It wasn’t all that long ago that Knoxville’s downtown was something of a ghost town after business hours. One could have walked down West Church Avenue on a Saturday afternoon and felt like Will Smith’s abandoned character in “I Am Legend” (minus the paralyzing fear of being devoured by carriers of super rabies, naturally).
That’s no longer the case. The past few years have seen a myriad of development in Knoxville’s downtown area. Consequently this neighborhood is thriving. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to keep track of everything that goes on here anymore.
Market Square is arguably the hub of it all. Spend a Saturday morning here and you’re apt to forget you’re in a small Southern city. For all you know, you might have even wondered into some (gasp!) European village. It’s a place where great people-watching is guaranteed from the outdoor patios of restaurants lining the square. You’re likely to spot children splashing in the sidewalk fountain while mom and dad look on, pet lovers walking their poodles, and young hippies with tattoo-covered arms in pursuit of whatever it is that young hippies with tattoo-covered arms do.
The Market Square Farmers’ Market spills over with local farmers, bakers and artisans selling their wares for seven months of the year, every Wednesday and Saturday from May-November. It’s the perfect place to pick up locally made salad dressing, honey, bread, and fresh blackberries and tomatoes.
Thursday evenings in the spring and early summer pack in the crowds with the annual free Sundown in the City concert series, which features a variety of local and national acts. Past years have seen performances by The American Plague, Gin Blossoms, Edwin McCain, Scott Miller & The Commonwealth, Josh Ritter, Presidents of the United States of America and Wild Magnolias.
Then there’s summer’s Shakespeare in the Square, in which a couple of the Bard’s classic plays are annually brought to the stage, for free. That’s not to mention the ice-skating rink that goes up every winter, Christmas in the City, First Night Knoxville on New Year's Eve, First Friday events, and the International Biscuit Festival.
Moving less than a block from the square will put you on historic Gay Street. The Tennessee Theatre, a 1920s-era movie palace, is still here, basking in the glory of reopening in 2005 after a $25.5 million renovation and restoration project. It’s the perfect place to catch a play, an Iron & Wine show, or an old movie in style. There’s also the newly renovated century-old Bijou Theatre and a new state-of-the-art Regal movie multiplex.
The Old City is also downtown, just blocks away. Roughly comprising the Jackson Avenue Warehouse District, which features several buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, the Old City is home to clubs, restaurants, shops and bars. It’s here that Knoxville’s local music scene thrives. It was also here that Kid Curry, a member of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch, shot a couple of deputies, escaped jail and rode a stolen horse across the Gay Street Bridge.
The Island Home neighborhood to the south, just over the Tennessee River, is home to dozens of historic houses reflecting architectural styles of the early 1900s. Many examples of Craftsman, Bungalow and Tudor Revival architecture can be found here. Island Home also has its own park and historic district, is near Ijams Nature Center with its number of trails and activities, and is the site of the Tennessee School for the Deaf.
The city of Knoxville plans to further develop the area along the river here. Dubbed RiverWalk Landing, future developments will include public improvements for sidewalks, bikeways, retail and office space, as well as condominium and other housing units.