2009: Metro Pulse's Best Bits

We take a look back at the year that was with some of our biggest stories

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While we can’t cover all of Knoxville’s stories, we do make an effort to cover what we think are its most interesting ones. The choices can be difficult. But even more difficult is attempting to distill an entire year of a city’s existence in one issue. So, this time we’re limiting ourselves to our favorites bits and pieces—events big and small, famous people and unknown, the things that made Knoxville Knoxville in 2009.

January 8:Bill Haslam Makes It Official

“Breakfast with Bill” was breakfast only in a symbolic sense. Attendance at Pete’s Cafe on Union Avenue seemed sparser than usual on a Tuesday morning; staffers speculated their regulars were spooked by the TV crews, which had showed up before dawn. By 8:30, most of the people in the long, narrow cafe were journalists, and didn’t do much for business; only a few ordered coffee.

Right on time, Mayor Bill Haslam, his wife Crissie, plus a couple of kids and some staffers came in the door, surrounded by TV crews. It was not a typical scene for the mayor, who’s often seen walking or jogging unmolested around downtown. Standing near the cash register, the affable Haslam, a youthful 50 years old, announced to the assembled crowd that he was running for governor of Tennessee. He opened his short talk with a realistic assessment of the state’s dire fiscal condition, and in particular the fact that the state is ranked 39th of the 50 in educational achievement. “Why would anybody in their right mind run for governor now?” he asked. (Jack Neely)

January 15:Civil Rights Fighters

One of the profound memories that I have is demonstrating at St. Mary’s hospital. Probably in 1963. And a nun got a hold of my tie, in her clerical garb. And she just squatted and fell backwards with my tie. I was outside the door and she was inside the door. People who were outside and just looking at me thought that I was just kneeling and praying. Until they got closer and saw that I was changing colors. And I had a sign, “We Are All Brothers in Christ,” but she was still choking me. This again, though, changing times—now, probably, St. Mary’s is my hospital of choice. I’ve given one of the vice presidents of St. Mary’s a photograph I think they should use in their archives of us demonstrating out in front of St. Mary’s. (Avon Rollins, interviewed by Rose Kennedy)

January 22:Life Among the Ashes

Erin Brockovich, CNN, and all the rest of the national media circus may have come and gone from the city of Harriman (population 6,744 as of the 2000 census). Still, the dust hasn’t entirely cleared. As of this writing, and doubtless many subsequent writings, there’s still a big pile of it sitting on the town. Driving past the corner of Swan Pond Road and Swan Pond Circle Road, you still see piles of black sludge, now covered with hay, rising up 20 feet from what used to be the Emory River and surrounding fields. If not for the uprooted or, in some cases, still-standing-but-sludge-covered trees everywhere, the scene would be reminiscent of a Martian terrain.

There are also a bunch of houses in the middle of it, some of them destroyed in the first hours of the ash release, others severely damaged. Their unfortunate owners have mostly been staying in area hotels, facing the daunting process of piecing their lives back together. But many others, people who were lucky enough to come out with houses completely intact, are still living amid the mess. And it’s been a long, stressful month for them. On Dec. 22, they were living on a quiet stretch of road in the country, next to a community fishing hole. As of Dec. 23 and thereafter, they’ve been coexisting with the noise of workers and passing ash-filled dump trucks 24 hours a day. TVA has stadium lights set up along the entire length of the spill area, forcing them to close their blinds at night so they can get some sleep. Many are still worried about their drinking water, not entirely confident in the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s assurances that the levels of arsenic, beryllium, and other toxic heavy metals, after treatment, are within safety standards for human consumption.

It’s a confusing mess. But at this point, a month into it, one thing seems to be sure: For the people who live in the Swan Pond area, and for the people of the whole town, life is not going to return to normal very soon—or, many believe, ever again. (Charles Maldonado)

#44 Arrives

Tuesday, downtown Knoxville was weirdly quiet. As another city 487 miles to the northeast tried to accommodate the largest crowd in its history, the streets of central Knoxville seemed subdued, torpid, almost empty.

It was probably more the cold behind the calm than the fact that the man being inaugurated president was the first candidate in 48 years to get the job without any help from Tennessee’s voters. City-limits Knoxville may have voted for Obama, but statewide, which is all that counts in the Electoral College, his opponent won by a landslide. The 20-degree weather, abetted by the biggest snow to stick in a couple of years, albeit just an inch in some neighborhoods, and a stiff wind that kept blowing sidewalk signboards over, kept people inside. With kids off school, and neighborhood streets slick with ice, many spent the day at home. Many others watched the inauguration in offices; at Metro Pulse, several employees watched on a Reagan-era 10-inch with a single rabbit ear, enhanced with some homemade chocolate-chip cookies.

Few downtown businesses offered any commemoration of the day. In other cities, restaurants were offering Obama lunch specials, Obama drink specials. The Market Square Kitchen chalked, “Happy Inauguration Day!” on its sign outside. Rita’s offered an inauguration special of red, white, and blue Italian ice, but the icy weather didn’t do much to tempt passers by.... It was a strange day for the Baker Center, in the context of this unusually triumphant Democratic inauguration viewing, one of the most popular events yet held in the Toyota Auditorium. The announcement had come the previous evening that [Alan] Lowe, who’s been director of the Baker Center for six years, throughout the planning and construction of this landmark building, has accepted a new challenge—as director of the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas.

Out in the cold streets, it was sunny and quiet, a Tuesday afternoon quieter than a Sunday. Few were on the sidewalks on Cumberland, and even downtown. One exasperated restaurateur asked, “Tell me, where is everybody?” Kevin Bradley, the maverick printer whose Barack the Vote posters were drawing attention more than a year ago, emerged on the sidewalk in his trademark mismatched plaids, and shouted upwards in the canyon of Gay Street, “New president!” Someone high above opened a fourth-floor window on this frigid day, and shouted, “Yow! New president!”

And then, as the flurries returned, it was back to work. (J.N.)

January 29:Facebook Gay Bashing

The Facebook discussion is dated Nov. 13, but it wasn’t brought to Jackie Kittrell’s attention until Jan. 13, when a friend showed it to her son Conrad Honicker, a junior at West High School. The group: W.A.S.P., aka We Are Straight People. The topic: “gay kids at school.” A typical post from the discussion: “At west high school the GSA [Gay Straight Alliance] is getting on my nerves, they are banning phrases such as ‘thats so gay.’”

The post that really caught Kittrell’s attention: “f---ing fagots sucking dick and what not. we need assassinate conrad. ... just needs to f---ing choke to death on a ...”

The post’s author, Glenn Pulliam, who turned 18 in July, clearly stated on his profile that he was a graduate of West, 2008, which left little doubt that the Conrad referred to is Kittrell’s son, a gay teen who formed his school’s Gay Straight Alliance, the first in Knox County, at the start of his ninth-grade year. He has been a vocal—and highly visible­—supporter of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights at his high school and in the community in the two-plus years since.

“The group was kind of going on about ‘straight power,’” says Kittrell. “I believe in freedom of thought and speech, and while I would have been horrified, I wouldn’t have reported just that. Where it crossed the line for me was the use of the word ‘assassinate’ next to ‘Conrad.’ Of course I was concerned. Who wouldn’t be?” (R.K)

February 5:Adventures in Modern Music

The roots of the Big Ears Festival go back to 1979, when Ashley Capps booked his first show, a performance by the free-jazz cellist Tristan Honsinger at the Laurel Theater. Capps has made his professional reputation in the years since as the head of AC Entertainment, one of the biggest concert promoters in the Southeast and co-founders of the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tenn. But back then he was a 23-year-old University of Tennessee student and part-time DJ on WUOT 91.9 FM, interested—even obsessed—by contemporary jazz, modern composition, punk and New Wave, and international music. Nobody else was bringing the artists he wanted to see to Knoxville, so he started doing it himself.

That’s essentially the model behind Big Ears, which is bringing an A-list of international superstars of out-there music to Knoxville this weekend. The difference is that Capps is now a professional, and he’s combined his business sense with his own personal taste to build something that could put Knoxville on the world scene for adventurous music, at least for three days.

“I really did think of doing it other places first,” Capps says. “I think the key thing is that Knoxville has a fantastic infrastructure for an event of this nature. I can’t think of any city that has venues the quality of the Bijou and the Tennessee Theatre a couple of blocks from each other. But I’m also attracted by this not being in one of the established culture centers. It will create more of a sense of community among people who attend—they’re here for a common purpose. I think by having it in a location that’s a little bit unexpected and outside of all that cultural traffic, it helps create more of an immersive experience. And I think Knoxville’s a cool town. I’m proud to have an opportunity to show off how cool Knoxville is.” (Matthew Everett)

February 12:Homeless Housing Hullabaloo

When Jon Lawler spoke at the Vestal Community Center in South Knoxville Feb. 5, the director of the Mayors’ Office of the 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness (TYP) focused solely on the future. He methodically described what needed to happen and when so that the former Flenniken School on Martin Mill Pike, a block West of Chapman, could become 48 efficiency apartments of permanent, supportive housing (PSH) for the chronically homeless, starting with the $1 million Affordable Housing Program grant it recently received from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta against its $6 million reconstruction price tag.

Lawler’s audience, though, was intent on re-examining the past, particularly the question, “How did the TYP settle on South Knoxville?”

“These South Knoxville neighborhoods are fragile, they’re struggling,” said Joe Minichiello, a retiree who lives on Lindy Drive off Chapman Highway, near Kay’s Ice Cream. “You can’t sugarcoat the clientele we’re dealing with. The last three instances that made the newspaper about the homeless, one was a man who killed a customer at Hooters, one was a man who heard voices from the shower drain and killed a waitress, and one was a man on Magnolia who tried to burn a place down. This program is designed to serve people like that.

“I keep asking, ‘Where are the projects for Sequoyah Hills?’” (R.K.)

February 26:The Cult of Dr. Bass

“I hate funerals. I hate death. I hate mourning. I don’t like that scene at all.

“I never see a forensic case as a dead body. I see it as a challenge to see if I can figure out who that individual was and what happened to them. It is interesting what your mind can do. I think that you will find quite a few people in the forensic area who are like that, who shift that thing to something that is science and not emotion.”

Sometimes, though, Dr. Bill Bass’ connection to the human race is palpable. For lectures, he carries a case his grad students pitched in and bought for him, containing three skulls—one white, one black, one Asian. “This black female skull, that’s Mary Louise Downing, I know her,” he says. “She was a mystery from Atchison, Kansas, 32, 5’6”, an unsolved case, probably murdered. Her family was very poor and didn’t want to pay to bury her, so they gave her to me. She teaches people. Has for decades. She has gone a lot further with me than she did in life.” (R.K.)

March 19:Live & On the Air

Every Tennessee Shines show combines some old-fashioned or even artfully corny tradition with a modern edge in a way that can make the evening seem almost legendary, as something that will never happen again. Each month’s fresh lineup of bands will probably never play on the same bill again anywhere. Backstage, sound engineers, aware of how rare a phenomenon this is, are at work recording and broadcasting it, live on public radio station WDVX. If all goes well, many other audiences across the country may witness these shows broadcast from the historic Bijou Theatre in Knoxville, Tenn.

A cadre of community leaders and music-industry honchos sees Tennessee Shines as key to establishing an international identity for Knoxville: as the acknowledged home for American roots music. Whether that effort works or not, and whether the popular show exists a year from now, depends heavily on what will happen this spring and summer. The producers are testing the waters of syndication, and looking for sponsors in a tough season. (J.N.)

March 26:Working On a Building

Twelve years ago God, speaking through then-bishop Anthony J. O’Connell, told Father John Dowling to build Him a church in this wilderness of West Knox County. Ever since, Father Dowling has been very much the man with a mission. With support from his parish of 1,100 families, he designed and raised funds for this gorgeous $11 million church. The process by which the church was realized and the elaborately historical design of the building illustrate how the Catholic Church, here and elsewhere, is adjusting to a new millennium.

With its cruciform floor plan, dome, and tower, St. John Neumann’s new building is doubly connected to the Catholic past. The very grand and formal sanctuary—which could also be called a nave—certainly makes a break from the carpeted rec rooms of the late last century. But the building, inside and out, is inspired by an era of church design that utilized the building itself as an evangelical tool. Geared largely toward the illiterate of the Middle Ages, Romanesque spires and domes gave one cause to look up, toward heaven. Their sheer mass and the weight of the materials that formed them (Texas limestone in the case of St. John Neumann) implied grounding, an anchor for the ethereal. Mosaics, carvings, murals, and statuary all depicted the saints and miracles and scenes from the scriptures. Sunlight colored by stained glass was thought to make the interior space divine.

“Modern architecture is nothing about heaven, nothing about the past. No saints, let’s rip out the statues. Let’s take away anything that reminds us of our past and let’s take away anything that reminds us of heaven, because we’re about our gifts and what we as a people are doing in history right now,” says Father John Dowling. (Chris Barrett)

April 2:Dolly’s Deputy in Drag

Chris Hamblin knows he’s pushing it.

He chose “Knoxville Has a Whorehouse in It?!?! But We Love Jesus, Too!” as the theme for his second Night of 1,000 Dollies on Friday, April 3. He and acts ranging from the Salome Cabaret Girls, Nancy Brennan, and Christina Horn will perform Dolly Parton numbers, Hamblin in a blond wig, a lavish bosom, and high heels.

There will be both a Dolly and a Burt Reynolds look-alike contest for audience members. “And one for the biggest boobs,” quips the tall, muscular Hamblin in his deep Southern drawl. “No, they don’t have to be real. I don’t care how you make them big, just bring big titties.”

Yes, Hamblin’s pushing some unusual boundaries for Knoxville’s club scene—but he’s got his reasons. “This is my own personal way of trying to love my life, and my little activism,” he says. “It takes balls to walk into the Longbranch in drag. To be visible. It’s not always something I enjoy doing. But if we’re going to progress as a people, somebody has got to do it.” (R.K.)

April 30:Packing Heat

“We want a clean bill,” so says Rachel Parsons of the National Rifle Association, of the piece of state legislation that she keeps calling “the restaurant carry bill.”

No doubt it’s frustrating to her that everybody else seems insistent on calling SB1127/HB0962 the “guns in bars” bill, which, for the first time in the 11 years it’s been up for debate, may have a real chance of passing the Tennessee General Assembly.

To the NRA and other pro-gun-rights advocates, a “clean bill” means one with the fewest restrictions on it, one that would allow Tennessee Carry Permit holders access to any alcohol-serving establishment without curfews or constraints based on any of a restaurant’s age-restrictions policies. And it seemed for a moment that they might get it. (C.M.)

May 21:For Shame

It’s become a familiar sight around Knoxville over the last year or so—representatives of the Carpenters Union Local No. 50 seated in foldout chairs next to large canvas signs, bills that call “SHAME” down on the heads of local developers and contractors in big block letters.

There’s currently one such banner targeting downtown developer David Dewhirst and his renovation of the old JFG building, near the 100 block of Gay Street on the outskirts of the Old City. As is the case at other carpenters union protest sites around town, the Local No. 50 representatives hand out fliers that outline, if somewhat vaguely, the union’s grievances, the screed illustrated by a crude cartoon of a rat chewing on an American flag.

“SHAME ON DAVID DEWHIRST,” the downtown-area fliers boldly proclaim, “For Desecration of the American Way of Life.”

But the developers being picketed this year are even less sure why the signs have come out, as the union has stopped issuing public statements. “My 6-year-old daughter is just into reading age,” Dewhirst says. “She asks me ‘Daddy, why does that sign say shame on you?’ And I can only tell her that I really don’t know.” (Mike Gibson)

May 28:Vacation in Mechanicsville

I was in one of those old-fashioned cafés you used to find in small towns in the Deep South, with a broad veranda and a screen door that creaked and slammed lightly and an old top-loader soda-pop refrigerator. There was an upright piano in back. A fellow from the kitchen played a bit of a tune.

The big sunny dining room had high ceilings and art on the walls. The genial host served unusual sandwiches. Retro, in some ways—when was the last time you had a fried baloney sandwich?—but served on flat bread, an herby, flexible focaccia. Garnished with fruit and a little brownie, whether you need one or not.

Visible through the windows across the street was a lovely little park. On another corner was an old-fashioned brick fire station from the days of horse-drawn fire wagons. There was no traffic at all except for a bicycle.

And it occurred to me I’m lucky to have a vacation as handy as Mechanicsville. (J.N.)

June 4:Our Red Period

According to Knoxville Museum of Art Executive Director David Butler, piloting an arts institution in Knoxville during a normal economy is tantamount to training for a recession.

“All of us at lean, smaller organizations always looked longingly at these organizations that had these huge endowments,” says Butler. “‘Gosh that must be nice, not having to worry about money.’ They’re the ones that are really hurting the most right now. They’ve watched 30 to 40 percent of those endowments disappear. They’re not used to making due with less than lavish funding. At KMA, we’re really good at that, as are most of the cultural organizations in town. We know how to stretch a dollar.”

As the recession creeps into its third quarter, arts and cultural organizations—groups typically funded by money considered “discretionary,” whether it comes from household, corporate, or government wallets—are shifting from a crisis-management mentality to a marathon mindset. This interrupted funding is not a glitch or spasm, it appears. This is the new reality. Early in May, County Mayor Mike Ragsdale presented a budget for 2010 that no longer includes the Knoxville Museum of Art or the Dogwood Arts Festival. (C.B.)

June 11:Hazy Future

The world’s a slightly different place than it was in 1916, when the National Parks Service was first established. Still, the parks’ mission is, ostensibly, the same now as it was then: unimpaired preservation for the “enjoyment of future generations.” It’s a mission that, to the more enlightened future generations that are now the present generation, seems contradictory on its face. People are bad for nature. People mean roads, cars, litter, malls, superstores, coal-burning power plants, nuclear power plants, subdivisions, high-rise 2,000-room hotels, sprawling low-rise motels, gift shops, and theme parks. In short, people—particularly people on vacation—equal impairment.

For the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, human activity has meant even more serious problems than that. The park was founded on June 15, 1934—75 years ago this week. The act marked the culmination of decades of grassroots campaigning to save the area from encroaching civilization, in particular the lumber industry, which had already cleared hundreds of thousands of acres of forest in the mountains of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina. Still, the Smokies have been assaulted by less tangible yet equally problematic dangers than the logger’s axe: air pollution, water pollution, the degradation of native plant and animal species, and the infestation of foreign (and often malignant) species. In its relatively short history, it’s already been altered in ways that would render it unrecognizable to its founders, all a result of human intervention. (C.M.)

June 18:Not Our Smartfix

The mainstream media trumpeting the reopening of Interstate 40 makes it sound like Christmas, or the Vols winning the SEC, or our boys coming home from the war. Some of us may have difficulty mustering the suggested glee. I get around a good deal in town, by car, by bus, by bike, and on foot. I have not missed it. If I had never heard I-40 had been closed for the last 14 months, I might not have noticed its absence.

Maybe some did notice a gap in their lives, but I get the impression that few Knoxvillians have been much put out by the absence of I-40. Early last year, there were dire predictions of disaster for downtown restaurant retail, as if downtown were a big interstate exit and might dry up without I-40. The few businesses I know which have suffered a sag lately have attributed it entirely to the recession, not to lack of interstate traffic. In fact, business downtown during the closing of the downtown leg of I-40 may have fared better than business elsewhere. During our 14 months without an interstate barreling through the middle of town, more businesses have opened than closed.

A more congenial sort than I am might see that as part of the Smart of SmartFIX40. The Fix was so extraordinarily smart, we didn’t notice the interstate was closed. But it also leaves some of us wondering whether it really needed to be reopened. (J.N.)

July 30:We Are All We Have

The first few minutes for a visitor at a Trappist monastery are pretty special. The member monks and priests subscribe fully to the line of teaching that when Christ returns, He will present Himself as a stranger in need. You briefly get the benefit of the doubt. Once they sniff out your humanity, you are left to your own devices.

This week marks a year’s passing since the shooting at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Kingston Pike. Two people were killed, and six were wounded. Plainly, everyone in attendance was wounded. Everyone with a connection to that church or a church or another person was wounded. If and how those wounds can be healed remains an important question. Becoming accustomed to absence, pain, or unspeakable emotions and unpleasantness is not the same as moving beyond them.

There is the sense that the 21st century might be off to a better start if some object of worship long ago had articulated that He or She would return in the form of the opposite—with regard to education, means, life skills, appearance, etc.—of the first human He or She encountered. At present there is too little incentive to look for some spark of holiness, however dim, in those we are uncomfortable looking at, for whatever reason. (C.B.)

September 3:The Prodigal Vol

The few minutes before these kinds of meetings are always tense, but the anxiety is amped up this time by my childhood memories of UT football during the Johnny Majors era: listening to the UT/Kentucky game on the radio every fall as I raked leaves with my dad; the triumphant 1985 Sugar Bowl win over Miami; that heartbreaking string of losses to Alabama in the 1980s; the thrilling highs and gut-wrenching lows that marked the star-crossed careers of Tony Robinson, Reggie Cobb, and Chuck Webb. Majors was the first UT football coach I was aware of. His presence dominated my formative years as a fan. I still associate him with autumn and the pageantry of college football.

Beyond that, he’s a towering figure in UT football history. He was an All-American tailback in 1956, leading a 10-1 team to an SEC championship and finishing second in a controversial vote for the Heisman Trophy. He’s the third-winningest coach at UT behind the legendary Robert Neyland and Phillip Fulmer, Majors’ successor, and he won three SEC championships in his 16 years as head coach.

When he finally shows up, about 15 minutes late, I have a hard time recognizing him. He doesn’t look at all like I expect him to. Now 74 years old, he’s aged since he roamed the sidelines at Neyland Stadium as one of the last gruff, old-school Southern football coaches in the Southeastern Conference. (M.E.)

September 17:Four Generations of Health-Care Concerns

The end-of-life counseling we received helped my daughter die the way she wanted to, at home in a bed with Garfield sheets and stuffed monkeys sitting on her pillow. I held her hand when she took her last breath. I feel sad that so many terminally ill patients and their families might not be able to receive end-of-life counseling if we don’t enact health care reform that includes it, and I feel very angry when people call end-of-life counseling “death panels.” As someone who has benefited greatly from trained end-of-life counseling, I think this is, quite literally, a crying shame. (Carol A. Borges)

October 1:Rail Roaded

Inside, above the main guest entrance of his Virginia home, Monticello, Thomas Jefferson kept a plaster bust of the French economist Turgot. The two men never met. But both men independently reached the conclusion that the ideal economy would be based upon a system of small farms, that tillable land was the only bankable, trans-generational source of national wealth, and that it should be tied directly to the concerns of many citizen-farmers who lived on their own land. For numerous reasons, Tennessee has evolved along the lines of that model.

Tennessee farms tend to be small—grossing less than $50,000 annually, according to the USDA—and family-owned. According to University of Tennessee Extension Agent Jonathan Rhea, some of the state’s best farmland is in Jefferson County, spread around the bucolic community of New Market, about 20 minutes from Knoxville. To strong and mixed reactions, the railroad giant Norfolk Southern has chosen 280 acres of that farmland to become an intermodal terminal, and in conjunction with local government and developers, an additional 400 acres adjacent to become a logistics park.

If that development is realized, it will be at the expense of a community and countless traditions. In a shaky economy, a railroad and its boosters are gambling with lives and working farms. (C.B.)

October 15:Shiny and Wonderful

The S&W’s rebirth is something I didn’t expect to witness. I always thought the building, or at least its rare art-deco shell, should be saved, and despite a couple of big projects which called for its hasty doom, preservationists occasionally found reason to hope. But every blue-sky ideal for it over the last 28 years has been to save it as something else: a health club, a nightclub, the lobby for a cinema; even, by part of one short-lived proposal, an entry for what would have been an undeservedly cool county justice center. John Craig and company have saved more of the building than most folks expected them to, and they even discovered details concealed during the S&W period, like elaborate second-floor skylights. And it is, once again, going to be a gracefully spacious restaurant—a rarity downtown—if not a cafeteria.

It was so popular it’s almost cliche to mention the S&W as part of your childhood.

Here’s a way to make your business immortal, and permanently beloved: cater to harried parents. The parents themselves may eventually forget you, but the kids will grow up loving the place, and won’t ever let anybody tear it down. To middle-class Knoxvillians born between, say, 1925 and 1965, the S&W was an essential setting of well-spent youth. (J.N.)

October 29:Kip Williams Marches On

As co-director of the National March for Equality, Kip Williams invited the nation to march on Washington, D.C., on Oct. 11, demanding equal rights under federal law for our country’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender citizens.

And they came. Defying antagonists’ predictions—some of them made by old-school gay activists—and the planners’ wildest dreams, an estimated 200,000 people showed up, filling the West Capitol lawn, and spilling onto D.C. streets.

“I was up there getting ready to do part of the greeting, and we didn’t know if we had 5,000 or 100,000—I was praying for 25,000 people,” says Williams, a slight, fit young man with close-cropped dark hair and warm, flashing brown eyes. “I was watching backstage with my mother and sister, and saw the crowd pouring onto the Mall. We wanted to wait for the West Capitol lawn to be full before we started speaking. That happened, and we could still see people as far as the eye could see. Blocks and blocks and blocks of people. I got to ask, ‘Tell us, does this march matter?’ Hearing everyone explode with noise was just like, ‘We did it!’” (R.K.)

November 5:Care to Comment?

Around the city, and indeed the nation at large, many are beginning to wonder aloud why newspapers are allowing their sites, under their brands and alongside their advertisements, to serve as platforms for misinformation, abuse, and bigotry. Even the most insipid comments raise the question, What value do these remarks provide to the community? And how do they fit within a newspaper’s role?

They’re questions given greater urgency by recent events. Last week, the FBI subpoenaed the News Sentinel for information regarding a threatening comment made in September towards a defense attorney in the second trial to stem from the murders of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom. Earlier this year, in the first Christian-Newsom case, other legal questions were asked in the courtroom about what the News Sentinel and WBIR allow posters to say and why they allow them to do so anonymously.

That Knoxville is dealing with these questions now makes it extremely relevant but hardly unique. Communities around the country are attempting to adapt to legal grey areas driven by the deployment of new technologies, and the News Sentinel’s experience with anonymous comments illustrates the difficult position media organizations (including Metro Pulse) find themselves in as they attempt to remain relevant in the next century without sacrificing the standards that made them so vital in the former one.

In the meantime, a lot of community ugliness is being bared online—can it be contained? Should it be? (Frank Carlson)

November 12:A Fair to Remember

Knoxville, fall of 1913. It was a city of 36,346, by the last census. Boosters, of course, claimed 96,000—and it could seem like a real city. Knoxville had a couple of train stations, two combative daily newspapers, three vaudeville theaters, several movie theaters, downtown streets floodlit with electric lights, and an admirable electric streetcar system. For at least 30 years, Knoxville’s optimists believed that they lived in a city that was not only modern and progressive, but one that would one day eclipse Atlanta as the great city of the South. In 1913 Knoxville was already bigger than Charlotte; during that decade, it passed the older port-city metropolises Charleston, S.C., and Mobile, Ala. Passing Atlanta might not have seemed so absurd. The oldest Knoxvillians could remember when Knoxville was bigger than Georgia’s upstart metropolis.

That fall witnessed an unusual commotion just outside of town to the east, at the end of the streetcar line, in old Chilhowee Park: A mock coal-mine explosion; a man sliding 75 miles an hour down a cable across a lake; motorcycle races, balloon ascensions, hot tamales, fireworks every night for two months; portraits of President Wilson’s face glowing in mid-air; elephants cavorting; a woman, known as Mozelle of the Mist, dancing in the water. And music all the time, brass horns and strings and men singing in Italian. These were scenes Federico Fellini would never picture.

A lot of people were there that fall, some of them familiar faces from the papers: reformers Booker T. Washington, Helen Keller; Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan; Cardinal Gibbons, the Archbishop of Baltimore, author, labor advocate, and the most famous Catholic priest in America. In all, during that two months, the event registered more than one million visitors. The daily attendance sometimes approximated the entire population of Knoxville.

It was the National Conservation Exposition. The idea was to promote in a big, unforgettable way, a concept little known to previous generations: that natural resources were finite, and had to be tended carefully. That water and air and forests needed to be saved, for the survival of the human race. And that Knoxville was right on the front edge of understanding all that. (J.N.)

November 19:Bill Haslam’s Primary Problem

To a casual observer, it would appear that Bill Haslam—renowned “aww, shucks” type that he is—is a near-ideal politician for the general election season. But with the general election still nearly a year off, the state primary on Aug. 5, 2010, is what matters to the campaign now, or at least it should. Traditionally, that would mean it’s time to cozy up to the conservative base, the people most likely to vote in that election. But Haslam’s reputation, at least compared with, say, Ramsey’s, is that of a political moderate, an image his campaign hasn’t (yet) done a whole lot to counter. Given the fervently rightward swing the GOP appears to have taken across the country and particularly in this state, it remains to be seen whether the Tennessee Republicans of 2010 are going to vote for the nice-guy mayor from East Tennessee. (C.M.)

December 3:Remember When We Had Guns in Bars?

It is with a heavy heart that we, the gun-snatching media of Tennessee, must now say goodbye to the “guns in bars” law, passed last spring by the state General Assembly despite all the odds stacked against it—a gubernatorial veto, objections from statewide law-enforcement officials, smug derision from journalists, and reason itself. The law, enacted in July, is, alas, no more. It was fun while it lasted, wasn’t it?

Over the summer, Nashville restaurant owners Austin Ray and Randy Rayburn, along with nine unnamed restaurant employees and four unnamed carry-permit holders, filed a lawsuit in Davidson County Chancery Court seeking to have the law struck down. And on Nov. 20, it was, pursuant to a ruling by Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman. In her opinion, Bonnyman said the law—actually an exception added to a pre-existing law banning guns in public places where alcohol is served—was “fraught with ambiguity” and therefore unconstitutional. (C.M.)

December 17:Ashes to Ashes

From the wooden observation deck northwest of the plant that overlooks the cleanup, light rain falls on Dennis Yankee’s tan Carhartt jacket. TVA’s enviromental manager prefers to forego an umbrella, citing Army tradition.

“This is the dredge cell that failed,” Yankee says, looking to the same hill Ellis pointed out from the road—a giant, uneven mound with splotches of green, brown and black, terraced by dirt roads at the perimeter.

“So when it failed, it failed outward and it also failed this way,” Yankee says, motioning first towards the river beyond the hill, then towards the road just below the observation deck. “The majority moved north and east into the embayment, up the sloughs, into the river, and some down the river.”

Last week, the Environmental Integrity Project released a report announcing that spill released 140,000 lbs. of arsenic, a known carcinogen, into the river, more than twice the amount released into U.S. waterways by all U.S. power plants in 2007. (F.C.)

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