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Magnolia Stakeholders: 5 Perspectives on Corridor’s History, Future 
Talk with people of different ages, with different backgrounds, about Chilhowee Park and the Magnolia Avenue Corridor, and you’ll hear a wealth of personal stories. Almost everyone has a favorite experience they’re willing to share.

For this blog post, City Communications Intern Jack King wanted to focus on the history of the neighborhoods and businesses along Magnolia Avenue, so he interviewed a number of people able to provide long-view perspectives.

Some grew up in African-American households living near what was once a partially-segregated business district. Two of the interviewees are well-known local historians and authors. Two are City officials who head up Redevelopment and Community Relations initiatives.

Here are their stories about what the neighborhoods near Magnolia Avenue used to be like – and their hopes for Magnolia Avenue’s next chapter.

Avice Reid: ‘An inviting place’

Avice Evans Reid, the City’s Senior Director of Community Relations, grew up in East Knoxville and attended Eastport Elementary School. She is a member of the Cherry Street Church of God. Much of her family still lives in East Knoxville.

Growing up on Cityview Avenue, about three-quarters of a mile from Magnolia’s 2300 block, Reid remembers having fun as a child by walking to the corner of Magnolia Avenue and Cherry Street to get an ice cream cone at Kay’s Ice Cream. 

She also recalls going to A&P grocery store, C&S Laundry and more on Magnolia Avenue during her childhood.

But she also recalls that Knoxville remained segregated when she was a child, so she was limited in the places she could patronize on Magnolia Avenue. The places she could patronize, Reid points out, were white-owned businesses.

Reid is hopeful that the City’s current Magnolia Avenue Streetscapes Project will help revitalize the Magnolia corridor by encouraging new businesses to open or existing businesses to expand. She’d like Magnolia to be as robust as it was when she was younger.

“Any time you fix up an area, it should be available to any and everybody,” Reid says of the Magnolia Streetscapes Project. “I’m a strong believer that everyone wants to live in an inviting place.”

 Reid believes the City reached out extensively to neighborhood residents and business owners over a number of years to try to plan the Magnolia Avenue upgrades that stakeholders wanted. 

But she also knows what it’s like for a public project to be done the wrong way.  

When she was a young girl, Reid experienced displacement during the so-called “urban renewal” projects that uprooted many African-American neighborhoods. Her church used to be located at 400 Patton Street, but in 1967 was shut down by urban renewal projects. For two years, the congregation worshipped at Vine Junior High School until permanently relocating to its current address at 729 Cherry Street. 

Cherry Street Church of God is celebrating its 50th year on Cherry Street this year.

Reid’s grandmother was also displaced from her Five Points-area home during urban renewal. She ended up moving to the Mechanicsville area, as she and many of her neighbors were forced to disperse to different places around the city.

“I’m excited to see the possibilities of the current Magnolia Avenue Streetscapes Project,” Reid says. “Once the area has that appealing façade, it will encourage businesses to come back. It will encourage people to just roam by and just see what there is to offer.”

Bob Booker: Saving nickels for day at Chilhowee Park

Robert J. “Bob” Booker is a Knoxville civil-rights hero, former state Representative, City Councilman and founder and former director of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center.

For 70 years of his life, Booker lived within two blocks of Magnolia Avenue.

He hopes the City’s Magnolia Avenue Streetscapes Project will restore Magnolia as the “grand boulevard” it was when he was a youngster. And he is especially enthused that new trees and landscaping are being planted along Magnolia Avenue.

But Booker is an author and historian, so when he talks about Magnolia Avenue, he chooses to educate and illuminate. Things were very different in the segregated 1950s.

While kids today might save up for the hottest new toy on Amazon, Booker saved for a summer day at Chilhowee Park.

Starting around April, Booker would do odd jobs around his neighborhood – like delivering ice to his neighbors. He saved up his nickels and dimes for August 8, the one day each year when African-Americans were allowed to enjoy Chilhowee Park.

As Booker describes in a recent knoxnews.com column, then-Military Gov. Andrew Johnson freed his personal slaves in Greeneville, Tenn., on Aug. 8, 1863. African-American families in East Tennessee and elsewhere have been celebrating the Eighth of August since 1872.

In pre-Civil Rights Movement Knoxville, Aug. 8 meant a holiday, sometimes a parade, and always a one-day-only admission into Chilhowee Park. “It was like Christmas,” Booker says.

So as a boy, carting ice around the neighborhood, Booker would by August have saved $10 to $12 dollars – enough to ride the dodge cars and go through the tunnel of love and crazy house.

Neighborhood children would walk to the park: “Why spend money on bus fare when you could spend that nickel on cotton candy?”

Booker remembers being largely excluded from businesses on Magnolia Avenue because of segregation, but he recalls going to Krispy Kreme to get the day-old pies for a nickel. He also recalls, like Reid, walking to Kay’s Ice Cream for a cone – though Booker notes he wasn’t allowed to sit and eat there like white Knoxvillians were.

Bob Booker's poem about Knoxville's lunch counter protests
Booker has never been afraid to speak his mind when he sees injustice. So when he grew up and was a student leader and activist at Knoxville College, Booker organized sit-ins at segregated businesses in downtown Knoxville.

“An Ode To A Lunch Counter,” a poem by Robert Booker while he was a student at Knoxville College and during the height of Knoxville’s 1960 lunch counter sit-ins. The poem was published in The Aurora, Knoxville College’s student newspaper. (Photo credit: Knoxville College archives, McClung Historical Collection)

Booker would go on to be elected – three times – as the first African-American representing Knoxville in the Tennessee House of Representatives. 

Jack Neely: Destination park, iconic businesses, premier movie theater

Before there were interstates, Chilhowee Park was a destination for tourists, local historian Jack Neely says. Magnolia Avenue was a mix of middle-class neighborhoods and major Knoxville businesses. 

In fact, before the decline of the textile industry, some of Knoxville’s largest employers were located on the east side of the city: Standard Knitting Mills, Holston Mills and the Levi plant – once the biggest jeans plant in the country.

Iconic small businesses from those early days still thrive on Magnolia Avenue – and they rival any in West Knoxville in terms of their longevity, Neely says.

For half a century, professional baseball could only be enjoyed off Magnolia Avenue. And America’s highest concentration of George Barber’s affable Victorian houses can be found in the area.

Neely, Executive Director of the Knoxville History Project, has written extensively about the City’s history and kindly agreed to sit down and talk about the history of Magnolia Avenue – a timely subject, as the City moves toward completion of its $7 million Magnolia Streetscapes Project. (More of the Knoxville History Project’s research and writings can be found at KnoxvilleHistoryProject.org.)

According to Neely, Magnolia Avenue became a hotspot for out-of-town visitors as Chilhowee Park developed as an attraction and the street itself became a part of a national route before the era of interstates.

By the mid-1900s, neighborhoods and businesses around Magnolia Avenue were robust. 
One of the anchors was one of Knoxville’s two main bakeries, Swan’s Bakery, on Magnolia Avenue. (The building, at Magnolia and Bertrand Street, has long been vacant, but the City has hopes of working with owners to privately redevelop the property.)

Swan's Bakery - pictured here in 1928 - anchors Magnolia Avenue.
Swan’s Bakery, 1928. (Photo credit: The Thompson Photograph Collection, McClung Historical Collection)

Magnolia Avenue dates back to the early post-Reconstruction era. First developed in the 1880s and 1890s, Magnolia was marketed as an “idyllic residential community,” says Neely.  

Magnolia Avenue was the site of East Tennessee’s first streetcar, running from downtown to Chilhowee Park.

Streetcars once ran the length of Magnolia Avenue. It was the first streetcar in East Tennessee.
Streetcar tracks on Magnolia, 1922. (Photo credit: The Thompson Photograph Collection, McClung Historical Collection)

Knoxville Catholic High School, now located in the Cedar Bluff area, called Magnolia home for more than 70 years. The former Catholic school campus is now the site of Pellissippi State Community College’s Magnolia Campus.

Over the decades, as the taming of the river and the opening of the Oak Ridge research labs made previously uninhabited land more desirable, Knoxville’s center of gravity began to shift westward – for a number of reasons.  

New economic opportunities, developable land and even fears among some white East Knoxville residents about African-Americans moving from downtown into East Knoxville triggered a shift in demographics toward West Knoxville, Neely says.

Suddenly, the development of the interstate made the land south of I-40 and north of the Tennessee River more desirable to those seeking a more car-oriented suburban lifestyle.

It wasn’t just the residential patterns in East Knoxville that were changing. Neely says the construction of the interstate also rapidly changed the business model for Magnolia Avenue.

“There were lots of motels on Magnolia in the ’50s and early ’60s, and suddenly they didn’t have any business anymore,” Neely points out.

Chilhowee Park was once the site of an amusement park, stables, and a skating rink, but all of this was gone by the 1970s and ’80s. This led to further decline along the Magnolia corridor.

Chilhowee Park in 1935
Chilhowee Park, circa 1935. (Photo credit: The Thompson Photograph Collection, McClung Historical Collection)

Neely points to an exception: The Park Theatre, at the corner of Magnolia Avenue and Olive Street. It was a neighborhood theater before World War II, he says, but peaked in popularity in the 1960s and ’70s before closing in the 1980s. 

It became an important first-run movie house, a destination for the entire city. If you lived in West Knoxville or Halls, and you wanted to see the latest blockbuster before everyone else, you came to the Park Theatre.

Despite the loss of the major textile employers, some small businesses, Neely says, have proudly provided employment and uninterrupted service to loyal customers for decades on Magnolia. RT Clapp (2045 E. Magnolia) and Pizza Palace (3132 E. Magnolia) are two examples that Neely points to.

Other than Long’s Drug Store (4604 Kingston Pike), Neely can’t think of any West Knoxville businesses, with the exception of maybe some gas stations or car dealerships, as old as those two Magnolia landmarks.

Special thanks to the McClung Historical Collection.  More images from McClung’s digital collection can be found at cmdc.knoxlib.org.

Daniel Brown: 'A really vibrant street'

Daniel Brown made history as Knoxville’s first African-American Mayor. He served almost a year – from Jan. 10, 2011, to Dec. 11, 2011 – to fill out the remainder of former Mayor Bill Haslam’s term when Haslam resigned to become Tennessee’s governor. 

Brown also served on two terms on City Council from 2009 to 2017, representing the City’s 6th District.

Mayor Brown grew up in East Knoxville in a house on East Vine Avenue, now called Martin Luther King Avenue. He has fond childhood memories of going to the skating rink at Chilhowee Park on Thursdays (the only day of the week African-Americans were allowed to use the rink) and attending the Tennessee Valley Fair. 

He recalls Magnolia as a “really vibrant street” where he would walk to Krispy Kreme to get hot donuts or the Orange Julius to get a delicious orange drink. Still, like Booker, Brown points out he was barred from many businesses on Magnolia because of segregation.

Brown recalls the building of the interstate and its displacement of Magnolia Avenue as the national thoroughfare through Knoxville. Since then, he notes, Magnolia Avenue has experienced significant decline.

Brown hopes the Magnolia Avenue Streetscapes Project will help leverage new reinvestment and bring businesses back to the area. But he wants that investment to benefit traditionally disadvantaged communities.

“I’m hoping that there will be some minority investment in that area,” Brown says. “Hopefully, the streetscapes project will be a shot in the arm.”

Brown’s personal desire: A sit-down restaurant on Magnolia Avenue.

Mayor Brown, well-loved by City staff and the Knoxville community, is retired but continues his public service by volunteering with a number of local boards and non-profits.

Magnolia today: Streetscape to help leverage new investment

Today, contractors for the City’s Magnolia Avenue Streetscapes Project are working toward a late 2019 completion of the “complete street” upgrades between Jessamine Street on the western end and North Bertrand Street (near the old Swan’s Bakery) to the east.

The $7 million City investment is adding landscaped center medians and left-turn lanes, street trees, wider sidewalks, bike lanes, safer and more aesthetic crosswalks, and enhanced transit connections.

Dawn Michelle Foster“Our goal with this project is to create new opportunity along the Magnolia Avenue Corridor,” says Redevelopment Director Dawn Michelle Foster. 

“We’ve seen with other streetscapes projects that upgrades and adding complete-street amenities leverage new private investment in commercial corridors where there has been recent disinvestment. 

“We envision creating an environment where it’s easier for entrepreneurs and Makers, restaurateurs and builders, to create jobs and provide amenities that will enhance the quality of life in the neighborhoods around the Magnolia Corridor.”

This blog post is part of a series of profiles of Magnolia Avenue stakeholders compiled by City Communications Intern and George Washington University student Jack King.

Posted by evreeland On 05 July, 2019 at 11:24 AM