By Gregory Brand
SOTG Entertainment Editor
A peek down the Jefferson Street corridor is likely to inspire awe and wonder at the vast amount of construction in various stages of development. The construction projects, which include a massive infrastructure overhaul on the street itself, along with mixed used developments, apartment buildings, condominiums, and sidewalks—they all are marvelous representations of growth along the corridor.
While growth and new development are all good things, this change appears to have arrived as a result of urban gentrification and not from improvement within the community itself.
There are three prominent institutions of higher education that call the historic Jefferson Street corridor their home: Fisk University, Meharry Medical College, and Tennessee State University. All three institutions are world-renowned for nurturing scholars and grooming future leaders.
Several of Nashville’s prominent black leaders — ministers, politicians, corporate executives and tastemakers — have ties to these institutions. Interestingly, with all the growing prominence of alumni from these history-making institutions, the economic and spatial footprint of all three colleges has been stagnant.
Noting their stagnant external growth is not to discredit the presences of these three giants nor insinuate that they have not had an impact on their immediate communities. So much history has been made by students and administrators at these schools, in close proximity to each other and Middle Tennessee’s only black-owned bank and the historically black-serving Metro General Hospital, the area has always been perceived with having possessed great potential.
The corridor is just minutes away from downtown and the state’s Capitol. Along with its favorable proximity in Nashville, the area is also known for its legacy of fame, achievements, and tradition.
Amid the boom of gentrification, the Jefferson Street corridor and its adjacent neighborhoods have not been totally ignored by Black economic expansion. Attorney Luvell Glanton, the Otey family, and the 15th Avenue Baptist Church have long made investments into developing and expanding their footprint along the corridor.
Even now, the Mount Zion Baptist Church, which has expanded its footprint in Old Hickory and Antioch, has turned its attention to developing its home location on Jefferson Street with a multi-million-dollar Dream Center that will “foster interaction through recreation, fitness, reading as well as hospitality.”
Phase One of the new center, which broke ground early this year, will also house the church’s New Level Community Development Corporation, an Oasis of Hope Counseling Center and also a state-of-the-art childcare facility.
We’ve also seen massive construction projects along West End near Vanderbilt University and at Middle Tennessee State University’s campus in Murfreesboro, which has nearly tripled in size in the last decade. While both schools either boast massive growth in enrollment or an astronomical endowment compared to its middle Tennessee neighbors, it is also clear that its board and leadership are invested in the communities in which their respective campuses call home.
Further, it is obvious that somewhere along the way, there was an intentional effort made to not only grow the enrollment of these institutions but also to create spaces to accommodate the enrollment growth or prominence of these institutions whenever it happened.
Clearly, this concept is not too much for the Black institutions of the Jefferson Street corridor. Perhaps the ideological concept of growth has gotten lost in the frequently transitional leadership at the colleges along Jefferson Street.
From 2004 to the present, TSU has had four leaders at its helm. Fisk University, since 2004, has had three leadership changes, including a current interim president, Frank L. Sims Ph.D., since September 2015 and a presidential search underway.
Meharry Medical College has also undergone three leadership changes. Its current president Dr. E.K. Hildreth Ph.D. M.D., who took the helm in July 2015, has not even been added its library’s digital archives—the last president, Dr. Wayne Riley is still shown as the present president.
By contrast, MTSU’s president Sidney McPhee Ph.D. has served at the helm of his institution since 2001. Throughout his ongoing presidency, MTSU became the largest undergraduate university in Tennessee and the number one producer of graduates in the Tennessee Board of Regents system.
McPhee’s presidency also coincides with more than $400 million in improvements to academic, athletic, and campus facilities—either proposed, under construction or completed. McPhee is also the product of an HBCU—he earned his B.A. degree from Prairie View A&M University in 1976.
Frequent leadership changes kill growth ideas because new people bring new ideas and new strategies about setting the immediate priorities of each institution—maybe to one leader, growth looks like the total overhaul of an academic master plan; to another, growth may instead look like a total restructuring of the college’s leadership chart.
In other cases, a new president’s immediate priority is changing the course of a plan already in place that is no longer beneficial or no longer holds the long-term value originally projected by their predecessor.
Yet, with such a consistent shuffling of leadership—many times inhabited by interim administrators designed to keep the University culture intact while a sometimes years-long search committees and processes are undertaken until a long-term replacement is put in place—it is likely that several great potential concepts or opportunities to significantly enhance the communities adjacent to these campuses fall down the list of immediate priorities.
Largely, the Jefferson Street corridor has been neglected by the very institutions that draw life from it. Perhaps that neglect is rooted in the destruction caused by the construction of the I-40 entrance and exit ramps built near the western limits of the corridor or the Jefferson Street Bridge—between 11th and 12th avenues—that passes over another stretch of I-40.
The encroachment of I-40 onto the corridor brought about the decimation of dozens of structures on the street and displaced several historic elements that would never be restored. Perhaps, this act of sanctioned destruction has bruised the will of the universities to expand.
The result, unfortunately, is that the communities nearest to these campuses have suffered immensely from the lack of thought leadership, too few University-led extension programs and virtually no physical redevelopment of spaces within the community.
Vacant buildings, vacant lots and other vastly underutilized spaces along Jefferson Street have become receptacles for lots of questionable or illicit activity. Some areas along the corridor have become worn beyond their wear, apparitions of the theaters, hotels, and live music venues that once dotted what used to be one of America’s finest displays of black achievement and progress.
Now, after some 20-30 years of disrepair and urban decay, developers from outside this community have been able to leverage strategic partnership with Metro government to secure infrastructure funding, tax credits and other types of incentives to bring physical changes to the Jefferson Street corridor that inevitably will impact the culture, the identity and the history of north Nashville—some, obviously, that will be received as much needed enhancements.
Others, however, will likely displace these neighborhoods’ most impoverished. In most extreme cases, neighborhoods with deep cultural significance will be rebranded and their histories could be lost forever. What used to be identified as FANG (Fisk Area Neighborhood Group) may soon be called University City or Uptown. What used to be Fisk-Osage, has now been christened as the Buchanan Arts District.
The reality is, Jefferson Street and its adjoining neighborhoods are bustling with new growth and construction. Commercial and residential properties are transforming right before our eyes—but, among this renewal, where is the presence of Jefferson Street and Tennessee’s most prominent HBCUs?
Decades ago, Jefferson Street served as a mecca of black creative talent and economic progress, anchored by the higher education institutions along its corridor. While all is not lost, as there are still land and properties to be claimed, one wonders if these pillars of the north Nashville community have squandered away what could have been their goldmine.
Gregory Brand serves as Stay On The Go’s Entertainment editor, where he provides a voice for fans of entertainment that have well-rounded tastes and polished points of view. His goal as a writer and entertainment editor is to watch and critique as much content as possible and somehow make sense of the images and concepts being fed to the masses. You can contact him online via Twitter and Instagram.