If you have ever been on the corner of Central Street and Jackson Avenue at the hour the bars close, it is not hard to imagine that 100+ years ago, that same corner was even more renowned for debauchery.
Central Street, at one time, held the dubious record of the most saloons in the state. It was, in the late 1800s, a hopping part of town. As trains rolled into the depot, crowds of newcomers disembarked and walked into the bars and businesses lining the street.
Patrick Sullivan's Saloon, still standing on the corner of Central and Jackson, was one of the many bustling bars at the time. Its doors were open to people of all backgrounds, even women, which was unusual for the time.
Along Jackson Avenue, trains deposited goods in the back of the buildings, and out the front, store owners immediately turned a profit.
"There were so many people down here, people would say ‘Gosh, there's a lot of people here, lets start selling them stuff, whatever it is, cocaine or booze or sex whatever it is they want to buy,'" said Jack Neely, Director of the Knoxville History Project.
Neely is writing a book about the Old City; a look back on the area that has been there essentially since trains rolled into the Scruffy City.
"Late at night it was a dangerous place, there were lots of poker games and things got out of hand," he said. "Murder got so common that it became a page seven story down here in the 1890s and 1900s."
It even attracted the likes of Harvey Logan, a notorious outlaw from the Wild West. He managed to get into a bar fight and kill two police officers during his brief stint in the Scruffy City in the early 20th century.
In 1907, all saloons were banned from Knoxville, 12 years before the rest of the nation prohibited the sale of alcohol. With the shutdown, second-hand shops moved in and made their home in the Old City. The first movie theater in Knoxville opened and eventually, the Old City became a place for immigrants. Later it was a predominantly African-American shopping area. By the ‘50s and ‘60s, many people had moved to other parts of town and the once-bustling business hub slowed.
In the 1970s, developers began to eye downtown buildings as places to tear down and start over, but preservationists got involved. Neely explained that after saving the Bijou Theatre, people involved in the restoration began to look north.
"People said ‘Well, what's next?' and they look down here and that's when they started calling it the Old City – because it looked old, but it wasn't an original part of Knoxville," said Neely.
Slowly but surely, business began to trickle in as more people got involved in saving the Old City. Author Cormac McCarthy's second wife, Annie DeLisle opened a high-end restaurant and jazz club that became a game changer.
"Even the wealthy old ladies of West Knoxville would go to dinner and they'd say ‘Hey, this isn't so bad, in fact, some of these buildings are really very pretty,'" said Neely.
After that, more bars, restaurants and nightclubs moved in, including a short-lived but famous nightclub called Ella Guru's. The club managed to attract many traveling acts on their way up. Even Garth Brooks made a stop, a performance that is commemorated in his song "The Old Stuff."
Today, the city is helping developers invest in the Old City.
"We have had buildings being renovated and redeveloped, we've had business come and go but it's a real exciting time to be in the old city," said Rick Emmett, Downtown Coordinator for the City of Knoxville.
Several apartments and condos will soon go up in the area – the John H. Daniel building is even closer to being finished – and the city thinks getting residential spaces is the key.
"The buildings are still here, the cool old buildings, but the businesses have changed the character's changing a little bit," said Emmett. "It's not so much that the old city bar scene though we still have that and that's a cool thing as well…but there's more life downtown during the day here and now, which is exciting to everyone."
All the development means business is picking up in the Old City. Chef Jeffrey DeAlejandro just opened Oli Bea on Central. He is also executive chef at Crown and Goose.
"You know, Old City, to me, for the last few years has been my home," he said. "I spend more time down here than any other place, including my house."
This area, rich with character, chutzpah and je ne sais quoi, is in the midst of what could even be termed a renaissance.
"A lot of the businesses, we've been here when business was not so great, but we stuck it out," said DeAlejandro. "I don't think the Crown and Goose would fit in a shopping center. The Old City is the scruffy city that has character."
Now, as the Old City comes into its own – hopefully as a sustainable place with both residential homes and business – one could say it is doing what it has always done, by fitting the demands of an ever-expanding Knoxville.
"It's the part of Knoxville where all the new things came," explained Neely, detailing how even the first coffee shop in Knoxville – Old City Java - opened its doors back in 1991. "It still is."
As he wiped his brow on a blindingly sunny street corner, Neely postulated about other, generic cities. "They say ‘there is no there there,'" he said, before turning to look right at the camera.
"Well, there's a there here," he said with a grin.