While Alan was still employed at Jefferson Middle School and living in West Knoxville, he and his wife started coming downtown more frequently. “We just loved it,” explained Alan. Alan and his wife would often discuss moving downtown after Alan retired, and at that point, Alan thought he would work longer than he actually did.
Labor Day morning of 2009, Alan and Karen had breakfast at Trio (R.I.P.) on Market Square. With no plans after breakfast, they took a leisurely walk around downtown looking at the different buildings and architecture of each. Having been on several City People home tours they were familiar with what was in each building. Karen had always admired Crowne Court so Alan suggested that just for fun they walk over to Crowne Court and see if any were for sale. None were, but as fate would have it, Kendrick Place had some units available. Alan showed Karen Kendrick Place and she immediately loved them and quickly said, “I could live here!” Alan explained, “Karen had a hard time seeing herself in a condo or industrial place. I could do that, but she couldn’t. She needed something that felt more like a home, a front door, a back door, and you walk out. We are from Mobile, AL, which is very much like New Orleans, courtyards, brick, iron, all of that is a big thing.” Kendrick Place had three units available and Karen asked Alan to call the realtor. Since it was Labor Day Alan told her he would call the next day. That did not suit Karen, she encouraged Alan to call and leave a message. Fast forward, two months later the Sims are moving downtown and into Kendrick Place. In those two short months, Alan started to panic and think, “Wow! This is real now!” To calm himself, Alan started to remember that he has always loved cities since he was little. New Orleans that was the first city Alan fell in love in love with. Even though Alan loved cities, he had never lived in one. “It just seemed different. What is it going to be like after dark? I don’t know what goes on down there. I did the obvious and got online to read what all is written about living in downtown Knoxville,” explained Alan.
One could say that Alan’s quest for information about living downtown helped form the birth of his blog. When Alan set out to find information about downtown living he was disappointed in the lack of information. He found Shot of Urban in Metro Pulse but that was limited to once a month, and occasionally a local television station would do a segment. To his dismay, there were not many resources online to cure his curiosity. He was soon to fix that for future downtown residents looking for similar information.
The following spring, Alan was talking to a writer friend who was in town for the Children’s Festival of Books. Alan told his friend the story of not finding much information about downtown online and she simply suggested, “Well, you should write it.” Alan was perplexed and told her that he did not own a newspaper and asked how he would be able to write it. It was a simply reply – a blog. Within a month of that conversation, June 2010, Alan decided he would write a blog with the specific purpose for people like him and Karen who may want to move downtown. The first entry was simply, “Why This Blog, Why Me, Why Now”.
Embarking on anything new can be intimidating and sometimes downright frightening. Alan explained his feelings about his blog post, “I was scared to death! I took an ugly selfie and that was my first profile picture. I didn’t even know the word ‘selfie’. I was not on social media at all.” Regardless of the fear and intimidation of trying something new, Alan persisted. He wrote the first article and he knew he wanted people to read it. He realized people would not know there was an article on a website they never heard of, with no budget for marketing he started his own guerilla marketing tactics. Alan left flyers and his homemade cards on tables all over town. Another tactic he employed was emailing every individual he had an email address for and told them he is writing a blog and encouraged them to read it. Alan also put up flyers on Wall Ave. At this point, plywood was covering 36 Market Square but it was not an eyesore. Talented, local artists Cynthia Markert would display her artwork there and Brian Pittman’s cathedral drawings were a regular feature on the plywood. Alan added his flyers alongside the artwork on the plywood to get the attention of pedestrians admiring the wonderful art. Coming full circle, present day, proudly displayed in the Sims’ household at Kendrick place are two Cynthia Markert pieces and multiple cathedral drawings by Brian Pittman. The flyers were very simple and straight to the point, “Inside of Knoxville. Learn About Downtown”. In Alan’s mind, his marketing tactics worked. He states, “I started that way and pretty quickly got readers – thirty a day. Imagine that, thirty people a day! That was like heavy stuff. Thirty people every day, some I might not even know are reading what I am writing. Are you kidding me!” Alan continues, “It was a real rush and I realized for the first time as powerfully as writers may or may not know it, but they want readers. Certainly, that is true for me.”
When questioned if Alan ever had a challenging interview he mentions that there have definitely been some tense ones. Alan explains, “My objective with my blog, in addition to making a living, is to promote downtown. I want to promote downtown’s growth. I want to encourage people to consider moving here, to come and experience it. If I am going to write honestly about downtown that means inevitably there are going to be some negative things that happen that I have to write about. In the process of writing those stories, sometimes I have to call a building owner or developer or whoever and say, ‘I am writing a story and here is what it is going to say. Do you have a comment for that?’ Those conversations are often quite tense.”
Anytime work is put out for public consumption there will be critics. Alan confirms that he gets criticized and he tries to not get defensive, but that can be difficult. “I have always thought of myself as a writer and I worked as a guidance counselor or I worked as a librarian. This is the first job where my identity is tied more closely to what I do and now people know me for this. This is important to me. My other jobs were important to me, but this one feels like it is part of my soul. It is easy to get defensive,” explains Alan. Alan continues saying that sometimes he can get attacked from both sides when it pertains sensitive issues. Alan admits he has no journalistic training and is in a territory he is intuitively doing. Luckily for the readers and for Knoxville, Alan has a strong ethical sense and focuses on being factual when writing. Alan mentions his article about a local brewery, Saw Works, and how it was one of the more scandalous articles he had written. “That was a scandalous article but I think it was super important. I hope I have never written an article just because it is sensational,” says Alan. He confirms that article was challenging because it had so many tentacles and it was such a huge story. Alan explains, “I knew I could open myself up for liability issues. That is one reason I took so long on that article, I wanted to be sure I could back up everything I said and nothing I said personally was an accusation that I couldn’t back up. At the same time, people are continually being hurt by that company. Local people, local businesses that you and I love aren’t getting paid, haven’t been paid. They can’t afford to lose $5,000. It is hard. So, they were hurting people and I felt like I had to do the story.”
The future of his blog is something Alan has put deep thought into. He sees himself doing the blog for 15 years, currently, he is halfway through with eight years under his belt. He explains, “At this point, it is generating a livelihood. It is something that I could potentially pass off to someone else or sell to someone else. It is also possible that I continue it but less the intensity to where I don’t have to write an article every day. Of course, there are multiple things that can happen that can change the whole projector. I have always been aware that if someone really knows what they are doing and decided to can come in and do what I do, far better and take over. Downtown could crash and no one is interested in it anymore. There are a lot of things that can happen that are out of our control.”
When asked if he feels like he is the local voice for downtown, Alan gives an answer that is representative of the Knoxville spirit, “I feel like I am a strong local voice, but I would not say I am ‘the’ local voice. Rusty at Blank Newspaper is doing good work. I think the television stations do a decent job with local. I work with Casey Wheeless at WVLT, she is great. I work with Fox 43 with Erin Slocum and Jack Neely, kind of all together. I have asked other people if this kind of community tightness is found in other places and I am not sure it is.”
Alan further explains, “I think this is a unique situation and a unique time. I am always conscious of things like this, this explosion, the way we do rally together, work together, and so forth for good things. This is going to pass, this is an era. Something will change, that is the inevitable story. I think we have a lot of young, good, energetic people in this city. That is one of the blessings of what I do. I get to interview people of all kinds, it busts my stereotypes. You look at this person and you think you know them but you get to know them and you learn they have fought hard to get where they are. I hate the whole millennial stereotype because it does not fit with the people I talk to. There are good and bad in each group, that was true about your generation and my generation and I think we tend to forget that.”
In wrapping up my conversation with Alan I had a few final questions just for fun. I wanted to know how his fashion sense developed which Alan found hilarious because he has never been accused of having fashion sense. I did have to explain that he does have a unique style. With good cheer, Alan explained how his “style” came about, “My favorite band is Creedence Clearwater Revival and the lead vocalist always wore a flannel shirt and blue jeans, always, in fact, I think he still does. Kind of a country guy is my thing, growing up in Alabama. When we moved downtown it just felt a little different and I have always noticed people dress a little differently in cities. The whole urban thing and black seemed like a natural thing, so I started to always wear a black shirt. The look kind of just evolved. When we moved downtown the glare of the buildings was really bad and I realized I should have a good pair of sunglasses to protect my eyes, so I got my first pair of Ray Bans. That was a little fashion thing that I did not anticipate. I needed something on top of my head so I got that little bill cap. Slowly, there was a little fashion thing happening. Karen and I went to Nashville because when you retire as a teacher you have to go to Nashville and meet someone face to face and talk about retirement benefits and get paperwork filed. We did that trip in February 2013 and I realized I was going to be able to retire in 2014. I was exuberant! So, I went out and bought a ridiculously priced pair of boots. That was another step, so now I only wear boots. I have two identical pairs and get them resoled.”
Rounding out the interview with Alan there was still one thing I was curious about, the ponytail. I asked, he explained. Alan not only describes the genesis of the ponytail but what it represents to him. Alan states, “I grew up in a Christian school. I would be stopped in the hallway and told I need a haircut if my hair was touching my ears on the side. Haircuts were a big thing back then at this school. So, I got out of that and grew my hair a little longer when I went to college. My dad was really strict about how I could wear my hair, no facial hair, none of that kind of thing. When I got married I grew a beard, still in Mobile and grew my hair longer. When I went to Gainesville, people would stop me on campus and say, ‘Has anyone ever told you that you look like Jesus?’ I would reply, ‘Only three or four times today.’ So when I graduated from graduate school and I needed to get an actual real person job with a salary. I cut my hair short but still a little funky, probably a mullet, but shorter and more conservative. Through the ’80s the punk rock thing came. I loved U2. I actually first heard U2 at UTK, we even named our dog U2. So, I had this spiky haircut but conservative enough that I could go to work. When I turned 32, I thought I had always wanted long hair and a ponytail and in three years at 35, it would look ridiculous so I better do it now and enjoy it and see what it is like. I had a principal in a school where that was an o.k. thing. I did it and I just couldn’t imagine cutting it so the ponytail just never went away. I am not really an adventurous person, kind of an introvert, so the ponytail is a signal to the outside world that what is going on in here is not what you think. That I am not just completely traditional, conservative, and with the program.”
In talking to Alan and seeing his actions it is easy to see that he holds teachings from his parents dear to him. As a life-long learner, he has his mother’s respect for education and the betterment it can bring. I feel that anyone that spends time with Alan will see that his father lives on through him through one of Alan’s key characteristics – kindness.
Alan feels fortunate and blessed to have the life he has, the family he has, and to write Knoxville’s most popular blog. With great gratitude, he states, “I am very fortunate to be able to do this and to make a living at it. It is stunning, I never expected that!”