2011: Metro Pulse's Best Stories

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

Jan. 13:

The Defector

The name Wendell Potter has begun to pop up here and there in the national media and in political debates, almost like a metaphor. The former health-insurance insider testified before the Senate about his industry’s influence on public policy in 2009, and two months ago released a book, a personal memoir of the life of a health-insurance-industry flack, offering an unusual glimpse into the inner workings of an effective propaganda machine.

Deadly Spin dissects corporate health-insurance publicity that has influenced the public health-care policy debate for 20 years. Potter claims insurance companies were deliberately responsible for twisting the public dialogue of the health-care debate, secretly backing “grassroots” organizations of citizens angered and mobilized by exaggerations and distortions. He includes, specifically, the tea party movement as a spawn of insurance-company propaganda, quoting figures concocted by insurance-company consultants. He cites some specific rhetoric concerning “death panels” and “government takeover” and “socialism” as useful parts of an anti-reform “playbook.” He knows, he says, because he wrote some of that playbook himself.

As the top publicity executive for CIGNA, one of the giants of America’s health-insurance industry, Potter was, until his quiet resignation in 2008, one of the industry’s chief propagandists in the fight against sweeping health-care reform.

By now, the author’s name may be ringing a bell. He once lived here. A quarter-century ago, Knoxville newspaper readers would have recognized his name for his association with other dramatic events, like a gubernatorial campaign, a World’s Fair, and the collapse of a major bank. (Jack Neely)

Feb. 3:

‘Postpone It as Long as We Can’

On June 15, 1950, nine men gathered in the Nashville office of Gov. Gordon Browning. Browning, a Democrat who had been elected two years earlier over Republican candidate and Opry star Roy Acuff, was not actually there. The attendees were all officials of the University of Tennessee, and why they were in the state capitol that day is unclear from the record of the meeting. Presumably some legislative business or other had brought them. But in any case, on this day, they took advantage of their group presence to discuss a matter that was causing all of them a fair amount of anxiety: the looming possibility that sometime soon, the university could be compelled to admit a black student.

It almost goes without saying that all of the men at the meeting were white. What is more interesting from a historical distance is the tone and tenor of their conversation (which was dutifully transcribed by a secretary). There is among them no enthusiasm at all for the prospect of allowing the descendants of slaves onto any of the UT campuses. There is also very little of the kind of overt racial hostility that we’ve come to think of as the hallmark of the defenders of Jim Crow. There is, instead, a great deal of bureaucratic hair-splitting about all of the technical ways they can try to avoid a mixed-race student body, a gloomy sense that they are waging a losing battle, and a keen desire to avoid blame for anything that happens.

This year, the university is celebrating a half-century of desegregation. The first black students to attend the Knoxville campus have been remembered and saluted in newspaper articles, TV reports, and MLK Day ceremonies. The emphasis has been on the relative peacefulness of the transition, an abiding theme of the way Tennessee tells the story of the Civil Rights era to itself. And with some justification—in comparison with Alabama, Mississippi, or Arkansas, the end of legally mandated white supremacy in Tennessee came without too much clamor. In the most comprehensive history of the University of Tennessee, To Foster Knowledge, the school’s entire desegregation effort warrants just six pages. “For the most part students and faculty worked to prevent any unpleasantness during integration,” the authors write.

Well, kind of. There may have been no violence on campus, no federal troops escorting any students, nobody blocking any schoolhouse door. But the road to a racially open university was a long one, strewn with obstacles deliberately placed by several generations of UT administrators. And some vivid illustrations of this are available in a small, fascinating trove of papers collected online by the university as part of the Tennessee Research and Creative Exchange (TRACE), a digital archive of scholarly research and historical documents. (Jesse Fox Mayshark)

Feb. 10:

Does Knoxville Dream of Electric Cars?

There it was.

There, just behind the row of television cameramen and still photographers, all lined up for the big moment. There was no red carpet; there were no sexy models like at the Detroit Auto Show. But there it was, under a giant white cloth in the middle of Nashville’s Action Nissan showroom: the state of Tennessee’s first Nissan Leaf. The state’s first next-generation mass-consumer all-electric car. And, if you buy into the hype (or hope), the first of thousands of such vehicles that will soon be flooding East Tennessee roadways.

“This truly is a historic day for Tennessee,” says Ryan Gooch, the director of energy policy for the state of Tennessee, just before the Leaf is unveiled and the non-keys handed over to its lucky owner. (Like an electric appliance, the Leaf starts with the push of a button, not the turn of a key.)

But can a car that can’t even make it from Nashville to Knoxville on one battery charge really change the way people drive? (Even if there will soon be charging stations at Cracker Barrels along the way?) And can a state that leans so politically rightward ever embrace a car that’s even more of a leftist California yuppie stereotype than the hybrid Toyota Prius—and one that’s more expensive, at that? (Cari Wade Gervin)

Feb. 17:

Plan? What Plan?

When local officials called a news conference on Feb. 9 to announce major changes in the Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, there was an improvised air about the proceedings that left a lot of the media representatives present scratching their heads. Jon Lawler, the TYP’s executive director, was resigning, along with his assistant Robert Finley, but it was not quite clear what would happen next. A week later, it still isn’t. But apparently it will be up to an unelected group with no actual authority.

After brief comments at the news conference, County Mayor Tim Burchett and Knoxville Mayor Daniel Brown introduced Ron Peabody and Stephanie Matheny, who they said would be co-chairing a citizens’ task force on homelessness and housing. Peabody, a former West Knoxville neighborhood association president, is a familiar name and face from months of public meetings and press releases in which he has challenged the Ten-Year Plan’s attempts to place small homeless housing complexes in neighborhoods across the city. Matheny, an attorney for the Tennessee Clean Water Network, has been somewhat less of a public presence, but she heads up a group called Citizens for the Ten-Year Plan, which formed in opposition to Peabody’s TYPChoice.

But the size, scope, and actual role of the yet-to-be-named task force were not spelled out. “This has all just developed in the last five or six days,” Peabody said at the time. (J.F.M.)

Feb. 24:

No Refuge

In social-work lingo, domestic violence is what’s known as a “stable community problem.”

Meaning that it doesn’t ever go away, nor does it decrease much, or increase much. But now, in Knoxville and Knox County, incidents are on the rise—or at least police calls are. The Knoxville Police Department and Knox County Sheriff’s office responded to more than one domestic violence related call every 30 minutes in 2010; 19,043 total, the highest annual figure to date, compared to 17,951 in 2009, and 16,400 a year earlier.

The number of domestic-violence victims reported by KPD has grown steadily as well: 1,987 in 2009, the most recent year available, up from 1,745 in 2006, which is around an 8 percent increase, though the population increased about 3 percent in the same period. Dial back to 2002, when the victim rate was just 1,332, and total offenses have increased by about 30 percent in seven years, while population’s gone up just 6 percent....

Tennessee has the fourth or fifth highest rate in the nation for murder of women by their intimate partners, year after year.

As horrifying as they are, increasing numbers of domestic violence incidents and more severe violence are just the first alerts to a community disaster in the making. The sources of support are dwindling, too, just when they’re most needed. The situation grows ever more volatile as victims must stay in increasingly violent relationships—and the next generation watches and learns to perpetuate the cycle. (Rose Kennedy)

March 3:

The War on Teachers

Bill Bell was listening to a local call-in radio show on his way to work the other week, and the subject was one he tends to take personally: teachers. Bell, a music teacher at Halls High School, has worked in public education for 41 years. And he didn’t like what he was hearing. Reacting both to the widely publicized labor unrest in Wisconsin and to a series of bills proposed here in Tennessee, callers were vilifying teachers as lazy, overpaid, obstructionists, union stooges protecting their own jobs and benefits at the expense of both students and taxpayers.

“If people want to call in and fuss about people in Wisconsin, okay,” Bell says. “But I didn’t hear people calling in to say, ‘Our teachers here aren’t like those teachers in Wisconsin.’ I heard ‘teachers.’”

It is true that teachers in Tennessee are not like teachers in Wisconsin, at least not when it comes to labor issues. Tennessee is a “right to work” state, where nobody can be compelled to pay union dues if they don’t want to. Wisconsin teachers don’t have that option. Wisconsin teachers are also paid a bit more than Tennessee teachers—according to the National Education Association, classroom teachers in Wisconsin had an average salary of $52,644 in 2009, compared to $46,290 in Tennessee. And Wisconsin teachers contribute less toward their health care and retirement funds than Tennessee teachers do.

One thing they have in common, at least for now, is collective bargaining. And that raises the other thing they have in common these days, the thing that distresses Bell: Teachers in both places, like their peers in New Jersey and a growing number of other states, are suddenly on the front lines of a political battle. Union rights, retirement benefits, tenure, performance evaluation, all are being poked, prodded, scrutinized, and even targeted for abolishment by Republican governors and lawmakers.

And it has all left teachers feeling a little shaken. (J.F.M.)

April 7:

‘Critical Thinking’ or Creationism?

State Rep. Bill Dunn wants you to know he is not a glassy-eyed, knuckle-dragging cretin.

Dunn says that since he introduced HB 368 in the House in early February, he’s gotten a lot of hate mail, attacking both him and the legislation.

“This is just about using objective scientific facts,” says Dunn. It’s a phrase he repeats over and over again during a 20-minute phone conversation. Scientific. Objective. Facts.

And on the face of it, the text of HB 368 seems innocuous enough. It reads, in part: “The state board of education … school system administrators, and public elementary and secondary school principals and administrators shall endeavor to create an environment … that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues.”

So why, exactly, are science teachers across the state and the American Civil Liberties Union lambasting the legislation (and Dunn)? It comes down to the bill’s definition of those “controversial issues”: “some scientific subjects, including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.”

Well, actually it just comes down to evolution. (C.W.G.)

May 5:

Saving Austin-East

Principal Benny Perry was smiling when he welcomed Gov. Bill Haslam to Austin-East Magnet High School on the morning of Friday, April 15. Haslam was smiling, too. So were Jim McIntyre, superintendent of Knox County Schools, Indya Kincannon, chairwoman of the county school board, and Kevin Huffman, Haslam’s recently appointed commissioner of education. Really, the Austin-East library, where all of them gathered, was a sea of backslaps, handshakes, and how-you-doings among government officials and community members.

Haslam and Huffman took seats at a large conference table, flanked by Kincannon and McIntyre, while Perry stood next to a digital projection screen displaying the words “Pathways to Success.” And for the next half-hour, that’s what Perry and Curriculum Principal Katherine Banner talked about: the progress that they say they’re making at Knox County’s smallest and most perennially troubled high school, the improvements in test scores and graduation rates, the increased Advanced Placement enrollments, the personal connections between faculty and students, the support from the surrounding community.

“Austin-East is a truly neighborhood school,” Perry said. “The majority of our kids walk to school here.”

With local television news cameras rolling, Haslam listened attentively and asked questions: What was making the biggest difference in raising test scores? How did the one-to-one relations between students and teachers work? Huffman sat quietly, nodding and taking notes on a legal pad. McIntyre chimed in occasionally, emphasizing or enlarging on the points being made by his school-level employees. “I believe we’ve got the right leadership in place, we’ve got the right plan in place, we’ve got the right resources in place,” he told the neophyte governor.

If it all felt like a sales pitch, that’s because it was. For all the official good will in the room, and all those smiles, everybody present knew the underlying reality. Austin-East High School is on a short list of schools that, under Tennessee law, could be taken over by the state Department of Education. Multiple years of falling short on student tests made it eligible in 2010 for an Achievement School District, run out of Nashville. What Perry and Banner and McIntyre were really saying to Haslam and Huffman was pretty simple: Give us time. Things are getting better. (J.F.M.)

All Fracked Up

Fracking. It’s a bad word to a lot of people.

We’re not talking about the Battlestar Galactica futuristic euphemism for that other f-word. No, we’re talking about the real, physical thing—the pumping of thousands of gallons of water into an oil or gas well to stimulate production.

Hydraulic fracturing, as fracking is technically known, has been used, mostly in gas wells, since the late 1940s. But in recent years the technique has become one of the top concerns of environmentalists, after stories of water pollution, chronic health problems, and even explosions near drill sites in Pennsylvania and Texas made national news.

And that’s why environmental activists like Renee Hoyos of the Tennessee Clean Water Network (TCWN) are more than a little disturbed that the new draft of the state’s regulations on oil and gas drilling doesn’t even mention fracking once.

“We are finding some wells in Tennessee where they’re using high-power water—maybe 200,000 gallons,” Hoyos says. “This whole notion that it’s not happening here is wrong.” (C.W.G.)

May 19:

A Budget in Black and White

On a recent morning, Avon Rollins unlocks a door at the back end of the new addition to the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, and steps into a climate-controlled room full of metal shelving and cardboard boxes.

These are the archives of the Beck Center, thousands and thousands of photographs, books, news clippings, journals, and other ephemera documenting the life and culture of black Knoxville over the past two centuries. Rollins, the center’s executive director, randomly opens a box and extracts a black-and-white print of a distinguished-looking family in fine Victorian-era clothing. A caption identifies the stern, handsome patriarch as William F. Yardley, who was born in 1844 and was the first black attorney to argue a case before the Tennessee Supreme Court. He was also the state’s first black gubernatorial candidate, in 1876, and founded the Examiner, Knoxville’s first black newspaper. In later years, he was defense counsel for Maurice Mays, accused and convicted (despite a paucity of evidence) of murdering a white woman. Mays’ arrest sparked the Knoxville race riot of 1919.

At the back of the room is the center’s art collection, shelves of frames holding paintings and drawings by black East Tennessee artists. Rollins pulls out one that turns out to be a 1929 sketch of a woman’s face by Joseph Delaney, the painter who along with his brother Beauford is one of the best-known artists of any race ever to come from Knoxville.

Many of the paintings are still wrapped in protective paper from their move last year into the new space. Likewise many of the boxes have yet to be unpacked, following a few years of storage while the center’s Dandridge Avenue home underwent a $1.8 million renovation and expansion. It reopened in April 2010. One of Rollins’ two full-time staff members is an archivist, who is working through the extensive collections, cataloging and digitizing. Eventually, the Beck would like to have all of its records in a searchable online database.

At least, that was the plan until a few weeks ago, when Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett released his proposed budget for the 2012 fiscal year. Burchett has recommended a 92 percent cut in county funding for the Beck Center, from $150,000 to $12,000. The center has a total annual budget of about $300,000, Rollins says, and the loss of so much county money would effectively shut it down.

“We would lose the staff we have,” he says. “I would still come and open up when I can. But if I drop dead, what’s going to happen?” (J.F.M.)

June 2:

Class of Clowns

“The Tennessee General Assembly has adjourned for the year.

“What a relief to write that sentence.”

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey posted those words on his Facebook page last week, and, whatever you may think of the state’s second-in-command, it’s hard to disagree that it is a relief indeed that the 2011 legislative session is over, weeks earlier than usual.

It is a relief indeed because, as Ramsey points out, the sooner the Legislature ends, the more money taxpayers save. (And hey, if you then blow those savings on raises for your own staff members, who’s to complain?)

But the end of the 2011 Session of the 107th Tennessee General Assembly—shortly after the Rapture didn’t occur on Saturday, May 21—should be a relief to the citizens of the state for more than just fiscal reasons. It is a relief because now, for a few months, Tennessee can stop being in the national media spotlight for all the wrong reasons. (At least until football season starts.)

Whatever you think of Ramsey, whatever you think of our new Republican overlords in the House and the Senate and the Governor’s mansion, the fact of the matter is this: Never in recent memory has the Tennessee Legislature generated so much national press. And unless you think Sen. Stacey Campfield’s appearance on Fox News was a win, none of it made our state look good.

Film critic and cultural icon Roger Ebert denounced Rep. Bill Dunn’s bill that would open the doors to the teaching of intelligent design. George Takei—Lt. Sulu, for you Trekkies—lampooned Campfield’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill in a viral video that spawned a flood of follow-up clips. Campfield also, inevitably, made The Daily Show.

But behind all the drama, behind all the comedy, the Republicans took advantage of their new power, successfully passing a lot of pro-business, pro-life, anti-teacher, anti-civil rights legislation that will have real, lasting effects. Tort reform. Teaching “reform.” Voter ID. (J.F.M. and C.W.G.)

June 16:

The Right Words

It’s a story about a teacher. It’s a story about the explosion of college education. But, first and foremost, it’s a story about commas.

This year is the 70th birthday of the Harbrace Handbook of English. It’s an anniversary that will go unnoticed by most—even students who do pay attention to their textbooks aren’t likely to think about them once they leave school. But it’s an anniversary with a lot of significance for the University of Tennessee: Harbrace is the best-selling college textbook of all time, and it’s the creation of former UT English professor John C. Hodges.

Yes, that John C. Hodges—the one the campus library is named after. Ask a student studying inside the library who Hodges was or what he did, it’s even odds at best that he or she will know, but Hodges might have liked it that way. “He didn’t want the spotlight or need it,” says his brother-in-law, John Smartt....

More significantly on a national scale, this book constructed a model of the English language in the minds of generations of American students. That first Harbrace, back in 1941, was a small, maroon textbook, slightly bigger than a mass-market paperback. Since then, there have been 16 more editions. And according to its publisher, Harbrace really is the top-selling textbook ever, with only McGraw-Hill’s Principles of Economics anywhere close.

Hodges knew his book was a success: When he died in 1967, the textbook was in its sixth edition and had been renamed Hodges’ Harbrace College Handbook. But even he might be surprised to know of its continuing popularity.

So how did this happen? How did an in-house manual from UT’s English Department in the 1920s become the definitive college composition textbook?

The answer, it turns out, has a lot to do with pedagogy—and a lot to do with World War II. It also turns out that the history of Harbrace is, in a nutshell, the history of 20th-century English education in the United States. (Brooks Clark and C.W.G.)

June 30:

Who the Heck Are We?

Every 10 years, Knoxville looks in the mirror, and tries to be brave. The U.S. census is generally regarded as an opportunity to prove how healthy we are as a city, and will be quoted for the next 10 years as entrepreneurs, journalists, retirees, and others around the country appraise Knoxville’s strengths and weaknesses as a city worth investing in, visiting, moving to. The census also serves an immediate and practical purpose, to prove that we deserve our share of certain state and federal funding earmarked for cities.

Not all the census data is in; some hasn’t been fully released yet, and some local keepers of statistics, like the Metropolitan Planning Commission, admit that local-government funding cutbacks have slowed some of their Knoxville-specific analyses.

But several data sets have been released, and once again, there’s a peculiar reality that’s hard to overlook. In terms of some often-quoted census figures, Knoxville—Knoxville proper, at least—hasn’t changed much in almost half a century. Though Knoxville’s Hispanic population has increased, it’s still under 5 percent of the population. The balance of blacks and whites is comparable to what it has been for the last several decades. Its median age hasn’t changed a whole lot. The weirdest thing about the 2010 census may be the eerie consistency of its total. As of 2010, the census counts, in all, 178,874 Knoxvillians.

The population of Knoxville, strictly defined, has been hovering right around 175,000 since the last major annexation in 1962, the one that brought Fountain City and Bearden into the fold. (J.N.)

Food (Desert) City

Publix. Costco. Whole Foods. The news has been nothing but bright in recent months for local grocery shoppers.

That is, unless you live in one of the 20 Knoxville neighborhoods that are federally designated food deserts. If you’re counting, that’s 59,887 people, out of the city’s 178,874 residents. That’s almost exactly a third of Knoxville’s population.

Not all of those 60,000 people are in the same dire straits, of course. If you look at the geographical locations of everyone’s residences, only 39,699 of those 59,887 residents actually have low access to affordable, healthy groceries. But even if you micromanage the statistics further, you still end up with a number well above the national average.

“This is a priority issue,” says Stephanie Welch, the chair of the Knoxville-Knox County Food Policy Council. “We find the people that have the least struggle the most with access.”

So what exactly is a food desert? It’s just as unhealthy as dessert, but it’s a lot less fun. The United States Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as a census tract where the majority of the population is low-income and a large portion of that population lives at least a mile away from a supermarket. (In rural census tracts, that distance is 10 miles.)

A mile may not sound like a lot—and it’s not, if you own reliable transportation. But what if you don’t? Picture the number of trips you make just from your driveway to your house after a larger shopping expedition to Kroger. Now picture carrying all those bags a mile home. (C.W.G.)

July 7:

Weather Attack!

When a cloudburst swamped Knoxville on the last day of February this year, flooding intersections and storefronts and basements, it seemed March was just making an overly dramatic entrance: In like a lion on steroids. What no Knoxvillian could have guessed then was that this storm was just the opening salvo, the first assault in what would eventually come to seem like a season-long siege of the city. Still to come was the hail, the tornadoes, the biggest power outage in local history—and, again and again, the trees tumbling, onto roofs, cars, roadways, transformers.

The first half of 2011 has not, in fact, been terribly notable on paper, from a meteorological standpoint. It has been a little wetter than usual, according to the National Weather Service, but as of July 3 the 27.6 inches we’ve received this year is just 0.7 inches above normal—a deviation of less than 3 percent. The only date that really leaps out is April 27, the peak of what is being called “the 2011 Super Outbreak,” when our region registered a record number of tornadoes. (Locally, we are more likely to remember it as the Night of the Hailstones.) (J.F.M. and Logan Lockner)

July 21:

Then and Now

When the first shot came, I was in the main hallway, maybe about 30 feet away, walking away from the sanctuary to do a routine check on the nursery. The gunshot was impossibly loud and it remains so. After the first shot I turned back toward the sanctuary, and right then I saw a sight that I have expunged from the paragraph that you are reading. Or maybe I saw this sight a few seconds later, or from a different place a few feet away. I do not know. But I know what it looked like in minute and vivid detail, give or take some things that may or may not have been surrounding it. I will not show you this now. I have told this story to others and tried to show them, but I have come to question it as I told it. But I have no doubt that it is true.

What I can tell you is that children ran out of the sanctuary. I will not describe them. And more children ran out, and a woman with a baby, and there were more gunshots, and many people running, and I immediately began sending children to the Presbyterian church up the hill. I sent all the nursery workers and children there, too. I thought of the Civil War, fought on the very ground the children were running on as they ran up the hill. Suddenly then I was inside the sanctuary, and I am tempted to say I saw the horror, details of the horror. I am tempted to say this because I know that it is true; but I also know that what I “saw” was not seen in the normal sense of seeing, but was instead sucked in, swallowed, absorbed like a gas. I simply pulled everything inside myself the way cameras gather light. I gathered images of the murderer and his work and they have yet to be developed. I gathered Daddy Warbucks. Little Orphan Annie. I can list it all, I can see it all, I can share it, I can’t share it, I can understand it, I cannot understand it, I can, I can’t, I can, I can’t. (Brian Griffin)

August 11:

All Banged Up

The Royal Bangs are the kind of band music critics like; their synth-heavy power pop, with traces of soul, punk, New Wave, and ’80s production values, is totally in tune with the sound of the new millennium. And critics have responded, in small but significant measure, to the Bangs’ latest album, Flux Outside, released in March.

At Pitchfork, Paul Thompson described it as a “generous, sweaty, markedly human record, powered as much by groovy southern-rock melodies as the steely synth shrapnel that seems to jut out from everywhere.” New York Times senior pop critic Jon Pareles picked the band out of 2,000 others for a mention in his recap of SXSW this spring. The band’s climb out of a suburban garage to the outskirts of big-time success has been so gradual and deliberate that it almost seems like it hasn’t happened, until you realize just how far they have come. The Bangs’ early apparent promise has been followed with steady, incremental steps that have protected the band from the heady dangers of overnight success. But those small advances also seem to keep the big payoff just out of reach—which is what the band wants. (M.E.)

August 25:

Metro Pulse: The First 20 Years

It is impossible to properly thank all the people who helped create Metro Pulse for the past 20 years.

Hundreds upon hundreds of individuals combined their efforts to put this thing out for two decades: writers, editors, designers, and sales people, sure. But then there have been the unpaid interns, the underpaid freelance writers and photographers and illustrators, the production and business and office managers, the part-time ad designers. Equally important are the businesses that invested in us with their advertising dollars, and the people who took out classified ads. How about those printers who kept the color separations aligned (mostly), the distributors who hefted bundles of papers all over town and beyond, the shops and restaurants that allowed us to put our papers on their countertops or in racks? And, finally, there are the readers who complete this lengthy process by picking us up every week (whether the cover’s good or not so good) and then reacting: writing a letter, adding a comment, making a phone call, or just telling a friend.

So: A lot of people, all of them adding their own ideas, talents, and viewpoints to this entity called Metro Pulse. ... But all those different voices do join together with one goal: to tell an interesting story. (Coury Turczyn)

October 20:

Eat Here Now

Late Saturday morning, early fall. Perfect football weather. Throngs of orange-wearing men and women gently jostle each other on Market Square.

There’s a line, as always, for biscuits and ice cream from Cruze Farm Dairy. Around the corner, Old City Java’s kiosk has its own line for slow-drip coffee. Families are buying mums for fall planting. Couples are buying arugula, oyster mushrooms, and loaves of ciabatta for tonight’s dinner. Instead of refusing to eat their vegetables, young children look excited as their parents buy them, perhaps excited at the appeal of the bizarro-world colors—white eggplants, purple peppers, yellow tomatoes.

This Saturday is nothing special, though. It’s like this every Saturday, from spring until late fall, here at the Market Square Farmers’ Market. There are other farmers’ markets in town—more each year—but it’s this one that gives Knoxville some of the epicurean cache of larger cities. It’s this market that has become the face of this city’s local food movement, having grown from 10 vendors in 2004 to an average of 90 at the peak of the season now. Here on the square, Wednesdays and Saturdays, is ground zero for Knoxville locavores. ...

As it turns out, eating local isn’t that simple. It’s not just that it’s hard to find everything locally, especially as the fall harvest spills into the frosty winter. It’s not just that you can’t find local olive oil or local black pepper or local lemons or local sugar. It’s not even that in July, in-season blackberries at the Market Square Farmer’s Market might cost $8, as opposed to $4 at Kroger.

It turns out, if you break down the numbers, local farmers don’t even grow enough produce to feed everyone. In fact, local farmers don’t grow that much produce at all. There’s also a debate as to whether buying locally farmed food is all that much better for the economy—or the environment.

So is the local food movement really about making the world a better place, or is it about making us feel better about ourselves? And do locavores even stand a chance at changing the face of modern industrialized agriculture? (C.W.G.)

November 3:

Phil Pollard, 1967-2011

The fact that Phil Pollard was mortal might have seemed impossible, a week ago: Few people ever seemed quite so spontaneously, joyfully, arrogantly, irrevocably alive as Phil. Compared to him, most of the rest of us looked frail, sallow, tentative. If you saw him in a room with any of us, Phil would be the one you wouldn’t worry about. He was the most thoroughly alive guy in every room.

Musicians sometimes seem to exist outside of age. I didn’t know how old Phil was, and it never occurred to me to inquire until he died. Last week, even fellow performers who knew Phil much better than I do could hardly guess. Around 30? 50? No number ever seemed to fit him very well. For the record, he collapsed of a violent stroke at the Waldorf School in Richmond where he and his wife, Dawn, both taught elementary-level kids, on his 44th birthday.

“It’s hard to believe a soul that big is no longer among us,” said poet-performer Jack Rentfro at the Blue Plate Special on Monday.

He was a remarkable fellow, a scholar of literature and American history, a family man with a wife and three daughters, and, his most public persona, musician—but more than that, a phenomenon difficult to compare to anything else in Knoxville’s diverse musical history. (J.N.)

November 10:

‘All of Us Are Knoxville’

In the end, it turned out like everyone expected.

Madeline Rogero entered the race for Knoxville mayor late last year as the presumptive front-runner. She had name recognition, having served two terms on County Commission and made a strong run for mayor in 2003 against Bill Haslam. She had an enthusiastic base of volunteers. And by working in Haslam’s administration, she had maybe allayed some establishment misgivings about her politics (too liberal?) and her background (a union organizer?).

Nothing that happened all year shook the sense that Rogero was headed for victory. Her most credible rival, City Councilwoman Marilyn Roddy, dropped out of the race in the spring to run for state Senate. In the summer, Rogero released a poll showing her well ahead of both longtime politico Ivan Harmon and newcomer Mark Padgett. And in the Sept. 27 primary, Rogero came within 17 votes of winning an outright majority and settling the election then and there.

So her decisive win over Padgett Tuesday night, taking 12,351 votes to his 8,721, was hardly a surprise. The 59-41 margin was even bigger than a 15-point spread that an internal Rogero poll had reportedly predicted a week earlier. A month’s worth of increasingly aggressive mass mailings from Padgett, attacking Rogero as a tax-and-spender, may have boosted his numbers—in the primary, he polled only 23 percent—but they weren’t enough to slow Rogero’s momentum.

But if a Rogero triumph had seemed likely for a long time, it was still hard Tuesday night to miss its significance. Knoxville has just elected its first woman mayor, ever. Rogero is, in fact, the first woman mayor of any of Tennessee’s four biggest cities. (J.F.M. and C.W.G.)

November 17:

17,000 Species—and Counting

You won’t see a tardigrade even if you step on one, or 100. The microscopic, eight-legged creatures are only about a half-millimeter long. Yet they are part of the most ambitious scientific endeavor in East Tennessee since the Manhattan Project.

Tardigrades live in wet places like mosses and beach sand. Because of their sectioned, steamer-trunk body and ambling gait, they are colloquially known as water bears or moss piglets. (Their name comes from tardigrada, Italian for “slow walker.”) But they are among the hardiest life forms on the planet. They depend on fluids for survival, which they extract from plant cells and smaller organisms by piercing the walls with tiny fang-like stylets and sucking out the contents with their tubular mouths. When there aren’t fluid sources around, they do something remarkable: They shut down their bodies in a process scientists call cryptobiosis. Curling up into a tiny ball, and filling their cells with a protective, synthesized sugar called trehalose, tardigrades can reduce their metabolic activity by about 99.99 percent. When they next encounter moisture, they can come back to life in just a few hours. Tardigrades have been resuscitated from dried moss that had been sitting in a museum for more than 100 years. ...

“Before we started, there had only been one published record of tardigrades in the park, and there were three species,” says Paul Bartels, a biology professor at Warren Wilson College outside Asheville, N.C. “Now there are 78 species.”

The other 75, including 13 previously unknown to science, were identified through years of painstaking work by Bartels and about 50 of his students. How the intrepid undergrads came to be in the Smokies, gathering moss in a literal rather than metaphorical way, is a small part of a much larger story.

It is called the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory, an overly technical title for a mind-boggling effort. (J.F.M.)

November 24:

The Lost Palace

The Princess Theater became the pride of Harriman [after its opening in 1939], its focal point for entertainment, and downtown was its gathering place. Shops lined the wide sidewalks: the big department store of Miller & Brewer, Edwards Shoe Store, Ed Farnham’s Hardware, Chase Drug Store, and many others. But they’re all gone now: the shops, the factories, the people. Roane Street is mostly empty today, and optimism has been fading into memory.

However, the Princess may yet show the way to the future. A decade-long effort to save the theater is culminating in a nearly complete restoration that will return the building’s appearance to its 1939 heyday. City leaders, local educators, and citizens who remember the Princess in better times are betting everything they have that a restored theater—reconfigured as an arts education and performance center—will save their main street.

“Right now, to me, it’s the only hope for downtown,” says Paul Mashburn, who has devoted himself to documenting the project in a blog, step by step. “If it doesn’t go, then Harriman will continue to die.”

It’s a gamble that involves millions of dollars, political careers, educational aspirations, and a leap of faith. (C.T.)

December 8:

Knox County’s Other University

A dozen miles southeast of town, Kimberlin Heights is mostly rural woods and pastures, one of the parts of Knox County that doesn’t suggest, for better or worse, proximity to any city. It’s gorgeous, in spots, especially where it offers a view of the French Broad River. Most folks keep up their own homes and churches, but there’s little business out here except a forlorn-looking roadside post office. The dearth of traffic on the 40 mph two-lane known as Kimberlin Heights Road is easy to understand, because it’s not on the way to anywhere. There’s no bridge over the snaky river, and the adventurous driver is likely to find himself trapped in networks of dead ends and peninsular cul-de-sacs and roads that dissolve into nothing.

But take one particular turn off Kimberlin Heights, and reality shifts. Suddenly you’re immersed in well-kept lawns and clean neo-Georgian collegiate buildings surrounding a pool with a plume of fountain. Adolescent kids lope around with satchels, drinking Cokes, texting each other. A skateboarder, cap on backward, surfs down the main road as casually as if he were riding an escalator. You’ve found yourself on the 350-acre campus of Johnson University.

Maybe you’ve never heard of it. Until early this year, it went by the name Johnson Bible College. Even by that name, it’s a mystery to most Knoxvillians, though it’s been right here for the last 118 years. (J.N.)

© 2011 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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