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  Lives of the Fort

A few current and former residents describe the evolutions of Knoxville's most densely populated neighborhood

by Jack Neely

It's been everything, this place. If you were to see this ridge as it was when Knoxville was the capital of Tennessee, you'd see a forested wilderness uncut by any road. In the mid 19th century, during the height of the Whig Party, it was farmland. By late 1863, it was a treeless, trench-scarred, crater-pocked battlefield. In the Victorian era, it was the swankiest neighborhood of Knoxville's Gilded Age, for years a town of its own called West Knoxville. In the early 20th century it was a comfortable middle-class family neighborhood that inspired a nostalgic prose poem by James Agee called "Knoxville: Summer 1915." Even in its family-neighborhood era, Fort Sanders was never the sort of place where things stayed the same for long. The neighborhood and its changes might be too complicated to describe fully in a book. But a few memories of those who lived there over the last 70 years can give us a glimpse of the kaleidoscope that is Fort Sanders.

Retired merchant Martin Hunt remembers Fort Sanders as it was when he was growing up in the 1930s.

"Cumberland Avenue was the furthest west the stores had gone to," he says of Fort Sanders' commercial spine. Lined with groceries, cake shops, the Polar Bear Ice Cream Parlor, the Booth Theater, the bowling alley, the poolhall that was especially popular with kids, and Lane's (later Karnes) drugstore, Cumberland was the center of adolescent social life. The "students" who hung out on Cumberland in those days were most likely to be enrolled at Staub's or Van Gilder—the neighborhood's rival elementary schools. Hunt says UT students weren't conspicuous in Fort Sanders or on Cumberland west of 17th; they dallied closer to 15th, near the Ellis and Ernest Drugstore.

College students did occasionally venture to the fabled Rose Hole. Now the parking lot for Ramsey's cafeteria, this block on the north side of White between 15th and 16th streets was long an undevelopable ravine that somehow evolved into a below-street-level park. Some remember it as a practice football field. "All I remember was tennis courts," Hunt says. They were built for UT students but, Hunt says, "nobody ever said you can't do it. We'd go in at 5:30 or 6 in the morning. The students weren't that gung-ho about getting up that early."

Even by the '30s, many of the wealthy were already moving west, and several of the houses of old Fort Sanders were being cut up into apartments. "Nobody could afford to keep them," Hunt says. However, he remembers new apartment buildings on Laurel Avenue, like Laurel Heights, still could attract wealthy people, some of whom had chauffeurs.

And he remembers the houses of Clinch Avenue near 14th and 15th, and their Sunday-afternoon parties. "All of them had big front porches, and servants who kept the front porches polished. They were wood painted gray, but they would polish them. On Sundays they'd have catered affairs, musicales with a harp and a violin, something like that. Sometimes somebody would play a piano, some girl that had gone away to school, and her family wanted people to see how well she'd done. Passersby would stand across the street and say, 'Good Lord, I wish we were rich and could afford that.'"

Gid Fryer moved into a Clinch Ave. fraternity house not far from there as a pre-law undergraduate in 1939 and lived in Fort Sanders off and on for the next 12 years. And, as a retired professor of social work, he lives there today.

"A major feature was that it was connected by a trolley and a trolley bus," he says of the late '30s. An old rail streetcar, the one James Agee described, still served Highland Ave. But a "trolley bus"—a large rubber-tire conveyance—paralleled the streetcar's route down Clinch before it took off out toward Bearden. Students used the trolleys heavily. "It was not an automobile campus," he says.

By the time Fryer moved in, resident students in this eastern half of Fort Sanders were already obvious, if not dominant. "Student traffic was pretty heavy," he says. "It was primarily walking traffic. There were at least six fraternity houses in Fort Sanders. Also, many houses were rooming houses, some room and board. A favorite occupation of widow ladies was to run a rooming house, and some of them ran a table as well. It was just like a large family table. Usually the proprietor would employ a black couple, a cook and waiter, to put on the meal. A good bit of the street traffic was people gathering at the meal places."

"I have the recollection of seeing people streaming from the university to lodging places and frat houses in Ft. Sanders," he says. Then, in the morning, the stream flowed in reverse, toward classes. "It was kind of a streaming of people, similar to what goes on on football game days now, except the destination was the top of the Hill."

He recalls the Rose Hole as a venue for Friday-night pep rallies for Major Neyland's Vols. "They'd gather crating and dunnage from the trucking places, and make a big pile for a bonfire. The UT band would come out and play." Besides that, most of the obvious student social activity was still concentrated on campus and on Cumberland near 15th, at Ellis and Ernest Drugstore and Briscoe's Cafe. There may have been a few beer joints, he says, but most of the businesses in Ft. Sanders were sober corner groceries.

Fort Sanders west of 17th was different, he says, dominated by smaller, newer one-family bungalows; but many of them were already giving way to expanding businesses, especially the hospital.

Fryer went away to war and moved back to Fort Sanders in 1947, when he lived on Highland across from Van Gilder School; he found little had changed. "There hadn't been any of the building of the sidewise apartment buildings that dot the area now. They were primarily buildings built as family houses," though some had been compromised to suit students. "It was believed that any space you could walk into could be rented to a student."

But there were two Fort Sanders in the '40s and '50s, and one of them had nothing to do with UT students. Rick Scrugham, now a flight instructor for the Army National Guard, was born at Ft. Sanders Hospital and raised in the western half of Fort Sanders. When his parents divorced, he lived with his mother, grandmother, and aunt at the western end of Laurel Ave. Every day for most of the 1950s, he walked a dozen blocks to Van Gilder Elementary at Highland and 13th. He remembers the school well, the huge old Victorian three-story brick building; the first- through fourth-grade classes were on the first floor, the fifth and sixth on upper floors.

After school, Scrugham and his pals would often convene at the Fort Sanders Drugstore at Highland and 20th. "They had ice cream, shakes, banana splits, and a guy behind the counter dressed in white." Scrugham was also a paperboy, and that drugstore was also the drop-off place where he picked up the evening News-Sentinel for delivery in the neighborhood.

"A guy named Massengale lived right across the street, and he was a barber. The living room of his house was a barber shop. I really have fond memories of that place."

He also remembers the Booth Theater on Cumberland. "Every Saturday morning, we'd go down there to see serials. 'Tales of the Texas Rangers.' And there was a room upstairs where everybody in the neighborhood had their birthday cake, and then they'd watch a movie."

Another favorite diversion was slipping over to the playgrounds and ball fields of Tyson Park to see kids from distant parts of the city, like Sequoyah Hills. It wasn't far from his house, as the crow flies, but for anyone besides kids, it would have been a challenge to get to. "You had to go down a kudzu-vine bank, and cross the train tracks, and then go up the other side of the bank, and over a hill. The dirt paths were well worn."

Scrugham started at Tyson just as Fort Sanders Elementary opened; he was a member of the very last class to attend old Van Gilder, Agee's alma mater. Scrugham's family moved out of Fort Sanders in 1960, the year they tore down the old school, but he couldn't stay away. He eventually got work as an executive at W.J. Savage, the industrial-saw manufacturer at Clinch and 10th. "They were noted for hiring softball players," he says. "More than anything, the owner of the company wanted to have the best softball team in the league. They'd almost recruit people to play softball."

They played at the Rose Hole, of course. Scrugham says he attended a neighborhood reunion in the '70s. He sounds as if he wouldn't mind getting together with his old Van Gilder chums again.

Artist Eric Sublett also grew up in Fort Sanders. When he moved here with his family from South Knoxville in 1958, he was just a kid, but the difference was obvious. What he noticed was how many kids there were. "It was full of people; it was vibrant. So many people my age, and a little bit older. There were students, but it was mostly families. A lot of them had students who rented a room in their houses."

He attended Fort Sanders Elementary, the new school near the hospital, and remembers the day in the early '60s when some strangers appeared looking for kids to serve as extras in a movie called All The Way Home, the Robert Preston film based on Agee's A Death In the Family. Some of his schoolmates earned places in the movie—but later had a hard time picking themselves out in the background.

"I lived on the south side of Cumberland Ave., and we called it Fort Sanders, too. Some people differ about that, but I went to Fort Sanders School, and I never heard our neighborhood called anything else."

He roamed widely. "Back then, all the way down to 10th Street, there were houses everywhere. At the bottom of 11th Street were two old derelict railroad engines, near the old Smoky Mountain Railroad Station, which was abandoned, no glass in the windows. You could walk in there, and kids would play there on the old engines.

"The historic houses were big and nice and still had families in them. There was more diversity, I'd say. People of all ages lived there: old people, young people. There was more of a feel of downtown or something."

Even then there was a fringe. "At Laurel and 12th, there was a house with a dragon painted into the column," a bohemian touch that made it stand out in pre-hippie Knoxville. "And near there was a place called The Wall: one of those three-and-a-half-foot stone walls, a hangout for kids who would collect there and talk."

"The biggest change was urban renewal," Sublett says, "around 1966, when they tore down almost all that [western UT campus] area in a two- or three-week period."

The following writers remember Fort Sanders from distinctly different eras and perspectives:

The ghetto began just behind Strong Hall, 10 square blocks of formerly genteel turn-of-the-century and Depression-era homes now fallen into graceless squalor. They were inhabited by a mishmash of foreign graduate students living 20 or 30 to a single-family residence that had been subdivided into tiny apartments; undergraduates with their new cars and Greek letters adorning the fronts of the better buildings; and owner-occupants that ranged from longtime residents to blue-collar families just out of the Smoky Mountains, often barely literate and clinging to their high-country values. As hippie politicos moved in and turned the old houses into communal apartments, a dangerous cross-cultural brew was created.

—Mississippi-bred UT student Ruth Williams, describing circa 1970 Fort Sanders in the 1999 book, Younger Than That Now.

It didn't look like much from the outside. It was a long, low building—a converted paint store, I believe—that stood in an odd triangular space that used be in the last block of Forest Avenue before it emptied into Western. But when the out-of-town media came looking for someone to talk to about the campus Vietnam war protests, they were generally directed to the Yardarm. It probably didn't look like much inside, either. The most memorable piece of interior decoration was a large original oil painting of a slightly deformed pirate that graced one of the walls in the side room. Not that the decor mattered to those of us who frequented it in the late '60s and early '70s. We were students, bikers, professors, dope dealers, war-protesting Dylan-quoting radicals, slumming frat rats, wastrels and wannabes. There was Big Sam, who claimed he was a mercenary and would disappear for months at a time, reappearing unexpectedly with proof of his profession like the bag of wizened leathery mementos he assured us were human ears. There was my dear friend Quintin Tippett, a strapping black man who must have taken pity on me after he sold me a $20 bag of oregano (which my friends and I tried to smoke), and ended up becoming my guardian angel for the first year that I came back home to go to college on the GI Bill after the death of my young husband left me a Vietnam-era widow. Quin was one of those arrested in the Billy Graham protests, and would end up being murdered a decade later in Detroit, I believe. We deployed from the Yardarm when we undertook to lower the flag on The Hill to half-staff in memory of the 40,000 Americans who had died in Vietnam at that point, and we met at the Yardarm to march on Washington. I met my second husband at the Yardarm, after auditioning several candidates for the position. I've always claimed impaired judgment due to excessive smoking of oregano.

Betty Bean

When my family came up from Cleveland, Tenn., for my brother's graduation in '67, he lived in a squat little red brick package of apartments at the southwest corner of 12th and Laurel called the Alamo. I was fascinated by the house two doors to the west, a Beatnik-painting-festooned house called the Gemeinschafthaus. Among other arcana was a Rasputin face broadbrushed in red paint across the haus' clapboard front. I couldn't resist taking a snap of the looming, bearded face with my kiddie Polaroid Swinger camera.

Four years later, I was a UT student myself. It seems I moved every quarter, always heading east, until I had migrated the full length of the crest of the fort. By 1974, I was bacheloring away in an upstairs apartment in the dingy frame house next door to the old Alamo (soon rechristened—with its gracious old porches and stoops bricked-in for more rental space—as The Watergate Apartments).

If you live in Fort Sanders and your 10-speed bicycle isn't stolen right away, you will eventually climb all its hills, including the spiritually empowered incline where one of the most misguided attacks of the Civil War took place.

It is the kind of place where you get back what you give. The hills make your legs strong. The rathole apartments inure you to hardships. The parade of characters passing through provides revelation after revelation, including many that you'd rather not have had and even more that you can't remember afterwards. You become devoted to its very ramshackledness, knowing that if anyone ever actually improved it, it would be as dead as the Mississippians in the trench.

I wandered the scope and scan of my gentle hillside community for nonstop years, taking a few definitive stumbles along the way, falling backwards in love with countless mirages as I roamed the baking half streets, alleys and parking lots.

— Knoxville journalist Jack Rentfro

Most of the hippies and demonstrations were gone by the time I moved into Fort Sanders in 1978, but some of the political activists were still around, and there was a mix of older and foreign students, people in their 20s and 30s who worked downtown, and a few professors. So it had the flavor of a real neighborhood, with a Lebanese grocery at the corner of 13th and Highland Ave. that sold homemade baklava at the front counter (you can still get it there); a Mexican restaurant, Los Charros, at the dingy corner of Forest Avenue and 11th Street that sported a C rating and excellent sopapillas; and the Bahou Restaurant at 12th and Forest, where you could get sprouts and hummus before most people had ever heard of such things.

The Fort Sanders street fair was held in the empty lot where a house had burned down, across the street from Laurel Terrace, the house we dreamed about living in eventually, with its turreted third floor that had once housed a ballroom and a billiards room. A candidate campaigning for the upcoming election was handing out free beer. There was an assortment of long hair and little kids and dogs, musicians and the occasional clown. We sat on the lawn of our new world, and the people streaming past on their way to a Vols game, the men in orange-and-white-plaid sportscoats, and women sweating in wool suits and nylons, seemed as if they were from another planet.

I helped my best friend move into her first Fort Sanders apartment. It had dark wainscoting halfway up the walls, and a bay window in the kitchen, where she'd put the stained glass window she'd carried back from Canada on a train. The light came through it all morning. We'd pick up the Sunday New York Times at the Gay Street bookstore, come back and spread it out on the kitchen table, drinking coffee laced with chicory and cinnamon and eating French toast with real maple syrup, the kind of spartan luxury you claim in tiny ways when you are broke. I thought you could live there for years and never get tired of it. And when I walk into such places now, almost 25 years later, when I see a certain slant of sunlight, a long-windowed, high-ceilinged, wood-floored Victorian splendor, the longing for that apartment still rushes through me.

—Columnist Kathy Shorr, now of Wellfleet, Mass.

For years, I came there only at night. I had daring friends who actually moved into Fort Sanders, into strange, crazy apartments that looked like they were designed by the Riddler. We would meet in these creaky old places and drink beer as if it was something subversive. Fort Sanders was impossible to park in, easy to get lost in. More than once, I was grateful for the numbered streets: when I was in certain conditions, they informed me I was walking in the wrong direction. All the houses were tall and dark and close to the street. Something about it—the bursts of noise from the open doors and windows, the shadows in the shades—reminded me of waterfront scenes in old black-and-white movies. The fact that Fort Sanders was intimidating to people who didn't belong there was part of what made it seem so comfortable to those of us who did.

In 1979, the year I moved in, maybe half of the people I knew grew up speaking some language other than English. We took turns buying the beer. There were two basic kinds of interiors: the first, with little variation, was the rectangular cinderblock cave, dank and undecorated except for a Che Guevara poster. The second kind had countless variations: the section of an old house that usually bore some irrelevant detail—an inoperable sink, an unexplained cornice, stairs to nowhere, half a window—that reminded us that we were late getting here.

Old porches look like stages, and in Fort Sanders sometimes they were. A band would play on a porch and their audience would gather, a loyal audience even when they'd never heard of the band, and they would dance in the streets. I came to understand that there weren't private parties in Fort Sanders: that if I saw a party from the sidewalk and could wade into it, I was there as much as anyone else was. I came to know people. Some of them were old ladies who liked to talk about when the neighborhood was richer. Some of them were old hippies who liked to talk about when the neighborhood was more dangerous. But soon enough, I got to like it well enough just as it was. Newer things were stirring: poets and dancers and guerrilla artists: men with long hair, women with no hair, dogs with no collars. In Fort Sanders, we were all dogs with no collars.

I left Fort Sanders in early 1985. At the time, it seemed as if something had crested and was over; that Fort Sanders had died. Most of my friends agreed about that. We even held a sort of a wake for the place, an event on 11th Street called Farewell to the Fort, with extravagant eulogies. But as it turned out, Fort Sanders had a few more lives and deaths to come.

—Jack Neely

I lived in Fort Sanders, mostly in a series of apartments up and down Laurel Avenue, from 1987 to 1993. I danced and drank and argued and ultimately, did much of my growing up within the invisible borders of my adopted neighborhood. Today, I find it too painful to drive through what is left of what was once my favorite neighborhood in the world.

I came to UT as a sophomore in 1986 after a stint at a private women's college in Virginia. After my freshman year, I realized that I wanted a more diverse, bohemian college experience than I was getting, so the following fall, my parents dropped me off at UT's Morrill Hall to begin my second year of college. I was immediately disappointed with the UT campus. The people bored me, the physical setting depressed me, and the only parties I could find took place on fraternity row and they sucked. By my second month at UT, I was wondering if I had made a terrible mistake.

In October, however, I discovered the "other UT campus" on the far side of Cumberland Avenue. An acquaintance from my new job at Cat's Records dragged me to my first Fort Sanders shindig—a wild melee featuring multiple bands playing on a White Avenue roof and hundreds of students (none of whom appeared to be in a fraternity)—and the rest is history. I moved from the dorm to a room in a house on White Avenue as fast as my parents' money would let me.

During my tenure in Fort Sanders, I had no car, so aside from attending classes on campus, my job on Cumberland, and going to see bands on the Strip, I would often go weeks at a time without leaving The Fort. My friends and I bought our groceries at Sam's or the neighborhood IGA, we drank coffee and read left-wing propaganda at the Anarchist bookstore in the basement of the Laurel Theatre. In the evenings, there was always a party somewhere, spilling out the front door of a Victorian home and onto the wide, welcoming porch. I knew virtually all my neighbors and ran into them as I ate my weekend breakfasts at The Varsity or my payday dinners at The Falafel Hut. I knew the omnipresent abortion protesters in front of the Clinch Avenue women's clinic by first name and I had my own beer mug stored behind the bar at the Longbranch. When I was really broke, I would drop by Stefano's for the free slices of pizza that the steady stream of friends who worked there would give me.

My family never did understand my love affair with Fort Sanders. They pointed to the smelly dumpsters on the street corners, the mentally ill homeless who seemed to regularly crash Fort Sanders social events. (Including the raucous baby shower my friends threw for me at their house on Highland Avenue. In the pictures from that occasion, I am shown opening baby gifts with my husband on one side of me and a grizzled street person in Indian headdress sitting on the other.) They worried that the Fort was unsafe. I, perhaps unwisely, always felt perfectly safe as I walked the streets and alleys of my beloved neighborhood day and night.

By the early '90s, however, my neighborhood was disappearing—literally. My old house on White disappeared. The pace of destruction of house after house after house accelerated at an alarming rate. The day came when it was time for me to move with my young family to a "better" neighborhood. In the back of my mind, however, I always believed that I would be back someday. Today, eight years since leaving the Fort, I have accepted that I will never live there again. There are too many bland apartment complexes and parking lots and too few Raven Records or "Hippie Houses." But I revisit the Fort often in the stories I tell my children and even in the occasional dream.

—Katie Allison Granju

You hear lots of pleasant war stories from people about their time in the Fort. I feel connected to those personal histories, but I only know the present Fort, battered and torn, but still alive and beautiful.

I moved to Knoxville in 1997, but it wasn't until I moved to the Fort a year later that I started to feel comfortable in this town. My first apartment there was on 16th and Laurel, a very old brick and mortar apartment complex. It was spacious and with huge windows to let in the sun in each room. In the winter, it was freezing. I loved it. I felt connected—to things I could walk to (the office, downtown, the strip, the river, bars and restaurants) but also to the past and the city and people. I took to wandering Fort Sanders' streets every day, sometimes late at night, past the Bel-Air and the old hippie house, the Pickle Mansion, the 13th Street Grocery, and sometimes in my more desperate moods, down along railroad tracks off of Grand Avenue. I tried to learn every nook and cranny in my head and the stories that went with them.

I hadn't lived in Fort Sanders long before someone decided to tear down an old house. They didn't build anything in its place, just left it a dirt lot that leached silt onto the sidewalk when it rained. Then a few other homes were razed, others burned, and it began to feel like my neighborhood was dissolving. In 1999, a company called JPI came from Texas and knocked over about 50 houses. They stood along 11th and 12th streets and Grand Avenue—creaky and peeling but durable wooden homes with porches that spilled onto the street and who knows how many stories. In weeks, the whole landscape changed. It's always been changing, I knew, but I couldn't comprehend it changing so quickly, so drastically. In place of the homes went up several vinyl-sided buildings, each surrounded by steel fences. To get in and out of these complexes, you have to go through the very large parking lots on the inside. Who would want to live in there, I wondered. Lots of people, apparently. What does Fort Sanders mean to them?

I went out to talk to some of them last fall. It was around 4 p.m., a sunny afternoon after most classes should have ended. But the first complex I walked through, off of 11th Street, seemed deserted except for a maintenance guy. It dawned on me that there's not really a reason to be outside here—there's no porches or lawns to sit on—unless you're coming or going. Then some guys buzzed by me on skateboards, and for an instant, the place wasn't so desolate.

At the JPI complex off Highland and 18th, I found three women sitting in collapsible canvas chairs, smoking cigarettes and drinking soda.

All three had lived in the dorms the year before. Two lived in the Jefferson Commons, one lived nearby in an old house. They liked the freedom of their own apartment. "It's just easy," said Stacy Jones, who is from Nashville. "It's very convenient with the trolley running by every day."

The place isn't terribly well built, they said. "The carpet's already stained. You can hear your neighbors, you can hear the people upstairs. It's got the cheapest dishwasher ever made," said Erica Leblanc, of New Orleans. They pay $360 a month in rent, which includes furniture, utilities, cable TV, and Internet access. If there's room in your apartment, JPI can lease it to someone you don't know. But the good thing is that if your roommate doesn't pay his or her rent, you're not liable.

Neither Leblanc nor Jones saw themselves moving into a Fort Sanders house. Their friend, Katie Hilbert, plans on moving into Jefferson Commons next year. She now lives in a rundown house nearby. Mice crawl through the walls. "There's spiders. Daddy longlegs, but a new form of daddy longlegs with red dots on their legs. They're in the bathroom all the time," Hilbert said. "[The house] could be really nice if they fixed it up."

They like Fort Sanders because there are students all around them. But they don't always feel safe here. "We have a lot of bums who hang out in this area and they like to go through our garbage because they know they can get a lot of stuff," Jones says.

"It's kind of scary sometimes," Leblanc said. "It kind of reminds me of New Orleans, where one block is fine and the next is bad."

"It's different for guys and girls. I had to stay alone here one night. It was scary," she added.

Jefferson Commons isn't my idea of home, but I certainly could understand college students living here, in this new Fort Sanders. It's simply easier, and although these buildings won't hold up nearly as well as the old houses have, for now, the new complexes are in better condition.

With their stairways and hallways exposed to the outside, these buildings look like hotels. You're not supposed to stay here for long. You're supposed to sleep here, study, get drunk, make a few friends and move on. When they come back in 10 years, I doubt they'll remember which apartment belonged to them. They will probably remember the creepy spiders, the homeless guys rummaging through their garbage, the creaky old houses, and a place called Fort Sanders. Good or bad, it always leaves an impression.

Joe Tarr

January 24, 2002 * Vol. 12, No. 4
© 2002 Metro Pulse