Editor's note: This is part of the Missourian's "SEC Road Trip" special section.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — At 10:30 a.m., the vendors of the Rossini Festival are just beginning to set up on Gay Street: heating oil for kettle corn, chopping white onions that will be grilled with Italian sausage and hanging paintings that depict various locations in the city.
Distance from Columbia: 609 miles by car
Enrollment: 29, 934
Mascot: Bluetick Cornhound
Fight Song: Down the Field
Football Coach: Derek Dooley (11-14, 2nd season)
Basketball Coach: Cuonzo Martin (18-14, 1st season)
It is festival season in Knoxville, Tenn.
Knoxville is a laid-back city that sits at the crossroads of the hospitality of the south and the folk heritage of the Smoky Mountains to southeast. Here, the police stop to warn you the headlights of your parked car are still on.
The place to be this morning, the policeman said, is the downtown square. Just head right down the street, and you’ll run right into it.
A city in renovation
A block up, Megan Scott and John Becker sit behind a table loaded with shortbread, scones and buttermilk coffee cake at the Market Square Farmers' Market.
This is only their second time selling their baked goods at the market. Scott and Becker started this season because the market offers an opportunity to test new recipes.
“It gives me the opportunity to fatten up someone else beside John,” Scott said.
At the south end, Cruze Farm has set up a “milk bar” where visitors can sample the farm’s chocolate and strawberry milk or order fresh biscuits and corn fritters, cooked to order on a small, portable griddle on the side of the trailer.
The market is usually made up of about 95 vendors. There is no official count, but each weekend from May to November, the market will see 2,000 to 5,000 visitors, according to Charlotte Tolley, director of the market. When the market began in 2004, there were 20 vendors and few visitors to downtown Knoxville.
“Downtown is just becoming a new place to go hang out again,” Becker said.
Until recently, Knoxville was a city that was still in development. The city has spent the last 60 years trying to recover first from a textile industry that was unable to compete with foreign competition, then the loss of a large railroad shipping industry after the construction of the Interstate system.
Since 2000, downtown has been the focus of an aggressive redevelopment campaign. Now, almost all the buildings have been leased to both local and chain businesses.
“The square is kind of the heart,” said Tolley. “Things are building out more and more.”
Tolley first came to Knoxville as a student at the University of Tennesse but has been “living as an adult” here for the past 12 years. She said she has seen a significant increase in the number of people and events over the past 10 years.
“Now stuff’s going on down here all the time,” she said.
The most unusual building of the Knoxville skyline is a steel structure topped by a large golden globe. The building, the Sunsphere, is a remnant from Knoxville’s hosting of the 1982 World's Fair.
In 1982, 22 countries participated in the “Energy Turns the World” Exhibition. The festival took over the west side of the city for six months with pavilions, a Ferris wheel and a giant Rubik’s cube in the Hungary exhibit. The fair had an attendance goal of 11 million people, a record met the day before it closed on Oct. 31.
Today, beside the Sunsphere, the only building that remains from the fair is the amphitheater that sits on the bank of a small lake in World’s Fair Park.
A 48-second elevator ride to the top of the Sunsphere takes visitors to the public observation deck. There are a few other visitors wearing matching team T-shirts from this morning’s "Walk to Cure Diabetes" in the park below.
Through the tinted windows lies the city of Knoxville. The city is banked by the Tennessee River. In the distance are the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, barely visible through the haze and clouds.
To the northwest, old warehouses dominate the skyline. The Old City district is an area of converted warehouses, saloons and train tracks left over from Knoxville’s days as an industrial capital. At night, a combination of college students and young professionals head to the area’s bars, pubs and nightclubs.
A five-minute drive down Cumberland Avenue, the University of Tennessee is firmly planted on top of one of the many rolling hills of Knoxville. The university is focused on research and has ties to Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is about 25 miles outside the city. A major portion of the research at Oak Ridge is nuclear energy. The facility was established during World War II to separate and produce uranium and plutonium for the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project.
Sports have a strong following at Tennessee. In terms of records, the university’s most successful sports team is the women’s basketball team, which has made it to every NCAA basketball championship tournament since the tournament’s establishment in 1982. The “Vols” football program has won the second most games of the current SEC programs. The team holds six national titles; the most recent was in 1998.
“I think the university is partially self-contained, but it does have some impact,” Tolley said. “You would never be able get married in a church in Knoxville on a home football Saturday.”
Tennessee’s mascot, Smokey, is a Bluetick Coonhound, a small dog cared for by members of the Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity on campus. Smokey also exists in a costumed form that appears at every Vols game.
A somewhat steep walk leads to Ayers Hall, the main administration building. It is surrounded on the north side by other academic buildings. In between the buildings peeks the bright orange of Neyland Stadium. The stadium, named for former football coach Robert Neyland, is the home of the Tennessee Volunteers football team.
On football home game days, major streets around campus are turned into one-way streets headed into campus. After the game, all traffic is directed one-way out of campus. This past summer, Henley Bridge, one of the few bridges across the Tennessee River into campus closed for renovations. According to an article in the Knoxville News Sentinel, representatives from the Knoxville Police Department, University of Tennessee, and Homeland Security met a month before the opening home football game in order to discuss how to direct traffic with the current closure.
“It’s pretty much all orange to the stadium,” said junior Mason Vickery.
About two hours before games, fans line the streets leading to the stadium, which is two blocks from the student center. During the “Vol Walk,” one of the traditions on Tennessee game days, the cheerleaders, Smokey, the coaches and players walk through the crowd of fans into the stadium.
“Tennessee is one the richer schools in terms of tradition in the SEC,” said Vickery.
One of his favorite parts of the game is singing along to “Rocky Top,” the unofficial fight song of the university. He describes the atmosphere of the student section inside the stadium at football games as “rowdy.”
“You don’t want to wear the wrong colors in the student section,” he said.
The lunchtime ‘Special’
Back on Gay Street, the five members of the Corey Bishop Band set up their instruments on a small wooden stage in the corner of the Knoxville Visitor Center. Monday through Saturday, for an hour starting at noon, the center hosts the “Blue Plate Special,” a live music radio show broadcast on station WDVX. The program normally hosts country, folk and bluegrass musicians. The Avett Brothers and Bela Fleck have made appearances in the past.
The Corey Bishop Band is the second act of today’s show. Among brochures for museums and maps of the city sits a crowd of about 30. Some are regulars. Others wandered in the center and found themselves in the middle of a live radio show. Two are John and Tracy Vandiver, members of Claxton Creek, the folk band that just finished its half-hour set.
The red “On Air” sign flicks on as the band launches into its first song. The members met at Belmont College in Nashville and have been playing together for two months. The guitar, bass and drums give the songs an alternative rock sound, but the songs turn more country when Bishop adds some harmonica.
“It’s a real honor to be here on the Blue Plate Special,” said Bishop after the band’s second song. “My favorite color is blue. My favorite thing to eat off of is a plate. And my mother has told me several times that I’m special.”
After a few songs, some audience members begin clapping and bobbing their heads to the beat. Five songs later, the show signs off to enthusiastic clapping from the audience.
An aria in the afternoon
A few blocks down Gay Street, customers are gathered in the small patio of the “French Market Creperie.” The market-turned-restaurant serves sweet and savory versions of the large, thin pancake, stuffed with things such as Swiss cheese, fruit or nutella, and then folded into eighths.
Knoxville food is not traditional southern cuisine. One of the oldest restaurants in town is a vegetarian-friendly pizza, sandwich and burrito joint off Market Square named Tomato Head. The highest-rated Knoxville restaurants on Internet sites serve vegan-friendly burritos, gyros filled with lamb and onions, and sushi.
In the street in front of the restaurant, visitors to the Rossini Festival stream by. This is the Italian festival and street market’s 11th year. On a stage set up at Gay Street and Union Avenue, Michael Austin, a tenor currently with the Knoxville Opera Company, is belting “Old Man River.” After he is finished, he steps off stage to cheers and clapping. His deep laugh is carried across the street, a side effect of having lungs used to dealing with full, operatic notes.
Across the street, Mali Glazer has lost her husband to the wine tasting tent. Glazer is originally from San Francisco, but she and her husband retired to Knoxville almost six years ago. The city met all their requirements: a college town, good libraries, natural beauty and a place that was small enough that she would be able to attend most of the festivals and events downtown.
“I really love coming down here,” Glazer said.
Glazer has missed the Rossini Festival the last five years but was determined to attend this year, even though it meant a late-night, 8-hour drive home from Cleveland last night.
The Knoxville Strip
At night, groups of Tennessee students in small groups head in a steady stream to a section of Cumberland Avenue to the north of campus, known as the “Strip.” The windows on the front of “Tin Roof” have been opened, which allows the country music on the speakers inside to be broadcast onto the sidewalk.
Inside, students stand at wooden tables drinking beer. Near the front, teams of two are competing in the beanbag toss game cornhole, which is known as baggo in other parts of the country. Students continue to arrive and form a line outside to enter.
Across the street, campus is dark. On one wall of the University Center hangs plates of the seals of the universities in the SEC. Missouri and Texas A&M have yet to be added.
“We take football pretty seriously around here,” said Vickery. “I guess you’ll get a taste of it in the fall.”
Supervising editor is Greg Bowers.