anonymouses seem a little ridiculous. Nevertheless, I think he/she was on to something. Knoxville is the perfect city for those of us who are constantly torn between the luxuries of city life and the desire to live on a farm, growing our own food, and tending to animals. With the Farmer's Market, Beardsley Farm, and the Smokies adjacent to a multitude of stores, yummy restaurants, fancy condos, charming neighborhoods, and diverse music venues Knoxvillians literally have access to the best of both worlds.

B said...

a friend of mine once said Knoxville is a good secret-affordable and progressive with lots of free and entertaining things to do, small town feel with a rapidly developing downtown, all this if you get past thinking of it as only a football town and you get off campus.
i don't know how many people would agree with that, but i liked it.

Anonymous said...

I'll throw in that I'm not sure I would consider Knoxville progressive. At all. I'm from Ann Arbor, but still... we're way behind on a LOT of issues.

B said...

of course. in some ways, but definitely not all.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Em. Knoxville does have many good qualities but being progressive is not one of them.

Anonymous said...

I moved to Knoxville in August with my fiance and was very excited in the beginning. The idea of a new, smaller city was exciting to the two of us (We're from D.C. and ATL). However, we're finding that Knoxville is backwards. I envisioned Knoxville as this vibrant, young, clean, little town nestled near in the Smokies, but really I feel like it's old, rundown, and very dirty. It's also NOT a progressive area. The fact that I heard people angry that we had a new BLACK president made me sick. So what would I call it? A Redneck's backyard.

Robert said...

one thing that's encouraging reading these comments (and i would agree with our consensus - especially that of our last "Anon") at least there's a dialogue among us about what the problem is and, while we haven't gone this far in conversation yet - how to make it better?

Anonymous said...

Simply a Knox-wide clean-up day would help the amount of trash in this town. Also, why are there so many unused buildings in this town? Chapman highway's Bob Monday needs to get it together. The buildings are an eyesore for one, but would make great businesses if they were renovated. I love that the downtown is slowly being renovated. Knoxville should use what they have! Also, and this may be my big-city attitude coming out, but what's up with the recycling? I've never had to drive anywhere to recycle. I'm sure the county's landfill would love if apartment's offered recycling! I think more people would do it. Also- don't forget bike lanes! More bike lanes!

B said...

i probably don't define progressive correctly. what are examples of progressive cities and what makes them that way?

the only other city i really know is memphis. crime is better here than there, that's for damn sure.

i would love to see recycling more encouraged. i would love not to have to drive that stuff to kroger.

(good convo, by the way)

The Modern Gal said...

Yes, I love the convo! This is just what I was hoping for.

I consider progressive to be a relative concept. Compared to, say, Portland, of course Knoxville is the opposite of progressive. And I certainly don't think it's a defining characteristic of the city, but compared to a few places around the South, I think it shows glimpses of being progressive.

Anonymous said...

Knoxville is comfortable to me. It's a city in transition from scruffy to cool. The direction is artsy and edgy. It is happening already but slowly. My friends from NY think the art here is excellent. They say Knoxville is "still real". I appreciate being in a college town. I like the mountains, rivers, and farmland. I like the smiles that greet you, even when some are only the Christian thing to do. Sure it has a little too much Jesus and not enough diversity, but hey! Where else can you get a cute little 2 bdrm cottage with a 225 foot back yard with established trees within bicycling distance of downtown for under $50,000? Coming from New England. I am grateful to find a place like Knoxville. I've even begun to root for the Vols. Many townies complain about the place and many newcomers feel disappointed, but I am a Knoxville booster. I love this place. I believe all the things people wish were happening here will happen and maybe more even. Whatever things we want folks, it is up to us to make them happen.

cmp said...

To me, Knoxville is an affordable, comfortable place to live in a central location...within striking distance to almost anything that it may seemingly not provide...less than 4 hours in any direction from things considered bigger or more "progressive". Not to mention the proximity to wilderness areas/recreation in any direction. The size may be relatively small, but that is an asset, IMO.

As far as the "progressive" argument. ANY town is what you make of it. there are indeed rednecks all over the world...not just in the south.

If you want a more progressive city then get to work.

B said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

knoxville is a no frills couch that's not much to look at but has a built in cup holder. not a piece of furniture you like to show off, but it has affordability and comfort going for it.

progressive? hahahahahhhhahahah

Anonymous said...

Just a quick "Hell Yeah" to cmp's

"If you want a more progressive city then get to work."

Right on!

Tere said...

I have lived all over the US and have also lived in two countries overseas and these are a few things of which I am sure:

Rednecks are not indigenous to the South.

Racism is everywhere as are small minded people.

You will always find people that will complain and rarely find people that are willing to do something.

Progressive is a relative term.

I have lived in Knoxville for 11 years and pretty much love it both for what it is and for what it is not. We can always make it better, any city has room for improvement. If you are looking for the perfect place to live, I am not sure where you will find it. I love Market Square and the Old City. I love that we have more restaurants per capita than New York City. I love that I saw a riding lawnmower painted with an orange and white checkerboard. I love that I am 30 minutes from some of the most beautiful mountains in the world.

But then again, I AM a glass half full kinda girl.

Anonymous said...

Knoxville has the potential to be one of the nicest communities. It means that we have to get to know our neighbors, and work together as a community to make it better.

Knoxville regularly has cleanups, and people can have their own. There is a cleanup on February 28 with nine locations.

We need to be more proactive and less reactive. How many times do you pick up a piece of litter off the ground? Do you think that planting flowers and adding beauty would deter littering? People feel safer in cleaner areas.

As a community, we need to focus on the wonderful things that this area has to offer and to work together to overcome the obstacles. It should not be the job of government to pick up after us or to make all the improvements. We should be working towards it.

Bridal Magic said...

I come from a small West Texas town, so Knoxville was really a step up for me. Although, about 3 years ago I turned my nose up because for all I knew, it was a place north of Texas and cold. (Yes, temperature is a big deciding factor for me.) Both of those statement are true, but it's so much more than I imagined! There's plenty to do and the landscape is beautiful.

I'm still not sure why people say Knoxville is run down and dirty. Certain parts of it, yes. But isn't that anywhere you go?

Anonymous said...

"I love that we have more restaurants per capita than New York City"

I'd enjoy seeing factual documents to back that claim up.

Anonymous said...

After a recent move to the NoBro (N. Broadway) area I've been pondering Knoxville's identity. It seems to me that Knoxville is largely a working-class urban Appalachian town.

The truest expression of Knoxville's character is not found in West Knoxville or even downtown for that matter. These areas are (generally speaking) too polished and scrubbed of Knoxville's regional identity. Yes, there are pockets here and there even in these homogenized areas.

Knoxville is indeed a scruffy city. That's what makes it endearing to me. That there are still parts of town that haven't been scrubbed entirely of it's blue-collar, urban hillbilly identity. There is a palpable vitality and poetry to these parts of Knoxville. It's no surprise that Agee and McCarthy spent impressionable years here. The creative spark that inspired these two writers & others still thrives here today.

After moving away from Knoxville for several years, that was one aspect that surprised me about this city; how incredible the pool of creativity is for a city it's size. Wow.

I think this aspect of Knoxville's identity is a drawing point and can be capitalized upon. Ashley Capps did just that with the recent (and I hear inspiring) Big Ears Festival.

I've blabbed on too long. In short....

Knoxville is a scruffy, working-class urban hillbilly poet/artist.