...and the worst of homes.
Now Mechanicsville is building on its contrasts
as it rebuilds itself
by David Madison
"I'm the only crazy white woman over here," says longtime Mechanicsville resident Mary Nietling. "I'm on the frontier."
In front of Nietling's 100-year-old Victorian cottage, the sidewalk rambles innocently away from the corner of Dora and Cansler streets on its way to the quaint section of MechanicsvilleOld Mechanicsvilleless than a block away.
Along this short stretch of road, Nietling's sense of security disappears like smoke from the dope pipes she's seen passed around behind her house. All of her windows are covered with an intimidating layer of 12-gauge fencing. Barbwire marks her property line on one side. On the other, Nietling can see a knot-hole tree where crack dealers sometimes hide their stash. One morning last year, she picked up seven empty crack baggies from in front of her house, put them in an envelope, and mailed them to Mayor Victor Ashe.
Thanks to increased patrols by the Knoxville Police Department, drug traffic along Cansler has dispersed to other parts of Mechanicsville, which sits snugly in downtown's northwest shadow. The neighborhood was once a village of its own and home to "mechanics," the name given to Welsh immigrants and African-Americans who worked in the local iron foundry.
Mechanicsville became a part of Knoxville in 1883, and now the area just north of I-40, west of I-275 and south of Beaumont Avenue is trying to reforge itself as the "New" Mechanicsville. A federal program called HOPE VI is transforming parts of the neighborhood outside the already gentrified Old Mechanicsville district. It's filling the open space where the College Homes projects once stood with clusters of single family housing. And on vacant lots in other parts of the neighborhood, more HOPE VI homes are rising in an effort to unite Mechanicsville in a common, economically stable bond.
But if Old Mechanicsville and New Mechanicsville are to weave together as one, the neighborhood must find a way to build upon its many contrasts.
"The rich and poor, the gay and straight, the young and old, the black and white. That all came together in Old Mechanicsville," says Julia Tucker, who owns an elegant, Queen Anne Victorian manor just up Dora Street from Nietling's barbwire fenced bunker.
Separating these two homes, and separating Old Mechanicsville from the rest of the neighborhood, are problems found all over Knoxville: unemployment, drug abuse, broken families and crime. But unlike other neighborhoods facing the challenges of urban decay, Mechanicsville is blessed with a unique combination of activism, financial support, and tradition.
Many hope the tale of two Mechanicsvilles is approaching its closing chapter where blacks and whites, rich and poor, historic preservationists and those looking to renovate people's lives find a way to merge like a pair of neighborhood streets.
When the drug trade at the corner of Cansler and Dora Streets peaked a couple of years ago, sitting on the porch behind Mary Nietling's house was like watching an episode of COPS. Nietling says the scenes included "drug dealers, prostitutes, guns and big booming speakers."
Twice, Nietling says, dealers threatened her life. She was an everyday witness to their criminal lifestyle, and the dealers apparently didn't like having her around.
"They said, 'We're going to kill you white bitch,'" recalls Nietling, who somehow manages to keep a sense of humor about her exposure to Mechanicsville's dangerous edge. Just last month, there was a shooting near her home. It was one of many incidents compelling Nietling to relocate further inside Old Mechanicsville. To feel safe, she says, all she has to do is move a couple of blocks away.
Indeed, what might be called the Old Mechanicsville safety zone is confined to a small collection of streets, as if suspended above the rest of the neighborhood in a bubble. The main strip is Deaderick Avenue, with its renovated homes built around the turn-of-the-century and regally refurbished Fire Station No. 5. The station was originally designed to house horse-drawn equipment but is still used today by the Knoxville Fire Department. The Knoxville Police Academy operates just down the street in the Moses Center, where area youth gather peacefully at the Boys and Girls Club.
Just across the street from the Moses Center, at the triangular corner of Deaderick Avenue and Carrick Street, sits The Wedge. Built in 1902 as a hardware supply and general store, The Wedge is now the home of Dan McGehee, a local attorney and Mechanicsville resident since 1994.
Throughout The Wedge's three levels of open, terraced floors, McGehee has assembled an engaging mix of modern art and antiques. The outside walls are covered with a collegiate pelt of Boston Ivy, and from a ground-level window facing Carrick Street, McGehee shows where neighborhood kids once bellied up at the general store's sidewalk counter to buy candy.
Five years ago, McGehee left his condo on Market Street in search of a neighborhood "where people care about people." Since moving into The Wedge, McGehee says he's nursed away the flu with one neighbor's soup, while another neighbor did his best to catch a team of geranium thieves. The neighbor watched on two occasions as a woman jumped out of a car, swiped a geranium planted next to The Wedge and sped away.
The flower bandits were never caught, but Old Mechanicsville's reputation as a sanctuary in the inner city is evidently catching on. Chris Kinser, president of the Old Mechanicsville Neighborhood Interest (OMNI), says interest in his neighborhood is on the rise among homeowners looking for an alternative to the suburbs. A suburban expatriate himself, Kinser bought his house for a $1 from the city, but claims the low price wasn't a steal.
"I had a frame and that was about it," says Kinser. "I could stand in my front yard and see my back yard."
Kinser's re-done home stands at 217 Deaderick Avenue, a remodeled reminder that the local historic preservationist movement originated in Mechanicsville. The activism that Kinser nurtures as OMNI's president got rolling in 1977 as a class project at UT. Gloria Testerman had her students in the school of architecture profile Mechanicsville's historic attributes. Four years later, what's now known as Old Mechanicsville was listed with the National Registry of Historic Places.
The neighborhood was the first in Knoxville to become registered and begin preserving its cherished architecture. In the mid to late '80s, Testerman made Mechanicsville a "target area" while heading the city's department of community development. Her efforts led to the restoration of Fire Station No. 5 and the Moses Center.
By 1991, when Kinser began rebuilding his house, other urban pioneers were moving into the neighborhood. OMNI founder Bill Powell, who also fled the fresh-cut lawn tranquillity of the suburbs for Mechanicsville, died four years after moving to the neighborhood. Kinser remembers Powell fondly, recalling how on warm summer evenings, the air would fill with the sound of Powell on the bagpipes. "It was like living in a different country," says Kinser.
While pitching pennies into a fountain on his lawn, Powell would greet passersby from his front porch. He liked to blame air conditioning for "the downfall of civilization" because it allowed Americans to comfortably abandon their stoops on hot nights. In Mechanicsvilleand especially in Old Mechanicsvilleevening stoop chats and front porch hellos have yet to be replaced by the white-noise hum of lonely AC units.
"I know everyone in my neighborhood," says Kinser. "Not everybody can say that."
Even though it boasts of cold lemonade, rocking chairs and other, all-American trappings, Old Mechanicsville may not be for everybody.
"Nothing will work here unless you have people willing to take a chance," says Kinser. "It's almost as if you have to be a different type of person."
Of course, that type of person usually has money, though many got started in the neighborhood with modest means. Old Mechanicsville rebounded from the brink of total decay by becoming a historic zone. It then pulled on bootstraps, pulled in community development block grants and provided Knoxville with a unique urban refuge. Now, with the start of HOPE VI, the rest of Mechanicsville could stage a similar comeback.
HOMES INSTEAD OF PROJECTS
That's Old Mechanicsville. This is going to be 'New' Mechanicsville," says M & M Cafe owner David Scruggs, pointing up the hill from University Avenue toward the historic district. The sidewalk is empty, and so is Scruggs' cafe. A couple of doors down, there's an old drug store that looks like it was looted by rioters. Broken glass and debris litter the store's dark corners.
Inside the M & M, a household stove sits next to an empty grill. Nothing's cooking. Since the disappearance of College Homes, business at the M & M lunch counter is down 80 percent. Scruggs says when the projects vanished, so did the foot traffic that once kept the cafe filled with the scent of sizzling burgers and the sound of good conversation.
"Whenever I see the guy from KCDC," says Scruggs, describing his contact with the Knoxville Community Development Corporation (the agency in charge of HOPE VI), "I say 'Throw me a life jacket, I'm drowning.'"
Business isn't as bad down the street at Gam's Hair Fashions. On Saturdays, the place is so packed, it looks like owner Gary Gamble is holding a revival meeting.
Scruggs is encouraged by Gam's continued success. He believes the dilapidated business district at the corner of University and College can revive itself with some help from HOPE VI, returning perhaps to the heyday of Scruggs' youth more than 30 years ago when he washed dishes at The Pink House restaurant. At that time, the strip along University had a dance hall, a market, and Amy's, where locals ate fish, drank beer, and played shuffle board.
"This is where I want my businesses," says Scruggs, who also runs the tiny Marky Mark hat shop next door to the M & M. "There's always been businesses here and there's always been black businesses. You can let it run down at one time and look raggedy. But if it was prosperous at one time, then it can always be prosperous. It's what they call a hot spot."
With HOPE VI funds, KCDC wants to warm up this crossroads by knocking down several old buildings and constructing a commercial complex where Gam's, the M & M and Marky Mark's can relocate. Following a master plan conceived by Urban Design Associates in Pittsburgh, and working with the Knoxville architectural firm Martella Associates, KCDC envisions a business district with traditional storefronts, parking in the rear and office space upstairs.
The designs are supposed to create an anti-strip mall, where customers flow out of the surrounding neighborhood on foot as often as in cars. KCDC also wants to build a greenway walking trail along Western Avenue, not far from where the city's Brownfields Initiative is hoping to attract a supermarket, a dry cleaner and other businesses looking to employ residents of the neighborhood.
"It's all connected to what we are doing here," says KCDC's Becky Wade, detailing HOPE VI's mission: To re-vamp how Mech-anicsville lives, works and shops. The plans put forward by Martella Associates should produce an enticing blend of craftsman and Victorian-style dwellings. There will be front porches, gardens, back alleys and what Wade calls "definable, defensible" yard space in front of homes that will be "just as beautiful" as those in Old Mechanicsville.
Wade adds, "But we're not trying to be Old Mechanicsville." In the first phase of HOPE VI, 33 units are being constructed to house former residents of College Homes. The HOPE VI self-sufficiency program is geared up to give these tenants an aggressive boost, using job training and other services to guide those who wish to participate away from public assistance. According to a survey done for KCDC by Bush Grove Development Corporation, a Mechanicsville-based non-profit, 28 percent of the 265 families displaced by the College Homes wrecking ball have signed up for the HOPE VI program.
Dravian McGill, who works at Bush Grove's community center on 5th Avenue, helped compile the survey. He says that in order for HOPE VI to succeed, it must make room for more low-income families.
"It shocked us that they were building $60-70,000 houses," says McGill. "These were some of our original fears, that these people would be displaced by upwardly mobile and middle income residents."
McGill goes on to say, "We keep telling KCDC that you really have to have a high percentage of people coming back or it's really going to look badlike you kicked these people out."
That's hardly the case, counters KCDC's Joyce Pollard, who answers questions about the project with guarded caution. ("We've had so much negative publicity," she says.) To those who say the HOPE VI self-sufficiency program is too demanding and driving former College Homes residents away, Pollard comes back with a cogent response: "This is a voluntary process. We don't demand anything. Our job is to just be there and walk with them."
When the HOPE VI walk is through, Mechanicsville will be more of a "mixed-income community," says Pollard, "but it won't be skewed toward the middle and up."
Compared to similar programs in Indianapolis, Charlotte and Atlanta, Knoxville's HOPE VI effort is drawing in an above-average number of low-income residents. Through "intensive case management," assures Pollard, those planning a return to "New" Mechanicsville will find themselves and their neighborhood suspended in a balance never achieved at College Homes.
BUILDING PEOPLE AND PLACES
In Maynard, a swath of streets in northeast Mechanicsville near the old College Homes site, residents have managed to strike a healthy balance between two impacts of urban strifebuildings falling down and people's lives falling apart.
When the Maynard Area Neighborhood Watch banded together in 1992, residents could feel their community losing its once safe, working-class equilibrium. Crime was on the rise and crackheads were gathering in abandoned houses, getting high and staring out of glassless windows.
At the time, John Robertsnow president of Maynard Area Neighborhood Watchfound himself staring at a thicket of trouble, from kids hustling drugs to unkempt yards. One lot, at the corner of Wallace and Moses streets, seemed to mirror the mood of the neighborhood. It just sat there, growing increasingly empty and stagnant.
"It was literally a big hole with standing water," says Roberts. The space would later go on to win an award for "most improved lot" as Roberts helped transform the tract into a park with a hoops court and picnic shelter. There's also a wall at the park dedicated to community members, who, as Roberts explains, died a violent death or were elderly and respected. On the wall are the names of Granny Molly, Pep Robinson and Shawn D. Roberts, John Roberts' son, who was killed in a shooting on Cedar Bluff Road in West Knoxville.
For Roberts, the wall provides a fitting memorial for his son. For Mechanicsville, it may act as a reminder that people are the neighborhood's most important resource. When Roberts' group breathed life back into the Dora Street Community Center, saving the building wasn't what mobilized most volunteers. The group was looking to help restore lives with a new community meeting place and resource center, and in this case, the hammer and paint brush came in handy.
Hammers, paint brushes, crowbars, belt sanders: these are the favored tools of Old Mechanicsville. The path between the historic district and Home Depot is so worn that one veteran community organizer worries too much emphasis has been placed "on the structures and not on the people."
Most note, however, that when the historic district was formed, the community was worried about Old Mechanicsville becoming a wasteland of vacant lots. Long-time residents were dying off, but their families were not stepping in to claim and keep up the properties. So when the first urban pioneers arrived on a mission to renovate a piece of Knoxville's past, the buildings did indeed come first. Later, programs for people followed with arrival of the Boys and Girls Club and Dr. David Moore's medical clinic in the restored Prince Building on Western Avenue.
The Prince Building's elegant rebirth began as a task taken on by the now-defunct Mechanicsville Community Development Corporation (MCDC), which organized 15 years ago as an antidote to the area's decline. Those with a hand in MCDC have gone on to brew their own efforts at revitalizing Mechanicsville. Sandra Moore, wife of Dr. Moore, wound up taking over MCDC's work on the Prince Building. She now runs a Mechanicsville-based company called Moore & Moore Development.
OMNI didn't exactly spin out of MCDC, but by huddling around neighborhood projects, the group has picked up where MCDC left off. Bush Grove Development Corporation and Restoration Outreach have done the same, with MCDC providing the leaders of these non-profits with an informative look at neighborhood issues.
Thanks in part to MCDC alumni, Mechanicsville has spawned one of Knoxville's highest concentrations of neighborhood groups. Together, they've managed to begin rebuilding both homes and human lives. As their work continues, so will the political tussles that inevitably emerge when a bevy of activism packs into one small place.
WHITE KNIGHTS AND BLACK WORRIES
"Things change so fast in Mechanicsville these days because everyone is trying to get everything," says Jon Lawler, former head of Restoration Outreach and son of prominent Knoxville developer Rodney Lawler. Five years ago, the younger Lawler abandoned the lawn jockey confines of Rocky Hill in West Knoxville, and relocated to what's now referred to as "New" Mechanicsville.
From his ridgetop perch on Exeter Street, Lawler looks across "the frontier" toward Old Mechanicsville. The
35-year-old's large but modest home affords commanding views, and Lawler himself is full of soft-spoken insights. He likes talking shop about the neighborhood, but wants to position himself on Mechanicsville's moving and shaking sidelines.
"I'm no longer a key player," says Lawler, who's currently preoccupied by Venture 29/7, a non-profit that brokers assistance to other faith-based groups. Of course, there was a time when Lawler had his sleeves rolled up in Mechanicsville, leading a campaign to make Maynard Elementary a charter school. While running Restoration Outreach, Lawler hoped to channel education dollars into Mechanicsville through the Chris Whittle-backed Edison Project. But the effort was dashed, says Lawler, because at the time, the Knox County School System didn't think the Edison Project was the best match for Maynard.
Lawler and Rev. James Davis, founder of Restoration Outreach, hope school administrators eventually bring outside, private money into Knoxville's public schools. They also want Mechanicsville to change the way it views outside money and outside influences on the neighborhood. Whether it's HOPE VI or active urban pioneers like Lawler, the crusades of non-natives are viewed warily by some.
Though impressive, Lawler's leadership of Restoration Outreach inevitably brushed against a raw nerve found in many inner cities. He was perceived by some as a white knight, and like the arrival of the HOPE VI project, his leadership triggered worries about Mechanicsville becoming a haven for the well-off and mildly well-to-do.
About HOPE VIground zero in Mechanicsville's ongoing effort to balance black and white, rich and poorLawler says, "This is an attempt to get the right peoplemeaning the right stratato move in there." He adds that Mechanicsville will become a healthier neighborhood if it can find residents who spend their disposable income on groceries and gas instead of drugs.
During his conversion to Christianity a decade ago, Rev. Davis says he flushed $20,000 worth of cocaine down the toilet instead of putting it out on the street for sale. It happened after he was touched by the spirit while watching Pat Robertson's 700 Club on TV. The coke-dealing owner of the After Dark Lounge eventually found himself drawn to the ministry and drawn back into Mechanicsville.
"When I was growing up, everyone wanted to do well enough to get out. That proved your success," says Rev. Davis. "That's the myth. I wanted to come back and change what the definition of success is."
For Davis, this means preaching at the Eternal Life Harvest Church, in addition to mentoring youth, caring for seniors, and renovating homes. Redefining success in Mechanicsville also means taking controversial stands, such as the one Davis has maintained in support of HOPE VI.
"You've got to understand," says Davis, "everyone isn't believing like me." The neighborhood's concern about HOPE VI creating another divide within Mechanicsvillelike the one that still insulates Old Mechanicsvillehas given rise to some hard questions.
"People have asked me, 'Are you on the white side or are you on the black side?'" explains Davis. "I say, 'Brother, I'm on God's side.'"
Davis does sympathize with those who worry HOPE VI will displace poor blacks and add another sad chapter to the race-charged saga of urban renewal. Still, he thinks HOPE VI managers have listened to the community's input and avoided the mistakes of the past.
"You can't have a program just come in here. People know when they're being put through just another program," says Davis. "And black people are going to run from that."
WHERE OLD AND NEW MECHANICSVILLE MEET
Through the door of J & J's Market and Cafe on Arthur Street, a multi-racial stream of customers keeps the old general store hopping. In Mechanicsville, it might be called a crossover pointa place where residents of Old and New Mechanicsville freely mingle.
Shopkeeper Jeff Stephens, who's filled the place with antiques, collectibles and an anti-President Clinton protest shrine, is proud of his diverse clientele. "Every day's a story," he says.
Every month Stephens posts a new motto on the wall near the store's cash register. In July, the saying of the month told customers, "We can't renew our country until we realize that the government doesn't raise children. Parents do."
And so does Stephens. A Mechanicsville transplant by way of New Orleans, Stephens and his wife have taken in a teenager from the neighborhood whose mother is on public assistance and unable to raise her child. The arrangement, like Stephens' politics, adds another twist to the store owner's eclectic profile.
Though he trained as a chef in France, Stephens' market and cafe boasts of serving Knoxville's best hotdog. There's a bass boat parked behind the store and Stephens is proud to say, "I'm a big Second Amendment person." Maybe so, but in front of his bright blue house sits a distinct symbol of liberal yuppiedoma Saab sports carthat Stephens is repairing for his wife.
"When I opened the store, I was pretty liberal," says Stephens. "Now, when you come in here during the day, you'll hear Rush Limbaugh."
Stephens' contrasting make-up may reflect a collage of forces taking shape all over Mechanicsville. Today, Old Mechanicsville appears to be, as Stephens says, "a little island in the city," surrounded by what others describe as "the frontier." But Stephens believes this divide between Old and New Mechanicsville is closing. "The dynamics here are going to change," he says.
In different pockets, on different streets and from the shade of very different front porches, Mechanicsville is changing. As Jon Lawler says, "It's going to be a great laboratory to see if you can help a community by providing all the right opportunities."
When asked which Bible verse might best describe why Mechanicsville is now swelling with a unifying mix of government programs and community activism, Rev. Davis points to the Book of Nehemiah. There, it is written, "'Let us rise up and build.' So they strengthened their hands for the good work."