Nashville finds opportunity in bomber hole in the heart of the city


NASHVILLE – Lower Broadway is a never-ending party, the teeming heart of Nashville that tourists come looking for: bright lights and bars bursting with music and crowds that can rival those in Times Square. But just around the corner, some in the city see an urgent need – and an unexpected opportunity – to create something different.

A year ago, on Christmas morning, a man entangled in a web of bizarre conspiracy theories detonated a recreational vehicle full of explosives. No one other than the assailant was killed, but a section of Second Avenue – a tree-lined row of restaurants, bars, shops and lofts in some of the city’s oldest buildings – was wiped out . A yawning void suddenly emerged in downtown Nashville.

It was a painful addition to the list of recent setbacks the city has suffered, including a devastating tornado in 2020 and deadly flooding in March. But the challenge of rebuilding Second Avenue has also led civic leaders to face the side effects of years of extraordinary growth.

“Seize the moment to make a difference,” said John Cooper, Mayor of Nashville, in an interview, describing a broader view of the downtown area, more focused on improving the quality of life for the city’s residents. He noted that there had been discussions for years about redesigning Second Avenue, but it never materialized before the bombing.

Nashville has, in many ways, enjoyed the fruits of its rise. Large corporations, including automakers and tech companies, have been drawn to an accommodating business climate. Shiny glass office towers have sprung up across the city, as have huge, upscale apartment complexes promising amenities like quartz countertops, resort-style pools, and, in Nashville, studio apartments. community registrations.

Yet, as in Austin, Texas, and other mid-sized cities that have seen similar influxes, this expansion has also resulted in booming traffic, staggering house prices, and deep concerns over who paid the price. Nashville Prosperity Award.

Municipal authorities and developers have the ambition to transform the city center into a district, a hub of commerce but also a place where a community can flourish. Yet that vision has at times been thwarted by a more complicated reality: the loud hordes of revelers and the daily parade of party vehicles could be a sign of a way downtown is thriving. But they are also a source of exasperation for people who live and work in cities.

Second Avenue, they hope, could be a solution.

“Something more family-friendly, more Nashvillian-friendly,” said Ron Gobbell, the project leader for the revitalization effort, outlining plans for a gathering place for people looking to dine or socialize in a “a little less intense” setting.

The reconstructed Second Avenue, according to plans rolled out in recent weeks, will be more pedestrian-friendly, with a lush canopy of trees, sidewalk meals, and a spacious walkway that opens the avenue to the Cumberland River to a Housing agglomeration.

It is part of a larger effort to transform the river and ensure the downtown area is fueled by more than just tourism, with plans for mixed-use commercial and residential developments and for Oracle, the company software giant, to build a sprawling new campus.

Nashville faces challenges familiar to cities that have been reshaped by growth: Economic disparities are widening. The limits of the infrastructure are tested. The character behind her appeal becomes strained by the demands of development, a tension evident in lingering worries about the state of Nashville’s soul.

“I think every city that is growing at the rate we know has to struggle to make sure it retains its identity,” said Bert Mathews, a developer who once owned a building on Second Avenue that he sold. years before the explosion. “We really have a hard time holding on to what’s critical and what’s important.”

For years, downtown has been one of the clearest signs of Nashville’s upward trajectory. Decades ago, concert halls shared devastated streets with filthy pool halls and sex shops. But as the number of tourists multiplied – rising to over 15 million a year just before the pandemic, from two million in 1998 – Lower Broadway has transformed.

Along with old honky tonks, country music stars opened bars where patrons spanned three or more floors, and the downtown area is full of new restaurants and luxury hotels.

A dominant concern has been inequality in the harvesting of the fruits of growth. The Nashville Scene, the city’s alternative newspaper, began selling a t-shirt stating “RIP Old Nashville” with a long list of beloved concert halls and hangouts that have not survived.

Second Avenue was not spared: one game, the BB King’s Blues Club, does not return. Old Spaghetti Factory, a restaurant that opened there in 1979, has had its lease terminated by its owner. “I’m not quite sure we can afford to be downtown,” said Dean Griffith, the president of the company. “It’s really expensive right now. “

Mayor Cooper has said affordable housing is a priority. Tens of millions of dollars have been allocated to build or improve affordable housing projects, most of which are located in the heart of the city.

Activists pleaded for more, as widespread gentrification and skyrocketing the cost of living have disproportionately impacted the working class and minority communities. Even though Nashville’s population has grown, overtaking Memphis as the most populous city in Tennessee when it numbered around 700,000, the African American population has fallen by 20 percentage points or more in some historically black neighborhoods.

“Black people do not share prosperity,” said Jessica Williams, director of communications for the Equity Alliance, an organization that advocates for more opportunity and a better quality of life.

In North Nashville, her neighborhood and cultural hub of the city’s black life, she has seen new homes popping up that are too expensive for most residents already in the neighborhood. Most of the newcomers she sees are white.

Nashville has undoubtedly become more diverse. In the southeast corner of town, Nolensville Pike has become a delicious hallway where fast food chains and one of Nashville’s premier hot chicken suppliers are stuck in malls with Peruvian chickens, Salvadoran pupuserias and markets serving the Kurdish and Indian communities.

But downtown, Ms. Williams said, can feel seamless. “When you go, it’s white,” she said. “These are white spaces.”

Authorities and developers have paved the way to expand the appeal of the city center and make it the kind of urban environment where residents can live and work. The plan aims to reduce the load on the region’s roads and bring even more vigor to the heart of the city.

One of the most ambitious development projects – a $ 450 million resort with big brands and outposts of popular local restaurants, offices, housing, and an African-American music museum – has opened its doors. doors this year. (Monthly apartment rent ranges from just over $ 2,000 for a studio to over $ 14,000 for a three-bedroom penthouse.)

There are plans to add thousands of apartments and condominiums. The city council has also adopted measures to curb the proliferation of party vehicles, popular with tourists but annoying for many residents.

The renovation of Second Avenue had not figured in their designs. But then the bombing forced officials to recalibrate.

Around dawn on Christmas morning last year, police were called to the area and found a recreational vehicle parked outside an AT&T communications center. A speaker yelled the song “Downtown” by Petula Clark interspersed with a countdown and warning that the vehicle was about to explode. Officers rushed to chase neighboring residents from their homes and clear the avenue.

The concussion sparked destruction in the city center. Telecommunications were cut off across the region for days. Dozens of buildings have been destroyed or damaged, including Victorian-era warehouses and storefronts constructed in the years after the Civil War, dealing a devastating blow to defenders of history.

“It almost looked like a continuation of the Covid nightmare, the tornado – all these kinds of different things,” Mr Mathews said of the litany of hardships Nashville had endured in the months leading up to the bombing. “How many unnatural things can happen to our community? And how do we recover?

Amanda Topping, one of the police officers who was there when the bomb went off, can’t wait to see the neighborhood rebuilt.

I live here, I have family here, nieces and nephews, ”she said. “I want to be able to bring them downtown to a new park, restaurants, outdoor dining.”

There is a fear that something will be lost when an area is dominated by crowds who are there to have a good time but ultimately just pass by, with little interest in supporting a community.

“You end up with just Bourbon Street or Times Square,” said Ray Hensler, a developer. “I don’t think most Nashvillians want this to happen.”


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