The downtown that never died looks for rebirth

by Jesse Fox Mayshark

The heads are still there on the wall—bucks, gazelles, antelopes, even the old leathery shark. But the televisions and pool tables are silent. On a table near the front window, there's a pile of yellowing Metro Pulses, dated April 9—the week time stopped for Hoo-Ray's, the Old City's once boisterous sports bar.

Across the street, at 195 Degrees—the coffee shop that almost everybody still calls Java—Reagan DeBusk is working on something that looks like a poem. The broad-shouldered, goateed writer/student has spent a lot of time in the Old City over the past decade. He's seen things come and go. Lately, they seem to be going.

"It's kind of sad, actually," he says, looking over his shoulder at Hoo-Ray's and the empty buildings that flank it. "It's just boring, lifeless."

On the streets this Friday evening, you won't find much to contradict him. There are people, in twos and threes, and the car lots look at least half-full. But for anyone who remembers the Old City of four or five years ago, when the sidewalks were packed and music blared from a half-dozen restaurants and bars, its current state seems like a weak echo.

Look more closely, though. Down the sidewalk from Hoo-Ray's, a worker is dabbing new paint onto the outside of what used to be the Amsterdam Café. In a week, it's going to re-open as something Knoxville hasn't seen before: a Christian-oriented nightclub and coffee shop. On the opposite corner of Jackson and Central, the streets at the heart of the Old City, the sounds of renovation emanate from Manhattan's, preparing to re-open this weekend for the third time in as many years. And at the other end of the block, finishing touches are being applied to the Rainbow Club, an upscale eatery and nightspot catering to gays and lesbians. The relentless boosters of the Chamber Partnership held a press conference at Manhattan's recently, touting all these businesses as signs the Old City is on the upswing after a two-year decline.

So is it dying or being reborn? The question, of course, is too simple, and the answer is complicated. But a decade after it began its ascent as Knoxville's center of urban life, it's safe to say the Old City is more alive than its doubters realize—and determined to stay that way.

'A Real Community'

Pete Zaring is eating a sandwich at one of the small tables in 195 Degrees, the coffee shop he bought and renamed last year (195 degrees is the brewing temperature for coffee). "The Old City was one of the reasons I moved to Knoxville," he says, between bites.

Zaring is one of the Old City's new guard—a businessman who balances enthusiasm for the area with hard-nosed financial acumen. His manufacturers' representative company, Excelsior Inc., is headquartered in the Old City, and he also owns the Knoxville Cigar Company a few doors down the street.

"It's not like soulless West Knoxville," he continues. "I'm a big fan of cities in general, downtown areas. It's like a little neighborhood down here, all the merchants are independently owned, there's no chains."

Zaring, like most Old City business owners, is bullish on the area. He's aware of the high-profile closings—Hoo-Ray's, Tjaarda's, Amigo's, etc.—but insists he's not worried by them.

"The bulk of the businesses that have opened and shut down here has been [because of] a lack of funding," he says. "Fortunately, that hasn't been a problem for us." Zaring says the Cigar Company, his first Old City store, started turning a profit after just three weeks.

A walking tour of Central and Jackson turns up 36 street-level businesses operating in the Old City. A few are professional offices—lawyers, designers—but most are restaurants, cafés, and gift stores, from mainstays like JFG Coffeehouse and The Complex to newcomers like Bottom-Z-Up and Neptune. And, as Zaring notes, it still offers the highest concentration of antique stores in the county. Apart from the half-block that includes almost all of the shuttered restaurants, it's hard to find a vacant storefront.

"We don't have anything for lease, period," says developer Kristopher Kendrick, a major Old City property owner who helped start the area's revitalization in the 1980s. "I am extremely confident and continue to believe in and invest in the Old City."

Above street level, business is even better. The apartments and offices that hold the Old City's professional and residential communities are booked solid. It's become a haven for successful start-ups like Jupiter Entertainment and Atmosphere Pictures, video production companies that share the second floor above JFG Coffeehouse. That building is partly owned by architect Buzz Goss and his wife and business partner Cherie, who live on the top floor.

"Here's the core reason the Old City is successful, and I think it is successful," Buzz Goss says, seated in the living room of his predictably stylish apartment, with its crescent kitchen counter and swooping half-walls. "It's a real community, and it's a real community in the way that Charleston and Savannah and some of the other great Southern cities are."

Goss says delegates from Chattanooga—a city much lauded for its own downtown efforts—have visited to learn how the Old City has integrated business, residential, and industrial areas.

Crime and Parking

Nobody denies the Old City has some obstacles to overcome. The two most obvious—the ones often cited as excuses by people who don't visit the area—are crime and parking.

Crime is a touchy subject with merchants, landlords, and residents. It sets them off on a tirade against the local media, which they think overplayed a couple of stories to create the perception of the Old City as a dangerous place. They all know, some down to the date, the two events most responsible: a carjacking and rape of a teenage couple from Morristown, and a shooting outside a nightclub. The crimes prompted several stories about the area, including a front-page News-Sentinel article with an accompanying graphic of a Dick Tracy-style hood lurking in the shadows. That graphic still makes some Old Citians apoplectic.

"The reason there are no people here is that the major media of Knoxville slammed us," Scott West says. West, a photographer and rock musician (he plays bass in Boy Genius, Knoxville's latest major-label act), co-owns the Earth to Old City gift store and The Big Dipper ice cream parlor with his family.

The sentiment is universal and usually accompanied by a litany of refutations: The Old City is safer than the malls, people who have lived there for years have never had any problems, the people involved in the publicized crimes were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Knoxville Police Department statistics bear most of that out. In 1997, there were 71 crimes reported in the Old City, including three armed robberies, a dozen assaults, and a bunch of thefts. The same year, both East Towne and West Town malls reported more crimes—173 at East Towne and 138 at West Town, including one rape and one knife assault at East Towne. Even Sequoyah Hills reported one rape in 1997, which is one more than was recorded in the Old City.

The parking question isn't so easily dismissed. The Old City has hundreds of parking spaces, but most of them are in pay lots with rates that many merchants think are too high. One longtime businessman calls the parking lot operators "leeches on the Old City."

The parking companies—the two biggest are All Right and Silver Cloud Valet—resent the complaints. But they have responded in recent months; both have dropped their rates at some lots.

"Compared to other cities of comparable size, their entertainment areas, the parking is relatively cheap," says Leo R. Shelton, president of All Right Parking. All Right owns three Old City lots. Their evening rates run around $2 for an unattended lot, $3 attended. During work hours, they offer all-day parking ranging from 75 cents to $1.25. Shelton acknowledges prices go up during special events, but he says that's how parking lot operators survive.

"We paid $250,000 for that parking lot across the street from the Spaghetti Warehouse, and we expect a return on our investment," he says.

Silver Cloud manager Stacey Campfield says his company has reduced weekend rates to $2 on the huge lot behind John H. Daniel clothing company. But he says it's not fair to blame parking lots for a decline in Old City business.

"It would be like us saying the problem with the Old City is the restaurants charge too much for food," he says. "We've got to pay our bills the same as them. They're sitting in glass houses throwing stones."

There's been talk of parking validation agreements between merchants and the lot operators—all sides say they're willing to do it—but they have yet to materialize.

That points to another historic difficulty in the Old City. Despite a fairly active neighborhood association, it's typically been hard to get all the interested parties—merchants, landlords, residents, etc.—to agree on a course of action. The result is little by way of cooperative advertising, coordinated business hours, or Old City-wide events.

Finally, there's the question of rents. Some of the businesses that have closed in recent years have complained about landlords gouging them, and some of the merchants still active there agree. They say that as soon as a business starts to see success, its rent is likely to skyrocket before it can get stabilized.

"That is a lie," says Kendrick, the object of some of those barbs. "The places that have closed, some of them were doing so much business it was unbelievable. But they didn't put the money in the bank."

New Faces

That's why Kendrick and many others have faith in the new crop of Old City entrepreneurs—they all have track records of success. There's Zaring, who's opening a cigar lounge adjacent to the Cigar Company. He also wants to open a restaurant in one of the spaces across the street, although initial plans to do it in the old Amigo's space were scrapped after he discovered a leaky roof. Frank Gardner, who owns Jackson Ave. Antiques and has extensive restaurant experience, is the new force behind Manhattan's. Then there are the two newcomers: the Rainbow Club and New City Café.

The Rainbow Club, going into the old Bullfrog's venue, has been variously and vaguely described in the mainstream media as an "alternative" club and a place "for everybody."

"It's a gay and lesbian nightclub," co-owner Ed Price says bluntly.

"But we don't discriminate against heterosexuals," his partner Jeff Bishop adds with a laugh.

The club is aiming for a more sophisticated feel than the city's other, noisier gay clubs. Price and Bishop, who also run a business in Pigeon Forge that they'd prefer not to identify, say the Old City was the logical place for them.

"We looked at other locations and we looked at who comes here, who shops here," Price says. "It's sort of an artsy-craftsy kind of area."

Allen Halcomb, meanwhile, is equally sure that the New City Café—the aforementioned Christian club—is in the right place. Halcomb is president of the architectural firm Designers Alliance Inc., which has been headquartered in the Old City for a decade. He sees the area as the crossroads for east, west, north, and south Knoxville.

"It's our desire to bring the good news to all the communities," he says. "It's a wonderful place to bring all the communities together."

But he's quick to say New City, which will be alcohol- and tobacco-free, isn't going to be about evangelizing. It will feature live bands, local and national, as well as a whole range of contemporary Christian music (he promises both hip-hop and industrial in the mix). And, maybe its ace in the hole, it will house a Stefano's pizza kitchen, making it the only pizza joint in the Old City.

"It's our intention to fit right in with what's going on down here," he says. He adds with a grin, "Around 11 o'clock, it might get kind of loud."

(It's hard to resist asking Halcomb how he feels about being down the street from a gay club and around the corner from Neptune, with its whips-and-chains fetish nights. "I think it simply adds more to the diversity," he says, adding that he's gotten to be friends with Price and Bishop.)

All of which has Old City true believers buzzing. They're encouraged by the recent attention from the Chamber and by Mayor Victor Ashe's announcement this week of $130,000 in local and federal funds to deal with the area's image problems. But even without outside help, they promise to carry on.

"I feel better about the Old City as far as feeling the spirit and magic more than ever," Kendrick says. "The Old City is the only city we have. It's the only thing that makes us seem couth. A mall is not a city. The Old City is our city."