When I moved to Knoxville in 2006 I spent a lot of time walking around downtown to go to the Farmer's Market:
and find the parks:
and to look at the graffiti at construction sites:
and somewhere along the way I became kind of enamored of the Knoxville Art Bears.
The Art Bears were fiberglass sculptures painted by local artists and auctioned off as part of the 2001 Dogwood Arts Festival. Many of them were purchased by downtown merchants, and every once in a while when you were walking downtown you would stumble across one. The fun of it was that no one seemed to have an exact map of bear locations, to know how many of the original 30 were left on display, or how many had been added since then. They adorned sidewalks, walls, and a few lobbies, and it always made me smile when I saw one I hadn't encountered before.
Then the 9/11 bear came:
and people started protesting. The city decided to form a Public Art task force, and even though they initially said that no art already in place would be affected, the order eventually went out that the bears had to go. They're not the only thing that went; the city also lost a large treble clef and a huge Frederick Remington reproduction on Gay Street:
but it's the bears I miss. Sure, some of them were a little tacky, but some of them had a sense of whimsy that's lacking in a plain sidewalk. They added a sense of charm to an area where the city wants to attract tourists, but then they were suddenly gone.
Some of the bears, though, escaped extinction. This weekend, at the Rossini Festival, I spotted the Italian bear on the corner of the opera stage:
and it's not the only one that survived. The bear at the zoo escaped, hidden in the bushes above the black bear enclosure:
and the one at the crew team boathouse survived the purge:
I know there still was one inside the visitor center downtown after the culling, but those are the only survivors I've encountered. The 9/11 bear, the stained glass bear:
the City of Knoxville bear:
and a pink bear that I saw once but didn't take a picture of because I didn't have my camera with me are all gone.
I still get excited when I see one, since there are so few of them left, but it's a sad kind of excitement. We lost something unique to the city in favor of empty sidewalks and bare walls in a part of town that is slowly tranforming into industrial, identical, featureless lofts and condos. While it may have made foot traffic flow a little more smoothly downtown and it keeps a few people from having to see something that wasn't to their personal taste, I don't agree that what we gained was worth what we lost.
I miss the bears.