I grew up with Knoxville, Tennessee being one of the big towns. If we wanted something and we couldn’t get it in town (Greeneville, Tennessee) one of the big towns to go for it would be Knoxville. We went there to do back to school shopping. We went there for Spring clothes shopping. We went there for concerts. We went there for just released movies. It was the big town with more to offer.
In my day the place we went was West Towne Mall. Near that was a the hip cool place to get record albums (yep talkin’ vinyl here) the day they were released, Cats Records. Couldn’t get albums until a week maybe two after release in Greeneville. Just like movies you had wait for them to be out a bit to make it down the pipeline to Greeneville.
Back in my grandmother’s day the hub of action in Knoxville was downtown. Gay Street was where it happened. That’s where her daddy took her shopping and where she went shopping with my Papaw in tow.
I have a photo of them made by a street photographer on Gay Street. We think it was the mid to late 1930s when this was taken. In those days a street photographer made your picture then tried to sell it to you. Kinda like what we see at amusement parks today but then it was in busy places, like Gay Street.
Times changed and business moved from downtown out to malls. Even the name of the street shifted in cultural meaning. It went from being a happy street to being a homosexual street without doing a thing. There was even talk about changing the name. In a blast of maturity and sanity such a concept was ditched and it remained Gay Street.
I can remember going there when I was young. It was in decline. There was a cafeteria there I vaguely remember Nannie (what I called my maternal grandmother) taking me to have lunch. I remember a very ornate interior and waiters that wore white dinner jackets and carried your tray from the line to the table of your choice. It wasn’t like any cafeteria I’d ever been to where you carried your own tray. Also I remember an older black gentleman served us and called me Miss. He gave me an extra pat of butter from a shiny silver bowl with tongs whose tips were shaped like shells. He held out his pinky as he did so. I thought that was amazing. I wanted to talk to him, I liked his smile. I wanted to know more about him but was told that wasn’t acceptable. So I ate my extra butter on a yeasty roll and wondered about this odd place where Nannie and her friends took me to lunch.
In my college years at UT in Knoxville Gay Street was mostly abandoned. Like many downtowns in the USA it was boarded up and considered not a place to go much. Especially don’t go there at night. I bought a couch at a used furniture store just off of Gay street. Went to Night On The Town down on Gay street which was just a big drunken party in front of boarded up shops in an attempt to revitalize the place. The Butcher brothers built big fancy glass towers on Gay street side by side. Then they got caught in their banking scams and went to jail. One tower sat empty, the other had a fancy club up top. Went to Club LeConte once wasn’t as fancy as the cafeteria that had once been on Gay Street.
Then I moved on with my husband and didn’t think much of Gay Street. After a decade, living in many other places we moved back to Oak Ridge near Knoxville. Gay Street was seeing a revival of sorts. Hip new couples were moving in to make loft apartments in the ornate old buildings. If you worked at the TVA or UT Campus it was close to work no driving needed. Some restaurants were moving back and the old Tennessee Theater with it’s huge pipe organ was being restored. Life was returning to the street.
Recently when we were in Tennessee for a family reunion on my side of the family. We met Mike’s brother and sister-in-law down on Gay street. Much had changed, it was active again in the evening. There were offices, restaurants, people out walking. No they didn’t dress to the nines like my grandparents but it wasn’t desolate like it was in my day.
It was good to see life there again. It was pleasant to sit out in a casual sidewalk microbrewery sipping a cold drink (I can’t have beer any more) and visit. I thought of that photo of my grandparents made about seventy years ago on this very same street. Gay street has always been a familiar place on the edge of my life and I’m glad to see it’s living again.