October 2009 Archives

Last December, in accepting an award for his advocacy of instant runoff voting -- which Memphis voters had just overwhelmingly approved for some elections -- Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy said, "I think this really put Memphis on the map for election reform."

Sure enough, Memphis is mentioned as a pioneer in adopting instant runoff voting in an op-ed piece in today's The (Baltimore) Sun by John Anderson. The former Illinois Republican congressman, who pulled 7 percent of the vote as an independent candidate in the 1980 presidential election, has been a leading advocate of instant runoff voting, and it was his FairVote organization that honored Mulroy last December. Here's what he had to say in The Sun:

IRV keeps growing in popularity. Backed by such leaders as President Obama and Sen. John McCain, IRV will be used for coming elections in San Francisco, Oakland and Memphis. The British prime minister has pledged to hold a national referendum to adopt IRV in the United Kingdom. Even the Oscar for Best Picture this winter will go to a film selected by IRV.

Of course, instant runoff voting in Memphis is limited in scope: It will apply only to single-district City Council elections, not to citywide or "super district" races. Theoretically, this could allow someone to win a citywide election with, say, 20 percent in a crowded field. But any fears of that happening in the recent special election were swept away in Mayor A C Wharton's 60 percent electoral tsunami.

Sandra Bullock was hesitant to take 'Blind Side' role, director says

In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, writer-director John Lee Hancock provides some interesting background about the casting of Sandra Bullock as Memphian Leigh Anne Tuohy in the movie "The Blind Side."

"She was perfect for this, but she didn't see that right off. She turned me down three times, just because while she liked the script but I think she missed, at first, that Leigh Anne Tuohy is not some woman you could put in a little box. 'Southern Steel Magnolia. I got it.' I had a hard time explaining exactly who Leigh Anne was. Finally, I just said, 'Sandy, you've got to go and meet this woman.' We went down to Memphis, met the real Leigh Anne, who is Southern, Christian, Conservative, with everything that goes with that. But surprising, somebody who defies definition. She took this kid in and looked out for him. And Sandy immediately goes, 'I get it. I get her. I have to do this because she's this complex and this part scares me so much.'"

The movie, of course, based loosely on the book of the same name, shows how the well-to-do white Tuohy family took into their home Michael Oher, a severely disadvantaged black teenager who would blossom into a star Ole Miss and Baltimore Ravens left tackle.

Hancock's next project, due in 2011, is "The American Can," in which Will Smith plays an unsung hero of Hurricane Katrina.

Rumor mill: Terry Bowden's name popping up for Memphis Tigers job

The buzz around North Alabama head football coach Terry Bowden got a little bit louder today, as the Times Daily of Florence, Ala. -- hometown of UNA -- mentioned the University of Memphis along with Central Florida and Virginia as places where Bowden's name has popped up in connection to possible future coaching vacancies.

Bowden's name came up a couple of times in the comments on Geoff Calkins' column about Tuesday night's ghastly, nationally televised Tigers loss to East Carolina.

Bowden, son of the legendary but recently embattled Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden, is a former coach at Auburn who spent 10 years as a college football analyst on TV, radio and the Internet. In his first year back in coaching, he has led North Alabama to 9-0 record and a No. 1 ranking in Division II. His Lions are assured of at least a share of the title for the Gulf South Conference, which also includes Delta State and non-football-playing Christian Brothers University.

For his part, Bowden, 53, said he has not been contacted by any school about a coaching position:

"I am very happy here at UNA," he said. "But can anyone say what they would do if they were offered a job that paid a million and a half or two million dollars a year? I want to be here and coach here. If that situation were to come up, then we'll address it.

"It beats the alternative of being a young coach that feels an urgency to move somewhere. I've been there before. I've got a job, and we still have a big season ahead of us.

"Besides, I've still got a lot of fishing to do here."

Photographer Jacob Blickenstaff is bringing a sizable entourage of family and friends with him next week for the opening of an exhibit of his work at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, according to an item in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Breaking Schmooze blog.

Blickenstaff, 30, a St. Louisan now based in New York City, has had work featured in publications from Rolling Stone to Wax Poetics, and he is the featured photographer of the Ponderosa Stomp festival. The exhibit to show at Stax focuses on contemporary soul artists and the recent resurgence of soul music, which Blickenstaff knows well from his work as a photographer for Daptone Records. Subjects include Bettye Lavette, Sharon Jones, Ben Cauley, Otis Clay and many more.

The opening party will be Friday, Nov. 6, at 7 p.m. It's $20 admission for the general public, and free for Stax Museum members. The exhibit will be on display through April. Keep an eye out for next week's issue of GoMemphis for an in-depth profile and interview of Blickenstaff.

Trial delayed again for alleged Palin e-mail hacker David Kernell

Pro-Sarah Palin blogger Josh Painter points out that the trial of David Kernell, who is accused of illegally accessing the Republican vice presidential candidate's Yahoo e-mail account in the heat of last year's presidential campaign, has been delayed again, this time until April 20, 2010. The politically charged trial has been delayed before, most recently after federal prosecutors doubled down on the case with additional charges including obstruction of justice, wire fraud and identity theft. Most recently, the trial was to begin Tuesday.

Kernell is the son of Rep. Mike Kernell, a longtime Democratic state House member from Memphis.

George Clooney to executive produce TV drama about Memphis cop

George Clooney is set to co-executive produce a TV pilot about a Memphis police officer who moonlights as an Elvis tribute artist and lives with his mother, Zap2It reports, citing The Hollywood Reporter.

The show, "Delta Blues," has been on TNT's development list since May 2008, but was just given the green light by the cable network. Clooney's Smokehouse Pictures will collaborate with Warner Horizon on production. It will be the first TV pilot by Smokehouse.
mdmcn1.jpg The Toronto Globe and Mail has a long profile of Hunter Harrison, the native Memphian who is retiring as chief executive of the Canadian National Railway Co. and in whose honor the company named its newly expanded Memphis distribution hub.

The profile begins, as must all profiles of Memphians of a certain age (Harrison is 64), with an Elvis anecdote. Harrison, who went to Kingsbury High, accompanied a friend to one of Elvis' private get-togethers at the fairgrounds:

"Elvis leaned on a wall with his motorcycle hat on," recalls the chief executive officer of Canadian National Railway Co. "There was a lady then that Elvis was going with named Anita Wood. She was a local TV star on a dance show like American Bandstand .

"She knew me a little bit. Here I am at the fairgrounds with pimples, 16 years old. She comes over to me and my neighbour - another little acne kid. We talked to her for about 10 minutes. She approached us, we didn't go to her. But the man Elvis is over there. One of the bodyguards comes over and tells us, 'The man doesn't like that.' I'm thinking, 'Could Elvis be jealous of us?'"

More important, though, the Globe and Mail's piece also discusses Memphis' role in CN's recent success. The Canadian government spun off the company as a public entity in 1995, and Harrison has been in charge for seven years. He has said the company has invested nearly $150 million in Memphis in four years.

Memphis has emerged as CN's main southern U.S. hub, a strategic yard that handles freight that arrives after long journeys, including Asian imports sent along CN lines from the Port of Prince Rupert in British Columbia. Memphis, where CN interchanges traffic with all four major U.S. carriers, is also the company's gateway to its Gulf of Mexico region operations.


"Memphis is particularly a very important spot for CN going forward," Mr. Harrison says.

Once he retires at the end of the year, Harrison plans to spend time at his family's equestrian horse ranches in Connecticut and Florida.

PICTURED: Canadian National Railway CEO Hunter Harrison is seen during a visit to Memphis for the dedication of the $100 million renovation and expansion of Harrison Yard, which was named in his honor.

Memphis swine flu cases plummeting, Le Bonheur doctor tells NPR

Just days after President Barack Obama declared the swine flu outbreak a national emergency, National Public Radio caught up with Dr. Keith English, an infectious-disease specialist at Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center, to talk about how the Memphis hospital is dealing with the epidemic. He had some good news for our area: flu cases have fallen "dramatically" over the past couple of weeks.

Recall that Le Bonheur has been in the national news both for setting up an outdoor tent to deal with swine flu patients, and for being the first hospital in the country to receive the H1N1 vaccine.

Some highlights from the transcript:

MARTIN: What do you make of the president's order? How does that affect your life? Does that make your life better in any way? Does it do anything for you?

Dr. ENGLISH: I think it's a good thing because it allows hospitals more flexibility in how they will deal with this pandemic. At Le Bonheur, for example, in order to set up that screening tent, we had to have a federal waiver in order to do that because that was necessary. So, this will make it easier for hospitals to set up screening protocols like this if they need to. It also allows hospitals to transfer patients to other facilities if necessary. Fortunately here in Memphis, our flu numbers have fallen off fairly dramatically over the past two to three weeks. But it may help other places who were as hard hit as we were back in September. (emphasis added)


MARTIN: And, finally, very briefly, if you would, why do you think that - you're saying that the increase is curtailing or the increase seems to be abating. What do you think that is?

Dr. ENGLISH: Good question, we don't know. We're happy to see that, obviously. Many cases, influenza pandemics come in waves. This started, our number of cases started falling off about two weeks ago and we're extremely happy to see that because it gives us an opportunity now to get people immunized, so that if there is another wave coming, which there may be in the winter months, we can curtail that. (emphasis added)

University of Tennessee study finds hospitals just as safe in July

A new study of research conducted at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center debunks something called the "July phenomenon," the idea that trauma patients at teaching hospitals face increased risks that month because that's when the new crop of resident physicians start their rotations. The study appeared in the September issue of the Journal of the American College of Surgeons. Here's what one of the authors had to say:

"The results of our study add to a growing body of evidence suggesting that the July phenomenon does not exist in major trauma centers with appropriate guidance and supervision of residents," said Peter E. Fischer, MD, a general surgery resident at the hospital and one of the paper's authors. "Our center, for example, has taken multiple steps, including constant attending physician supervision and a regimented team approach, to ensure quality care for our patients, regardless of the experience of the treating physician. It is time to put the myth of the July Phenomenon to rest."

On the other hand, recent studies in the United Kingdom and Australia have in fact shown an increase in adverse events when new physicians come on board, so it seems that American hospitals are doing a good job of preparing residents to hit the ground running.

Whitney museum stocks up on William Eggleston work

The Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan has nearly doubled its holdings of work by Memphis photographer William Eggleston thanks to a gift from a couple of collectors, The New York Times reports. Last year's "William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961-2008" was one of the most popular photography exhibitions in the Whitney's history, so the museum decided it should stock up on Eggleston.

"This considerably strengthens our holdings of his classic period from the late '60s and early '70s, primarily his color photography shot in his home city of Memphis and around the Mississippi Delta, where he frequently traveled," said Elisabeth Sussman, the Whitney's photography curator. "There are also a number of portraits taken in the 1970s at the time he was filming videos and taking portraits in nightclubs that have rarely been shown."

Research: West Antarctic ice loss less than previously estimated

A researcher from the University of Memphis was part of a team whose findings suggest that the rate of ice loss from the West Antarctic ice sheet has been slightly overestimated.

Dr. Robert Smalley of the U of M's Center for Earthquake Research and Information has been monitoring the movement of bedrock underneath the ice. As ice retreats, the bedrock recovers. The team's research suggests that the ice had not been thinning and retreating as much as previously believed.

Here is how the team's research was unique, according to the write-up on the Web site of KABC-TV in Los Angeles:

Now, for the first time, researchers have directly measured the vertical motion of the bedrock at sites across West Antarctica using the Global Positioning System. The results should lead to more accurate estimates of ice mass loss.

International Paper closing mills, laying off hundreds

Amid reduced demand for its office products, Memphis-based International Paper is slashing capacity by closing three plants and firing 1,600 workers -- that's 3 percent of payroll. The moves will bring about $1.1 billion in charges.

IP's supply cuts surprised analysts, who viewed the aggressive moves as positive:

"This is big -- the breadth of product lines and the amount of tonnage removed exceeds our expectations," Joshua Zaret, a New York-based analyst at Longbow Research, said today in a telephone interview. "This is highly positive for the company and the industry."

The three mills to be closed are in Albany, Ore., Franklin, Va., Pineville, La., and an idled mill machine in Valliant, Okla., also will be shut down permanently.

UPDATE: According to The Associated Press wire, the closing in Oklahoma was just one machine at a mill, not the entire mill.

Scorecard: Tennessee moving up in sustainability, energy efficiency

Tennessee is making big strides in sustainability, according to a scorecard from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy that was picked up by StreetsBlog. The Volunteer State moved all the way up from No. 46 to No. 38, showing that the recent local emphasis on improving sustainability is achieving results. In fact, the photo that accompanies the StreetsBlog post shows Downtown Memphis, and the caption links to an Associated Press story about the new statewide building code.

More about 'Memphis' musical, including Glenn Beck rolling deep

The new "Memphis" musical on Broadway (see a ton of reviews here) is becoming something of a pop-culture touchstone. To wit ...

* Fox News' Glenn Beck went to see the new musical with his wife, and he was able to incorporate it into an indictment of the Obama administration's public-relations assault on the conservative-oriented cable network:

I went to a Broadway play this weekend with my wife: "Memphis" -- it was fantastic. Except for the two songs in it about "Hope and Change." Are Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod calling up Broadway producers now, asking them to help out with the agenda, the way Yosi Sargent did at the direction of Valerie Jarrett and Buffy Wicks?

It sure wouldn't be unprecedented. Look at what the White House has accomplished with "Service Week," all this week on TV as Michelle Obama announced. Sixty programs are incorporating some kind of service or volunteer theme into their shows.

* Beck's appearance at the Shubert Theatre is making waves for another reason: The provocative commentator was accompanied by an armed bodyguard, even to the restroom.

* Wine Spectator writer Thomas Matthews labels "Memphis" as "highly recommended," especially after a $290 bottle of California pinot noir.

* Here is a gallery with some pictures from the show as well as shots of celebrities at opening night, including the lovely Gina Gershon and the not-so-lovely David Johansen of New York Dolls and Buster Poindexter fame.

* A final thought: Having written plenty of reviews in my day, I understand that great minds think alike, and critics can draw the same impressions, but it seems like every single review says that lead actor Chad Kimball looks and sounds like George W. Bush. 

Reviews galore for 'Memphis' the musical


If you haven't yet, check out our correspondent's review of the "Memphis" musical that this blog has reported on before. The review includes excerpts of reviews from various big publications, some overwhelmingly positive, some more mixed. I'm just going to list a ton of links to reviews below ...

Newsday: "passionate, exuberantly believable book"; "remarkably rich and raucous character-driven songs"

The Hollywood Reporter: "an
original musical, not based on a presold property and devoid of
stars, that is joyfully entertaining in musical and theatrical

USA Today: "well-intentioned hokum-fest"; "... Memphis veers from cloying earnestness to obvious satire." "wasted talent"

Back Stage: "Though its brain may be a bit simple, 'Memphis' has its heart and soul in the right place." "more than two hours of roof-raising numbers from a dynamic cast"; " the characters come across as two-dimensional clichés"

The New York Times: "the crucial ingredient -- authentic soul -- is missing in action." "the Michael Bolton of Broadway musicals" (ouch!)

The Faster Times (includes video of a number from the show): "energetic, tuneful, talent-filled but disappointing"; "a missed opportunity to say something original or insightful"; "the dramatic scenes are the least successful part of the show"

Bloomberg: "I can guarantee you a rambunctious good
time highlighted by rousing music and singing, spectacular
dancing, and even some shedding of tender tears."

Elsewhere, Broadway World has coverage, including many photos of the cast, of the opening-night festivities.

UPDATE: Two more ...

New York Daily News: "wins you over with its sheer enthusiasm and exuberant performances.

Harold Ford Jr. mentioned for top Hollywood lobbyist gig

Former Memphis congressman Harold Ford Jr. is among names being tossed around to become Hollywood's next top lobbyist in Washington. Dan Glickman, the current chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, will step down when his contract expires next September. The former U.S. secretary of Agriculture replaced the late, iconic Jack Valenti as the movie industry's man on Capitol Hill.

Ford, who had been mentioned as a possible candidate in next year's Tennessee gubernatorial election (he declined to run), is currently working as chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, a middle-of-the-road policy think-tank.

Politico talks about about what the MPAA job entails:

The race to land this plum position is set to be intense. The combination of a high salary and high-profile mingling with celebrities makes it one of Washington's most coveted jobs. ...

Though it's a coveted post, the job poses serious challenges, including dealing with the competing agendas of the six movie studios -- Sony Pictures Entertainment, Universal Studios, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., The Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Fox Filmed Entertainment and Paramount Pictures -- that the MPAA reports to.

Memphis rapper Yo Gotti all about the hustle

Red-hot Memphis rapper Yo Gotti is helping kick off the University of Memphis Tigers' basketball season as I write this with a guest appearance at Memphis Madness at FedExForum. Find out more about the man and what makes him tick in this in-depth interview at HipHopDX.com.

I was struck when reading the article by how dedicated and hard-working Gotti is. For him, music is a hustle, just like whatever he might have gotten up to back in the day coming up in North Memphis. Says the artist behind "5 Star Chick"*:

A 5 Star Rapper is a person who does this 24 hours. You're a rapper 24 hours a day. That means even when you're off you're on. Like even when I'm not in the studio, and I'm riding down the street listening to music, I'm thinking of new words to throw on top of a track. It's not just about being in the studio, it's also what you do beyond that. I believe in practice too. I try and record at least 2 songs a day whether I'm working on an album or not. You have to practice to be professional.

* - Beware of bad words on there. That's the version where he uses another word besides "chick."

Peabody ducks among 'America's Most Adorable Hotel Animals'

Something to stoke your Memphis pride on a Friday ...

The Peabody ducks turn up at No. 1 on an ABC News slideshow of "America's 14 Most Adorable Hotel Animals," ahead of Charlie the bichon frisé at the Hotel Monaco in Alexandria, Va., the Atlantic bottlenose dolphins at the Mirage in Las Vegas, and others, most of which are dogs. The list isn't ranked per se, but it's nice to see Memphis front and center, anyway ...

Here is what ABC News had to say:

For generations, visitors have been coming to the Peabody hotel in Memphis to see the parade of the ducks. That's right, at 11 a.m. every day, the hotel's ducks are led down from their home on the rooftop, to an elevator where they appear for their red carpet march to a fountain in the lobby. Each team of five ducks lives in the hotel for only three months before being retired from their Peabody duties and returned to a farm to live out the remainder of their days as wild ducks.

Hear Lucero live on WXPN.org at 11 a.m. Friday

Just a week after kicking off their tour at Memphis' Levitt Shell for new album 1327 Overton Park, Memphis rockers Lucero perform live at 11 a.m. Friday on WXPN.org in Philadelphia.

UPDATE: The Associated Press moved its review of 1327 Overton Park today. Check it out here.

Memphis and Tennessee set pace as graduation rates rise in South

Some good news came out today on the education front. Tennessee has led the way among Southern states that have increased high school graduation rates this decade, according to a study by the Southern Regional Education Board that was reported in Education Week. And furthermore:

In discussing the results for Tennessee, the SREB points out that particularly strong gains in graduation rates were seen in the 105,000-student Memphis city school system and the 42,000-student Hamilton County system, which is based in Chattanooga. (emphasis added)

As the Education Week story points out, these results of improvement contrast with a similar SREB report in 2005 that "concluded that graduation rates in many Southern states were low and slipping." The report out today comes a few months after the U.S. Department of Education found that the performance gap is shrinking between black and white students in the South.

To be sure, the SREB report does contain points of concern:

At the same time, more than one in four 9th graders in the region still are not graduating on time, and the recent gains only bring the South close to the same level it saw in the early 1990s, says the SREB, an Atlanta-based compact of 16 states.

So what does it all mean? The high school dropout rate has deep implications both socially and economically, according to a couple of other recent studies. One found that dropouts from the class of 2009 alone with cost the state of Tennessee $6.5 billion in lost income over their lifetimes. Another found that one in 10 young male high school dropouts will be in a jail or detention on a given day -- a figure that climbs to one in four for young black male dropouts.

Sports writers are starting to issue a variety of end-of-decade lists for us to chew on (yes, the '00s are about to end). My colleague Gary Robinson posted Tuesday about a sportingnews.com list of the decade's 10 defining moments in college basketball, of which three had links to Memphis. The Yahoo! college football blog Dr. Saturday featured today a list of the the decade's top scandals in my favorite sport. And, of course, one of them has links to Memphis. You do remember the Albert Means case, don't you?

In 1999, Means's high-school coach, Lynn Lang, all but auctioned Means off to the highest bidder. Alabama was the one that bit, with mega-booster Logan Young allegedly paying Lang a total of $150,000 to steer Means to Tuscaloosa. It was that kind of sprawling kudzu patch of a scandal that included dozens of schools, FBI investigations, allegations that Phil Fulmer tried to submarine Alabama by feeding evidence to the NCAA and lawsuits that have spanned the ensuing decade; when the smoke cleared, 'Bama coach Mike Dubose was out of a job, three people were in jail and the Tide incurred a two-year bowl ban and the loss of 21 scholarships. As far as anyone can ascertain, the Tide only avoided the death penalty by the skin of their teeth, and the scholarship reductions so kneecapped the program that the team went 43-32 over the ensuing six seasons and had more new-coach searches than bowl wins.

Ford: Memphis likes its vehicles big and white

According to a Ford analysis of sales data, Memphis is the automaker's No. 2 market for white vehicles and No. 2 market for vehicles with V-8 engines.

Ford breaks down its sales data by model, color, options and other criteria in order to make sure that particular regions are stocked properly for customer preference. Some of the data are easily explained -- environmentally conscious markets like Seattle and San Francisco lead hybrid-powertrain sales, and sunny cities Los Angeles and Miami lead the nation in sales of convertibles.

Other findings of the survey are not so easily explained, according to Ford's press release:

For example, white is most popular in Phoenix, where the color's reflective properties are a boon to car seats and air conditioners - no surprise there.  But the second most popular market for white Ford vehicles is Memphis, Tenn., for reasons yet to be determined.  Is it the heat, or is it due to the fact that one of Memphis' largest employers is FedEx - known for its stark-white vehicles and aircraft?

Furthermore, gloomy San Francisco and snowy New York are also in the top five for convertible sales.

Memphis also is in the top five markets for sales of SUVs, pickups and vehicles with V-8 engines.
Circle of Blue, a publication that bills itself as "Reporting on the Global Water Crisis," revisits the lawsuit brought by the state of Mississippi against the city of Memphis and Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division over what Mississippi claims is a $1 billion theft of groundwater.

The question will be up to the U.S. Supreme Court after a federal appeals court, affirming the decision of a lower court, dismissed the suit in June because it is an interstate issue. Mississippi had said it had no quarrel with the state of Tennessee, but the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Tennessee is in fact an "indispensable party" to the suit.

Circle of Blue provides some background about what must happen before the Supreme Court can hear the case:

Before the Supreme Court case can begin, a study must be performed to determine how much of the aquifer belongs to each state, since the underground lake system is fluvial and dynamic. The federal common law doctrine "equitable apportionment" determines how resources such as water and wildlife are allotted to neighboring states.

To date, the Supreme Court has never applied this doctrine to an aquifer and its groundwater-although it has ruled for fluvial rivers like the Laramie River in 1922, the Delaware River in 1931, and the North Platte River in 1945, as well as hearing the current case between the Carolinas for the Catawba River.

The case is particularly important for Mississippi because the state draws some 89 percent of its public water from underground sources. Mississippi Atty. Gen. Jim Hood has said in court documents that Memphis is "the largest city in the world that relies solely on groundwater wells for its water supply." However, statewide, Tennessee sources only 36 percent of its water from the ground, according to Circle News.

Another factor, as this Business TN article explains, is that DeSoto County's growth has prompted fears of a water shortage.

Here's where this suit could get expensive for Memphis and MLGW -- beyond the $1 billion damages that Mississippi claims.

Memphis and MLGW argue that the withdrawals are appropriate and within legal limits. If they lose, the utility will be forced to build a multi-million dollar water treatment plant for subsequent future withdrawals from the Mississippi River. (emphasis added)

Mmmm, fresh, clean Mississippi River water ...

West Memphis Three case continues to gnaw at city's consciousness

The New York Times carries today a story from West Memphis about the city's complicated relationship with the West Memphis Three case. The story comes as appeals by the three convicted murderers -- Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley -- make their way through the Arkansas courts.

According to The Times, attitudes in West Memphis about the notorious 1993 murders of three young boys are changing:

For years, outsiders have raised questions about the guilt of the three misfit teenagers, Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley Jr., who were convicted of the murders. But more recently, a steady dribble of new evidence has begun to seep into the consciousness of West Memphis, eroding the once nearly unanimous belief that those outsiders -- including rock stars, HBO filmmakers and the creators of "South Park" -- did not know what they were talking about.
Even the parents of the victims have had second thoughts. Early this month, Pam Hobbs, whose son Steve Branch was killed, became the second parent to say she believed that the West Memphis Three were innocent.

Still, the case remains something of a delicate subject across the river. One business owner calls it "polarizing," and others indicate that they'd much rather the city be able to put the matter behind it.

Janine Earney, the director of the Crittenden Arts Council, said she becomes angry every time she reads about the West Memphis Three -- who, she points out, were not even from West Memphis, but the next town.

"I don't think anyone from the outside can look at what happened in this community and judge it," she said.

Rollin' Survivors: Spinal cord-injured veterans who line dance

Here's an inspiring Memphis mention to get you ready for the weekend ...

The San Antonio Express-News' Web site has a story today about the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival, an artistic summit for disabled veterans that runs through the weekend. The participants have been undergoing creative therapy -- everything from photography to Mexican crafts to music -- to deal with wounds that are often unseen, including debilitating post-traumatic stress. Those who will be featured at this weekend's festival were chosen from about 3,500 who competed at Department of Veterans Affairs facilities around the country, the article says.

One of the performing groups is from Memphis:

The first group featured in Sunday's high-energy show at Municipal Auditorium will be five Vietnam-era vets with spinal cord injuries from Memphis, Tenn., who will do a line dance in their electric wheelchairs. The quadriplegics, billed as the Rollin' Survivors, are led by Leo Lawson, a Navy veteran who saw relatives doing the "Electric Slide" and started moving his wheelchair.

Sylvester Lewis, 61, a member of the group, said the three-minute routine gives him a hopeful feeling.

"I still have a life to live. I refuse to lie in bed and suffer," he said.

As another generation of young men and women arrives home with life-changing wounds to their bodies and souls, let's hope that many of them can take advantage of the VA's creative programs and continue to inspire the rest of us.

Historic steamboat was Memphis', but now is Belle of Louisville

belle.jpg One of the world's oldest steamboats -- one that started out ferrying people between Memphis and West Memphis -- is being refurbished today ahead of its 95th birthday.

As part of Hampton Hotels' Save-A-Landmark program, volunteers from the lodging chain are painting, polishing, cleaning and doing other tasks to preserve the historical significance of the Belle of Louisville, which the press release calls "the oldest continuously operated Mississippi River-style steamboat in the world."

(T)he Belle has traveled far and wide while constantly adapting to new roles as the times changed. Built in 1914, the Belle, originally named the Idlewild, spent her early years as a ferry between Memphis, TN and West Memphis, AR. She was made to haul cargo, but this versatile vessel could also handle excursions and traveled from state to state through the Mississippi River systems. The Belle also had a brief military career during World War II towing oil barges along the river by day and bringing fun to the troops as a floating U.S.O. club by night. The boat was sold in 1947, and the owner changed her name from the Idlewild to the Avalon, which remained for the next 13 years.

Now, about that name, as some of us native Memphians might consider it sacrilege to rechristen a Memphis vessel after our rival city on the Ohio River:

In 1962, the city of Louisville bought the vessel and did major repairs to its worn exterior and donned it with the name Belle of Louisville.

The Belle was made a National Historic Landmark in 1989 and is on the National Register for Historic Places. She continues to be owned by the Louisville Metro government and is operated by the Waterfront Development Corporation. Today, the Belle spends her days taking passengers along the Ohio River.

Closer to home, Hampton's Save-A-Landmark program last year brought volunteers to Memphis including actor Samuel L. Jackson to spruce up the Lorraine Motel facade of the National Civil Rights Museum.

Also, remember that the Hampton brand was originally owned by Memphis-based Promus Hotel Corp. before Promus sold out to Hilton in the late 1990s.

BBC: Supermarket pioneer Clarence Saunders a 'true revolutionary'

BBC World Service has an audio interview with supermarket turnaround expert Sir Archie Norman, who is in charge of the Australian chain Coles after rehabbing British chain Asda for sale to Walmart.

Of course, you can't talk about supermarkets without acknowledging Clarence Saunders, Memphis' own inventor of self-service shopping, founder of the Piggly Wiggly chain, and historical cautionary tale. Says the Beeb:

If you want to draw up a list of true revolutionaries, you might include Clarence Saunders of Memphis, Tennessee.

He who took out a patent on October 9, 1917 to re-configure his store so that customers could serve themselves and, as the application put it, "be required to pass a checking and paying station".

Supermarkets have never looked back.

Memphis apartment vacancies increase at second-highest rate

It's a renter's market out there, as rising unemployment and stagnant wages have depressed rental rates and pushed apartment vacancies to their highest level since 1986, according to the real estate research firm Reis Inc.

Among the 79 largest U.S. markets surveyed by Reis, Memphis had the second-highest increase in vacancies in the third quarter, after Omaha, Neb. That's largely a function of unemployment -- which hit 11.5 percent in Memphis in August -- according to The Wall Street Journal:

Driving the change is the troubled employment market, which is closely tied to rentals. With unemployment at 9.8% -- a 26-year high -- more would-be renters are doubling up or moving in with family and friends during periods of job loss. Landlords have been particularly battered because unemployment has been higher among workers under 35 years old, who are more likely to rent. Nationally, effective rents have fallen by 2.7% over the past year, to around $972.

If you're thinking of moving to a major city, now is a good time to look for housing. Rents have plummeted over the past 12 months by 6.8 percent in New York City, 5.3 percent in San Francisco, and 4.6 percent in Los Angeles. Cities like Memphis with rising vacancy rates also are expected to see downward pressure on rents.

There are plenty of concessions available for renters as landlords struggle to keep units filled, the WSJ's Developments blog reports:

Concessions range from discounted rent ([Reis research director Victor] Calanog says it's not uncommon to hear of offers for four and five months free rent in some cases) to free gym memberships, painting and interior design upgrades. Some landlords are even promising not to raise the rent after a one-year lease expires.

Marcus & Millichap, a national brokerage, produced a list that shows which markets are offering the largest average concessions. Atlanta tops that list, with an average offer of 1.5 months of free rent, followed closely by Denver, Charlotte, Austin and Phoenix.

UPDATE: Compare today's Reis survey with these midyear numbers, which showed occupancy actually had increased a bit from the end of 2008. We are clearly not out of the recessionary woods yet ...

Memphis ranks near bottom in list of 'Smartest Cities'

The Memphis metropolitan area ranks 51st out of 55 in a list of "America's Smartest Cities" compiled by The Daily Beast, Memphis Business Journal reported today.

The list includes metro areas of 1 million or more people, divided on a per-capita basis. The criteria included both education levels and intellectual environment. Here's more, from The Daily Beast:

The education half encompassed how many residents had bachelor's degrees (35 percent weighting) and graduate degrees (15 percent). No credit was given for "some college," or "some grad school"--we rewarded those who finished the race. The intellectual environmental half had three subparts. First, we looked at nonfiction book sales (25 percent), as tracked by Nielsen BookScan, the nation's leading provider of accurate point-of-sale data, which tracks roughly 300,000 titles each week. ... We also measured the ratio of institutions of higher education (15 percent), as defined by the federal government--different than just measuring college degrees, this acknowledges that universities don't just churn out diplomas, but instead drive the intellectual vigor of cities. Finally, many studies link intelligence and political engagement, so we weighed this, too, as measured by the percentage of eligible voters who cast ballots in the last presidential election (10 percent). (Our relatively small weighting acknowledges that numerous other local factors can affect turnout.)

Once we had all these comparable, per-capita figures, we ranked the cities in each category, assigning 10 points to those near the very top, and 0 to the bottom, with scores allocated between in a broad bell curve. We then added the totals, and multiplied by two, which made for a perfect score of 200, a wash-out score of 0, and an average score right at 100--close to the exact parameters of a classic IQ test.

Memphis, which earned an IQ score of just 48, was given low marks for nonfiction book sales as well as low rates of college graduation.

Elvis' grandson Ben signs record deal

Benjamin Presley, daughter of Lisa Marie and grandson of you-know-who, has signed a $5 million deal with Universal to make up to five albums, Britain's Daily Telegraph reported last week.

Other British papers picked up on the story, which contains a little more information about Benjamin, who was born when his mother was 20 and married to musician Danny Keough:

Speaking to the Daily Telegraph at the Inspiration Awards for Women, at Cadogan Hall in Belgravia, he said of the £3.3million contract: 'The music will be nothing like Elvis, nothing like him at all.'

The teenager, who bears a startling resemblance to his grandfather, is currently taking a break from making the [first] album, which he hopes to release next year.

'He's a typical 17-year-old,' his spokesman said. 'He doesn't get up before midday and then grunts at you.'

A note about Benjamin's surname: The stories about his record deal all refer to him as Benjamin Presley, though other mentions from over the years have him as Benjamin or Ben Keough. I can imagine there might be some show-biz advantages to using the Presley name.

Here is a YouTube slideshow with pictures of young Ben from over the years. (Creepily, Michael Jackson's "Ben" is playing in the background.)

Guardsmark sued for sex discrimination in Houston

Memphis-based security company Guardsmark faces a sex-discrimination suit in a Houston federal court, according to a story in The Houston Chronicle. The case, brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of two female security guards, alleges that Guardsmark bowed to the wishes of clients who wanted male guards for certain assignments. The women were stuck with jobs that paid less and were farther away.

One of the two, Aneda Birkner, was removed from a trucking company at the client's request, according to the lawsuit, even though the account manager called her work excellent.

Birkner was re-assigned to a client that was an additional 20 miles from her home, according to the lawsuit. And the job paid $1 an hour less.

The second woman, Danielle Jones, also was shifted to another job that paid $1 an hour less and was much farther from her home when the same client asked for a male guard, the lawsuit alleges.

Jones asked to be considered for a job the company advertised near her home, but was rejected for the same reason, according to the lawsuit.

Guardsmark, which says it is the nation's fifth-largest security company, denies any discrimination or mistreatment of employees.

Two weeks after a Washington-based group of Jewish Democrats decried "divisive rhetoric" by former Mayor Willie Herenton and his allies in his campaign to unseat U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, another Jewish group is calling on Herenton to cool it.

The American Jewish Committee issued a statement today saying that it is "deeply troubled -- and saddened" that the primary "is once again marked by efforts to incite tensions between the Memphis African American and Jewish communities."

"We are compelled to speak out against certain rhetoric and tactics that cross the line of civility and acceptable campaign tactics," said AJC Executive Director David Harris. "With many months yet remaining before the primary, it is our earnest hope that those responsible for this invidious rhetoric will see fit to shift to a campaign based on the issues and on the records of the candidates."

Of course, the AJC is no "Kumbaya" chorus. The hawkish group has been outspoken in calling for a hard line on Iran. It recently released a poll that found that 56% of American Jews support military action against Iran, and it put out a provocative and graphic ad that one blogger called "anti-Iranian pornography." 
Wendy Rodrigue, wife of Blue Dog artist George Rodrigue, wrote a long blog post Wednesday about the couple's book-tour visit to Memphis, which included a workshop with young patients at Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center. According to a story Wednesday in The Commercial Appeal, George Rodrigue "spoke with Le Bonheur officials about the possibility of doing some artwork that would be in the hospital's expansion, which is under construction." Wendy Rodrigue provided some details about that:

The new hospital is impressive to say the least, and they walked us through with hopes of securing some Rodrigue artwork for their public spaces.  George would love to be a part of this hospital --- a place that accepts all children as patients, regardless of their family's ability to pay --- and so we are hoping to get the details worked out and have some Blue Dogs (probably some huge reflective works on chrome) installed for their opening in June 2010. (emphasis added -- mr)

Wendy Rodrigue also writes that George has a deep personal connection to children's hospitals:

Le Bonheur was founded in the early 1950s by a group of Memphis ladies who were desperate to combat the polio outbreak.  And in 1953 George Rodrigue was diagnosed with polio.  He was bed-ridden for three months, unable to walk.  He was contagious, so he couldn't play with his friends.  His family didn't own a TV set.  And he was an only child, bored and scared at nine years old.  It was during this time that his mother bought him a paint-by-number set to help pass the time.  George had never painted before, but he knew what to do right away. ...

Today he tells this story in children's hospitals, such as the one we visited this week in Memphis.  George relates to the children.  He remembers being terrified as a child when he saw rows of kids in iron lungs, thinking he was next.  He remembers it like it was yesterday, and he believes in a more positive, nurturing, even inspiring and educational environment for these hospitals, so that it's not the trauma the kids remember, but rather something positive --- the people they met there, or perhaps the projects they created, the music they heard, or maybe even the time they saw their reflection in the chrome Blue Dog hanging on the wall.

There is plenty more to read on Wendy Rodrigue's post, including thoughts on their visits to Presbyterian Day School, Davis-Kidd Booksellers and the Belz Museum of Asian & Judaic Art in Peabody Place. And there are lots of pictures from Le Bonheur and elsewhere.

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