As food metaphors for cities go, there are plenty of them. New York, as most people know, is the Big Apple. Atlanta is often called the Big Peach. Even Chicago gets in on the act as the Big Onion. Then there’s Tel Aviv, Israel, which is sometimes referred to as the Big Orange.
That’s news to anyone who has ever set foot on Knoxville’s University of Tennessee campus, or in the surrounding Fort Sanders area. Here, it’s Big Orange most of the time.
Orange and white are the official colors of the UT Volunteers, which is sort of a big deal around here. On Saturdays during the fall the flagship campus in Knoxville attracts football fans like a piece of watermelon left on the sidewalk attracts ants. On these days, the city swells to become the largest in the state. Tailgating fans sizzle burgers while sitting in camping chairs, students paint their bodies orange, and plenty of people hide their beer in Thermoses (it is, after all, a dry campus). Neyland Stadium, by the banks of the Tennessee River, is, with a capacity of 102,455, the biggest stadium in the South, and, depending on who you talk to, the second biggest in the nation.
The university isn’t just about football, though (at least that’s what they tell us). Founded in 1794 as Blount College, the college is attended by approximately 20,000 undergraduate students, 6,000 graduate students and 8,000 faculty and staff members. Students are privy to entertainers, artists, speakers, a top-notch research library (curiously shaped like the board from Q-Bert) and Greek life; they even occasionally attend class.
Campus is intersected by “The Strip,” a busy thoroughfare lined with restaurants and bars. Students keep the streets crowded until late and on weekends, even when football isn’t in season. The city is considering redeveloping the area with wider sidewalks, more retail space and even trees and benches.
Just northward is Fort Sanders. Site of a decisive Union victory over Confederate troops at the 1863 Battle of Fort Sanders, the hilltop streets now accommodate several Victorian homes, many of them having been restored in recent decades. Students, musicians and artists frequently call this area home.
East of Fort Sanders and the University of Tennessee campus is World’s Fair Park. Marking the location of the 1982 World’s Fair, which brought 11 million people to Knoxville, the grounds are now the home of a lush park, interactive fountain and a state-of-the-art Convention Center. Visitors can take the elevators to the top of the Sunsphere, a gold-colored sphere that towers into the Knoxville skyline. At 266 feet tall, this symbol of the World’s Fair has also come to symbolize the city (even “The Simpsons” paid tribute in a 1996 episode, saying it was the home of a wig shop).
Southwest of World’s Fair Park — following the banks of the Tennessee River — is Volunteer Landing. This three-acre park features a scenic paved river walk, a full-service marina, playground, fishing docks, picnic tables, even play fountains for the kids to splash in (and, truthfully, adults, too). It’s a great place to watch the city’s annual Boomsday fireworks display on Labor Day weekend, or to rent bicycles.
Further west, near Sequoyah Hills, is Tyson Park. The 27-acre park has 14 tennis courts, two baseball fields, a playground, and is the site of the city’s first skate park.