The Soul of Knoxville?

Ben Taylor Local Living 12 Comments

Gay Street. Photo: Frank Kehren

Ben Taylor is an all new addition to the Knoxify crew. Born and raised in Knoxville, Ben has a passion to unveil what makes Knoxville a unique town that many call home.

I was born and raised in Knoxville, and I have spent most of my adult life here. I confess that during most of that time I did not give this town a second thought. However, within the last year or so, and for reasons I hope to discover later, I have been encountered by Knoxville in such a way that I can no longer ignore it. Knoxville intrudes itself into my daily life in ways that I often find inappropriate. At times, as I’m about my business, it sidles up to me and draws strange analogies between itself and whatever happens to be the object of my attention at that moment. Before I can get in a word, it’s gone, leaving me only with questions.

The only way I can think to work through these questions is by further inquiry into Knoxville with other Knoxvillians. And since this is a site about Knoxville, and by Knoxvillians, I feel I’m in good company.

So here is the first question I have:

What is the soul of Knoxville?

I’ve recently stumbled across some quotations that have intrigued me:

“Towns, like people, have souls.” –Rita Mae Brown, Murder on the Prowl

“Sociologists know that every city has its own personality, and that a man’s mental make-up changes when he goes from the country to the city and again from one city to another. It would be irrational to refuse to see this.” –Jacque Ellul, The Meaning of the City

“Me, it is my fortune and misfortune to know how the spirit-presence of a strange place can enrich a man or rob a man but never leave him alone, how, if a man travels lightly to a hundred strange cities and cares nothing for the risk he takes, he may find himself No one and Nowhere. . . Son of a bitch, how can I think of variable endowments, feeling the genie-soul of Chicago perched on my shoulder?” –Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

High school teachers will often speak of the personality of a class, say of the class ’05 or of 3rd Period Algebra. As a former teacher I can confirm this. It is as if you are dealing with Someone, and not merely 20+ individuals. And this is what I mean by sou l– that vitally distinctive je ne sais quoi of anyone or anything.

Can we say the same of Knoxville? Does Knoxville have a “soul”? If so, what is it or how would you describe it?

Comments 12

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  2. Suzy

    Having lived in several other towns in Tennessee, I have always felt that Knoxville had its own “feel” and obviously, since it’s where I chose to settle down, it’s a feel I like. To me, I think it boils down to the friendliness of the people and the town. It seems to be more than the stereotypical southern friendliness — my relatives from middle Tennessee who are certainly no strangers to small town southern charms comment on how friendly and happy a place this is whenever they come to visit. Where that laid back friendly attitude comes from, I can’t say, and whether it’s the soul of Knoxville, I don’t know. But I do know that I like it.

  3. Jen Boehm

    I don’t even know what that word means. Soul? I mean, do you think that soul is something that sort of floats away when I die? Do I have one? I don’t know. Does Knoxville? That would be weird.

  4. Sandra

    We see glimpses of “the soul of Knoxville” whenever people come out of their isolated neighborhoods to spend time with others enjoying a common interest: sporting events, music, the arts, cultural events, educational events, etc.

  5. Jennifer

    Growing up in CT and now living in Roane County I love Knoxville. It is the type of place that is more “me” and where I came from. It is a friendly, inviting and a “come as you are” place.

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  7. Willie61

    When we say the “soul of a city” we often mean how the city feels when interacting with others we meet. In that vain I will answer the question this way. Knoxville’s soul is complicated and multi-leveled. One the surface we see a family town, wrapped in the trapping of all the nice and safe things most crave. We are cordial with those we encounter, smile and say all the ‘right’ things, but then how many times do we mix with those who are opposite of us outside of a work setting.

    I have lived on and off in Knoxville for more than 20 years and have friends of all types and kinds, that stems from living other than here.

    I do see things changing for the better, more cultures are building deep relationships, becoming friends instead of acquaintances, and that will continue to build the “soul” of this city.

  8. LizG

    This post sounds a lot like a question posed when I was going to college in Athens, Ohio. I worked on a multimedia project where we tried to capture the “soul” of Athens, and the responses really ran the gamut from quirky community figures to art events to nature to youth.

    Here is a link the project I worked on: http://2007.soulofathens.com. They now do a version of the project every year.

    When I first moved to Knoxville, I have to admit I wasn’t sure it had the same richness as the Athens community, but the longer I live here the more the pulse of the city is evident.

  9. Doug Floyd

    When you say “soul of a city” I am thinking of the deep essence of a person. What is the deep essence or vital life of this city? For me one way to think about it is through what Robert Bellah once called a “community of memory.” What is the story, the collected stories, the embedded and embodied memories in the buildings, photographs, land and even blood of the people here?

    I moved here in 1974 at ten years old. Born in New York and raised in New Jersey. Yet when we moved to Knoxville, I told everyone that I was going home. My relatives all lived here. And even as a child, I had some sense of exile from my people. This city is home. I’ve moved away and come back. And yet, I have an ambivalence about the city as well. Some folks used to call it “Notsville.” And that’s what it felt like: the place where you stop going forward. I have many friends whose ministries ended in this city.

    And yet, I also love this city. The smell of Kern’s bakery or JFG coffee. The funny and odd little World’s Fair Park. The gradual reawakening in Market Square Mall. Recently, I had a business meeting off 6th Avenue. I was early, so I drove up and down the nearby neighborhoods, and I was taken back by the simple beauty of places I had forgot. Maybe part of discovering the soul is simply visiting the very city where we live and meeting the people who live around us.

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  11. Randy

    I can feel a difference in myself when i am in different locations. I think places have an energy about them created by the people in them. If your sensitive to them you can breath a place in and let it tell you about its soul. At least as it relates to you.

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