Let’s take a moment to savor this welcome fact: 2016 is nearly over.
Between the sweeping losses of beloved artists and the rise of intolerance and willful ignorance as legitimized presidential selling points, our daily feed of national news has alternated between upsetting and depressing. Locally, there was a lot to be proud of, yet still plenty of events and issues to be concerned about—not to mention a cataclysmic disaster and its aftermath.
Here are the stories of 2016, as told by a handful of writers in Knoxville, Tenn. This is not a comprehensive guide to every newsworthy event that happened in our area, nor is it even a list of every noteworthy issue we covered in the past 12 months. But it is a record of things that mattered, and of stories you could find only in your dedicated community paper, the Mercury.
—Coury Turczyn, ed.
Issue #2, Jan. 14
Can KPD Overcome the Doubts of Knoxville’s Black Community?
When you talk about police, the community, and race, there are a lot of “theys.” Since a 2014 police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., raised questions nationwide about police brutality toward blacks, local tensions between Knoxville’s black community and police have been discussed publicly by hundreds of people who attended forums held by Community Step Up, the FBI, and a local Black Lives Matter group.
Many blacks in Knoxville say they are targeted by police for minor traffic violations as an excuse to search them for drugs or check for warrants. In 2015, several court cases appeared to show a few white officers who patrol East Knoxville doing this repeatedly. Residents of poor black neighborhoods, especially on the East Side, say they live “in a police state,” surrounded by cops who assume everyone on the street is a criminal.
“In our community, when we see law enforcement, we don’t see protection,” says the Rev. John Butler, president of the Knoxville chapter of the NAACP and pastor at Clinton Chapel AME Zion Church in Mechanicsville, a historically black neighborhood in Northwest Knoxville. “We see being stopped, arrested, and charged, even if we were not doing anything wrong.”
—S. Heather Duncan
• Biased policing: In November, Knoxville hosted one of four meetings around the country on the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and it featured a sample of training to help officers understand their own implicit biases. Chief Rausch says he wants KPD to start offering something similar to all its officers.
• Minority recruiting: Partly to improve relations between police and the community, Rausch had said KPD was trying to aggressively recruit more minority officers. He had expressed hopes that the upcoming police academy would be one of the most diverse ever, but says many candidates were weeded out during the background check process because they did not disclose youthful drug arrests (which he says would not have disqualified them if they had only been honest). KPD had aimed to hire 50 new officers, but the candidate class has already been winnowed to just 38.
“It’s just so frustrating,” he says. “We’ll actually start a process again very quickly, because we need the personnel.”
• Dashcams and body cams: Last year, dashboard camera footage disappeared or was not recorded in disputed altercations between police and black residents. Rausch says he’s not aware of similar problems this year, perhaps partly because shift supervisors were given new responsibility to check daily for the downloads.
A few weeks ago, KPD upgraded its wireless upload system for the dashboard cameras in police cruisers, increasing its capacity so more recordings can be uploaded from many cars at once, Rausch says. Some individual dashcams have been replaced as part of routine annual equipment replacements, but the department has not moved to replace the larger dashcam system it has identified as outdated, nor started using body cameras.
That’s partly because Rausch wants to do both at once, but has voiced opposition to using body cameras if the recordings would be publicly accessible, as they currently are under Tennessee law.
• The Police Advisory Review Committee: The Police Advisory Review Committee had a change in leadership after director Avice Reid was promoted to Community Relations Director for the city. Clarence Vaughn III was hired as her replacement in April.
Issue 4: Jan. 28
It’s just after dusk when Drew Krikau appears at a trolley stop on a deserted street east of downtown, his small frame silhouetted by the graying sky, bundled up for the cold night ahead. A faded black jacket overlaps his army-green hoodie, the hood pulled up as temperatures begin a sharp descent with the onset of nightfall. A cheap camouflage tent and a few blankets are tucked in a reusable shopping bag slung over his right shoulder. He’s waited until dark to make his move, so no one can see where he’s heading, as he looks for a place to stake out as his own. A place, he hopes, hidden enough not to draw unwanted attention—from the police or anyone else out wandering the streets—until dawn, when he’ll break camp and move on before the sun rises to the east.
Trails lead into the darkness, into this urban thicket dimly lit by the distant glow of sodium street lights and downtown’s skyline, overshadowed by a towering public housing complex, and visible in the periphery of the Knoxville Police Department headquarters in the distance. He’s thought it through, he says, and this place is a best bet for him and his fiancée, Stacy, to hole up for the night.
“When there’s so many people on the street every night, finding a safe place to sleep by yourself, they’re few and far between,” he says as he begins unfurling his tent in near-complete darkness among the sticks, stones, and trampled Styrofoam cups on this trash-strewn hillside.
For nearly two years now, Krikau, 45, has lived homeless on the streets of Knoxville.
Fears of Gentrification
Last week city officials brought out their consultants to present a detailed vision for refinishing Magnolia Avenue east of downtown, plans that were met with some concerns and skepticism from people in the 70-person crowd gathered at the John T. O’Connor Senior Center.
The city wants to revamp the roadway and sidewalks with finishings not unlike those currently going in along Cumberland in Fort Sanders: a raised median, more benches and bike racks, and fancy new traffic lights, crosswalks, and turn lanes. Magnolia may also feature a “gateway” close to downtown, two 14-foot-tall brick and mortar pillars meant to represent the start of the East Knoxville community.
“Any time I hear urban revitalization I hear ‘whitewash,’” said Xavier Jenkins, a 40-year-old resident of East Knoxville. Jenkins points to areas like the Old City and commercial corridors along N. Central Street that used to house minority businesses, but now either sit vacant or have white owners. “A community like this doesn’t need a facelift, it needs access to low-interest loans.”
Issue 5: Feb. 4
UT Diversity Matters Gets Organized
Student protests in the heart of the administration building. Threats to cut funding by state legislators. Calls for resignations of top university officials by politicians. Possible loss of university accreditation.
Since August 2015, all these disputes and more have assailed the University of Tennessee, pushing a school once primarily known as an SEC football powerhouse onto the front pages of the Huffington Post and Fox News websites over issues such as advisories on the use of gender-neutral pronouns and how to host a non-denominational holiday party. And now, amid an effort by state legislators to conduct a full-blown investigation of UT’s diversity efforts, pro-diversity student groups are uniting to make their own voices heard in the ongoing brouhaha.
Leaders of campus groups have formed UT Diversity Matters, a coalition of 16 faculty and student organizations, including the Black Student Union, Sexual Empowerment and Awareness at Tennessee, and the UT College Democrats. They have united in calling for the UT administration to better promote and protect marginalized students.
Issue 7: Feb. 18
Game Changers: The Center for Sport, Peace, and Society
UT’s Center for Sport, Peace, and Society was founded four years ago by Sarah Hillyer and Ashleigh Huffman, two down-to-earth former basketball players driven by their passion to use sports to empower women and, well, change the world.
They know it’s more than a game.
“It gives women a voice and allows them to exercise their rights and achieve things with their bodies and minds,” says Huffman.
Each year, the Global Sports Mentoring Program brings 17 women with leadership potential from around the world to the U.S. They work on a concrete plan to tackle one of the challenges faced by women or children in their home country. A mentor at a major company helps each woman develop concrete ways to make these “action plans” a reality. The women return to their communities so empowered that they create a ripple effect, improving the lives of thousands of women and children.”
—S. Heather Duncan
Update: For the first time this year, the center led a five-week exchange program to empower international leaders in the field of disability sport. The initiative trains people from around the world to be better advocates for sports programs that provide opportunities and accessibility for deaf and physically disabled adults and children. The VOLeaders Academy, launched by Hillyer and Huffman last year to build leadership skills among UT athletes, traveled to Brazil for a service learning trip during the 2016 Olympic Games.
Issue 8: Feb. 25
If you visit Knoxville Seven, the new exhibit at the Knoxville Museum of Art, you’ll almost certainly notice “Pop Goes My Easel.” Among the 70 or so pieces on display in KMA’s two ground-floor galleries—most of them abstract expressionist paintings and modernist landscapes—Carl Sublett’s 1963 painting stands out for its stark graphics, unusual technique, and charged political content.
“This is one of Carl’s masterpieces, from his relatively brief flirtation with pop art,” says Stephen Wicks, the museum’s curator, as he leads a private tour through the exhibit.
Sublett and the six other artists who are featured in Knoxville Seven—Robert Birdwell, Richard Clarke, C. Kermit “Buck” Ewing, Joanne Higgs Ross, Philip Nichols, and Walter Stevens—were among the first modern artists in East Tennessee. Their collaborations in the late 1950s and early ’60s invigorated Knoxville during a midcentury cultural drought and brought credibility to the University of Tennessee’s new art department.
Now, more than 50 years later, KMA has made the Knoxville Seven suddenly and startlingly relevant again. Wicks’ show not only highlights a neglected period in Knoxville’s art history—it’s also the culmination of the museum’s nearly decade-long quest to assert itself as the champion of East Tennessee art.
Issue 9: March 3
Hate Groups on the Rise
Hate is on the rise in Tennessee. If the number of hate groups active in the state is any indication, Tennessee may very well be one of the most hateful states in the nation.
According to the most recent count of hate-focused organizations throughout the United States, Tennessee had the fourth-highest number of active hate groups in 2015. But when you compare the number of hate groups with state populations, Tennessee edges up a spot, to number three, as one of the most hateful states per capita. Only our neighbors to the west, Arkansas and Mississippi, boast more hateful affiliations compared with the number of people that live there.
The number of these hate groups operating in Tennessee increased more than one-third from 2014 to 2015, from 29 to 41, mirroring a national uptick, according to data compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Issue 10: March 10
On Tuesday afternoon, at a press event announcing the opening of the Mill and Mine, a new venue and event space on West Depot Avenue, Mayor Madeline Rogero described the developers of the project as a “dream team of visionaries.” That might be overdoing it, but it’s true that developers David Dewhirst and Mark Heinz and music impresario Ashley Capps have seen possibilities all around downtown Knoxville over the last two decades that others have overlooked (or couldn’t afford). Now they’ve announced a new project that will combine their specialties—Dewhirst’s knack for restoring historic buildings and Capps’ canny instinct for music programming. They say the bold new performance space will fill in important cultural and geographic gaps in Knoxville’s center city.
The new 20,000-square-foot venue is based on a model established by three other mid-sized spaces around the region that Capps’ company, AC Entertainment, books on a regular basis: the Orange Peel, in Asheville, N.C.; Track 29, in Chattanooga; and Marathon Music Works, in Nashville.
“My team, a week didn’t go by when they didn’t say, why can’t we be doing this in Knoxville?” Capps said.
Issue 11: March 17
Sex in the Classroom
Let’s talk about sex.
But without, well, actually talking about it. To be more precise, let’s talk about not having sex. We’ll learn about how it can ruin your future—unless you are a happily married husband or wife. And you’ll learn a few methods of avoiding the pitfalls of pregnancy and disease, but with the understanding that the only reliable prevention is abstaining from sex altogether.
That is the general gist of the Knox County Schools’ sex-education curriculum, and some parents, students, and recent graduates are taking issue with how sex education is taught in Knox County. Critics, who have voiced objections and filed formal complaints, say they support sex education but find Knox County’s version factually misleading, sexist, and fear-based.
The issue has galvanized young people to action. Two recent Knox graduates have started a group called Just Educate to argue that the district’s approach is not only ineffective but, as presented, offensive and damaging to women and to anyone who is not heterosexual. College students Mikaela Faust and Caroline Rowcliffe got together in a classroom on their last day of high school at Hardin Valley Academy to brainstorm ways to protest the flaws they see in the district’s sex education presentation and to argue for comprehensive sex education in Tennessee.
—S. Heather Duncan
Issue 13: March 31
KPD Conducts Undercover Panhandling Sting
In recent weeks, people pushing and prodding for spare change on the streets of downtown have come up against a bigger roadblock than disdainful pedestrians and disgruntled business owners. In what city officials have a called a “first of its kind” operation, Knoxville Police Department officers earlier this month started going undercover to target panhandlers they say are acting aggressively when asking people for money.
Since March 11, KPD has undertaken three of these “sting” operations in different parts of downtown and the Old City. So far officers have issued 12 citations and made three arrests for “aggressive panhandling,” a broad and often subjective term that encompasses some genuinely-unfriendly actions, like “recklessly making physical contact” with a person, but also covers more benign behaviors such as asking the same person for money a second time within 20 feet, according to the city’s ordinance. There is also a separate 13-part ordinance dictating when and where general panhandling is permitted.
“We defend the right to solicit in a passive way, and that’s really what the city is targeting here. They’ve essentially banned that action because of a few aggressive panhandlers out there,” says Eddie Young of the the East Tennessee Peace and Justice Center. “But I think it’s like driving to work in the morning: Just because there are a few aggressive drivers, you don’t ban driving.”
Issue 14: April 7
Old City Gardens Takes Root
Mayor Madeline Rogero’s April 1 press release announcing an “exciting new urban agricultural initiative” in the Old City sounded like a April Fool’s Day trick. Is there even arable soil in the Old City not covered by buildings and pavement?
As it turns out, yes there is: In a lonesome corner behind Knox Rail Salvage where East Depot Avenue dead ends at the high concrete wall of James White Parkway, a little over a half-acre of land sat for years, an odd grassy area surrounded by the hardscape of downtown. The hardware store that once stood there was torn down in the mid-2000s to make way for the parkway construction. Now it’s the site of Old City Gardens, the city’s newest, and closest-to-downtown community garden, which had its ceremonial ground breaking Friday morning.
Old City Gardens is a partnership between Brenna Wright, owner of Knoxville’s flagship urban farm, Abbey Fields in Parkridge, and Old City landlords Jenny and Randy Boyd, who own the property. Inspired by the Fenway Victory Gardens in Boston, the Boyds expressed interest in starting an urban farm downtown.
Big Ears, Behind the Scenes
It was, more than ever before, a festival of tips on smartphone apps. Attendees got alerts about surprise performances and sold-out shows. The tip I got was strictly analog, a word from a friend in a corner bar. What I heard was that Friday night there would be, at the oldest church in Knoxville, something to witness. Though tempted by some other shows, I was just curious enough to walk down to First Presbyterian. At the top of the marble steps, I tried the main front door, and found it open. Hearing agreeable sounds inside, I slipped into the interior door, into the sanctuary. Inside were five people. One was a trim old man in black playing an old brown grand piano up in the front of the sanctuary. Near him was an eccentric-looking middle-aged woman with an electronic fiddle. Both were in black.
The woman was Laurie Anderson, one of the idols of my youth. When I was 23, I played her ironic crypto-minimalist album, Big Science, so often I can still recite most of it. The old man was Philip Glass. He is one of the most famous composers in the world. I knew him because he looked like Philip Glass and was playing a classic riff with descending chord changes.
They were rehearsing. I sat in the back at first, hoping they wouldn’t notice.
Issue 15: April 14
Jim Crow’s Return
What do bathrooms, marriage counseling, and religious freedom have in common?
They represent some of the many ways that states are finding to limit the rights of gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual people—or, depending on your point of view, protect the rights of (mostly Christian) religious people who object to them.
The trend is being driven by conservative frustration with last summer’s U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing gay marriage nationwide, says Frances Henderson, associate politics professor at Maryville College. States such as Tennessee that had essentially outlawed gay marriage were left with a limited ability to control its cultural acceptance—not to mention the growing flexibility toward transgender people.
However, new laws addressing these issues in Indiana, Georgia, Mississippi, and North Carolina have been labeled discriminatory and caused an unprecedented backlash from businesses.
The Tennessee House had seemed to be edging away from this cliff the same week that North Carolina basically catapulted over it yodeling. But the General Assembly this week finalized a law allowing counselors to refer away patients whose therapy goals conflict with the therapist’s “sincerely held principles.”
—S. Heather Duncan
Update: A proposed “bathroom bill” never came to a vote in Tennessee, but a bill allowing counselors to reject clients whose therapy goals might conflict with counselors’ “principles” was signed by Gov. Bill Haslam. The law doesn’t mention LGBT patients specifically, but legislative discussion revolved around them.
The first bill filed in the Senate for the 2017 legislative session attempts to restore the wording of the original bill, allowing counselors to refer away patients based on the counselor’s “personally held beliefs” rather than “principles.” It would also prevent the Board for Professional Counselors, Marital and Family Therapists, and Clinical Pastoral Therapists from adopting any rules based on a national association’s code of ethics. (Currently that professional body references the American Counseling Association Code of Ethics, which doesn’t allow this kind of behavior by counselors.)
Issue 16: April 21
Last Thursday afternoon, the Metropolitan Planning Commission unexpectedly rejected its own staff’s recommendations and declined to endorse Mayor Rogero’s much-publicized initiative to give the Cal Johnson Building on State Street H-1 historical protection.
It takes some imagination to call it a pretty building right now, but with some cleaning and refurbishing of the sort that has brightened most of the other historic downtown buildings in the last 25 years, it could be. And this one deserves the attention more than your garden-variety Victorian commercial building. Few American cities have a building with a comparable history. It was built in 1898 by a man who was raised to be a slave. His name is still on the facade: “CALVIN F. JOHNSON.”
It’s unfortunate that the place where MPC chooses to take an uncharacteristic stand against a mayor’s preservationist initiative turns out to be the only historic building downtown built by an African American. It’s the oldest big building in town built by a black man, and the only remaining building associated with an extraordinary career.
Most of the buildings MPC helps save don’t tell such a story.
Update: Three months later, despite MPC’s decision, Knoxville City Council voted to apply H-1 zoning to the Cal Johnson Building.
Issue 17: April 28
When Jajuan Latham was 12, he was shot and killed in the back of his father’s SUV in a random gang drive-by shooting at Danny Mayfield Park in Mechanicsville. Latham’s April 16 death was the second recent high-profile gang shooting of an innocent in Knoxville. His cousin Zaevion Dobson died in December protecting two Fulton High School classmates from misdirected gang bullets. Neither young man was involved with a gang himself.
The stresses of multi-generational poverty and violence in neighborhoods like Lonsdale, Mechanicsville, and parts of East Knoxville have led to a disturbingly high rate of young black men killing each other in the city. From 2003 to 2013, both victim and perpetrator were black in 56 percent of all murders committed with guns; 71 percent of the city’s gun killings were committed by people between the ages of 18 and 34, according to KPD statistics.
Mayor Madeline Rogero’s Save Our Sons initiative aims to combat this crisis by dealing with the underlying problems that lead to a culture of violence.
Despite being almost two years old, Save Our Sons remains little understood, partly because it keeps evolving and has spent a long time on gathering information. Its first high-profile, direct initiative was unveiled last week: A new $2.9 million “Change Center,” a hangout spot and job training initiative for teens and young adults, which aims to address some of the youth needs identified by Save Our Sons, particularly the need for nearby safe places and activities for at-risk youth.
Rogero proposed Wednesday for the city to put more money toward Save Our Sons initiatives in the coming budget, including doubling the budget for the SOS office itself and providing $381,000 in grants to community organizations that serve at-risk young black men (including the Change Center). This is more than three times what the current budget included for such initiatives, Rogero says…
The entire Save Our Sons effort was developed by an advisory committee appointed by Rogero, which includes Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch, Project GRAD executive director Ronni Chandler, City Councilman Dan Brown, and local pastors and black activists.
“We’re not here to compete or replace groups that are already out there,” Rogero says. “We’re here to raise them up and connect them with resources.”
Some in the black community say Save Our Sons has spent too long planning and needs to take decisive action. Jackie Clay, the Save Our Sons coordinator, just completed drafting a set of measurable goals for the grant funds.
—S. Heather Duncan
Update: Jackie Clay left her job running the Save Our Sons program for the city in August, and the city has not replaced her. Clay’s old position has been split. One employee is spending half her time managing the Tennessee Community Crime Reduction Program grant that funds many Save Our Sons initiatives. A second job will coordinate the grant’s outreach programs and broader Save Our Sons initiatives. Reid and some members of the mayor’s Save Our Sons Advisory Committee are interviewing candidates who were recommended by the advisory committee and community leaders, with the aim of filling the job early next year.
This year Save Our Sons began offering monthly job fairs in inner city neighborhoods and partnered on a new three-month job training program for construction trades.
Issue 18: May 5
An Old City Mural Disappears
In April, workers hired by landlord/developer Leigh Burch III, of Terminus Real Estate, unceremoniously painted over the Knoxville Music History Mural on the side of the brick building he owns at 118 East Jackson Ave., leaving a blank panel where a colorful tribute to local musicians had formerly been.
The mural, a Keep Knoxville Beautiful project, was designed and painted by Laurel High School students and artist Walt Fieldsa. It depicted over 40 significant players in Knoxville’s vibrant music history, from country star Dolly Parton to jazz pianist Donald Brown and indie/alternative poet R.B. Morris.
The erasure of the music mural is the latest, and most public, of some unpopular changes to the 100 block of East Jackson Avenue since Burch took ownership of most of it in October 2014, buying three slightly shabby properties on East Jackson: the one with the mural and two housing the Knoxville Pearl, a family-owned cereal bar, and Hot Horse, an indie music store. The Pearl closed soon after their building changed hands. Hot Horse closed this March under contentious circumstances.
Burch’s freshly painted brick storefronts, top-40 nightclubs, and empty 12-foot by 60-foot panel now available for signage do shave off the rough edges, perhaps making the Old City more palatable to casual visitors, weekend partiers, and middle-class shoppers. Meanwhile, history is effaced and authentic character is squandered. It is impossible to manufacture the soul of a place.
Issue 21: May 26
KCS Superintendent Jim McIntyre Checks Out
When Superintendent Jim McIntyre steps down next month, he deserves an acclaimed farewell. Despite the controversies that led up to his resignation in January, a great deal has been accomplished in Knox County Schools during McIntyre’s eight years at the helm, and he’s entitled to a lot of credit for these successes.
The fact that Knox County Schools were recognized last year by the state as one of 12 Exemplary School Districts is testament to McIntyre’s success. The designation is based on “significantly improving student performance and narrowing achievement gaps,” and Knox County is the only large metropolitan school system in the state ever to be so recognized.
Yet McIntyre also became a lightning rod for a lot of teacher frustration and resentment over the evaluation methodology by which they are held accountable and by what many considered to be excessive standardized student testing.
Update: The Knox County school board’s search committee was selected on Nov. 4 and held its first meeting Nov. 22, more than 10 months after McIntyre announced his resignation.
Issue 22: June 2
The back seat of James Gilman’s* car is filled with stolen meat, about $150 worth of prime-cut beef, as he whips his silver Chrysler into the side yard of a nondescript house in Mechanicsville, slams it into park, and jumps out the driver’s side door. (*James Gilman is an alias. Some details have been changed to protect his identity.)
“This is my meat guy. Then I got a guy I sell tools to. I got a guy for everything,” he says, scooping up packs of steak and heading for the front door. He means he knows people that will pay him—in either drugs or cash—for just about anything he brings them, regardless of how he acquires it. He hates thieving, he says, but he just got fired from a gig doing maintenance work, and even when he was pulling a $600 paycheck weekly it was hard to keep pace with the drug habit that’s been running his life.
For Gilman, that mostly means shooting heroin, or at times prescription painkillers, though the pills tend to cost more and wear off sooner, he says. Today he’s landed a 30 milligram “Roxy,” or Roxicodone, a narcotic pain pill that Meat Man offered in lieu of cash. Gilman pulls his car behind a mostly boarded-up house nearby, drops the pill in the fold of a $10 bill, and uses a lighter to crush it against the dash. He dumps the powdery substance into a bottle cap filled with water and draws the greenish liquid into a syringe.
“This probably won’t even get me high,” he says. “It’ll just make me feel better.”
There are a number of contributing factors that has led to an explosion of opiate use in Knox County and across the nation in recent years. A majority of people that end up on heroin start by using opiate-based prescription pills, state health officials say, and nationally Tennessee has been among the top states for the number of opiates prescribed. Within the state, a larger percentage of people died from opiate-induced overdoses in Knox County in 2014 than any other metropolitan county in Tennessee.
KSO’s New Music Director
The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra picked youth this week when Aram Demirjian was named as KSO’s music director, ending a yearlong search that began with the resignation of Lucas Richman at the end of the 2014-15 season. Demirjian, 30, grew up in Boston and studied at the New England Conservatory there; he has spent the last four years as associate conductor of the Kansas City Symphony.
“Orchestra music is about community, it’s about unity, and communication, it’s about many, many people all working extremely hard together as individuals to create something harmonious,” Demirjian said during a press conference for the announcement at the Tennessee Theatre on Tuesday afternoon.
Issue 23: June 9
Knoxville College’s Campus Woes
The historically black college apparently inked a deal with Knoxville company Southeast Commercial to redevelop part of the college property into some combination of senior and affordable housing, offices and possibly a charter school. But most of that effort was put on hold as the state alleged that the A.K. Stewart Science Building, already the subject of a previous federal emergency cleanup, was still so contaminated with mercury that it might need to be placed on the state Superfund list.
Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation spokesman Eric Ward says the state is moving forward with additional tests in early 2017 before making a decision about whether to list the A.K. Stewart Science Building on the state “Superfund” list of most contaminated properties. TDEC is also continuing to research other parties besides the college that might be responsible for the contamination, he says. Meanwhile, the city set deadlines for the college to repair any buildings it wanted staff and volunteers to continue to use, and most of the others were declared unfit for human use.
The Knoxville College Trustees have been trying to reorganize so the college can begin offering classes again, albeit online. But the board did not meet its own goal of filing the proper paperwork with the state to offer classes in the 2016 fall semester or a traditional spring semester next year.
—S. Heather Duncan
Issue 24: June 16
Plug Pulled on UT’s Pride Center
“The way all of this has been done just seems shady,” Johnathan Clayton tells the school administrators sitting across the table. “This is one of the simplest laws I’ve ever read, but it doesn’t seems like UT’s actions align with the law.”
Clayton is among a half dozen students crowded around a small picnic table in a courtyard outside Melrose Hall on the University of Tennessee campus, looking for answers. On the other side are three school administrators.
This informal encounter is the first sit-down meeting the Pride Ambassadors have managed to get with school officials since UT’s Pride Center saw its funding eliminated and its staff removed more than two weeks ago—a move that UT officials say was necessary to comply with a newly passed state law defunding the Office of Diversity and Inclusion over the next fiscal year.
While the University of Tennessee has continued to tout its support for diversity publicly, some students and faculty members have been raising questions about how the school is interpreting and implementing this new law. Why were the offices closed earlier than may have been required? Out of four departments under the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, why was the Pride Center the only one to lose funding? Could more have been done to save it? And was it targeted even though it wasn’t specifically named in the law?
Issue 25: June 23
A major expansion will soon move the gibbons and their neighbors the tigers, now almost hidden behind mesh and chain link, to the new “Asia Trek” section of the zoo. The physical overhaul will not only be the zoo’s largest in a decade, but also signifies broader changes in the nonprofit’s vision and identity. The newly-renamed Zoo Knoxville aims to almost double its annual visitation, becoming more financially stable.
Zoo officials argue that, as the No. 1 tourist destination in the county, the zoo drives economic growth that benefits local governments, businesses and taxpayers—even residents who never set foot there or hear the gibbon’s call.
Knoxville politicians appear to be sold on this argument. City Mayor Madeline Rogero held her annual budget announcement at the zoo’s upgraded event tent, touting the city’s commitment of $10 million in bond funds to help finance the new and improved animal exhibits.
—S. Heather Duncan
Update: Zoo officials were notified last week that they have been approved for a female tiger from California to join the zoo’s two males by the time the zoo’s new Tiger Forest exhibit opens in April, and (hopefully) have cubs in the future. The response to the zoo’s fundraising campaign for Tiger Forest was so good that the zoo has now moved on to raising money for the rest of the “Asia Trek” section and a new herpetology facility.
Issue 26: June 30
Knox County Jail’s Profiteering Policies
No letters. No in-person visits. And every call or message has a cost. Once you’re inside the Knox County Jail, those who are outside seem much farther away than a few feet of concrete.
Knox County Public Defender Mark Stephens and members of the grassroots Knox County Incarceration Collective are publicly criticizing the Knox County Sheriff’s Office for policies they say sacrifice families, inmate health, and public safety to the almighty dollar.
Stephens says the Sheriff’s Office make it difficult or miserable for inmates to communicate with their families for free, forcing them to pay for the privilege as the county takes a cut of the profits. Historically, at least half of those in the Knox County jail, the work release center, and the Roger D. Wilson Detention Facility are awaiting trial and have not yet been convicted of a crime.
“The current visitation policy is maybe one of the most detrimental policies to be implemented at the detention facility and jail of any I’ve seen in the 35 years I’ve practiced,” Stephens says. “If we don’t have any compassion for individual defendants within our system, surely to God we have compassion for the children and loved ones of those individuals.”
Defense lawyers and activists claim the county’s money-grubbing extends to deliberately underfeeding inmates to boost revenue from the jail commissary, where those with enough money can supplement scanty meals with snacks. Knox County Sheriff’s Office communications director Martha Dooley provided a copy of the nutritional policy, which requires dietary allowances to be reviewed at least annually by a nutritionist to meet nationally recommended allowances for basic nutrition. But Stephens says 80 to 90 percent of his clients complain of hunger, and his poor clients almost always visibly lose weight in jail.
—S. Heather Duncan
Update: Sheriff J.J. Jones changed the jail’s mail policy, effective Nov. 8, to allow prisoners to receive letters as well as postcards. The change was part of an annual review of policies and procedures, says spokesperson Martha Dooley.
Paul Wright, director of the Human Rights Defense Center and editor of Prison Legal News says there have been new developments in the lawsuit against the county and Jones that Prison Legal News filed over the postcard policy more than a year ago.
Issue 27: July 7
The first time I saw a Lady Vols basketball game was in 1996, when the Lady Vols were on their way to winning a fourth national title. But I didn’t know that. I followed football reflexively, a Knoxville survival mechanism, but women’s sports didn’t register at all.
For good reason. As a card-carrying UT alumni and theater geek, I survived the indignities of having theater parking lots commandeered and performances canceled whenever the basketball or football teams played. Years of trying to negotiate Byzantine performance schedules in order to avoid game days had built up a callous of resentment. The last thing I wanted to do was support the local sports hegemony in any way, shape, or form.
And I really didn’t like basketball. My only memory of the game was playing half court in high school gym class. There was no women’s varsity team and our gym teacher explained that we weren’t allowed to play full court because the constant running might cause our vaginas to fall out.
This is why women of my age don’t just love Pat Summitt, we revere her. Unlike men, most of us didn’t grow up with team sports. We weren’t taught how to be competitive. To reach for greatness. In anything, ever. At least I wasn’t. But Pat has been teaching all along that it’s in there—in each of us, if we’re willing to work for it.
Issue 29: July 21
Rezoning North Broadway’s Howard House
An estate controlling a historic Craftsman home on North Broadway has sent a letter notifying Knoxville City Council and Mayor Madeline Rogero of its plans to seek commercial zoning for the property.
If approved by the Metropolitan Planning Commission and Council, the change would likely pave the way for demolition of the house built in 1910 and owned by former city councilman Paul Howard until his death in 2014.
During the past 18 months, the Howard House has become a lightening rod for the tension between private property rights and historic preservation. It has also been a driver in conversations about what businesses and neighborhoods in the North Broadway corridor want future development to look like.
Howard’s will requires his three sons to sell the house and divide the profits. A development company that builds Walmart Neighborhood Markets offered the family $1.27 million for the property last year, before backing away from the deal in September in the face of public opposition.
—S. Heather Duncan
Update: The fate of the house remains unclear. The letter written this summer, signed by executor Nick Howard, stated that probate court was requiring the home sold by Nov. 2. Planning and Zoning officials say no request for a zoning change was ever filed.
According to the Knox County Probate Court Clerk’s office, the estate was closed Dec. 2, and there are no documents in the file indicating the sale of the house. The Knox County Registrar of deeds indicates the house is still owned by the three brothers. Tim Howard, whose address is listed as the responsible party for the house, has not responded to an inquiry from the Mercury.
Issue 30, Aug. 4
The Wine Trail Unwinds
A day trip from Knoxville can, in fact, take you along several East Tennessee wine trails. Today I’m exploring the longest, most spread-out wine trail I’ve ever heard of–five wineries in 142 miles. Yet it aims to become the first federally-designated American Viticultural Area within Tennessee.
One man is leading the charge to squeeze more value from the grapes grown in the area between the Cumberland Plateau and the Smoky Mountains: Rick Riddle, founder of the Great Valley Wine Trail and the driving force behind its effort to attain national recognition for the “9 Lakes” that frame the core of the region. An American Viticultural Area (AVA) is a region where the climate, soil, and typography create wines with a unique identity.
Riddle’s family owns the Winery at Seven Springs Farm near Maynardville. It’s one of the five wineries, all only a few years old or younger, on the new trail stretching from Seven Springs to Watauga Lake Winery in Butler. In between, the trail curves past the wineries of Spout Spring in Blaine, Eagle Springs in Kodak, and Goodwater Vineyards in Mosheim. (Initially, Knoxville’s Blue Slip Winery was involved too, but it bowed out, Riddle says.)
Created last fall, the Great Valley Wine Trail has already undergone an identity crisis. Ironically, it was originally branded based on its moonshine heritage, dubbed the Thunder Road trail because Seven Springs winery is on the old “Thunder Road” and Watauga Lake Winery is close to Copperhead Road. Both routes were memorialized for fast cars running untaxed liquor to Knoxville….
It’s expected to give a much-needed economic boost to this region among the Tennessee Valley Authority lakes. In the Tennessee portion of the Great Valley, which stretches into other states, 10 of the 16 counties fall under the USDA Designated Persistent Poverty Strike Force because more than 20 percent of the population lives in poverty; five are considered “distressed” by the Appalachian Regional Commission.
—S. Heather Duncan
Update: The wineries of the Great Valley Wine Trail, united as members of the non-profit Appalachian Region Wine Producers Association, received three big grants this fall for a total of $325,000 that will help establish the “Nine Lakes” region of Tennessee as an American Viticultural Area, start a large regional wine festival this spring in Oak Ridge, and allow the development of sparkling wine capability for one or more of the wineries.
Issue 31: Aug. 11
Emerald Academy: Assessing Its First Year
Emerald Academy, Knoxville’s first charter school, began its second school year a few weeks ago with two new grades—including sixth, its first foray into middle school. Privately-run charter schools like Emerald are approved by local school boards or the state board or education as a free alternative to public schools, and school tax dollars pay at least part of their costs. These schools, governed by charter, are given flexibility to try different teaching, testing, and discipline methods. While acknowledging that its first year with the two youngest grades was probably the easiest, Emerald Academy leaders express confidence about student growth.
It’s too soon to conclude whether Emerald’s educational model is more effective than the public schools’. But despite a few hiccups, many parents say they’re happy with Emerald’s rigorous and individualized teaching approach. It’s a new model for Knox County, which the school system is backing with millions in tax dollars in hopes of improving performance among children from inner-city neighborhoods with low-performing public schools.
—S. Heather Duncan
Update: Emerald Academy announced last week that school director Jon Rysewyk is returning to Knox County Schools to become interim chief academic officer, and Renee Kelly will serve as interim school director starting in January until a permanent replacement is named. In the meantime, Kelly, a former principal at West Valley Middle School, will continue to serve in her previous role as Dean of Scholars. Rysewyk’s potential as a candidate for the open superintendent position in Knox County Schools has been the subject of speculation by some who follow local education issues closely.
Issue 32: Aug. 18
The Disc Exchange Winds Down
Last weekend, the Disc Exchange in South Knoxville experienced a time warp to 1995: The parking lot was full of cars each day, music lovers browsed the aisles, and lines formed as shoppers carried their treasures to the counter. But the transformation was fleeting and the mood wasn’t altogether celebratory. Many of the customers were actually paying their final respects to the last locally owned record store to offer new releases on CD, while others were taking advantage of its sudden 40-percent-off liquidation sale.
After nearly 30 years of slinging silver discs—the last 25 at their Chapman Highway storefront—owners Allan Miller and Jennie Ingram announced on Friday that they were shutting down the blazing yellow store that has been an integral part of Knoxville’s music scene. The resulting crowds were a bittersweet reminder of the days when physical media was the only game in town and consumers would buy their music in the real world—sometimes even conversing with other humans in the process.
Issue 34: Sept. 1
UT’s New Mantra: Build, Raze, Repeat
In August 2015, the University of Tennessee demolished the Apartment Residence Hall dormitories on its Knoxville campus, not long after the decade-older Shelbourne Towers were leveled. This in itself shouldn’t surprise anyone keeping abreast of the local news. The university’s most recent Master Plan—adopted after a rocky rollout during the 2011-12 academic year—had foreseen the discarding of Shelbourne.
It’s true that Shelbourne and the redundantly named Apartment Residence Hall were admittedly humorless hulks, designed during what many consider the last century’s architectural nadir, one that regrettably coincided with the zenith of post-war campus construction across the country. (Shelbourne was originally a private senior residence and only recently added to the university’s building stock.) Yet, they were built to last. The slow and daunting demolition of the ARH attests to this. Moreover, when one compares the material quality of what was demolished to the physical and fiscal reality of the replacements, a pall begins to spread across UTK’s colorful multi-phase Master Plan.
Why—at the state’s flagship campus that makes claims to “green” environmental practices—does it seem like a good idea to raze reinforced concrete and masonry dormitories that have lasted several generations and are quite capable of lasting several more (albeit in desperate need of renovation)? Why cart them off to a landfill and replace them with something intentionally inferior?
Issue 42: Oct. 27
Will Randy Boyd Bring Back the Smokies?
Local governments used to love the hackneyed baseball-movie mantra: “If you build it, they will come.” Economic development officials claimed having a sports arena or stadium would provide a boost to the local economy. While that idea has been pretty much universally debunked—it just moves local entertainment spending and jobs around, rather than creating new ones—cities today justify subsidizing sports venues as a way to revitalize distressed urban neighborhoods.
But will it turn around a struggling area?
“Some communities have managed to do that successfully, but it has to be planned very carefully, and it does not always work,” says David Swindell, director of the Center for Urban Innovation at Arizona State University.
Knoxville may need to figure this out within the next 10 years. A series of property purchases by Knoxville business magnate Randy Boyd, which culminated in early September, led to the revelation that he is considering moving his Tennessee Smokies baseball team back to Knoxville from Kodak when its current lease runs out in 2025.
Boyd, who is also the state economic development commissioner, has repeatedly denied having a specific plan for the property. But emails among Boyd and top city officials indicate Boyd has been in preliminary talks with Knoxville leaders about the possibility of moving the Smokies to that specific area.
—S. Heather Duncan
Issue 44: Nov. 10
Sex Trafficking in Knoxville
For a woman who lived most of her life in a very dark place, Destiny beams light. Her hair is scraped back tightly to reveal bright eyes shining from a round face and a smile that flashes like a lighthouse beam. But her bubbly demeanor can mask other emotions close to the surface. It’s a daily struggle to trust others and to forgive herself and her family for the manipulation, addiction, and prostitution that dominated her life until a year ago.
Today, Destiny (who chose a pseudonym for this article) is working her first legit job as a hostess at a popular local family restaurant. Her career goal is to be a chef on a cargo ship, because she loves to feed people using her own recipes. (Her jerk chicken, she says, is renowned).
Until recently, Destiny could not have imagined such a future, or even her life today: A paycheck to spend as she chooses. A quiet evening at home. A bed that is hers alone.
Sex trafficking is a very old crime. But treating it as a crime is new.
Since 2011, Tennessee has become a national leader in the effort to uncover and punish sex trafficking. Yet Knoxville—the only major city in the state with no safe house for trafficking victims—lagged in understanding the problem until the last 18 months or so. Since then, there have been more arrests of pimps and men who pay for sex, an expansion of support services for victims, and a push to open a safe house in 2017.
—S. Heather Duncan
Issue 45: Nov. 17
Groups Form to Show Support for Knoxville’s Immigrants
As the results of the U.S. presidential race rolled in early Wednesday morning, Hannah Houser was feeling hopeless. She thought of Yassin Terou, the bubbly Syrian-American owner of Yassin’s Falafel House on Walnut Street.
“I was thinking, what’s a good way to make everyone remember they’re loved and welcome in Knoxville?” she says. “And Yassin always makes me feel that way.”
So she used Facebook to invite all the other Knoxvillians who agreed to come to Yassin’s for a Love Trumps Hate Lunch to share the message of solidarity and respect while helping the Syrian immigrant’s business.
Houser’s simple Facebook event has expanded into the creation of several community groups focused on finding ways to support progressive causes and marginalized community members.
The largest is Love Trumps Hate: Knoxville, founded by Houser soon after the Yassin’s lunch. After almost a week, the group had close to 7,000 members on Facebook. Houser and other coordinators plan to meet soon to discuss concrete goals and service opportunities arising from the group, which has also spawned some neighborhood-based groups like South Knox United.
—S. Heather Duncan
Issue 48: Dec. 8
It’s Tuesday in Gatlinburg, and the smoky aftermath of last night’s fire is draped like a dirty quilt across this mountain town. From its folds Gatlinburg-Pittman High School has emerged as a command center for first responders and a refuge for displaced residents.
It is one of several shelters set up in churches and community centers in the area, and for the first few hours of the day the outpost is eerily calm.
The evacuees seeking refuge in the school’s athletics complex, Rocky Top Sports World, are visibly exhausted. Some attempt rest on cots in the gymnasium, Red Cross blankets pulled over their heads to block out the cheerful fluorescent lights. Others sit slumped in chairs, staring at images of their ruined neighborhoods on television screens, try to piece together the narrative of a waking nightmare that continues to unfold.
Carol Lilleaas watches the screen intently, searching for any clue that her home of 12 years survived the night.
“I know nothing,” she says. “It will either be there or it won’t.”
—Leslie Wylie Bateman
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