Ancient relics of our high-tech future, found on a Gay Street sidewalk

by Jack Neely

A few weeks ago the city unveiled a fascinating plan: a streetcar line that circumnavigates the downtown area, UT, the World's Fair site, the riverfront, the Old City. It would be historically just to resurrect the streetcar here. Over 100 years ago, Knoxville became one of America's first cities to be fitted with an electric streetcar system, even if it didn't work very well at first.

I'd like to see it happen. But I've lived here long enough to know what happens to big plans. In about 25 years, someone will find the schematic drawings discarded on a Gay Street sidewalk and say, wow—then take them into the brewpub and show them off. The people of 2023 will shake their heads and be amazed at what folks were considering back in 1998. At least, that scenario's along the lines of something that happened just recently.

You can find all manner of interesting stuff on Gay Street sidewalks. A few years ago, near the corner of Main, I found a small dead bat. I'd never seen a bat that up-close before and was so fascinated I stopped and picked it up with greedy quickness, as if someone else might have the same idea. It might look great in my carrel, I thought, an office accessory unlike any other. Its eyes were partly open, its lips drawn back in an impertinent little sneer. It might shrivel up a little, I figured, but it would still look plenty sharp, a step beyond the wacky office ornaments my colleagues were so proud of: the Elvis busts, the arch sex toys, the inflatable Munch "Scream," the postmodern Howard Finster Original hand-painted paperweights. Until now, I'd never been cool enough to own a desk ornament that would impress the trendsetters.

My bat would change all that. I might even market it as an office novelty: small leftover bats attached to a laminated xerox motto that says, "You Want It When?"

I'm not completely sure why I was surprised, two or three days later, when my droll bat started to smell a lot like a dead animal. I took it home and tried to dry it out on the hot driveway, but then, mysteriously, it vanished. I think a neighbor dog carried it off, charmed with it as I had been.

I haven't told that story much since then and wouldn't now except that now I have evidence that maybe I'm normal. At least, I know I'm not the only one that picks up peculiar leftover things on Gay Street and takes them home.

There's been some especially interesting flotsam on Gay Street sidewalks just lately, historic artifacts beached on the concrete by the tides of time. A few months ago, a colleague found a musty old book, an Edwardian-era accounts ledger made out for that proud fraternity, Woodmen of the World. Then just a couple of weeks ago, my friend Chad from the brewpub found some detritus that was even more interesting.

Chad leads an interesting life, works at UT most of the year but spends long summers manning a fire watchtower in Arizona. Anyway, he was ambling Gay Street the other day and happened across a bundle of five yellowing scrolls. Hundreds of pedestrians must have walked right past them that day, probably taking them for leftover political posters, ignoring them, figuring the lonesome twilight cleaning crews would deal with it. But Chad, with the keen eye that Arizonans trust to protect thousands of acres of pines, spotted them and was curious enough to stop and pick them up. Not only that, he unrolled them and had a look.

They turned out to be latter-day urban apocrypha: five futuristic pen-and-ink drawings, like plans for Disney World, showing a futuristic elevated monorail zipping around about 20 feet above city streets. When he looked close, though, he couldn't help noticing that the city lurking meekly beneath the sleek white monorail looked a whole lot like Knoxville, Tennessee.

One drawing shows Market Square, the Arnstein Building in the background; on the west side, with a wide spot for switching, is the monorail, zipping north to south. Another shows UT's campus, with an even loftier monorail connecting the Hill with Volunteer Boulevard. Volunteer Boulevard near Cumberland has a rail that swoops off across the train tracks toward points west. Another wraps around the Hyatt, speeding out Hill Avenue to the east. Another shows a trafficky Gay Street, where a monorail was to glide above the east-side sidewalk where Chad found these plans 30 years later.

The drawings aren't dated. Judging by the urban-renewal concrete mushrooms on Market Square and the Ramblers and Corvairs and Ford Falcons—and by the fact that the Hyatt is identified grandly as the "Regency Hyatt House"—it looks a lot like 1969, the lunar-landing year. The monorail looks superimposed on reality, like cut-and-paste UFO photos. The wind-tunnel-designed people-mover gliding around on the track looks like it's built to go a lot faster than anyone would ever want to speed around downtown Knoxville. And this part's so prophetic it's almost eerie—it looks like an AMC Pacer.

That's all I know about the great Knoxville monorail. This is where I'm supposed to say something bitterly cynical about how progressive municipal plans always end up rolling around on a Gay Street sidewalk. That's been the fate of several promising plans in the last few years, and I hope the current streetcar plan fares better than to be a yellowed brewpub curio in 2023.

But the best thing about living in a place where most big plans come to nothing is that lots of bad big plans come to nothing, too. I don't much like the city in those pictures, where a monorail crowds out the sun over narrow streets, where giant AMC Pacers slide over the heads of lovers and lunchers.

As was the case with my dead bat, maybe the sidewalk is where this one belongs.