Market Square: “A place of serendipitous meetings”

How can a place have a personality? How can a place be organic?

He doesn’t know the answers to that. But Jack Neely knows that Market Square has those qualities.

Author Jack Neely signs books Wednesday on Market Square

Author Jack Neely signs books Wednesday on Market Square

Neely, Knoxville’s unofficial historian, made those observations Wednesday night at a book-launching party for his new paperback, “Market Square: A History of the Most Democratic Place on Earth.” It was commissioned by the Market Square District Association and just published by University of Tennessee Press.

Market Square was established 155 years ago, Neely said, as a place to sell local produce – a function it served for the first two or three years of its existence. But it soon became a place where Knoxvillians could sample more exotic fare: Italian pasta, English marmalade, German sausage and Greek gyros.

It wasn’t long before Market Square became a marketplace of ideas as well as food. Feminists made their first Knoxville appearance at Market Square, as later did environmentalists and socialists. Early country music was performed there and, in the middle of the last century, a little record store played a disc by a new rock-and-roller named Elvis Presley – long before RCA ever heard of him.

Soon, RCA’s New York office identified Knoxville’s Market Square as a good place not only to experience new music, but also as a good place to gauge how people were reacting to that music. 

Market Square already had begun having an impact not only on the city of Knoxville, but on the nation as a whole. A young newspaper man named Adolph Ochs began his career on Market Square. Later he would purchase the Chattanooga Times and, after that, the New York Times, of which he was the publisher from 1896 to 1936. It would be hard to name a more influential publication on the country’s history.

Market Square garnered a reputation as a versatile and non-judgmental place.

One hundred twenty years ago, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union opened a headquarters on Market Square. There also were at least a half-dozen bars on the Square.

Between 1870 and the early 1900s, the Confederate veterans established a meeting hall on one side of the Square while the Union veterans headquartered on the other side. “They never did take a shot at each other,” Neely mused.

Although you don’t generally think of Knoxville as a city of immigrants, Neely said 100 years ago, you could hear many foreign accents on Market Square. Peter Kern, a German immigrant, established a bakery and public hall and “ice cream saloon” on the Square. Swiss, Greek, Italian, Jewish and Arab merchants moved in. But even among all this diversity, you would find large numbers of country people from Knoxville and its environs who never had been out of East Tennessee. Everyone pretty much peacefully mingled and co-existed.

In the 1930s, Roy Acuff drew crowds by playing the fiddle on Market Square. And Duke Ellington also made an appearance there. Williams Jennings Bryan spoke there. As did Booker T. Washington.

Neely says that in literature, Market Square is the single most described locale in East Tennessee. For 60 years, the seat of city government was located there. 

Market Square was practically a 24-hour place, Neely said. The ice cream saloon was open till midnight and many regular saloons stayed open much later. About the time they closed, the butchers would begin arriving at the Market House, built in 1897,  to start cutting the day’s meat.

Although the old Market House was torn down in 1960 and Market Square went through a period of decline as residents fled to the grocery stores and shopping malls of the suburbs, Neely sees the old vitality returning.

It’s almost a round-the-clock operation again. And you still see new things. Neely said he saw his first Segue and i-phone and Internet cafe on Market Square. And he mentioned Cyberflix, the video game company that was located on the Square for a few years during that young company’s boom time in the early ’90s.

Neely thinks Market Square’s fortunes are tied directly to those of the larger community. “When Market Square is not doing well is when the city of Knoxville is not doing well,” he observed.

You can tell that Neely believes Market Square is magical. The magic has even worked on him. Twenty-seven years ago, both he and John Craig worked at the 1982 World’s Fair. (The affable young Neely was in crowd control, if you can imagine.) They barely knew one another and, after the fair, both went their separate ways – away from Knoxville. Fast forward a decade and a half and both men had returned to Knoxville. Neely walked out of the Tomato Head on Market Square and ran into Craig and they renewed their acquaintance. Craig later, as head of the Market Square District Association, commissioned Neely to write this history. “Market Square is a place of serendipitous meetings,” Neely chuckled.

There was a great turnout for the book launch. About 70 folks browsed during the low-key gathering at The Square Room to nosh on appetizers and sip a libation while paying rapt attention to Neely when he took the stage. And, just as Neely described the historical Market Square patrons, the group gathered Wednesday was a diverse lot. They ranged from middle-aged hipsters drinking Pabst Blue Ribbons to stalwarts of the venerable Knoxville Symphony League.

Among those we sighted: Bob and Marie Alcorn, Anne and Terry Ray, Andie Ray, Bill Snyder, Bill Lyons, Fiona McAnally, John Duncan III, Mark Heinz, Jennifer Holder, Jackie Newman, Rose Moseby, Kim Trent, Patricia Robledo, Scott Busby, Chad Tindell, Lorie Huff, Brent Minchey, Laura Still, Art Carmichael, Mary Leidig and Tom Scott.

Gotta go now. I’m heading to Market Square.


Another story about this subject:

Randall Brown writes for the News Sentinel:

Filed under: Downtown, Historic preservation, Journalism, Knoxville, Media, Music. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Market Square: “A place of serendipitous meetings”

  1. John Dominic Barbarino, on September 3rd, 2009 at 11:17 am said:

    The best thing about Market Square is that you don’t need a cellphone or any kind of modern device. It is a village of such diversity and talent that all can be done just walking up and down the square on any given day. Do realize when the crowds come, it all stops being so easy. Though, on a regular day it is truly a refreshing mixer and unique to Knoxville.

  2. Pingback:Blue Streak » Downtown: my favorite neighborhood

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