Old City’s unique past remembered

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Patrick Sullivan’s Saloon in the 1970s. Source: Library of Congress

Once upon a time, it was the part of town that most Knoxvillians had forgotten about, if they knew about it at all.

These days, of course, the few blocks around Central Street and Jackson Avenue are the place to take out-of-town friends if you feel insecure about Knoxville’s nightlife. It’s collection of neon-drenched bars, boutique retailers and live music venues may seem like a hundred similar neighborhoods in a hundred similar cities, but trust us — that feeling is illusory. 

The Old City is its own unique place and, in some ways, it always has been. If its railroad tracks and warehouses were once Knoxville’s beating heart, then the Bowery was its churning gut. Generations of Knoxville’s working men and women earned and spent their livelihoods on these streets, until the twin scourges of prohibition and apathy turned this vibrant enclave into yet another urban wasteland. At least, until a few entrepreneurs and architects decided the collection of run-down buildings could be a goldmine for those with the vision (and bank accounts) to make it happen. 

In today’s Hard Knox Histories, beloved local scribe Jack Neely and HKW editor J.J. Stambaugh take on the Old City’s storied background, starting with the area’s exceedingly humble beginnings as, well, a swamp.

J.J. Stambaugh: Well, our first question this week isn’t about the Old City itself but rather the land it’s built upon. My understanding is that many parts of the downtown area have been developed for a much longer period than the area dubbed the “Old City.” In the first decades of Knoxville’s existence, the area just north of the city was supposedly a floodplain for First Creek, and nothing much was built there except water-powered industries such as mills and, perhaps, a fishing pond. Is this accurate? When and why was the area first drained?

Jack Neely: You’re right about that. The oldest part of the city was near the river, and up on the bluff, high and dry. The first few generations of Knoxvillians knew the Old City area as a marshy wetland, almost like a bit of Louisiana down the hill from town, a Sportsman’s Paradise. It was called the Flag Pond, I think because it was noted for flag irises. Some of it was natural, but some of it was formed by mill dams; there’s one early description of a mill pond along First Creek claiming it was a mile long. 

Although it also had a reputation as a fetid swamp that bred mosquitoes and disease, it drew fishermen and hunters, and many of them regretted the effort to fill it in. It happened mainly because the railroads came through there in the 1850s. Despite the problems with filling in the swamps, that was apparently logistically easier than building trestles to take trains uphill to the original part of town. They built the train tracks successfully, the first ones completed in 1855. But swamp didn’t fill in right away; every time they thought it was finished and dry, the swamp would reappear. That kept happening, in one spot or another, for more than 50 years. And of course during the Civil War, the Union Army flooded it deliberately to prevent a Confederate attack from the north. 

J.J.: When was it first developed as more than the location of water-based industries?

Jack: One of the first was the Burr and Terry Sawmill, run by a couple of guys from Connecticut. They opened their big plant, which covered about half of the modern Old City, just after the Civil War and produced mostly architectural lumber, and did very well, at a time that Knoxville was growing rapidly. I bet a lot of Mechanicsville and the early homes of North Knoxville were built of Burr & Terry products.

Looking along West Jackson from Central, 1913. Source: McClung Historical Collection.

J.J.: How did the birth of railroads impact the growth of that part of town?

Jack: The railroads were everything, the whole reason people started building big buildings down here. Both for freight, to ship stuff out, like marble, lumber products, flour, and machinery produced in Knoxville, and to receive products to sell here, like sugar and coffee and glassware, all sorts of things. And the passenger station affected things differently, by creating a motive to serve passengers, with hotels and saloons and restaurants and brothels. I think 100 percent of the buildings in the Old City area—with the possible exception of the old Peabody School, now the Democratic Party headquarters—originally had something to do with the railroad. 

J.J.: In the opening pages of your book on the Old City, you take pains to explain the area wasn’t viewed as a discrete neighborhood until relatively recently. Instead, sections of several neighborhoods came together in this part of town. What were some of those early communities? What did they call themselves?

Jack: Jackson Avenue was mainly a big wholesale warehouse district, visited daily by shopkeepers and buyers from across the region buying inventory for their stores. It had some micro districts, like a de-facto meatpacking district on East Jackson, where there were at least three big meatpackers at work near the stockyard, and a sort of garment district on the first couple of blocks of West Jackson, where everything was about clothes, hats, suits, and shoes. You could consider that part of the general Railroad District, which included Depot Street.  

But Central was a different thing altogether, there mainly to serve the random and mostly male customer, with saloons, drugstores, restaurants, groceries, whorehouses, and later little cinemas; it was known as the Bowery. The area to the east of the Old City was called Cripple Creek, a name also applied to the creek itself. It was cheap land, and known as an African American residential area, with some businesses and churches mixed in. 

A certain area on the west side was called Gunter’s Flats, though that term is used inconsistently, it often refers to the area between Central and Gay. Old Irish Town was mainly on the north side of the modern Old City, and you could say that Patrick Sullivan’s saloon was its southernmost tip. It was also sort of the northwestern corner of old corporate East Knoxville, which had its own mayor until it was incorporated into the city in 1868. 

J.J.: When did part of the area become known as the Bowery and why? What were the Bowery’s approximate geographic limits, and who lived and worked there?

Jack: The Bowery came into use around 1880, inspired by what was considered a similar neighborhood of the same name in New York, to describe basically the areas where First Creek and South Central ran alongside each other, a mostly shabby and overcrowded strip that was known for its saloons, gambling joints, and whorehouses. At one time I believe there were 30-40 saloons on that one street, on the half-mile between the river and the railroad. It also hosted the sort of drugstore where you could buy morphine and cocaine without a prescription, and some rather extravagant whorehouses, some of which included poolhalls and even vaudeville shows. 

JFG Coffee Company, 100 block of E. Jackson, circa 1920s. Source: KHP Post Sign Company Collection.

It was a cheap area, partly because it flooded frequently. The people who lived there, and who weren’t actually profiting off its economy, were mostly people who couldn’t afford to live elsewhere. It was noisy at night, and murders were common. But it offered an entry to the city for the penniless, including racial and ethnic minorities, especially immigrants. The Ochs family, who produced the future publisher of the New York Times, lived on the Bowery for a few years. Some of our first Chinese-owned laundries were on the Bowery. It’s interesting that English reformer Rev. Robert Bateman chose the Bowery as the location of his mission. He’s the guy who later died on the Titanic. 

J.J.: Was the Bowery’s reputation perhaps exaggerated in popular lore, or was it every bit as rough as its reputation suggested?

Jack: My research for the book, which included lots of anecdotal news stories and three or four detailed firsthand accounts, like that of Rev. Henry Spencer Booth, made me even more impressed with the Bowery’s reputation than I ever was before. 

It was a dangerous place. Murder was so common that bodies sometimes remained in place for hours before they were investigated and removed. People stepped around them. Police wouldn’t patrol the Bowery unless they went in twos. But the first time two policemen were killed in one night, in early 1908, it was on the Bowery. And that’s not even the time when the outlaw Kid Curry shot two other cops, also on the Bowery, back in 1901. 

But it didn’t very much affect other things that were close by. Jackson Avenue, for example, was mainly a daytime place for well-dressed businessmen and even ladies. The private Hampden-Sydney School was an exclusive private school for white boys whose parents could afford it, but it was hardly a block from the Bowery. 

J.J.: What did the area look like at the turn of the 20th century?

Jack: Around 1900, the Old City proper looked pretty good, actually. Most of the buildings were brick and less than 12 years old, because most of the building started when Burr and Terry closed around 1887. Some of the buildings on Jackson were among the most expensive commercial buildings in town, with lots of detail and ornamentation—even if many of the businesses who built them had closed during the Panic of 1893. 

People went down to Jackson to catch the Magnolia streetcar. There were lots of saloons, but Sullivan’s, the biggest saloon in the area, was considered a pretty friendly and safe place to be. Remarkably, Sullivan was notable in his time for welcoming everybody, regardless of race or gender. (Most of the worst of “the Bowery” was to the south of Commerce, and the worst of it was probably down near Clinch and Church.) 

It was busy, because the wholesale houses of Jackson were busy, and there were dozens of trains arriving at the Southern station every day, so chances are many of the people you’d see on a typical day in 1900 would be strangers new to town, looking for business or fun or trouble. You’d also see resident immigrants, including Irish saloonkeepers, Russian Jewish merchants, a few Greek sandwich makers, a few Italian confectioners. I’d be willing to bet that most of the merchants who were established on the 100 block of South Central in 1900 were from other countries.

Looking east from Southern Railway line, just west of the Gay Street viaduct, circa 1920s. Source: McClung Historical Collection.

One thing you might see that you didn’t expect to see was one of Cowan Rodgers cobbled-together automobiles. He built Knoxville’s first cars in the Biddle bike shop, where he worked. It was on East Vine, just on the east side of the creek. There were a lot of middle-class people who had business down there in the daytime, but probably didn’t venture there at night. 

There’s a wonderful description of the neighborhood, called “A Night on the Bowery,” published in July, 1900.  I quote it a lot in the book, but I strongly recommend it. I believe it’s still online somewhere. If not, it’s at the McClung Collection. (Editor’s note: The article referred to by Jack can be found at https://www.knoxlib.org/about/news-and-publications/podcasts/historic-knoxville-news-podcast/night-bowery)

J.J.: The area known now as the Old City is remembered as once being the location of several thriving ethnic communities. What happened to them?

Jack: Most of them just quietly faded away, I’m afraid. They intermarried with locals, or prospered and moved to freestanding houses with yards in the suburbs. The Jewish community has to some extent kept its culture and stories of that area. Harold Shersky, the son of a Russian immigrant who was born on East Vine, operated his locally famous deli on the 100 block of Gay until just about 15 years ago. Sicilian Frank Provenza’s sandwich place was still open on South Central in the 1980s. 

There’s evidence there was still some awareness of old Irish Town into the 1940s, and one Irish bar, Jim Long’s, which was at the southwest corner of Central and Depot, which astonishingly remained open until 1975. The last barkeep, son in law of the Irishman who opened it, was pretty elderly by then. It was torn down for a parking lot. Modern Regas Square, just down the block from there, is a legacy of the Greek community who first thrived just around the corner on South Central 120 years ago.

J.J.: How did urban renewal affect the area known as the Old City?

Jack: In short, it starved it. By the 1950s, several of the businesses on Central, the secondhand shops and clothing stores, were catering mainly to a Black clientele, customers who lived within walking distance, in the old Bottom area or along East Vine. Urban Renewal moved them all farther away. But it also allowed some businesses, like Lay’s, to expand. They were a big employer down there, with a few hundred workers for several decades–but by then, most of them had cars and just drove home after work, so that probably didn’t help the old neighborhood much. 

J.J.: For the first half of my life, the Old City was largely empty of businesses and residents — or at least that’s how it seemed at times to my friends and I. As I recall, until the early ‘90s the area had some cheap apartments, a handful of restaurants, a few dusty storefronts, a cool club or two, and that was about it. It was, in fact, one of only a handful of genuinely rough neighborhoods in town, almost an unofficial red light district once you hit Magnolia. It also included one particularly cutthroat bar next to the bus station that was finally closed down after one too many corpses were found nearby. What happened that caused the area to become so desolate and how long was it — for lack of a better term — abandoned? 

Jack: If you’re being literal about that estimate, you’re older than you look. There have been attempts to reoccupy the Old City for more than 40 years, and by 1983 or so, it was becoming obvious.

But I know what you mean. Most of the buildings down there were indeed abandoned, and some of them had a presence on the ground floor but lots of empty square footage on the floors above. Some of them were used just for storage, in some cases storage of pretty junky looking stuff you might think the owner was trying to forget.

Looking east on W. Jackson in the 1970s. Source: KHP Ros Mol Collection.

Several things happened to undermine the complex Jackson / Central business model of 1900. Pretty much everything fell apart in the 20th century. First, the banning of saloons in 1907 immediately closed a lot of local businesses and made the whole area less obviously fun. Suburbanization was already in play by then, as second-generation immigrants followed the lure of the private house and yard in new developments in Park City, North Knoxville (Old North and Fourth and Gill), etc. That was happening even before cars were common. People kept shopping, but did so at the corner grocery rather than downtown. And they kept drinking, but were now dealing with surreptitious bootleggers, not Irish saloonkeepers. (But then, when beer was re-legalized here in 1933, that was a shot in the arm to several Old City businesses.) After decades of bland tolerance, law enforcement cracked down more on both gambling and prostitution, so that slowly became less obvious as part of what made downtown lively at night.

Then the decline of universal rail travel, which had begun in the ‘20s but was becoming more obvious by 1950 or so, reduced the number of newcomers afoot in downtown Knoxville every day and night. And the old railroad freightyard handshake wholesale model for distributing goods was fading away as big trucks supplied big box stores and suburban retail centers. And most industries, like packing houses, began to move to the fringes of cities. In some ways, it’s remarkable that the Old City kept two large manufacturers—JFG and White Lily—into the 21st century. But then JFG moved a few miles west, and White Lily moved out of state.

Why the neighborhood died was not just because everything changed, but because we didn’t adapt, and think of other things to do with those buildings—until the last 40 years or so.

J.J.: Of course, the Old City today is a thriving neighborhood full of shops, bars, eateries and apartments. You personally witnessed the transition. Who were the most instrumental persons responsible for turning the area around and how did they do it? 

Jack: Yes, I didn’t know the principals well, but I met some of them. For most of the year 1984, I worked for a magazine based down there, with our office in what would later become the bar part of Annie’s / Lucille’s, and I found the neighborhood melancholy but very interesting. The White Lily and JFG factories were still humming, and the place smelled like roasting coffee. Big Don’s was still there, both the secondhand shop and the Costumery, Frank Provenza’s was still barely open, mainly a place for old guys to hang out. And Walter’s Tri-State Barber Shop and junk store was there. He’d been there at least since the ‘50s.  

The leaders of the revival would include Kristopher Kendrick, of course, to begin with. A Bearden hairdresser and restaurateur who became a developer with a sometimes unrealistic romantic sense. He named the Old City, for better or worse, on a suggestion from Pat Roddy, whose Coca-Cola plant was not far away, over on Morgan Street. He didn’t realize many of his dreams, but his dreams were so big that they moved reality a little bit.

West Jackson Avenue. Source: KHP

Annie DeLisle, of course. This beautiful, dark-eyed, British dancer-chef who had opened her place the year before, and was causing a stir. Her energy and magnetic personality made the crazy idea of a continental restaurant in an old coal store by the train tracks somehow work.

Odd crumbling buildings attracted architects who liked a challenge: Gene Burr, the architect-developer who’s still around, did quite a lot in the early days to make it seem viable. Another architect, Ron Childress, had an effect in raising the Old City’s profile, even though he didn’t live to see it happen. He died at age 34, just a few months before Annie’s opened.

A young architect named Peter Calandruccio and contractor/developer Benny Curl, who were innovative in their approach to old buildings nobody wanted, and making them fun again. Gloria Neel, who was among that early cadre of developers. Frank Gardner, who was a chef and restaurateur who also knew something about secondhand antiques, found several roles there. Frank Snowden, who ran Manhattan’s and some of the other early businesses, with an emphasis on live music. We should mention Ashley Capps, whose Ella Guru’s lasted only a couple of years but set a new bar for live nightclub music in Knoxville. Even former Mayor Kyle Testerman, who’d never been much of a preservationist before, got involved…. 

It’s hard to know when to stop. Several others took a chance on it, and succeeded or failed, but in doing so raised the profile of the place. In researching you can’t help but notice that many of the early mavericks of the Old City didn’t stick around for more than a few years, and I don’t know what that means.

But one thing that came through in my research was the importance of an organization then called Knoxville Heritage, which was founded to save and restore the Bijou Theatre in 1974, and did a good job with that. Then, in 1974, they looked around for other local things to work on, and began promoting the Old City, this part of town most Knoxvillians had forgotten about, if they knew about it at all.

Editors noteThat wraps up today’s Hard Knox Histories, a bi-weekly collaboration between the Knoxville History Project and Hard Knox Wire. If you found today’s installment to be even a little interesting, you really need to check out Jack’s book, Knoxville’s Old City: A Short History, which was published in 2019. It’s a great read, lavishly illustrated, and available through the Knoxville History Project’s website as well as select local booksellers.

Jack Neely can be reached at news@hardknoxwire.com

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com

Published on September 24, 2021.