Often underused and underdeveloped, Knoxville's parks could soon see better days
by Val Pendergrast
The view is spectacular from the Ridge, even on a hazy Sunday afternoon. Perched atop one of the highest peaks around, Sharp's Ridge Park overlooks the city, offering visitors a panorama that extends beyond downtown to the blue-gray outline of the Smokies.
But the park is oddly devoid of a park-like atmosphere. A lone woman strolls down the hill, glancing over her shoulder nervously, a huge German Shepherd loping along at her side. A red-roofed pavilion sits among overgrown weeds, looking neglected and forlorn. Single adult men cruise up and down the ridge road in their cars, obviously seeking something more than a glimpse of scenic skyline. The park's beauty is marred by a proliferation of radio antennas that jut skyward.
What could be a glittering diamond of a park more closely resembles a lump of coal. In a word, Sharp's Ridge Park is creepy.
It's understandable that Sharp's Ridge is virtually deserted on a summer afternoon--its reputation as a place of sexual trysts is notorious--but an excursion to Lakeshore Park yields similar results. Parks are for people and people are for parks. So where are they?
A passing comment from a non-native Knoxvillian sheds some light on Knoxville's park problem. When asked what he thinks of Knoxville's parks, Mike Verzosa retorts, "Knoxville has parks?"
Sure, we have parks--more than 100 inside the city limits if you're counting the ones currently under construction--and our park land-to-residents ratio (city and county combined) has grown from a paltry one acre per 1,000 residents in the 1930s to a much healthier one acre per 119 residents in the 1990s. It's clear the city's been making progress. But something is still missing.
What makes for a good park? It all depends on what you're looking for. If your idea of a park is an acre of land with a couple of trees and a picnic table, most of Knoxville's parks fit the bill. But if you're yearning for 300 acres of open, comfortable green space, or even half that, you'll have to look elsewhere for now.
The concept of passive green space is one that's been explored and exploited in cities throughout the States. New York City's Central Park, Atlanta's Piedmont Park and Nashville's Centennial Park are excellent examples of park design that encourages unlimited activity. These parks offer equal-opportunity recreation. Grandmothers in wheelchairs are as welcome as teenagers on roller blades; power-walkers make room for baby strollers; old men play chess under shady trees as matrons walk their poodles and young lovers steal kisses. In these parks, a microcosm of society interacts and shares a sense of belonging--a sense of community.
Somewhere along the way, have Knoxvillians forgotten that there's more to recreation that physical fitness and team sports?
Parks and Recreation also provides recreational programs for lower-income kids in need of regulated summer activities in a safe, controlled environment. Anderson makes no bones about his opinion that as far as public recreation is concerned, Knoxville scores high.
"I don't think there's any question that our summer program for public recreation is far better than Chattanooga's or Memphis's or Atlanta's, or anybody else's," Anderson says. "Summer programs? We're the best anywhere. The city made a conscious decision to provide programs for kids who would not (otherwise) be able to have programs. That's what we're good at."
But Anderson admits that with recreation geared to a more diverse group with broader interests--what he calls "the glamorous things"--his department falls short. Nashville, for example, has a $12 million facility with ice-skating, bowling, and an Olympic-size pool, all in the recreation department. Operating on a limited budget--Knoxville's was just over $4.5 million this past year--the city opted to provide for a specific segment of the population. "We don't try to compete with Court South," he says.
Some would say Anderson is missing the point. No one expects city parks to compete with private facilities and few begrudge the money spent on lower-income kids. The complaint increasingly voiced is that orchestrated recreation is only part of what Knoxville residents want.
Bo Townsend, director of Ijam's Nature Center, speaks for many when he acknowledges the community's need for a wide-open, passive, public space.
"A community the size of Knoxville really needs a large passive park, and maybe not just one," Townsend says. "I think we need a park, or at least open space, of 500 acres or more, where people can go ride their bikes, walk, or take their families for an all-day outing."
There is at least one park in town that comes close to Townsend's ideal in spirit, if not in acreage. Tucked inside one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city and tended like a favorite child, Sequoyah Hills Park shines like an emerald in a 24-karat setting.
Snuggled against the Tennessee River, brimming with towering, well-tended trees, Sequoyah is 87 acres of prime park land. Flanked by rows of expensive houses on one side and an impressive view of Cherokee bluffs on the other, Sequoyah enjoys a popularity that no other park in the city can boast. Even without amenities--there are no restrooms, one water fountain, few benches or tables--its natural beauty entices visitors to walk the river path, toss a Frisbee, spread a blanket and bask in the sun, or fly a kite when the wind is up. If ever a park demanded appreciation and respect, Sequoyah is it.
But one 87-acre passive park is not enough for a city with a population of 170,000. Ball fields are fine for some, but others are looking for accessible, open green space suitable for a variety of activities. "If they'd just have one big park where you could do what you want--play flag football, volleyball ... just hang out in the grass," downtown merchant Jim Ray Cole says wistfully.
Sam Anderson estimates that 18,000 to 20,000 people visit city parks an average of three times per week. But on a Sunday afternoon in July, Lakeshore Park, one of the largest in Knoxville, and undoubtedly one with great potential, is all but empty. Anderson says it's the heat that keeps people away, but critics say it's something else.
Unquestionably, Lakeshore is on a beautiful piece of land, centrally located and easily accessible. But though the park provides exquisite views of the river that winds through the valley, the only visitors enjoying the sprawling hundred acres are walking or running along the track. The ball fields are empty, the parking lots nearly vacant.
Anderson says that during the season, Lakeshore ball fields are packed and brimming with activity. So why, on a sunny summer day, is the park virtually deserted?
"Well, it's a mental institution," says Nicole, out walking her Boston terrier on the two-and-a-half-mile paved track that circles the grounds. "People usually just come out to do their business and leave. It's not the kind of place people come to sit under a tree and read a book." A sad commentary on human nature, perhaps, but the sad fact is that mental illness makes people uneasy. As open and green as it is, unless you've a specific activity planned or a sport to play, Lakeshore doesn't invite you to linger.
A full two-thirds of Knoxville's parks are situated on pieces of land so small that communing can easily become crowding in a city our size.
Pocket-sized neighborhood parks can be charming, like the nooks and crannies in Victorian houses that add what architects and historians like to call character. Krutch Park, at the south end of Market Square, is a masterpiece in miniature and a delightful place for downtowners to eat lunch under the shade of a gazebo. But character can't compete with usable acreage when it comes to attracting a broad base of visitors. And underuse frequently leads to disrepair and disrepute.
"Drunks and degenerates. That's all I've ever seen there," says Jim Ray.
Fort Dickerson has potential. But it won't be realized without money, dynamite, and a massive public relations campaign to work on its image. An historic Civil war site, in recent years the Fort has developed a history of a different kind: a place for homosexual trysts and drug deals, and a camping site for the homeless and miscreant teens.
At the back of the quarry is a weed-eroded road, blocked by concrete barricades and stamped with no trespassing signs that have largely been ignored. The barricades went up after a drunken man stumbled to the quarry's rim after dark and died from the fall into the turquoise basin. His death served as one more warning to the public that the park was unsafe. And once a park has developed a reputation for danger, little can be done to alter that image in the public mind.
The bike trail, part of Knoxville's expanding greenway system, is considered by many to be unsafe at any time of day. Sergeant Bobby Hubbs, supervisor for Crime Analysis at the Knoxville Police Department, says "the more (greenways) they build, the more calls we get."
"'Nineteen ninety-one. White male, six feet, 250 pounds, observed walking naked along the trail,'" Hubbs intones, reading from a list of bizarre incidents that have occurred along Third Creek. "'1991. Man on four-wheeler trying to run people down.'"
A jogger in his 70s was beaten pretty badly along Third Creek last year, and the now-infamous killers of Colleen Slemmer used the trail to get to the murder site on the UT Agricultural Campus. But despite a perception that Knoxville's parks and greenways are scary and dangerous, statistics indicate otherwise.
As research for his doctoral thesis, Sean Michael, a student in the Virginia Tech Department of Forestry, studied crime statistics in a half dozen cities in the Eastern U.S. and found Knoxville's parks to be safer than most. Michael looked at park crime in Indianapolis, Kansas City, Nashville, Savannah, Atlanta and Washington D.C., and rated Knoxville low on the crime list.
"I would have to place Knoxville further down on the list in terms of number and severity of offenses," he says. An accounting of crime in Knoxville's parks shows 26 offenses ranging from rape (2) to aggravated assault (16) with a smattering of firearm violations and thefts, committed over a 16-month period from May 1994 to August 1995. That adds up to 1.6 offenses per month. For a city with more than 169,000 residents, that's considered small-time crime.
Ijams Nature Center's name implies nothing about its status as a public park. That's unfortunate, because this jewel of a park offers patrons the opportunity to commune with nature in a setting found nowhere else in town. Technically a city park--the city owns the land--Ijams is operated by a private, non-profit team that does an exemplary job of managing the peacefully serene wooded acreage.
Located behind the Island Home community across the Gay Street Bridge in South Knoxville, Ijams is an educational facility as well as 80 acres of riverside property hosting a mile of mulch-covered trails bordered by lush vegetation and sheltered by a canopy of trees. Additional trails are being added and by completion next spring, the trail system will grow to nearly three miles. Its continuing growth and community support are testaments to its popularity.
Located in the north Knoxville suburb of the same name, Fountain City Park is the Velveteen Rabbit of Knoxville city parks. Loved so well for so long that it's slightly frayed around the edges, it's become real--an integral part of the north Knoxville community. Kids kick off their Keds to wade in the small, river rock-lined creek that trickles through the park; moms sit in the shade of a pin oak and caution their toddlers to go slow; teenagers segregate themselves from adults and stake a claim to their own personal pavilion. This park hums with harmony and innocence. The only pests to be found are the wasps hovering over the trash barrels, trying to score some lunch.
Tyson Park is probably the most visible park in the city, located as it is right off Kingston Pike near the UT campus, and its location makes it convenient for a cross-section of Knoxville's population to find and use.
At Tyson, families cook out and eat burgers at a sheltered table while they watch the kids frolic in the grass. Students play tennis and jog or coast along the greenway on their bikes. Bathrooms on site make it easier for folks to come and spend the day, unhurried by nature's departure call. Though small--only 33 acres--Tyson offers the things that encourage people to leave their houses and come out to play.
"I'm pretty sure I can figure out a way to fix Fort Dickerson," she says animatedly. If Young has her way, she'll dynamite the hill to create a walking trail along the top of the quarry's rim and stock the quarry with fish. But those plans will have to wait; her priorities are established by projects already in the works and her near obsession with greenways.
With the latest addition to the greenway along Neyland Drive across from the Ag Campus, Knoxville's greenway system has expanded to almost seven miles of paved trail. Young dreams of connecting every park in the city with greenway. She's already devised a plan to line the World's Fair Park along Second Creek to the backside of campus, adjacent to the River Landing development, and wants to open access to Fort Dickerson by connecting it to Mary Vestal Park about a half mile away. A trail extending from West Hills Park all the way to Farragut is also in progress.
"The best use for your money is a trail," Young says, and she has at least one big gun backing her opinion. "The mayor is extremely supportive of greenways," she says.
It's easy to see why Young has gained the support of politicians and citizens alike. Her unbridled enthusiasm and obvious love of her job have worked some minor miracles in getting the cooperation of the public and private sectors.
Like Townsend, Young dreams of a vast expanse of public space--hundreds and hundreds of acres.
A park that size, she explains, would provide myriad recreational opportunities, like walking, running, canoeing, and fishing, to name but a few. It would be big enough for Frisbee golf and impromptu touch football games. It could serve as a venue for concerts and festivals like the World's Fair site currently does, but on a larger scale.
It's a dream with potential. Young is convinced that the new Holston River Park development is the start of something really exciting; a Sequoyah Hills with a mission and a mandate to be the park Knoxville has been waiting for.
Holston can be found at the eastern edge of the city limits, where Riverside Drive turns in to Delrose and runs along the Holston River just north of where it meets the French Broad. Only 44 acres, Holston is tiny when compared to, say, Piedmont Park, and only half the size of Sequoyah. But the lay of the land is inviting, even after a four-day monsoon has turned the fields into a mud pie that has rendered heavy equipment impotent.
The vision in Young's mind is that Holston will be the passive park that will outshine even Sequoyah. If she can convince the powers that be to unite the park to 331 acres of land run by the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency, she envisions a dynamic regional park that will attract visitors who might otherwise head for the mountains.
Unfortunately, the decision to place soccer fields in the midst of what many had hoped would be a truly passive park has tarnished the Holston project even before the land has been completely cleared. And the location--the eastern outskirts of a city that has been expanding ever westward--means that the majority of the population will have to travel to enjoy the fruits of the park.
There are reasons for these decisions, of course. The soccer fields will keep a steady flow of people coming through the park. "I would have been delighted to build it without soccer fields," Young says, but "the more people that use it, the less crime we have." The availability of affordable, usable land eliminates more centralized locations. These are the woes of urban park planning.
Holston River Park--and its hotly debated alter-ego, River Landing--will give Knoxvillians a chance to validate the city's decision to experiment with heretofore untried forms of recreation. Maybe we'll discover that there's more to it than physical fitness and organized sports, and that there's more to community life in Knoxville than football and fireworks.