One social group grapples for hope
Ready For Takeoff
Knox County gift enables Powell landmark purchase
Globe on the Square
World Grotto and Marketplace prepares to open doors, minds
“We were looking at the other boats and at everybody having a good time, and we were so thankful that we didn’t have to mix and mingle with that because nobody does understand,” said Jen Johnson, founder of the Lost Cajuns of East Tennessee Social Club. Johnson scheduled the Boomsday gathering long before Hurricane Katrina pummeled her home state of Louisiana, and she falters now over pronouncing the group’s name, as it’s suddenly taken on a significance she never intended.
The social club, formed last November to promote camaraderie between relocated Louisiana natives, usually meets for card games and cook-outs, crawfish boils and Mardi Gras celebrations. “We’re a different breed,” says Johnson. “We just have that kind of bond where everybody missed home and everybody misses the food from home.”
Johnson says the group’s common bond has served as a support group in the week since Katrina. Now she works to gather food and clothing and to mobilize members of The Lost Cajuns to place evacuated citizens, but she admits, “We’re still in shock. We don’t know what the needs are.”
While Johnson’s family and friends are all safe, not every Lost Cajun can say the same. Nancy Gross, a 47-year-old Farragut resident from Gentilly Woods, La., says her 75-year-old diabetic aunt was rescued from the third floor of her assisted-living home by a helicopter Saturday. Her sister’s home is puddled in six inches of water, and her elderly parents are staying with her in Knoxville until they can return to their home in Kenner, La. “They’re depressed,” she says. “They don’t want to take care of themselves. They don’t know the area. They get lost, they get scared. New Orleans won’t recover in my parents’ lifetime.”
Lost Cajun Michele Petree moved to Knoxville after marrying a local man. Up until this past Thursday, she was unable to make contact with her seven-year-old daughter, who’d taken shelter with her father in a Louisiana hospital. “I was a basket case. It was a major relief [that she’s safe],” Petree says. “It’s devastating,” she says of the physical damage. “The neighborhood where I grew up is gone, on the west bank of New Orleans.” Petree still awaits a call from her best friend, a resident of Slidell, La.
For many, Katrina is rousing the same end-of-the-world, panicky feelings that 9/11 did. “I heard that New York police officers are coming down, which brings me to tears,” says Johnson. “[But] it’s not two buildings like New York lost, it’s their home, the entire place. It will never be what it once was. There’s a song that Louis Armstrong wrote. It’s called ‘Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?’ And yeah, we definitely know what it means now.”
Ready For Takeoff
A grass-roots movement to preserve and restore the roadside attraction started about two years ago. The group has raised several thousand dollars via some fundraisers, a website, and the sale of a good many T-shirts, but Knox County has kicked it into high gear with a gift of $15,000 for the community group known as the Airplane Filling Station Preservation Organization. It’s more than enough to complete the sale of the building from an apparently generous James Monday of Monday Realty. The building was appraised for $46,000, but Monday, who approves of the rehabilitation effort, settled for $20,000.
“They’ve been super-patient with us,” says Rock Bernard, the gravel-voiced proprietor of the Rocky Top Barber Shop, who has been the point man on the effort. “It’s important that we own it, to apply for state and federal grants.”
Wednesday was to be a dramatic day for the effort, but the ceremony of presenting the check was postponed due to Ragsdale’s involvement in the hurricane-relief effort—and the closing of the sale scheduled for Wednesday afternoon was delayed. Whenever that occurs, the famous curiosity will be owned outright by the Airplane Filling Station Preservation Organization. (We don’t know, but we bet that’s the only club in the history of the world that has gone by that name.)
The project appealed to manufactured-housing magnate Jim Clayton, whose mobile-home empire bloomed a few miles down Clinton Highway; he offered a matching donation of $5,000 for additional funds recently raised by the group. It looks like he’ll have to pay up.
Tim Ezzell, director of UT’s Community Partnership Center, and his student interns have also been helping to shepherd the process. “It’s been a community effort from day one,” says Ezzell, who’s a scholar of both urban planning and history. “People love that airplane. I’m glad people in the community were willing to step forward to save it.” Ezzell sees it as an opportunity to get students involved in an unusual high-visibility project, as well as a way to improve a blighted part of the county. “I think it’ll improve Clinton Highway,” he says. “It’s not a very attractive stretch of highway right now.”
After closing costs and expenses, Bernard estimates they have $6-7,000 to proceed. They’ve already cleaned the place out; the next job, Bernard says, is to shore the place up, and patch the leaky roof.
They still have a long way to go. Early estimates of the entire rehabbing of the unique structure are as high as $200,000. “We’re hoping to get it cheaper than that, if we get volunteer this and that. We’ve had plumbers and electricians volunteer to help, and we’re keeping track. We’ll start cashing in on all their promises soon.” Bernard is not sure how long it will take to finish it but hopes “a year or two” isn’t unrealistic.
Ezzell’s hoping to get both public and private grants to complete the project.
After all this time and effort, it’s still unclear what purpose the building will serve. (Reporters are always cautioned about use of the word unique , but all sources seem to indicate that our Airplane Filling Station actually does qualify.) Its interior space is hardly big enough for a cafe. Bernard expects it will be either a tourist information booth, a museum/gift shop, or the office for a nonprofit group.
Ezzell leans toward the office idea; he thinks the present speed and volume of traffic on that part of Clinton Highway, as well as the site’s limited parking, would make it problematic for a place that’s easy for the public to drop into—a fact that’s a little ironic, considering its original use.
For more information, check the preservationist organization’s website, powellairplane.org .
Globe on the Square
“I think it’s pretty safe to say that there’s never been anything in Knoxville with this broad a scope,” enthuses Scott West, who along with his wife also co-owns Market Square’s Preservation Pub and Earth to Old City.
“It’s about promotion of the arts—all of the arts,” says Dew. “And it’s about bringing world and international culture to Knoxville.”
According to West, the ground floor of WGM will comprise the retail and gallery portion of the operation. The rear two-thirds of the room will provide rental space for about 30 artists and importers to display and sell their wares. “It’s a business incubator,” West says. “The individual artists can test the waters, with little overhead, and then either grow out of it or stay where they are.” The front gallery portion of the room will also have art for sale but on a consignment basis.
But it’s downstairs, accessible by a grand stairwell in the front of the building, where WGM gets really interesting. West describes the experience of descending into the grotto as “like Indiana Jones going down into some crystal cave in Morocco.”
At night, the basement grotto will be a nightclub, featuring live music from internationally recognized artists—from Celtic to African to Latin and flamenco—and some mainstream pop. After-show entertainment will include a world-beat DJ, supplemented by improvisation by live musicians. “Imagine a didgeridoo playing off to the side,” says West. “Or maybe an African drummer out on the dance floor.”
Grotto staff will also be a little out-of-the-norm. “No one will apply for a job at the World Grotto,” West says. “They’ll audition for a role. No one will be themselves.” He imagines sheiks, belly dancers, geisha girls and traditionally garbed Native Americans working the door and serving drinks.
Dew describes the other half of the downstairs room as a holistic healthcare center, with space for rent to local chiropractors, acupuncturists, Reiki therapists and other alternative healthcare practitioners.
“We could have fortune tellers; we could have chiropractors waiting to give you a massage between dances at the World Grotto,” says West. “The key to the whole concept is flexibility.”
World Grotto and Marketplace is set for a grand opening celebration on Oct. 28, but look for the venue to open for business as early as this month.
SEVEN DAYS IN AUGUST
Wednesday, Aug. 31
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Tuesday, Sept. 6