This weekend is another in Knoxville's series of Open Streets events. Go to Sutherland Avenue on Sunday afternoon, and from 2 to 6 you can get out of your car and walk down the middle of the street. Walk your dog, or ride your bike if you prefer.
Open Streets is a roving street party, a bit of fun that highlights a different part of town. For the first time in its century-plus history, Sutherland Avenue is closing to celebrate itself.
This will reportedly be the only Open Streets events in 2019. Most Open Streets events over the last few years have taken place in more obviously historic parts of town. We think of Sutherland as a practical place, of cinderblock businesses and aluminum sheds and parking lots. But if you look closer, it offers a good deal of interest.
Sutherland developed early in the 20th century. A man from Pennsylvania named Ben Sprankle had moved to town, he said, because he liked the fact that Knoxville, unlike almost all of the rest of the South in the 1880s, had so many Republicans. He's the same guy who built downtown buildings like the Sprankle Building and the New Sprankle Building on Union Avenue. Sutherland once went to a place that was called, at least for a while, Sprankletown.
Sprankle chose to name the new artery for his favorite cleric, Rev. Robert R. Sutherland, who was at the pulpit of Second Prebyterian Church in the 1880s and '90s. (The fact that Second Presbyterian is on the hill near Sutherland Avenue today is coincidence; when Sprankle knew the honoree, the church was downtown near Market Square.) Rev. Sutherland was called to other pastorates, but Sprankle remained prominent in Knoxville until his death at age 91 in 1950. He built several houses and buildings; the most prominent survivor is the Pembroke on Union Avenue.
Open Streets affects a mile-long section of Sutherland, part of the area that was known, especially in the middle part of the 20th century, as Marble City. Specifically it'll be from North Bellemeade, which is just east of West High, to Division Street. That's the part of Sutherland that crosses Third Creek, which looked something like a river during the flood back in February, and stopped traffic. It also intersects with the Third Creek Greenway--which, established almost 50 years ago as a bike trail from Tyson Park to West High, is the oldest greenway in Knoxville. If you walk a couple hundred yards from Sutherland, you'll see the picturesque old masonry train trestle, still used daily by Norfolk-Southern freights--and what remains of an old Civil War embattlement, a steep earthen hill that's believed to have once held troops who guarded the trestle, in the days when all trestles were targets of sabotage.
One of the most conspicuous historic buildings on that stretch is an ca. 1906 church building, in late-Victorian style, at 2554 Sutherland, now headquarters of the innovative architecture firm Smee + Busby.
Sutherland Deli, at 2608 Sutherland, is in a little old commercial section that looks more like a downtown than a strip mall. It's been there since about 1945, a place for barber shops and modest restaurants, as it is today.
A little farther west is River Sports, the outdoor sporting center that's famous for its climbing wall, and lately with a cafe by the street. It's been here for almost 40 years now.
At the far western end is the site of Knoxville's original McGhee Tyson Airport; the flat floodplain along Third Creek was Knoxville's main airfield by the mid-1920s, served that purpose until it was moved to its present, much bigger space in Blount County in 1937.
There's a lot more to Sutherland Avenue, too. Talk a walk or a ride, and maybe you'll find it.