Monthly Archives: February 2015

A Night in Happy Holler

Last week I was at Time Warp Tea Room for a full house, a satisfying and inexpensive meal on a cold February night. Proprietor Dan Moriarty presides over the Time Warp like a benevolent spirit. It’s usually not a crowded place, except on motorcycle nights, but last Thursday about a dozen older people had convened at a big table to share memories of Happy Holler.

Of course, it’s hard to keep memories in one place. And unfortunately for the concept of focus, Cas Walker had a store in Happy Holler, and everybody remembers it. I have learned, when trying to extract interesting and perhaps truthful information from anyone slightly older than I am, never to mention the word “Cas.” As soon as you do, it’s too late, and your conversation’s going off the rails. As far as many people are concerned, Cas Walker was the main thing that happened in Knoxville between 1920 and 1980, with the possible exception of some memorable Vols games, but then again, not all that many. Therefore all other subjects inexorably lead to the subject of Cas.

I never knew Cas Walker, the millionaire grocer-impresario-demagogue who died 16 years ago. I was in the same room with him a few times. I could never think of anything I needed to say to him. To be honest, I was beginning to grow weary of Cas Walker stories by the time I learned to read. Although any scholar has to admit that in fact and fiction he served a need.

He’s an East Tennessee icon, the rascal hero, like Br’er Rabbit or Sut Lovingood, the salt-of-the-earth genius who saw the potential in Flatt & Scruggs and Dolly Parton before anybody else did, the working-class hero who was an idol of the working class even when he was tricking them out of their paychecks. I don’t fully believe any Cas stories, wholly, but I’ve made it a practice not to wholly doubt them, either.

In between those obligatory Cas stories, the old timers who gathered at the Time Warp last week told a few I’d never heard before. Happy Holler may have been the only neighborhood in America where parents warned their daughters to walk only down the back alleys, never on the sidewalk of the main street. North Central, where it went through Happy Holler, was just too dangerous. Almost everybody at the table had a story, some of them firsthand, of a shooting or knifing affray there, more than a half-century ago.

One thing that makes Happy Holler different from other working-class neighborhoods in East Tennessee is the Catholic influence. The Holy Ghost church is right there, and several of the Happy Holler old-timers were raised Catholic.

“You know how Cas was about Catholics,” one woman said, smiling, almost affectionately. She recalled how Cas referred to nuns as ghost women. Cas was not Catholic, and encouraged others to regard nuns as ghosts, strange beings wandering among us, spooky, unpredictable, and not quite real.

Happy Holler does have its own history, separate from Cas. Established by the 1930s as the downtown commercial center for an industrial neighborhood clustered around Brookside Mills, which was until it closed in the 1950s was one of Knoxville’s biggest employers, Happy Holler was also central to employees of several other north-side factories, like the railroad Coster Shops, and Dempster Brothers, manufacturers of the iconic Dumpster. Happy Holler is believed to have gotten its name for its abundance of entertainment, not only its famous beer joints and dance halls and pool rooms, but also its own picture show, the Joy Theatre, a name that folded in well with Happy Holler, even if, in the memory of those best able to remember it, it was a run down and scary old place.

Happy Holler was happier for some than for others.

They talked about how they used to refer to the Broadway Shopping Center area as Mucktown, about how about 60 years ago, they hanged a director of the Boys’ Club in effigy, because he fired a staffer everybody liked. They talked about old Sheriff Stumpy Sims, and his sons Fats and Skinny.

They talked about how at Drew’s Alley, back between the railroad and Second Creek, you could get anything you wanted, bootleg liquor or casual women. One of the younger attendees talked about the night in 1975 when Gregg Allman, for reasons of his own, showed up at the Casual Lounge, a few blocks farther out Central, and played a few tunes on his famous guitar. It was right around that same time when local boxer Big John Tate, who was destined to be an Olympic medalist and a world heavyweight champ, was swaggering around in the neighborhood, throwing punches in the Golden Gloves ring, which was right here on this block.

They talked about Porky’s Poolroom—it was there before the Golden Gloves joint, and Stroud’s Barber Shop, and how they used to have some Quakers in the neighborhood, and the street gang known as the Fourth Avenue Gang. There were a dozen or so of them, back in the juvenile-delinquent era, with ducktails, hanging out at the corner of Fourth and Randolph, looking cool and bad at the soda shop known as Aunt Auby’s.

More than one of the older men could attest to the truth that being a paperboy was no way to make a living. “Everybody took the paper, but nobody paid,” said one old man. The paper was 30 cents a week. Or maybe 35 cents “But it didn’t make a difference, because nobody paid.”

One asked if they ever got robbed. Getting robbed was a hazard in Happy Hollow, but maybe not for paperboys. “No, we didn’t get robbed,” said one old man, to set the record straight about his old neighborhood. “We didn’t have any way to get robbed, because nobody paid us.”

It became a theme. Here and elsewhere in town, subscribers came to realize that they didn’t really have to pay the paperboy to keep getting the paper. The paperboy’s job was to deliver the daily paper and its advertisements to everybody, and it was his job to persuade them to pay.

It was a very interesting evening in Happy Holler, and I left the Time Warp thinking differently about this place. It’s not scary anymore, even late at night, and I walked these storied old sidewalks boldly, never once thinking I should be slipping back toward the alleys for safety. Flats and Taps was full of people who looked young and cheerful and prosperous. And at Relix Variety Theatre, about 300 people were rapt, watching rapid Pecha Kucha slide shows about architecture and design and a trip down the Tennessee River. There were actual professors in there.

I didn’t see any nuns or gangsters or heavyweight champs, but naturally, it made me wonder what old Cas would have thought about all this.

King’s Alley

Whenever we talk about black history, we have to admit that there are large parts of it that are off limits to us. Before the civil-rights era, black lives were rarely chronicled in newspapers and books. We have to rely on unexpected clues.

Lodged in an old sidewalk near the Old City is a peculiarity. It’s very small, but bound to be noticed more as there are more reasons to walk down East Jackson Avenue.

For a few decades, the Old City has ended, by common agreement, just east of Barley’s, when you get to the James White Parkway overpass. People don’t like to walk under the overpass, and until recently there has not been much obvious reason to. Only the curious venture beyond the broad shadow of the highway, and except for the Rail Salvage place, there aren’t very obvious attractions. So what they do is just turn around and walk back toward Central, where the fun is.

That’s changing. There’s now a big free parking lot under the overpass, and it’s popular. Another block or two past that is the new boutique jeans place, on Randolph Street, and beyond that, the opera company and the brewery with its tasting room. Even David Dewhirst, who never invests in a neighborhood unless it’s just about to bloom, has a long-term project out that way.

You don’t have to go far, along the block past Patton Street, to puzzle over that thing imbedded in the sidewalk. There was a time, early in the 20th century, when the city marked intersections not just with street signs on posts, but with brass markers underfoot.

The curio is just this side of the defunct old Lay’s Market. In the sidewalk are letters marking an intersection that no longer exists, and that very few people remember. In one direction, it says EAST JACKSON AVE. That’s easy to understand. It’s been East Jackson for more than a century, and it still is.

But perpendicular to it, sometimes obscured by a thin layer of dark mud, is another phrase: KINGS ALLEY.

It’s an odd thing to see, because there’s no alley there now. It’s just partway down the extra-long block that accommodates Knox Rail Salvage. There’s a paved bit suggesting maybe it used to be a driveway into the salvage yards, but even that’s not open now.

I went to the library to see what I could figure out.

King’s Alley—in city directories, it’s most often spelled with the apostrophe–hasn’t borne that name, at least not officially, since the early days of the Coolidge administration. That brass marker is at least 90 years old.

The word “alley” is disreputable these days, but a century and more ago an alley was a small urban street. Alleys were usually just one-way affairs, and probably didn’t get much through traffic, but they weren’t just service alleys at the backs of buildings, either. There were residences in alleys, and sometimes businesses, too.

A century ago, King’s Alley was on city maps. It was once home to probably 100 people.

It first appears in public records in 1891. King’s Alley was just a little residential street off the industrial railroad-frontage avenue then known as Hardee Street, before Hardee was renamed East Jackson.

Who it was named for is not obvious. There’s a King Street a few blocks away, just a little bit more than an alley off Fifth Avenue, but it doesn’t line up in such a way to suggest it’s related in any way to this old alley marked on East Jackson. Oddly, another King’s Alley pops up in 1891, the same year this one did, just outside of Knoxville’s tight city limits, over near the university.

The King’s Alley over here, near the railroad, was a residential street when it appeared, home to several households. It started at Hardee, several years before Hardee’s name was changed to East Jackson, and went south to First Creek, crossing Campbell Street and Paddleford Street on the way.

That first year, it was home to 13 households, eight of them black, five of them white. They were all working people of modest means, several of them single women who worked as laundresses or cooks. But there was one black cobbler named Lee Starr who would put down roots on King’s Alley and survive its several eras.

The street was part of the neighborhood known as Cripple Creek, which was a mixed-race neighborhood, especially in its earliest years. It became more and more purely an African-American community, though, and by 1900, all of King’s Alley’s residents were black.

It became more dense with the years, a handy place to live if you worked for the railroad, for the packing houses, or at Keller’s Foundry, just down the street.

In 1925, King’s Alley’s name was changed, for reasons I wish I could even guess about, to Quebec Alley. I can’t tell whether any French Canadians were ever involved in this part of town, but you never know. At the time, one of the most powerful men in Knoxville was UT president Harcourt Morgan, a Canadian who’s sometimes portrayed as the good ol’ boy of academia, but he was from Ontario.

Quebec Alley’s new name didn’t change its basic makeup. By then, it was home to 20 or 25 households, all black.

Meanwhile, the term Alley as a name for a residential street fell out of favor. Around 1938, its name was changed to include a plausibly French proper noun: Quebec Place. But it didn’t change much. Lee Starr, the shoemaker who’d been one of the first residents on King’s Alley in 1891, was still a resident of Quebec Place, 50 years later.

However, historian Bob Booker, who grew up in that neighborhood after it was renamed Quebec, says nobody was fooled by it. “I knew people who lived on King’s Alley,” he says.

He says there were a lot of residential alleys in that neighborhood, as he recalls it in the ’40s: Rock Alley, Drew’s Alley, Fairchild’s Alley.

“In later days they tried to clean up the old addresses for the young people, so the stigma of living in an alley wouldn’t be there.” He says most people kept calling it “King’s Alley.”

In the early 1950s, there were still about 20 families living on the little street. They might still be there today if not for urban renewal. In 1957, eight of the houses on Quebec Place, a.k.a. King’s Alley, had been torn down. By 1958, they all had. Its former residents moved elsewhere, some into housing projects.

Over the next 15 years, other streets closed, buildings were torn down, and to downtowners, the old Cripple Creek area, overshadowed by a new elevated highway, no longer seemed a part of things.

And by then, only the old timers remembered when it had been known as King’s Alley. It’s mentioned for a few more years as a little street without any addresses. Then, in the early 1970s, Quebec Place disappears altogether.

But here’s this small brass plaque in an old sidewalk. Dislodged, it would fit in your pocket. It may be the only reminder of a time when thousands of people lived down here, in a place once known as Cripple Creek.

Robby Griffith, and the people you almost know

I can’t claim to have known Robby Griffith. In my many encounters with him at Lawson McGhee Library, where he worked for a quarter century, he was always cordial and quietly efficient. I don’t think I ever said, “Hey, Robby,” and I’m not sure he ever said “Hey, Jack.” There are people like that in your life, people you almost know. You know who they are, you’re too familiar with them to introduce yourself, you’re pretty sure that next time you’ll have a discussion about something interesting. But for some reason you never say howdy, how are you doing. I didn’t know anything about his life, that he had a twin brother, or that he was from Texas, that he was sometimes an English teacher.

I also didn’t know until last week that, for the last few years, Robby had cancer. He died last week, at age 58.

He was the lankiest of all librarians, a shambling fellow who seemed taller than he was, with a long-legged gait you don’t expect to encounter in the library. He propelled a book cart up and down the aisles more swiftly than any other librarian, his longish hair never quite keeping up with the rest of him.

Something about him, the way he talked or the offbeat way he carried himself, reminded me of another Texan, thoughtful musician and actor Michael Nesmith. Anybody who knew him would probably say that was silly, but in my mind they were neighbors.

He was quiet in the library, but not onstage, in his other life, he sometimes bellowed. I watched him perform in several small productions, especially by the Tennessee Stage Company and by Theatre Knoxville and its predecessors, often in a comic role as a befuddled uncle or a philosophical old soldier. Occasionally he interpreted Knoxville history, as when he recently portrayed accidental industrialist/civic godfather Peter Kern, at one of Old Gray’s Lantern & Carriage Tours, or a few years ago, when, for a library podcast project, he brought to life one of the best pieces of journalism ever written about urban Knoxville, “A Night on the Bowery.”

He did a very good job with it, and with other roles I saw him play. Still, somehow, we never spoke. Encountering each other on Market Square at lunchtime, we’d nod, and that was it.

Even if we never had a conversation, we were once rivals. About 20 years ago, a historical organization sponsored a competition to write a play about the unusual life of John Sevier. I don’t enter contests very often, but I entered that one, with a proposal for a play about our first governor’s death in the wilderness, the day after he turned 70, of a pestilence in the uncharted woods of a region not yet known as Alabama. It was a peculiar and maybe unique death for a hero, neither a violent death on the battlefield, nor a well-attended death in bed. It was just John Sevier and one other guy in the woods, a guy who apparently didn’t come down with the fever, because he was healthy enough to bury him.

The playwriting committee interviewed the finalists, and finally it was between me and Robby Griffith. I never heard very much about Robby’s play, but maybe his experience with drama gave him an edge. He won the competition, as I recall, but then the whole thing fizzled out, and I don’t know that it got produced.

I heard it was very good. I hope someone has it somewhere, and that we get to witness it someday. If you run across it, let me know. Maybe it’s not too late to make his acquaintance.