The largest tent city in East Tennessee is gone — again.
Nicknamed the “Blackstock Camp” by authorities but known as “Under the Bridge” to its residents, the strip of land beneath the Interstate 40 overpass just northwest of downtown Knoxville has been home to an on-again, off-again community ranging in size from a few dozen to a few hundred in recent years.
As of Saturday, however, little remained of the many tents, boxes and various pieces of urban flotsam from which the occupants had fashioned their shelters. Black smudges of hard-packed ashes and dirt marked the former beds of cooking fires. Countless scraps of clothing, most of which looked as though they’d been fed through a giant paper shredder, lay in uneven piles or hung from the barbed wire crown that runs atop the chain-link fence that surrounds the property.
To many Knoxvillians, the camp was synonymous with squalor, crime and failed social policy. To others, it was yet another example of the inherent cruelty of capitalism and a reminder of the moral debt owed to the poorest of the poor — especially those too ill or weak to help themselves.
To still others, the camp was…well, not exactly a home, but nonetheless a space that had come to hold some kind of meaning through the immense pain it had witnessed. They protested vigorously every time the City sent bulldozers and cops to raze the latest iteration of suffering and demanded to know where those who were displaced were supposed to go.
To those occupying positions of power and responsibility, the Blackstock Camp was a reminder that sometimes there are no good choices.
The tent city existed in a sort of legal limbo until it no longer existed at all. Citing threats to public health and concerns about crime, the City spent last week excising the Blackstock Camp like a tumor.
It’s unclear whether substantial numbers of the campers went across the street to the Knox Area Rescue Ministries (KARM) or other nearby social services agencies to get help, which is what City officials fervently want to see happen.
In the short-term, however, it seemed clear that many former Blackstock campers simply scattered to other parts of town. They trudged down Broadway and Fifth Avenue singly or in pairs, and when questioned they angrily demanded to know what they’d done wrong.
Many simply hiked further along Second Creek before staking out a new plot of ground. Some went south or west, often following the major roads or railroad tracks. Others went north, where they sometimes found themselves fighting for space with already established campers.
In a strip of woods near the Broadway intersection with Knox Road in Fountain City, a trio of campers had seemingly achieved a state of equilibrium with their neighbors over the past few months. But that state of affairs was shattered last week by the arrival of at least two parties of refugees from downtown who seemed to have little interest in camouflage or living quietly, and that doesn’t even include the young man without so much as a blanket who started sleeping behind the dumpster of a nearby fast food restaurant.
The cops have showed up repeatedly since then, the established squatters claim, and they’ve now been given notice to clear out before the bulldozers arrive. They say they’ve got nowhere else to go as they reluctantly begin the process of breaking down their tent and counting the bus passes a social worker gave them days earlier.
Back at the site of the Blackstock Camp, a middle-aged woman who insists on being called “Kat with a ‘K’” limps along Cooper Street. She uses a golf club as a cane as she holds forth on the missing rows of tents and shanty houses.
Kat describes herself as a formerly middle class transplant from a rural town in West Tennessee. On the one hand, she says, no one in their right mind will mourn the community “under the bridge” if it never returns. Still, she continues, being treated like a pest rather than a human being is, in its own way, as miserable as sleeping on the ground when it’s freezing cold.
“I’m surprised you haven’t seen riots, displacing this many people, many of them addicts,” Kat says just before taking a swig from a can of beer. “I know, I’m no better than they are. But I don’t get why they can’t just let us stay here. Put down some slots or booths or something. Anything.”
J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at email@example.com.
Published on May 9, 2022.