Urban Mythology

Fort Sanders looked fairly simple to General Longstreet when he surveyed the Union fort through a telescope and sent thousands of Confederate troops forward in a frontal assault, not knowing that when they got near they'd find a maze of ditches, tripwires, booby traps. The assault was such a disaster that Longstreet retreated and offered to resign his commission.

Oversimplifications about Fort Sanders persist today, many of them leaning on phrases like "transient population" and "student ghetto." On TV and newspaper reports about the controversy, potential evictee James Henry is routinely identified as a "UT student." At 30, he's a full-time employee of McKay's Books.

Proving Fort Sanders is overwhelmingly student-occupied appeals to development advocates. Attorney John King uses photocopied pages from the Knoxville City Directory as part of a widely circulated "JPI Fact Sheet," to prove that Fort Sanders has an almost entirely student population. Indeed, the City Directory does strongly suggest that. But city directories are hardly scientific. Like most reporters, the directory pages King copied assume that James Henry—and everyone else on his block—are"STUDTS." (They've used a broad brush for Fort Sanders for decades; City Directory listings for one Laurel Avenue address had this reporter listed as a nameless "STUDT" for several non-student years.)

By the last census, 40 percent of Fort Sanders residents were not college students at all. In fact, the average Fort Sanders resident is much more likely to be a college graduate than the average Knoxvillian. Fort Sanders residents are represented in nearly every group of professions the census tabulates. Irwin notes that among the 11 residents of her Clinch Avenue building are a retiree, several professionals, and only one student, a Ph.D. candidate.

Fort Sanders appears to be a much more complicated neighborhood than developers with simple solutions want to admit.

King says only 29 Fort Sanders residences are owner-occupied. Cathy Irwin says that figure is 142. By the 1990 census, a total of 164 housing units in Fort Sanders were owner-occupied. It's true that all these estimates are small percentages of the whole.

A few weeks ago, Metro Pulse received a bright-yellow postcard in the mail. Unsigned, with no return address, it reads, "Approximately 80 percent of property owners in the Fort Sanders area have signed petitions supporting high-density, residential development, such as being proposed by JPI" (the comma splice is theirs, not ours). "FORT SANDERS SAYS YES! to Redevelopment." In that "fact sheet" King supplied to City Council, "Approximately 80% of the property owners in the Fort Sanders area support R3 (high density) and oppose establishment of an historical zoning overlay."

We don't know whether that figure is true or not. We did find several property owners—some not even associated with the neighborhood organization—who say they've never been polled on either issue. (The pro-development Fort Sanders Property Rights Group says the figure is 77%—and that it applies only to property owners east of 17th.) The Historic Fort Sanders Neighborhood Association has never conducted its own poll for historic overlay purposes—but DeFord and Irwin say it may be about time to do so.



After years of neglect, Fort Sanders is in the spotlight—but its future is as uncertain as ever.

by Jack Neely

Looking at Fort Sanders, you're tempted to paraphrase Dickens. It's Knoxville's best neighborhood and its worst. Our most beautiful and our ugliest. Our most promising and our most doomed. Some of the finest and best-kept houses in Knoxville are in Fort Sanders, sometimes selling at prices comparable to West Knoxville palaces. And they're next door or down the street from houses that are boarded up, or disintegrating, burnt out, or clean gone—and around the corner from modern apartment buildings that, in drab cheapness, rival Soviet housing projects.

Purists might say the neighborhood's been deteriorating in one way or another since landlords started subdividing the Victorian-era houses into apartments in the '20s. But in 1998, houses in Fort Sanders are being demolished at a rate unmatched in recent decades.

At issue at this moment is what supporters are calling the biggest private development in the history of Fort Sanders. It's been on the drawing board for two years, but most neighborhood residents didn't know about it until this past spring. Even the Metropolitan Planning Commission, in fact, never heard about it until then, when it caught wind of landowners' efforts to change the residential zoning to accommodate a huge apartment complex called Jefferson Commons.

JPI, the mammoth Dallas-based developer, is behind the project. Some of JPI's projects elsewhere have been controversial for environmental issues, but even opponents here admit some JPI projects are architecturally attractive.

Now JPI wants a multi-tract area at the center of Fort Sanders, on and around the tree-shaded block bordered by 15th, 16th, Laurel, and Clinch; one of Fort Sanders' most central blocks, it's the one that holds the century-old church now known as the Laurel Theatre. Originally, JPI planned a huge self-contained four-story student village for over 500 students—several times what the block of old houses currently supports. Ten old houses, most of them currently occupied by renters, are implicated there alone. Farther back in the pipe is another JPI project that could replace 15 more houses on the 1800 block of Highland and Forest.

An August fund-raiser overflowed the Laurel Theatre with supporters of preservation. A petition drive has collected over 1,600 signatures opposing the project. A JPI representative says JPI's planners were "surprised and disappointed" at the local reaction to the Jefferson Commons project.

Some Fort Sanders lovers admit they'd already given up on the place, and supporters of development are quick to emphasize Fort Sanders' deterioration in recent decades. In a 1994 article in Metro Pulse, developer Steve Maddox predicted that by 2009, only one-quarter of Fort Sanders' older houses would still be standing—and that that would be "good for the city."

However, this Fort isn't surrendering quietly. In early 1996, a violent spring thunderstorm ripped open the front of a turn-of-the-century house on Clinch and exposed it to the elements. Most neighbors assumed nothing would be done, murmured that it would surely be demolished. But suddenly, in 1998, that house is all back together, and better-looking than it was before. There are other green shoots, newly restored old homes throughout the neighborhood. And in 1990, UT Professor Philip Livingston and his wife built the first actual new house in Fort Sanders in most neighbors' memories, right on the corner of Laurel and 14th, a handsome two-story modern version of a Victorian style.

Livingston designed it himself; he calls it his "urban villa." A well-dressed man of 57, he's hardly the stereotypical student-ghetto resident, but he's lived here since 1965. "I like the density of the population, the topography, the historic character—which is very much in jeopardy," he says. "Fort Sanders is the closest thing Knoxville has to an urban quality."

Livingston and his wife have planted their yard, and even the strip of dirt beside the sidewalk, with flowers. All around, there seem to be more luxuriant flower gardens than any time in memory.

"A Box With Hallways"

A block away—and adjacent to the planned JPI development—is another yard full of flowers, the 1910 home and office of Randall DeFord, architect and president of the Historic Fort Sanders Neighborhood Association. Trimmed in rich mahogany, the interior of his house is gorgeous, a triumph of Edwardian architecture and modern preservation.

Besides his own home, DeFord owns two other renovated houses on Highland Avenue and 14th Street. "I try to be a responsible landlord and a responsible citizen of Knoxville by fixing up things," he says. "A significant number of landlords are allowed to let their houses deteriorate to a point that it's easy to convince people that they should be torn down."

There's a vacant lot next door, graveled for parking but not used much except on game days. There's another one across the street, another cavity where a big house used to be. Speaking as an architect, DeFord admires some of JPI's projects in other cities—but he's disappointed that JPI's plans for Knoxville seem much plainer.

"I want them to build something" in that lot, DeFord says. "But I have problems with what I've seen so far." He describes JPI's plan for Fort Sanders as "a box with balcony hallways that's just like a glorified motel. It doesn't have any business in a historic neighborhood. Or any neighborhood at all." (JPI representatives say the company's original plan is currently in revisions.)

DeFord spreads out a map with a rash of shaded areas, indicating the scores of homes throughout Fort Sanders the neighborhood association believes to be threatened by this and other developments. "There's nothing wrong with development," DeFord continues. "But a lot of people confuse development with demolition. There are a lot of vacant lots that can be developed—and a lot of development that can happen in existing buildings."

DeFord, Livingston, and most of their allies are hardly take-no-prisoners preservationists. They know a substantial number of landowners favor new development and that many Victorian houses are surely doomed.

John King, local attorney for JPI, can see the faded pastels of Fort Sanders from his fifth-floor office balcony overlooking Market Street. He's a hired gun, but he seems sincere when he speaks of his own experience. He first came to Knoxville in 1962 to study law, originally intending to live within walking distance of the law school. He and his wife drove around Fort Sanders in a drizzling rain. "It was the grimmest-looking place you ever saw in your life," he says. "It didn't look any better then than it does today." Surveying the old houses, not all of them perfectly kept even then, he glanced at his wife. "There were tears streaming down her face," he says. When they found a modern apartment building in South Knoxville, he says, "I thought I'd died and gone to heaven."

In a booklet he supplied to City Council, King displays unartful photographs of the large houses on Laurel slated for demolition. Most date from the turn of the century and were once occupied by some of Knoxville's leading families: Briscoe, Coykendall, Ragsdale, Egerton. Hearing that some people find them attractive, King shakes his head and says, "Well, as I say—in the eye of the beholder."

He seems to echo a comment made by landowner Gordon Smith in City Council last week in a successful bid to demolish a block of houses near the hospital: He still rents them, he says, because "Unfortunately, these people want to live there."

Several tenants we spoke with talk about "charm" or "character" when they say why they'd rather live in older homes, even when they're not in perfect repair, than in modern apartment buildings. Wayne Tipps, a landowner and UT music professor who favors development (and stands to profit by the JPI deal), owns several renovated old houses and a few modern apartments buildings. He says he doesn't fear the competition of the JPI project because there's a much higher demand for apartments in old houses. "We always fill them up before the apartment buildings," he says. "There are kids who will always want to be in old houses. They're 20 times easier to rent."

Bulldozers and Firetrucks

Cathy Irwin, who works full-time for Knox Heritage, the county-wide preservation organization, has lived on Clinch near the JPI site for five years. Her family has roots here. To her, the fact that students and others prefer to live in old houses is no cause for wonder. Look at most of the newer apartments, she says. "There's nothing attractive about them. No porches, no trees, no landscaping. They don't follow the contiguous flow of sidewalks and front yards. They look out of place. They don't look friendly," she says. "People don't want to live in student concentration camps."

Walking by a flower bed on a Laurel Avenue sidewalk, Irwin hears a small bulldozer grading in a backyard. "It makes me so nervous," she says. "The sound of bulldozers—and the sound of firetrucks."

She's referring to the rash of fires in Fort Sanders over the last several years. Most of the recent arson cases are unsolved, but many residents blame the landowners; if they didn't set the fires themselves, residents say, their neglect made the fires more likely and more destructive.

Irwin says she's not opposed to development—only to tearing down old houses that are still in serviceable shape. "I'm definitely not opposed to infill housing, as long as it's done well." She and other members of the Historic Fort Sanders Neighborhood Association did not oppose a JPI project on Grand Avenue which may be built in concert with the bigger projects on top of the ridge.

Not Historic?

King doesn't call himself a historian, but when asked if Fort Sanders is even historic, he answers with slow emphasis. "No," he says, and waits before he elucidates. "I don't think of it as a historical neighborhood," he says, "any more than I think of the entirety of Knox County being a historical site."

Later, he adds, "I don't want to come across as too harsh. Fort Sanders has a 'history,' as other neighborhoods do. But what we're talking about is structures, and there's not a lot of historic structures there.

"Maybe you could identify five, six, eight, 10 houses—certainly a dozen or less—that are in good shape and historically significant. But to say, no, we don't want buildings taken down because it will remove our historic designation or destroy the 'fabric' of our neighborhood, I think is being unreasonable. To preserve the neighborhood for people to look at—well, nobody goes up there now and walks around. It's not a tourist destination."

King admits he hasn't done any specific historical or architectural research to back up his non-historic Fort Sanders theory; he bases his assessment partly on the 1976 application for National Registry status, in which he says nothing stands out to him as historically or architecturally remarkable. If he has a point, there are at least some interesting exceptions.

Fort Sanders became famous for the influential people who lived here: Lewis Hopkins Spilman, a nationally known author and attorney connected to the U.S. Supreme Court; William Rule, the Union veteran and Republican editor who nurtured the career of New York Times founder Adolph Ochs; Powell May, the teenager who, when he made a wireless transmission from a homemade set in his parents' Fort Sanders garage in 1908, introduced radio to East Tennessee. Catherine Wiley, hailed as Tennessee's greatest impressionist artist and one of only three or four Knoxville artists who have ever gained national attention, grew up with her comparably talented sisters in a house still standing at Laurel and 12th.

There are dozens of other Fort Sanders luminaries, but one stands out even in that company. Millions of people around the world, in fact, would never have heard of Knoxville if not for the Fort Sanders-based writings of James Agee and the music and drama they spawned.

In 1995, the British Broadcasting Corporation flew a crew to Knoxville to tape an audio documentary about Agee and Knoxville. They did much of their taping in Fort Sanders, including descriptions of the neighborhood as they found it. Though not heard in most of America, the BBC documentary was heard around the world; in 1997 an international jury awarded it the Prix Italia and commended it for its "strong poetic sense of place."

Agee's "Knoxville Summer: 1915"—based entirely in Fort Sanders—is famous on its own, often anthologized in college texts, and interpreted as a soprano aria by Samuel Barber, so well known it's available as an electronic theme on computer programs. Agee's A Death in the Family, which is also set in Fort Sanders and includes that piece, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It was later made into the play All the Way Home by Tad Mosel, which won the Pulitzer for Drama, and later became a 1963 movie starring Robert Preston, which was filmed in Fort Sanders. In 1996, two previously unpublished Agee short stories with Fort Sanders settings were published by Whitston Press in New York.

Judging by the number of recent references to it in web sites and books and articles, Agee's Fort Sanders-based work is better known worldwide than the 1982 World's Fair. Agee's childhood home on Highland—and his birthplace on Clinch—vanished in the '60s. However, a 1989 Agee conference at UT featured a two-hour walking tour of the eastern end of Fort Sanders, most of which was—and, at this writing, is—still recognizable from Agee's time.

Fort Sanders' cultural credits are not all in the remote past. Lowell Cunningham says Men in Black, the comic book series that inspired the 1996 movie, was inspired by a conversation on a Fort Sanders sidewalk. Author Les Garrett wrote his final novel, In the Country of Desire—termed a "masterpiece" by the Los Angeles Times when published in 1992—in his cheap apartment on Clinch Avenue. (It's one of the houses likely to be demolished for the JPI project.) And in this decade, Knoxville has enjoyed a minor musical renaissance, with several bands that have earned national attention; maybe it's coincidence, but when they made their first recordings most were based in old houses in Fort Sanders.

A former Fort resident, an author visiting from Memphis, rides down Clinch surveying what's gone and what's going. "But where will Knoxville's fringe live?" he asks. In an unrelated conversation with landowner Wayne Tipps the following day, the music professor is giving reasons why he favors development. He adds, suddenly, "I don't think you have to live in a run-down building to be creative."

We might also mention the origin of Fort Sanders' name; the biggest battle in any war in the history of the upper Tennessee Valley was fought here on the ramparts of Fort Sanders in 1863. The JPI project would not affect any Civil War remnant that's currently visible; but, as planned, it will dig deeply into the crest of the hill, right into the site of the original fortifications where Union artillery turned back Longstreet's onslaught. This will be the biggest single on-site excavation in Fort Sanders history. JPI has announced no plan to study the site as they dig into it.

Parking and Property Rights

In terms of people who have lived there and things that have happened there, Fort Sanders would appear to be the most historic residential neighborhood in the Knox-ville metropolitan area. It may seem surprising that it is the only one of its age that does not have historic overlay protection—a city-bestowed designation that, unlike the National Register, does offer some protection from losing historic homes. Brit Howard, 44, is president of the pro-development Fort Sanders Property Rights Group. A resident, Howard also has a good reputation for renovation. "We do not oppose historic preservation," he says. "What we do oppose is having historic constraints. We'd have to answer to some small body about what type of renovation we could make, what type of paint we could use."

In a previous interview, Kim Trent, president of Knox Heritage, says there's need for education about what overlay zoning means. Contrary to fearful property owners' exaggerations, she says historic overlay protection makes no demands about types of paint.

Howard says he knows that. "There are none now, but there could be," he says. "We want the freedom of a free democracy. We want our freedom maintained, and will fight for it tooth and nail."

Besides its historic status, Fort Sanders is also, like it or not, the most physically conspicuous neighborhood in Knoxville, wedged like a keystone between UT and downtown. When tourists or investors come in from the airport to meet the mayor or visit TVA or gawk at the Sunsphere or Neyland Stadium, the one residential neighborhood they're most likely to see—their only clue about how Knoxvillians live—is Fort Sanders. Whether it's run-down, institutionalized, or erased from the map, it will reflect on Knoxville.

It's no coincidence that by the last census, Fort Sanders is the most densely populated neighborhood in East Tennessee. Preservationists worry that the JPI project will make it even denser. Development supporters point out that density can be a good thing; many attractive urban neighborhoods in larger cities are several times more densely populated than Fort Sanders is. Urban planners tout density as the most feasible solution for many urban woes—let people live near where they work or go to school, and there's less traffic, less pollution, less need for widening roads. Howard believes the enhanced density JPI and R-3 zoning would bring would be a shot in the arm for downtown, "a direct, positive influx to that whole area."

However, give every single one of those people a car, and density becomes something to worry about. King says there will be much parking included in the main building site, but it will need to be supplemented by surface parking elsewhere. That's among the opponents' biggest concerns. "Not only will there be a huge building," says Livingston, "but here and there will be parking lots for the building. That is an unacceptable conclusion."

Irwin adds that part of the idea of doing it well is doing it legally. She dreads the image of surface parking beside the new building and cites a passage in Tennessee Code Annotated that seems to suggest the Board of Zoning Appeals approval of the setbacks JPI requested was illegal; minimizing setbacks in an R-3 zone, she says, is legal only in the case of "hardship."

In voicing her objection to an unrelated Fort parking-lot development last week, Councilman Carlene Malone remarked that when she moved to Knoxville over 25 years ago, her first impression was that, "There are so many parking lots in Knoxville, land must really be cheap here."

The Knoxville Mindset

Oddly, one thing proponents of development and preservation have in common is that they blame the "Knoxville mindset" for their struggles. Preservationists say they're especially frustrated with what they see as a dogged "independence" here that emphasizes rights over responsibilities, and prevents the kind of community thinking that promotes well-preserved neighborhoods in many other cities throughout the country. They say Knoxville repeatedly rolls over and lets developers have their way.

However, attorney King sees Knoxville as a knee-jerk contrarian town that routinely stands in the way of development. "I won't claim I was surprised" by the resistance to the JPI proposal, he says, adding that resistance to change is typical here. "Whatever is proposed anywhere in Knox County, there's resistance to it," he says.

"I'm proud to see the level of interest they still have," says King of his client, adding that many developers would have given up by now. However, he says JPI's patience has limits, and predicts that the next 10 to 20 days "will tell the story." He speaks of the positive economic effects the project would have on the city's tax base without any expense of public funds. He says other cities would leap at this opportunity.

Maybe so—but earlier this month, the city of Austin, Texas, nixed an environmentally controversial JPI apartment development project by buying the land it was to occupy. They're turning the undeveloped tract into a park.

Two weeks ago, a rumor circulated that JPI had pulled out of the Knoxville project, too. Preservationists greeted the false news with mixed feelings. Even without JPI, their fight wouldn't be nearly over.

The chief landowner concerned with the JPI development is Commercial Realty, headquartered on Kingston Pike seven miles west of Fort Sanders. When friends and foes refer to the considerable landholdings and tactics of Commercial Realty, they tend to call it "Robert Shagan." A 30-year-old bachelor, Shagan inherited the business from his father, the late Morris Shagan, who made a fortune as one of the pioneer speculators of Kingston Pike's commercial strip.

Several years ago, as a very young man, Shagan began buying property in Fort Sanders, sometimes at prices so low they astonished neighbors. Shagan owns dozens of properties in Fort Sanders under the names of at least eight different limited-liability corporations.

Shagan seems more prone to demolish houses than most landlords; he has torn down several in recent years to build gravel parking lots. He has already taken out permits to demolish 11 of the houses in question; many suspect he'll tear them down regardless of what JPI decides.

In some offices in the City County Building, Shagan also has a reputation as a municipal pest. The engineering department confirms that Shagan has repeatedly broken city laws with his Fort Sanders projects, grading outside the parameters of what's permitted, and on more than one occasion destroying sidewalks without permission, among other transgressions. One longtime employee in another local government office asks, "Who does he know that he gets away with all he gets away with?"

In the case of those sidewalks, officials with the city engineering department say, it's just not worth the trouble and money to take scofflaws like Shagan to court. The maximum fine currently allowed in the books is only $50, less than a ticket for running a stopsign. (They did cite Shagan for damaging sidewalks in 1995.) Says Irwin, "He'd rather ask for forgiveness than ask for permission."

James Henry has lived in one of the larger Shagan-owned houses on Laurel for three years. A 30-year-old full-time employee of McKay's Books, he loves his 90-year-old place. He even says Commercial Realty's rent is unusually low. "It's pretty, with high ceilings, all wood, with nice sliding doors," he says. "In the bathroom there's an old porcelain bathtub. I have a screened-in porch, and from one window I can see the Smokies. I always get compliments and envy from my friends."

"I love it—I have a great apartment. It would be a very nice house, with repairs that could be easily made." However, when he complained about a leak, he says representatives from Commercial Realty informed him that there would be no new repairs because they were planning to demolish the house. Meanwhile, Henry says, they're still renting apartments in the house to unsuspecting new tenants. (As we observe one of the buildings slated to be razed, a woman approaches and says she knows the owner. "Are you looking for a place to live?" she says. "I'd be happy to show you what we've got.")

Henry says he polled some 50 tenants on the prospective demolition site. Two-thirds of them, he says, have the impression they've been lied to, reporting that the landlord told them the buildings wouldn't be torn down at all, or that it wouldn't happen until at least July '99. Asking to talk to his building's owner, he's been declined. "Mr. Shagan's a very busy man," they say.

For the record, Robert Shagan did return one of our phone calls, but after business hours.

Shagan is the one Knoxvillian who stands to profit most by the JPI project. That's what galls many of his opponents, who paraphrase a comment MPC Commissioner Jack Reese made about neglectful landlords: that allowing a huge development like JPI's would be tantamount to "rewarding landowners for poor community service."

Preservationists repeatedly find themselves in a catch-22: "Call him on codes violations, and you're playing into his hands," says one. A building condemned and demolished by the city will save the landlord the trouble. He'll just sell or lease the cavity for something else.

Knoxville Director of Development Doug Berry acknowledges that absentee ownership has been Fort Sanders' biggest problem—Fort Sanders property owners, he says, are divided between the long-term investors and those trying to make a quick buck off a fully depreciated asset; the latter, he says, are at the heart of Fort Sanders' frustrations. Berry also says he understands the cash-flow dilemma property owners find themselves in and commends Shagan for not tearing down his houses until after the Nov. 3 City Council meeting that may resolve the JPI question.

In the meantime, Mayor Victor Ashe has created a Fort Sanders Forum that will bring together property owners, government representatives, and some business people—including a representative of JPI. Among the mediators of the Forum will be UT architecture professor Jon Coddington, community mediator John Doggett, and John Leith-Tetrault, a Baltimore-based expert in revitalization. Their first meeting is scheduled for tomorrow morning (Sept. 18) at Ramsey's Cafeteria on White Avenue; it promises to be an interesting party.

This U.N.-style summit may be the only appropriate way to address Knoxville's most complicated—and perhaps most critical—neighborhood.