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Library Larry to the Rescue
The Knox County Library System emerged from the most troubled period in its history as controversial interim director Charles Davenport was succeeded by maverick Midwesterner Larry Frank, an energetic former Lutheran missionary and erstwhile novelist who has made a commendable habit of raising eyebrows with various ambitious proposals for the staid old library. He immediately moved to establish a coffee house in the front of the library, and began negotiations for a much-larger, new library, probably to be located on Gay Street.
KSO: Maestro Kirk Trevor out, Lucas Richman in
After 18 seasons waving the baton in front of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, Kirk Trevor bid his players farewell and let Lucas Richman step up to the podium. Richman, 39, came from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and brought with him a devotion to music education and a determination to keep musicians' salaries on a par with comparable cities' orchestras.
KMA: New Director, New Vision
The Knoxville Museum of Art's Executive Director Todd Smith has been at the helm for more than a year now. Originally from Richmond, Va., the 38-year-old Duke graduate came here from Plains Art Museum in Fargo, N.D., and has worked with the Mint Museum in Charlotte, N.C. In February 2003, Smith told Metro Pulse's Adrienne Martini, "We need to do more than just have people come into our building and stand and look. We need to infiltrate into their lives so that they think about us less as a building and more as a concept." That vision seems to be playing out successfully. Smith's goal is to make the KMAand Knoxville in generalexponentially more cool, more hip, and stylish. While Alive After Five has kept a steady crowd coming in to hear live jazz and blues on Friday nights, the subUrban Thursdays series appealed to the young professional set, turning the airy Great Hall into a martini lounge worthy of any big-city hotel. Art-wise, the video installation by Brit artists Nick Relph and Oliver Payne was bizarre, and the Design Lab series introduced Knoxville to Crandall Arambula's vision of our city and Jean Pierre Gauthier's fascinating experiment in music-meets-technology. (The latter is on display through Feb. 1.) An exhibit of vintage skateboards, and screenings of the documentary Dogtown and Z Boys, sponsored by Pluto Sports and hard rock station Extreme 94.3, appealed to a decidedly non-museum-going demographic. The museum, which is located within the CBID's no-skateboading zone, apparently survived the exhibit without receiving any fines from police.
Where Skateboarding Is a Crime
On July 4, the World's Fair Park was officially returned to Knoxville, with a grand celebration featuring a number of bands, including R.B. Morris. People lay out on the grass, sneaking sips from concealed beer cans, while City Council and mayoral candidates passed out fliers. Other events held at the parkespecially the Brewer's Jamdemonstrated what a great space it is for festivals. Most of the events have been held on the field north of Clinch Avenue. The south lawnwhich hosted several large concerts in the park's previous incarnationhas not been used yet for any large events.
The park gets plenty of use on other days. Kids love the geyser fountains north of the park, and a lot of people jog or stroll through the fountains and waterfalls at the south. You can often find people throwing a frisbee or football in the park, even late at night. The park has also tempted some unwelcome guestsskateboarders, who have damaged some of the marble.
Other parts in and around the park are waiting for the Haslam administration to take action. The city's beloved and mocked Sunsphere is vacant, with no funds allocated for a renovation. (Metro Pulse would like to go on record as advocating a gambling casino in the sun tower! Others would like to see a restaurant and observation deck.) The nearby Candy Factory and Victorian Houses are also waiting for the new city administration to take action.
Meanwhile, at a site less than a block north on Gay Street, city and private concerns argued about the best way to achieve the first downtown cineplex. The Gay Street project would not only be the first downtown cinema in 25 years, but would also be the first cineplex ever built in central Knoxvillebecoming the closest theater to UT and tens of thousands of other Knoxvillians in the center of town and deep into the south. Getting there has been the sticky part. The Ashe administration has long favored coupling the theater with a transit center which would make possible the use of federal funds, perhaps saving the city millions. Others, especially some of the private developers of Market Square, where long term viability has been coupled to the timely completion of the theater, would prefer to keep the cinema and transit-center projects separate; they cite construction complications and a further delay of unpredictable length. Mayor Haslam's sympathies are rumored but uncertain. Complicating it further are questions about how to use the Victorian and art-deco facades that front the site, most famously the flamboyant remains of the S&W Cafeteria. And we don't even want to think about another wrinkle, the spectre of whether the county-owned property can legally be used for private purposes. The downtown cineplex issue promises to be near the top of the list of the Controversies to Watch in 2004.
Movies for the People
How many cities show movies on the sides of downtown buildings? We'd never seen it before, anywhere, until the unpredictable folks at Yee-Haw Industries on Gay Street began showing short arty films on special events on the front of the old J.C. Penney building on Gay Street. Inspired, the proprietors of the ThInQ Tank took it to a more mainstream level by showing a wide variety of feature-length major motion pictures on the back of their building in the Old City. By fall, it seemed to be approaching the status of Phenomenon. We hope showing movies on blank sides of buildings becomes a Knoxville trademark.
The Tennessee's Second Act
The Tennessee Theatre closed for the most painstaking renovations in its 75-year history, a $20 million project that also includes a significant expansion of the theater, especially in the backstage area. In the summer, workers tore off the back of the building along State Street, exposing the theater's usually unseen backstage catacombs, and began work on a cantilever-style extension which will stretch the backstage over half the street, enabling the theater to launch more ambitiously operatic productions (do you hear elephants?) than it ever had before. Meanwhile, inside theater-renovation experts from around the world are carefully removing 75 years of soot from the interior's Moorish flourishes, returning the theater's pre-Stockmarket-Crash grandiosity. Don't buy your tickets yet, though; the theater will remain closed through 2004 and won't be done until sometime in 2005.
The Bijou Theatre Board of Directors thought it would be a good idea, and who could blame them? After all, the Cumberland County Playhouse successfully draws people from across the state and country to middle-of-nowhere Crossville to enjoy a season of wholesome, family-friendly theater. Surely Jim Crabtree, CCP's executive director, could help the Bijou Theater out of its $600,000 debt. But after being hired for the job and heading both theaters for 18 months, Crabtree bailed on the Bijou gig, citing overcommitment and a really long commute. Undaunted, the theater, led by interim executive director Larjuanette Williams (who had been hired by Crabtree at CCP), charged headlong into its 2003-04 season of musicals, having kept potential bankruptcy at bay with a refinanced mortgage and redoubled efforts to pay utility bills on time. They promise.
In the Out of the Blue Dept., summer saw a flurry of discussions about a proposed National Presidents Museum to be the elusive destination-attraction consultants tell us downtown Knoxville needs. Anticipated to be a $50 million project paid for by a combination of public and private funds, most of them from national sources, the project attracted a top-drawer group of Knoxvillians to serve on its board and launched a website at www.presidentsmuseum.com, featuring portraits of Washington, Lincoln, and half a dozen other unidentified presidential-looking chaps (we think one of them is Buchanan). But otherwise they've been keeping a low profile, perhaps avoiding the bombast of some extravagant non-starters in recent years. However, local fundraising from private sources has reportedly been going well, and the first half of 2004 will see a "national charrette" of representatives from the History Channel, Disney, the Smithsonian, and perhaps even an ex-president or two.
Return of the Protesters
Weekly antiwar protests during the first quarter of 2003 were Knoxville's biggest in more than 30 years, since the hippie era. Demonstraters turned out several hundred strong and were impressive enough to rate a few lines here and there in the national media. A few early demonstrations coalesced downtown, one big one during a visit to the convention center by President Bush, but the largest ones were held every Saturday for a couple of months on a corner little acquainted the political activism: the high-traffic intersection of Morrell Road and Kingston Pike, the very front yard of West Town Mall. Some protests just before the Iraq invasion drew crowds variously estimated to number between 500 and 1,000. The demonstrators looked a little different from those of years past, among the usual hippies and tweedy college professors were veterans, parents of soldiers, and old-style conservative Republicans who supported Congressman Duncan's vote against giving the president powers to launch an extremely expensive invasion of Iraq. Unlike the Vietnam demonstrations, the Iraq demonstrations formed before the war commenced and dwindled soon after the March invasion, as the NO WAR ON IRAQ yard signs that were popping up all over town about this time last year began to vanish. It was clearly a more respectful group that didn't want to be seen as unsupportive of troops in harm's way. But among those who strongly opposed the war before it started, when it was promised to be a cakewalk, few minds have changed. We suspect we haven't seen the last of them.
Old City News
The Old City often seems to be in the same step-up-step-back dance it's been practicing for the last 20 years. This year, though, there may have been just a little more stepping up than stepping back. The temporary visitation of Thursday's Sundown in the City series brought thousands in during the warmer months, and thanks to the Sterchi Flats and other renovation-based residential developments, there are now more people living in the neighborhood than there have been since the days when the place was thoroughly disreputable. The ThInQ Tank opened, in the capacious former Hoo-Ray's space and successfully capitalized on Sundown nights, and the Urban Bar opened in the corner site famous for its patio. Mag-pies opened their first storefront bakery. Hanna's restaurant and bar opened an Old City spot. Stalwart Barley's changed hands, and is now locally owned.
However, by year's end notorious late-night dance club Fiction, a victim of the residential-renovation boom, had consolidated with Blue Cats and Tonic, a good fit, maybe, but the result was a net loss of one nightclub; and the ThInQ Tank was cutting back on their open nights, eventually closing on Dec. 19. And the most recent incarnation of the Old City Diner at the corner of Central and Summit Hill closed. (We'd been there a few times; the atmosphere's charming as usual, the food pretty tasty, but we could never afford to drop in casually. Maybe one of these days this diner will open serving real diner food at real diner prices.)
I'll Have an IPA, George
It was the fourth incarnation of a brewpub downtownthe first three being Smoky Mountain Brewing Company, Great Southern Brewing Company, and CityBrewand downtown's somewhat picky (but supportive) beer drinking crowded didn't warm up to the place immediately. Perhaps it took a little while for the management to work out the kinks. Or maybe they were just waiting for Al Krusen, former brewer for the late great New Knoxville Brewing Company, to start working his magic at the tanks. But people finally came around. Krusen has several excellentand strongbeers on tap, and the happy hour prices are hard to beat. The Brewery also has a pretty decent menu, pool tables upstairs, and frequent live music. And to top it all off, bartender George Wertz is arguably the best in town. The place isn't home to the literati and new urbanists that it was in the Great Southern days, mainly because it's not the only game in downtown anymore. The Preservation Pub, Macleods and a number of Old City clubs are competing for that crowd's business. But the Downtown Grill is certainly getting some of it. Hopefully there's enough to go around.