By Marshall A. Latimore
SOTG Editor in Chief
As Nashville continues to emerge as one of America’s new “it” destinations, neighborhoods around the city’s core are evolving at breaking pace. As a result of that evolution, areas that were once stricken with deep, dreary pockets of poverty and more shuttered storefronts than open establishments, have now undergone a modern revival; overnight, it seems, the old veneer of neighborhoods well worn beyond their wear has been replaced with fancy, new watering holes and a noticeably different class of people.
Just north of the Capitol, a corridor once heralded for its reputation as the economic epicenter for black commerce through the 1960s and for its ties to three acclaimed historically black colleges is now eyed as prime real estate for redevelopment and urban renewal.
But not everyone can agree on what’s the most righteous course of action to renew the many blighted and dilapidated properties on historic Jefferson Street — without robbing it of its historic glory, and also without displacing the many low-income residents who call the community home.
Opponents of major municipal and private redevelopment assert that instead of renewal, Jefferson Street is being gentrified and that people in the neighborhood along the corridor will soon be priced out of the area.
Much of the narrative about gentrification along Jefferson Street begins with the perceived fast-paced redevelopment of the Germantown, Hope Gardens and Buena Vista neighborhoods on the east end of Jefferson Street, near the well-attended food court of the downtown farmer’s market and newly constructed downtown Sounds baseball stadium.
Neighborhoods like Germantown that only a few years ago housed single-family craftsman-style homes in various degrees of disrepair — many of them vacant — now see visitors pining for a sugary bite from the Cupcake Collection or a southern food-induced coma courtesy of Monell’s who can now stroll just a block or two east to dine at the Germantown Cafe.
The latter eatery is just one of many commercial tenants on the ground floor of a flock of new mixed use, multi-family residential developments. In luxury apartments above, newly transplanted young professionals can afford the market-value housing and they also possess enough disposable income to comfortably patronize the pricey businesses well within walking distance below.
Meanwhile, west of Rosa Parks Blvd., where “fine dining” typically involves a choice of fried chicken or fish from either a snack shop, a mom-and-pop or a national fast food chain, the word “development” means something very different. It’s along this strip, spanning from Rosa Parks to 28th Avenue, where a long-simmering turf war appears to be boiling over.
Tensions fly in the face of Dean proposal
No mention of redevelopment on Jefferson Street has elicited more rancor in recent history than the proposed relocation of the Metro Nashville Police Department (MNPD) headquarters from its current location in the downtown Criminal Justice Center to a new $23 million facility to be built on privately owned, vacant land on the 1200 block of Jefferson Street. The proposed relocation was part of a capital improvement budget package submitted by the mayor’s office also tied to the construction of a $110 million sheriff’s office and detention center on Harding Place in South Nashville.
Nashville Mayor Karl Dean announced the proposal with an April 21 declaration, “We need to get started on it now. Not six months, or a year or five years from now, but now. We can’t afford to wait on replacing and relocating this facility.” Dean’s statements have spawned criticism from constituents in North Nashville, who have characterized the proposal as a product of “strong-arm tactics” and “backroom deals” with community leaders.
A Justice for Jefferson Street coalition, comprised of civil rights activists, college students, and community leaders, was organized shortly thereafter with a Facebook group page that has garnered more than 400 likes and gestures of solidarity from other similarly constructed activist groups.
Sekou Franklin, a member of the Justice for Jefferson Street Coalition and associate professor at Middle Tennessee State University in nearby Murfreesboro, explained that the group’s efforts were about protecting the property owners’ right to decide how their land should be used, as well as preserving the integrity of the community.
Much of the coalition’s contention stems from what opponents said was a rushed effort by the mayor’s office and Metro Police Chief Steve Anderson to infringe upon the neighborhood without the full buy-in of community stakeholders.
“(Forming the Justice for Jefferson Street coalition) wasn’t about a group of folks being anti-development,” Franklin said. “From the very beginning, when the mayor’s office had these ‘prominent’ voices to speak on the behalf of the community at the press conference, we knew that they were attempting to rig public opinion.
“We came together to challenge what had been announced as a done deal,” he continued. “Only a handful of people who have typically allied with the mayor were consulted about moving the headquarters to Jefferson Street.”
Confident that the proposal would be approved by Metro Council and public endorsements from community leaders, including Metro Councilman Jerry Maynard, the Rev. James “Tex” Thomas of Jefferson Street Baptist Church, Bishop Joseph W. Walker III of Mt. Zion Baptist Church and Jefferson Street United Merchants Partnership (J.U.M.P.) Executive Director Sharon Hurt, Metro Police released a draft architectural rendering of what the proposed headquarters would look like on June 1.
The same day, the Justice for Jefferson Street Coalition, joined by the African American Cultural Alliance, the Nashville chapter of Black Lives Matter and Save TSU Community Coalition, collectively filed formal requests for investigations into federal civil rights violations against the Office of the Mayor for Metropolitan Nashville and Davidson County Government and the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department.
The groups accused Metro Nashville and MNPD of excluding large portions of North Nashville and African-American residents in the development of the plan — a tactic they say is reminiscent of the decision to run I-40 through Jefferson Street in the 1960s.
“This is the biggest decision for Jefferson Street since the (I-40) interstate construction,” Franklin said at the coalition’s news conference on the civil rights filing. “If the economic lifeline of this community is only seen through the narrow lens of an unwanted police headquarters, then there are much more prescient issues to address.”
The next day, June 2, after a public hearing to discuss the headquarters and other capital improvement proposals, Franklin and others pointed out the lack of public support for the headquarters. “Not one person in that hearing testified in favor of the headquarters,” he said. “When put to the test, no one person actually showed up to make a case for what they initially said was going to be so great for Jefferson Street. That in itself was telling.”
On June 9, the Metropolitan Council voted not to provide funding for the proposal.
Twenty-one members of the council voted against funding the proposal along with District 19 Councilwoman Erica Gilmore, who backtracked after initially publicly supporting the headquarters relocation in community forums. She explained in The Tennessean, “I’m not against development, but it has to be the right kind of development. And the people have spoken against it.”
Gilmore’s amendment to remove funding was approved 22-14. The council also approved an amendment to remove funding for the relocation of the sheriff’s office and jail from the proposal, 19-17.
In a June 26 memo to Hurt, Anderson stated that he believe deference to Gilmore’s opposition may have affected the outcome. “While I am disappointed, I respect the (Metro Council’s) decision… While I believe that locating the City’s police headquarters on Jefferson Street would have served as an additional catalyst for future development, as well as a positive statement by the City and its belief in Jefferson Street, it is not to be.”
Days earlier, before the council vote, Gilmore’s mother, Tennessee State Representative Brenda Gilmore and State Representative Harold M. Love Jr., who both represent North Nashville, publicly opposed the headquarters relocation.
Love, whose jurisdiction includes the property eyed for the building’s relocation, echoed many detractors’ concerns over the lack of community engagement early on as well as the threat of an even larger police presence in a neighborhood already sensitive to racial profiling.
The Gilmores, Love, and other lawmakers had initially supported the project. Franklin believes that a well executed, strategically sound campaign by the Justice for Jefferson Street coalition and lawmakers sensitive to a constituency clearly opposed to the project, may have contributed to their shifted position on the issue.
“They had a right to change their minds,” Franklin said, specifically applauding Erica Gilmore’s amendment. “Proposing the amendment to remove the funding is an anomaly. Politicians don’t typically take those types of risks. That took a lot of courage, but that’s what servant leaders do.”
Gentrification or imminent change?
While community leaders have waffled or later downplayed their support of the MNPD headquarters relocation, two of the most ardent supporters of Dean’s proposal were Hurt and Maynard.
Hurt, who along with JUMP hosted a public community meeting and, on behalf of its members’ interests, spoke at several additional community meetings on the issue, saw the development as a major missed opportunity for Jefferson Street. And, while she said she also identifies with the concern over issues such as over-policing and increased traffic, she saw a lot of possibility in a double-digit million-dollar municipal investment in North Nashville.
Maynard sparred more directly with opponents of the MNPD headquarters relocation, taking them to task in an e-mail response to letters addressed to the Metro Council. Maynard’s response thanked citizens for issuing their concerns, but eventually directly addressed what he later characterized as guerrilla tactics by Justice for Jefferson Street organizers: “WHAT the HELL have YOU Done, ‘Justice for Jefferson Street’?
“What jobs have you created?” Maynard continued. “What capital or beautification investments have you made. How much money have you spent to build a new business or office building on Jefferson Street? … Before your Group fights against a $25 million project on Jefferson Street, why don’t find $25 million and fight for an investment on Jefferson Street!”
Maynard, who lives in and pastors a church in North Nashville, is nearing the end of his council career. Term limits prevent him from seeking another seat on the council.
“It seems that all it takes for one to railroad progress in this neighborhood is assemble a group of people, make a loud noise and cry disenfranchisement,” Maynard said, visibly frustrated and reflecting on what the Metro Council’s decision now means for the community. He said he believes that organizers behind coalitions like Justice for Jefferson Street come from outside the community and hijack the narrative with little concern for the people left behind.
“Businesses on Jefferson Street suffer because the narrative becomes, ‘development is bad,’” Maynard said. “With undeveloped properties continuing to exist, blighted or abandoned, the growth of businesses like Knockout Wings are stunted.”
Hurt, who is seeking an at-large seat on the Metro Council and less angry about the council’s decision, said she believes that redevelopment is imminent. In her opinion, it is probably in the community’s best interest for leaders to leverage the types of development projects they want to see in in North Nashville by working with municipal projects and private developers that would attract renewed interest in the businesses and institutions on Jefferson Street.
“This didn’t have to be ‘gentrification,’” she insisted, suggesting that the relocation plan could have been adjusted to include more community resources and meeting spaces. “We could have lobbied for what we needed in this community. We could have leveraged this to make it work for us.”
While completing a master’s program in nonprofit leadership at Belmont University, Hurt examined the Phillips-Jackson Redevelopment District Plan (1993-2024) in her thesis titled, Hope Gardens: The Model Transformation from Chaos to Community, on the redevelopment of the Hope Gardens neighborhood — bordered to the north by Jefferson Street, its south by railroad tracks and its west by I-65.
In her thesis, Hurt specifically tracked the flow and impact of tax increment funding, or TIFs, and other government-supported infrastructure improvements invested into that neighborhood.
Of eight redevelopment districts controlled by the MDHA’s Urban Development Department, two plans — Phillips Jackson and Jefferson Street — directly affect neighborhoods adjacent to and served via access to Jefferson Street.
The Phillips Jackson redevelopment district plan, adopted in 1993 and set to be completed by 2024, included plans to revitalize the Hope Gardens, Germantown, and Buena Vista neighborhoods, roughly stretching from I-65 to the mouth of the Jefferson Street Bridge along the banks of the Cumberland River.
Similarly, the Jefferson Street redevelopment district plan, adopted in 2005, included land use plans to redevelop properties along Jefferson Street. Hurt’s expertise on the subject matter enabled her to be an active voice for the community while the Jefferson Street Redevelopment District was in its planning stages.
ONLINE: Metropolitan Development & Housing Agency (MDHA) Urban Development department oversees Redevelopment Districts (http://www.nashville-mdha.org/redevelopment-districts/)
“What’s happening on Jefferson Street is not gentrification,” she continued, clarifying that there has been community engagement with leaders like herself, business owners, church pastors and elected officials, and not only on the police headquarters issue. “This not a takeover of this community. Residents have not been forced out, and there’s not a widespread improvement of infrastructure and services to attract a different demographic.”
Maynard offered similar perspective, “You know, it’s a damn shame that you can look down Jefferson Street and it looks nearly the same 30 years later. That’s not gentrification; that’s not even progress. We’re the property owners. We don’t have to be victims.
“Development is coming and it’s not a black or white issue. Economic development is a green issue. Do you think Knockout Wings only wants black customers?” Maynard said. “Property owners have to decide what will be in the best interest of the community.”
What Hurt said she sees as more damaging to the economy, heritage and culture of Jefferson Street are a cluster of businesses already in operation.
“I just don’t understand,” she lamented, citing that the most profitable businesses on Jefferson Street include Advance Financial, Kim’s Beauty Supply and Popeye’s Chicken & Biscuits — all three within a stone’s throw from the J.U.M.P. headquarters. “Where was all of this outrage when Advance Financial opened at the corner of Jefferson Street and Rosa Parks? Why was no one protesting a predatory lender opening up shop in this community?”
While Hurt doesn’t necessarily think that what is occurring qualifies as gentrification, she does acknowledge that with Jefferson Street’s proximity and convenient access to downtown, as well as the transformation of adjacent neighborhoods Germantown and Hope Gardens, redevelopment on Jefferson Street is not necessarily a question of if, but rather a question of when, and, more importantly, who. “It’s happening and I have no control of it,” she said.
Sensing the approaching interest in the community — as early as November 2012 — Hurt led JUMP in enlisting political consultancy Little-Smith Strategies to assist in getting the word out about acquiring property tax vouchers from the state’s tax relief program. The program is one of more than a dozen state-sanctioned homestead exemption programs across the country, designed to protect home values for aging, disabled and fixed-income residents.
JUMP’s resulting strategy included door-to-door canvassing, the distribution of informational brochures, and community meetings to educate homeowners about the relief program and other resources. “The tax relief program is one of many options available to our residents. But it all depends on who they are, how old they are and other factors.”
Despite their efforts, Hurt said no residents took advantage of J.U.M.P.’s free advisement on filing a tax-relief request.
But what they did find, she explained, was that “a lot of property on Jefferson Street is owned by absentee landlords,” meaning that many owned homes in the community, but lived in housing outside the neighborhood. Because a homestead is classified as a primary residence, many homes weren’t eligible for relief — even homes whose tenants were elderly or disabled.
‘Next’ for North Nashville
While the MNPD headquarters proposal garnered great opposition from community members in North Nashville, the Metro Planning Commission has faced much less scrutiny in creating and adopting, the NashvilleNext plan on June 22.
NashvilleNext is a long-range plan for Nashville’s future created to guide growth, development, and preservation in the city over the next 25 years through 2040. By design, NashvilleNext covers a lot of ground, as it informs zoning and major policy decisions, including affordable housing, transportation needs, economic development, arts, and culture.
“Every major city has a comprehensive plan — cities have to have a long-term plan for zoning and permits,” explained Tifinie Capehart, a land use/community planner and community engagement strategist for the Metro Planning Commission. “Our last plan expired in 2010. The massive update to that plan became what is now called Nashville Next.
“(The Metro Planning Commission) works with other agencies to utilize comprehensive plans like NashvilleNext as a guide,” Capehart said. “Other agencies have their own strategic plans, but some departments, like the Metro Transit Authority, held off some of their strategic planning so their work could align with NashvilleNext.”
According to the commission’s “Guide to NashvilleNext,” NashvilleNext is comprised of five major parts, including the update of 14 community plans and a community character manual. The community plans have guided development decisions since 1988 and were the starting point for the NashvilleNext process, the guide explains.
ONLINE: NashvilleNext grapples with issues affected by growth and changes in Nashville (http://www.nashville.gov/Government/NashvilleNext.aspx)
Capehart, who oversaw an update to the north Nashville neighborhood plan, said she believes that seeking out community engagement and suggestions was a big part of the success of NashvilleNext. Capehart also oversaw the Madison and Antioch-Priest Lake plan updates.
“Since we began our community outreach in 2012, we have engaged over 18,000 people in the process,” Capehart said. Her process included adhering to community input from the plan’s last update and the incorporating feedback from each community in response to re-zoning and other requests.
Like the Justice for Jefferson Street coalition, Capehart said an activist group, “North Nashville Next,” approached her about their concerns over the north Nashville plan. But she never faced any of the piercing accusations the coalition directed at council members.
Many of the same themes emerged throughout her discussion with coalition members — fear over urban renewal and a general distrust of government, stemming from the I-40 bridge project from the 1960s. Additionally, there is confusion over the perceived value of the land — parcels of land on Jefferson Street are not very deep, so it makes it difficult to develop the land. And then there are other barriers, Capehart admitted.
“Access to capital is one major barrier,” she said. “Another happens to be a lack of disposable income among residents in the community — a few extra dollars to get a cup of coffee or enough extra money to eat out a couple of times a week in a nice restaurant. That is risk not many developers are willing to take.”
But, ultimately, like Hurt and Maynard, Capehart thinks that it is up to private landowners to work together to either redevelop on their own or seek out developers willing to take a chance on North Nashville.
“Private property owners have to take the next step of developing their property or work with others to develop their property,” Capehart said.
Unlike Hurt, Capehart’s impression is that while a few development projects have come to North Nashville, “compared to other corridors close to downtown within the Briley Parkway/440 loop, north Nashville seems to be lagging behind when you consider the redevelopment rates of areas like East Nashville, South Nashville, and Charlotte.”
“The planning commission has done just about everything we can do from the planning perspective to encourage development — we have created economic incentives and done lots of design work,” Capehart said. “Now it’s up to private property owners. At the end of the day, you have developed the property. You can’t reap the incentives if you don’t develop the property.”
Developer, MDHA hedge bets on Jefferson Street
As early as January 2015, developer D.J. Wootson announced his desire to bring a large multi-use, multi-million-dollar development project to what he has called the heart of Jefferson Street near D.B. Todd Boulevard. Wootson and his Titus Young Real Estate are now very close to bringing that dream to life.
A large sign with rendering of the planned development and a listing of his investors now marks the land where, next month, a crew will raze an existing abandoned building on one of four parcels of land he has secured and begin breaking ground on the four-story project between 21st Avenue and D.B. Todd, a few steps away from the Otey Center. As Wootson stood near the sign last week, he explained how he hopes that this development and a few other projects he is planning for the area will inspire others to invest capital into this community.
He has already gotten buy-in from locally owned Bongo Productions founder Bob Bernstein, (Bongo Java, Fido and Fenwick 300), who will open with one of his employees a 2,100-square-foot Bongo Java-themed restaurant and Smoothie King franchisee Paul McCulloch, who will lease the remaining 900 square feet of retail space on the ground floor of the development.
Above the retail level, Wootson plans to construct 18 one- and two-bedroom apartment units, all at market value starting in the $1200 range. The apartments will boast modern design features such as polished, stained concrete floors throughout and granite counters in the kitchens. The residential floors will only have internal entry key card access but will have a space for community meeting rooms and a gym with treadmills and ellipticals.
Wootson explained that he was inspired to bring his development to Jefferson Street after seeing so many TSU, Fisk and Meharry students doing their homework in bookstores and cafes near West End. “I thought, ‘It would be cool to have a Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts too on Jefferson Street.’ That’s when I started really looking into the area.”
Wootson debated aloud whether he would name the development 1821 Jefferson for its address or University City Flats for the name he’s hoping to rebrand the neighborhood extending from Fisk to TSU. He said he realizes that there is a ton of risk involved in bringing this type of development to a neighborhood going through its own identity crisis.
“South Jefferson Street, which spans from D.B.Todd to 28th Avenue, is a different animal. That’s where all the history is,” he said. “Land use policies are different. And then, by and large, African Americans have been slow or never arrive in supporting developments.”
“But you also have three prominent black colleges, a hospital and a bank within walking distance of each other. There’s a lot of potential there. It’s not that it hasn’t always had potential,” he said, noting the rich economic heritage of Jefferson Street and the impact those institutions have had on commerce in Nashville. “There’s an untapped economy here, right here in this neighborhood, and it’s made up of banking executives, hospital workers, college administrators, students and faculty members. This is a trade area.”
And 1821 Jefferson is not all Wootson has planned for the area. Just on the other side of the highway, he hopes to construct nine three-level single family homes near Heiman Street and D.B. Todd. He’s also considering locations on or near Jefferson Street for opening a bar & grille and a Mexican restaurant.
Just across from the planned development, Wootson has a renovation team putting the finishing touches on the former College Terrace apartments that he and investors bought, and have rebranded as 1826 Jefferson. The six unit, two-story building, now painted a dark gray hue, is now secured with a wrought iron coded entry gate and has totally renovated interiors, all new appliances and a well-lit courtyard with outdoor seating. The apartments rent for $850 a month and are now all leased.
Later this month, MDHA has plans to break ground on an all residential, four-story, 54-unit apartment building at the corner of 10th Avenue North and Jefferson Street. The agency purchased the five parcels of vacant land situated on the border of the Hope Gardens neighborhood last June from Free At Last Bonding LLP., for $800,000 and have tentatively called the project 10th and Jefferson.
In the same area on Jefferson Street, a few parcels of land, including the lot which formerly housed John Henry’s, a restaurant and showcase venue, were purchased as an investment property in 2013, by human resource executives Bill and Pam Martin. The Martins, who own Cushion Employer Services, had the building at 1036 Jefferson Street torn down last fall, but have not yet announced how they plan to redevelop the property.
Churches, CDCs make development a mission
Ahead of redevelopment trends along Jefferson Street, the 15th Avenue Baptist Church through its own community development corporation, FABCDC — a 501(c)(3) nonprofit incorporated in April 1999 — constructed and opened the area’s first modern mixed-use building 942 Jefferson, in 1999.
The three-story, 18,000-square-foot building, which houses 12 one- and two-bedroom loft apartments on its second and third floors with 6,000 square feet of commercial space on its ground floor, is situated just across the street from MDHA’s planned apartments.
The FABCDC, which manages the property and both its commercial and residential tenants, says on its website, that in replacing a dilapidated car wash that attracted criminal activity, the project has “served as an important catalyst for further development along the Jefferson St. corridor.”
Around the corner on Scovel Street, the FABCDC sponsored the development of an HUD-202 senior housing project, the Fifteenth Avenue Baptist Village Manor — a 25-unit residential community with affordable one-bedroom apartments for senior citizens. Across the street from Village Manor, FABCDC has built two single-family homes.
Further west, across from its Jefferson Street satellite, the Mt. Zion Baptist Church has planned a multimillion-dollar Dream Center through the church’s New Level Community Development Corporation. The project, estimated to cost $7 million to construct in two phases, has been a part of church’s building plan for more than three years, though the project has yet to break ground.
Once erected, phase one of the Center has been planned to include a “state of the art” child care/preschool, CDC offices, an Oasis of Hope Counseling Center, as well as a bookstore/coffee shop combo. The project’s second phase is expected to house a regulation-size gymnasium with men’s and women’s locker rooms, an indoor track and fitness center with free weights and other exercising equipment.
Since September 2013, Mt. Zion has solicited its members with a pledge campaign, “I Believe in the Dream,” which asks them to donate up to $5200 in weekly installments of $100. “Partner with us as we seek to bring the vision to pass that God has,” a pledge brochure reads, also citing Hebrews 13:16. “As you sow, you are helping to shape the lives of the next generation and generations to come.”
According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, CDCs are community organizations set up by residents, small business owners, church congregations, members of civic associations, etc. to promote the revitalization of their community.
Organized under section 501(c)(3) of the federal Internal Revenue Code, CDCs can receive grants and gifts from both public and private sources to foster job creation and access to affordable housing.
In other parts of North Nashville, faith-based CDCs and church development ministries have sponsored development projects — many of these projects dating back 10 years or more.
The Schrader Lane Church of Christ built and operates its David Jones Jr. Assisted Living Center for aging seniors who meet federal, state and municipal medical requirement. The center, which opened in 2003, employs an on-site director as well as a staff of 29 paid and volunteer employees.
In 1985, Schrader Lane completed construction of its Schrader Acres Center, comprised of 21 efficiency apartments and a director’s apartment. Since the center’s opening, it has remained at full capacity. The church’s minister at the time, Dr. David Jones Jr., emphasized the construction and funding of these projects as a “need for the church to focus on meeting real needs of members of the church and citizens in the community.”
Spruce Street Baptist Church’s CDC, formed in 2000, built its Spruce Street Golden Manor and Spruce Street House of Hope in North Nashville, utilizing more than $4 million in HUD grants, private donors and other sources in the community. Known as the “Mother Church” of Afro-American churches in Nashville, Spruce Street Baptist originally began as the First Colored Baptist Church.
Historians: ‘Past transgressions inform resistance’
While pouring resources into redevelopment projects have its part in helping to evolve a community, some area historians believe that there are not nearly enough efforts undertaken for the preservation and restoration of historic spaces along Jefferson Street.
Further, they said that not only should concerned landowners and residents be concerned, they should become even more vocal with their concerns as this neighborhood transforms. If not, the people who have built, lived and worked on these streets can have their history simply written out of the narrative.
Learotha Williams, an associate professor of African American and public history at TSU, is leading the university’s North Nashville Heritage Project — an effort to collect the oral and documented history of the community through interviews, acquiring photos of the way North Nashville once looked while actively tracking the changes the community is now facing with new development.
Williams, a Tallahassee, Fla., native, recalls seeing historically black neighborhoods similar to North Nashville, become transformed and their residents pushed out to make way for redevelopment projects and the expansion of Florida State University’s campus.
He cites uncanny similarities of Tallahassee’s Frenchtown neighborhood, which, from the 1920s through the 1950s, was a booming area of commerce, community, and culture — the area regularly welcomed famous musicians Ray Charles, Cannonball Adderley and B.B. King in venues in the neighborhood’s commercial corridor.
Then, after 30 years of economic progress, the 1960s punctuated a period of decline for Frenchtown — not unlike what happened to North Nashville. Now, blighted and largely ignored for years, the City of Tallahassee has recently updated a plan that declares Frenchtown a community redevelopment area. High crime statistics and extreme poverty rates cast a shadow on the community.
Those nearly identical patterns are not coincidental, Williams explained. “If you look at the 2010 Census, there are pockets in north Nashville near Fisk, TSU, and Meharry with poverty rates in excess of 40 percent. Only on Native American reservations do you find poverty rates that high?
“This is systemic,” Williams asserted. “Redevelopment suggests that people in this community would be doing better once it takes shape. But I don’t get a sense that that is what’s going to happen now. There will be more business for sure. But it won’t be businesses that those already in extreme poverty would even likely be able to afford.”
Crystal deGregory, a Nashville historian who now splits her time between Nashville and her hometown of Freeport, Bahamas, has lived in, worked and regularly frequents North Nashville since she began her undergraduate program at Fisk University in 1999. deGregory went on to earn a master’s degree and Ph.D. in history from Vanderbilt before eventually also teaching history at TSU.
Like Williams, deGregory said the distrust community members have for the development is not unwarranted. “Development in low-income black communities is not a multi-class construct,” she said. “It’s not about different voices. It’s generally about one loud voice. Development, then, is not about community. Development is about a developer’s vision for a community.”
And what often precedes development is under-development — a term she coined to explain the divestment of both human and financial resources, along with the subsequent proliferation of hopelessness and blight. Underdevelopment, deGregory explained, is largely the root of issues — absentee landlords, vacant properties, high crime rates and high unemployment — often attributed as reasons offered as to why development is necessary.
“Underdevelopment has crippled Jefferson Street residents’ ability to clearly articulate what they know in their hearts to be true,” deGregory lamented. “People still trying to survive in this neighborhood are now perceived or blamed as progenitors of the problem. These folks are then being told to either get with the program or suck it up and save themselves.”
Even more disturbing, Williams said, is that no one goes directly to these residents to engage them in dialogue about decisions that historically have negatively affected them. “The most vulnerable are being talked at and not listened to. They have to find out about what’s happening in their neighborhoods from watching the news or hearing [it] in communal spaces like barbershops, beauty shops or church gossip circles.”
But there’s a lot of institutional knowledge in those communal spaces. This type of knowledge: the sum of these residents’ experiences, stories, memories, and memorabilia is precisely what Williams hopes to collect and archive in the TSU Library and Archives through the North Nashville Heritage Project.
“The places that become our communities are not by accident. The goal is to enable people in North Nashville to tell us their stories and amplify their voices as a collection,” he said. “I want to have been able to leave something for others to build upon.”