Artifacts and Ironies

What was the 1982 World's Fair about, really?

Secret History

by Jack Neely

In a typical day we don't look up that much, and I had never noticed that what some guys who meet for breakfast weekly at Pete's noticed a few months ago: that the top of a utility pole on Union near Locust has what looks like an iron ball and spike on top of it. Its design would meet the approval of Kaiser Wilhelm, who wore something similar on his favorite helmet.

I began to notice that a lot of wooden light poles look older the higher up you look. Up along Gay Street, some old light poles have modern-looking light fixtures on them, but some antique-looking ornamentation above. That one on Union stands out from the rest, its iron spike aimed toward the sky. Maybe it was mounted to prevent Zeppelin landings.

I called KUB about it; they expressed some interest, but after looking at it, informed me it was a city-maintained light pole. I called the city; they do replace the lighting fixture itself when necessary, but so far have no clues about the pole's imperial ornamentation, or guesses of how old it might be.

Some things are easy to look up. Not ancient light-pole embellishments.

Some have assumed that the Rubik's Cube sculpture was iconic, a recognized symbol of the Fair, but I imagine that thousands visited the Fair without noticing it. It was an odd footnote. Hungary was one of only two Communist nations that took part in the Fair, lured in with an offer not extended to the Fair's original participants: that they could highlight parts of their culture that had nothing to do with creating or conserving energy, the official theme and purpose of the fair. To include Hungary, China, Egypt, Peru, and others, the Fair expanded the Energy Exposition concept to include â“creative energy,â” a handy phrase fresh from marketing.  

So Hungary brought its chief export. I worked in crowd control that crazy summer, sometimes in the vicinity of the Hungarian pavilion, and one day saw Erno Rubik himself, a dashing-looking guy with sideburns who looked something like a Formula One driver, playing with Rubik's Cubes, mostly with kids. The Rubik phenomenon, which had taken the world by storm a couple of years earlier, was already getting a little tired by then. But I remember one tourist after another, who'd heard about the biggest Rubik's Cube in the world, remarking with disappointment that it wasn't a real Rubik's Cube: it turned in only one direction, not three. There was, therefore, no puzzle about it.  

It lacked the challenge of a real Rubik's Cube, because it was almost solved. One fourth of the time, as it turned, it was completely done. Unless you had tried to work a real Rubik's Cube, you wouldn't understand what the big deal was. Whether you prefer to see a scrambled Rubik's Cube, which looks something like a work of 1950s abstract expressionism, or one practically finished, may say something about your personality.

Anyway, after about 15 years outside, the original panels, of some hard ceramic, started coming apart, due to both weather and vandalism. I assumed that was the end of it.

When it showed up on a Market Street sidewalk, originally to draw attention to the history museum's exhibit commemorating the 20th anniversary of the World's Fair, it was covered with some kind of new, cheaper plastic, applied in sheets. I understood the appeal, but hoped people didn't look at it too close, and anticipated its removal without dread.

And now, the faux Rubik's Cube is back. Though no one seems to know quite what to do with it. If it had its original panels, that would be one thing. But since they're long gone, it's not really the artifact it was; we won't see any part of what we saw in 1982. It's like an old friend's skeleton with different flesh.

When owner Invensys began demolishing it last December, they began with the little-seen, and ordinary rear of the building, fostering hopes they might find some other use for the oldest, most interesting parts. I hoped they'd stop, and surprise us with a gift. Several preservationist developers had expressed an interest in converting the old building for condos or other purposes. But building-wrecking equipment has already bitten into the historic part of the building. As of this week, the walls we can see from Kingston Pike is pretty much all there is left.

Some people, even longtime Knoxvillians, thought the Fulton plant was an eyesore and are happy to see it going. I guess I'm out of step. I'm a Fulton Plant fundamentalist, and a Rubik's Cube agnostic.

City-county consolidation proposals are making the headlines again, at least on County Commission.

There would be a real efficiency aspect. And it would be our big chance to jump back into the top 100 cities in America, a status Knoxville hasn't enjoyed in a decade or two, partly thanks to the fact that so many other cities have consolidated. Knoxville's now a city with an official population that sounds disarmingly modest, about 180,000.

Counting the whole of Knox County, if we consolidated we'd suddenly be counted as an urban entity of more than 400,000. That would make Knoxville one of the nation's 50 largest cities, almost the size of Atlanta in the last census.

It's tempting. But looking at this big county, from Straw Plains to Farragut, from Halls to Seymour: what do all these people who live outside of city limits really want in a municipal government? After all these years of living here, I don't know, but I get the impression from the priorities of the people they elect to County Commission that it's not very much.

Most of the people in Knox County choose to live in parts that aren't included within city limits, with its extra obligations for line items like public transportation. And I have some apprehensions about living in a city where I'm outnumbered by people who don't want to live in a city.


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