Namesake: Gay Street in Downtown Knoxville

10:43 AM, Feb 20, 2013   |    comments
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When Knoxville puts pageantry on parade, you can almost guarantee it will take place in the heart of downtown on Gay Street.

Gay Street has served as the route for parades celebrating Veterans Day, Christmas, the Dogwood Festival, decorated dogs during Marti Growl, and gay pride during Pride Fest.  Photographs from the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection reveal rows of large elephants being paraded through downtown.

Entertainment has filled the sidewalks as well as the various radio stations and theaters that have lined Gay Street through the years.  Since 1979, Dr. Bill Snyder has played a large role in the entertainment as the house organist the Tennessee Theatre.  The retired chancellor at the University of Tennessee takes audiences on a monthly trip back in time with the theater's Mighty Wurlitzer organ.

"There are less than 15 of these organs in original theaters in the country," said Snyder.  "The theater was restored as nearly as possible to the original in 1928.  The drapes, the curtains, the carpets, and these wonderful chandeliers were all restored.  And, of course, there's the Mighty Wurlitzer.  I've always taken a keen interest to the history of the theater and to Gay Street."

Knoxville's heritage of music, entertainment, and political activism saturate Gay Street.  It was the first paved road in all of Knoxville.  The reason Gay Street received so much attention is because it was the city's hub for business.

"Gay Street was the main commercial area of the city. About 75 or 80 percent of the commercial activity was on this street during Knoxville's early years," said Snyder. 

Knoxville business was relatively booming in the early 19th century, with shopkeepers stocking shelves with supplies from eastern cities.

"There are several streets in Knoxville that were named after streets in cities where the merchants went to buy their goods and services to bring back to Knoxville and sell," said Snyder.  "Market Street is named after Market Street in Philadelphia.  Gay Street was named after Gay Street in Baltimore because Baltimore was a major destination for shopping."

Knoxville started using the name Gay Street sometime in the 1800s in honor of Baltimore's Gay Street.  But what made Baltimore's Gay Street so important to Knoxville?  We drove to Lynchburg, Virginia, and then hopped on a train to Baltimore to track down the answers.

Baltimore's Gay Street

From Penn Station in Baltimore, it is only a cab ride a couple of miles south until you reach the intersection of South Gay Street and East Pratt Street.  At this intersection you will find the National Aquarium.  More importantly, this is the point where South Gay Street dead ends at the waterfront of the Inner Harbor.

"Baltimore is obviously a port city and served as a major hub for trade.  Gay Street was always a big part of that," said reference librarian and researcher Francis O'Neill at the Maryland Historical Society.  "Around the turn of the 19th century, Gay Street would have been lined with mansions owned by wealthy merchants who would want to live close enough to walk to where their work took place at the harbor."

O'Neill said Knoxville and other cities relied on Baltimore's merchants for a long list of overseas luxury items.

"Basically, anything you can't make in the United States you would get through Baltimore.  That was a lot of things before the War of 1812 when ports were shut down and the country began to produce more of its own goods out of necessity," said O'Neill.  "Before then you'd get ship most of that stuff from overseas and shopkeepers would buy it from merchants known as commissioners in Baltimore.  At that time most things made out of iron or steel from England.  This is where you'd get cloth like silks and linen.  Toys from Germany came through Baltimore.  Even chromium, which you needed to make paint with, was all a Maryland monopoly."

The business owners in places like Knoxville would have a direct commercial association with merchants in Baltimore.

"The storekeepers in the upper South would have personal accounts they would have run up with these people in Baltimore who were big import and export merchants," said O'Neill. "It would be good business to foster friendly relationships with merchants, so places like Knoxville and several other cities made kind and flattering gestures by naming their own streets after streets in Baltimore."

"It would be quite an honor I guess to the people in Baltimore to have a street in East Tennessee named for one of their main commercial streets," said Snyder.

Baltimore's Gay Beginnings

Knoxville named its Gay Street after Baltimore's waterfront route.  As for Baltimore, it bestowed its street with the Gay moniker in honor of a man named Nicholas Ruxton Gay.  Gay served as the deputy surveyor for Baltimore County in 1747.

"The surveyor was in charge of mapping out the roads and building bridges.  It was a pretty important job and one that could come with a lot of privilege when landowners would try to persuade the surveyor to place a road closer to their own property and farther away from their rivals," said O'Neill.

Gay died in 1776.  O'Neill said maps first show the name Gay Street sometime in the 1770s.

"One of those rich merchants who would have lived on Gay Street was Gay's brother-in-law.  There's a possibility that he would have tried to persuade the city to name the street in Gay's honor.  However, we cannot say for sure exactly who made the decision and when it happened," said O'Neill.

Gay Street Similarities

In addition to identical names and similar proximity to water, the Gay Streets in Knoxville and Baltimore share other similarities.

Both Gay Streets have a fiery past.  In 1897, a large fire ripped through buildings on Knoxville's Gay Street.  The costly blaze was labeled Knoxville's "Million Dollar Fire."  By today's standards that would amount to more than $27 million in property damage.

A few years later in 1904, the "Great Baltimore Fire" raged throughout the city's downtown area and destroyed practically everything on South Gay Street.

"The only thing that survived the fire was the United States Customs House, which was still under construction at the time.  There was a lot of charred marble and other materials, but the woodwork was not installed yet so there was nothing to burn," said O'Neill.

Both Gay Streets rose from the ashes and continued to flourish as locations for commerce in their respective cities.

Don't Say Gay Street

Gay Street in Knoxville and Baltimore experienced similar economic hardships in the latter-half of the 20th century with a downturn in industrial production and suburban flight.

In addition to Gay Street's commercial struggles, in 1983 business leader Charles "Chili" Dean with TVA added insult to economic injury by asking the city to change the name of the street.

"A very leading powerful citizen in the city of Knoxville that was unhappy with the name 'Gay' because its association with sexual orientation," said Snyder.  "So he [Dean] went to the city council and tried to get them to change the name to Commerce Street. Fortunately, that idea did not take traction. City Council was not interested in rewriting history. And thank goodness we didn't have history rewritten to satisfy some individual's ideological position."

Through centuries of political firestorms, million dollar fires, and economic ups and downs, the Gay Streets in Knoxville and Baltimore have survived and now thrive as downtown destinations.  And both cities share a joyful name based on the business of building great American cities.

"This wonderful resurgence of life in downtown Knoxville and Gay Street has been incredible to experience," said Snyder.  "I grew up in Knoxville when this was a bustling street and it fantastic to see it and the Tennessee Theatre alive and well."

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Namesake is the newly renamed series previously known as 'Why do they call it that?'  Links to past segments can be found at WBIR's Namesake Facebook page.

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