East Nashville: A (personal) brief history of how we got here and some concern about where we are going
Today, the city celebrates East Nashville.
It's a hotbed for new business. It's a creative hub. Its housing prices and businesses are now a critical part of the city’s revenue and sustainability. Its increasing wealth means increasing social, cultural, and political power. 39 years ago, when my parents bought our home, the area had been red-lined by banks and no one would make loans more than $5,000 to do work in East Nashville.
Today, it draws people from parts of the city who would have never dreamed of coming to East Nashville 20 years ago, families and friends whose children were not allowed to play at my house as a child. It wasn’t safe. They wouldn’t even cross the river to go to their own kids’ sporting events at Stratford High School.
It draws people from around the country and even around the world for its music, its festivals, and its spirit. It is chronically featured in national magazines and newspapers. Alternately, the only national press I recall growing up was a blurb in Sports Illustrated about the number of armed robberies there had been at Shelby Park Golf Course.
When I was a child, East Nashville was ruled by slumlords. The historic structures now so celebrated locally and nationally were being torn down or subdivided into as many as 8 or 10 slum apartments and many were used as halfway houses. In the previous decades, the city had done its best to destroy the historic fabric under the moniker of urban renewal. The city cared little for East Nashville except as a dumping ground for parts of its economy, social structure, and education system it didn’t want to deal with.
But, a few neighbors took exception. They saw something greater for this part of town. These neighbors fought for everything from regular trash pickup to sidewalks to historic zoning. There were no stop signs for blocks, which made Russell Street, for one, a drag racing strip until people crashed at the surprising 90-degree turn at Warner School. There was a phone booth in our front yard used predominantly by pimps and prostitutes.
Ever vigilant with a vision of what this neighborhood could be that few others in the city could even conceive of, the neighbors knew that if one more historic structure was allowed to fall then any could fall. They knew if one slumlord could subdivide a single-family structure, then any structure could be subdivided. They knew if one halfway house could move into the residential neighborhood then anything could. They knew that special exceptions did not remain special or exceptional through time. So, they watched and fought and advocated tirelessly. They succeeded in getting stringent historic zoning, the first in the city.
And, today, the city loves East Nashville.
Make no mistake: if the historic fabric had not been protected by these neighbors and their allies in the Council and the Mayor’s Office, then we would not be celebrating this part of town today.
When the historic fabric was derelict, businesses were not opening. When the homes were run-down and owned by slumlords that lived in other parts of the city or in other counties, political power and tax dollars also lived elsewhere. No one was advocating for better schools. When the alleys were trashed and the streets unsafe and houses and vacant lots on each block were full of prostitution and crack dealers, we weren’t getting new coffee shops and galleries and restaurants.
Neighbors, with a vision, with discipline, and vigilance were the key. Good Council members were the key. Mayors who understood the importance of urban neighborhoods were the key. And, it still took time, decades.
The East Nashville of today certainly didn’t happen by accident or as the result of natural “market forces.”
Now, through short sightedness, lack of neighborhood political representation, a Mayor’s office largely disinterested in neighborhoods, and the use of SP zoning, we are starting to break down this fabric that took so long to reclaim.
Just as the neighbors in the 70’s and 80’s knew that one halfway house or slumlord meant many more of the same, so does one SP exemption for a high density unit in single-family neighborhoods, or a commercial property in the midst of residential, mean that any lot not currently occupied by a historic structure can and will be used that way in the future. Not just vacant lots, any lot.
Today, we SP zone a vacant lot. Tomorrow, the precedent is set to tear down a non-historic structure wherever it is and replace it with another SP zone. Today, we SP zone a quiet retail business in the midst of a neighborhood; tomorrow it could be a not-so-quiet music venue.
In the gloss and glamour of new media attention, growth, and an explosion of city-invested, shiny objects around downtown, we need to remember that people live here, that their voices need to be sought, heard, and respected. We need to remember that good neighborhoods make a city livable and sustainable. And, good neighbors make good neighborhoods.
We need to seize today’s unprecedented opportunities not by dismantling the decades of work that made them possible, but by building on them. SP zoning and tools like it should be used when it is right for the neighborhood, not just the outside developer seizing the opportunity created by the tireless work of neighbors, including those neighbors who are developers.