10 Things Nashville Needs 

And the People to do them

And the People to do them


Every once in a while, you can’t help but think about what Nashville needs. Many of us travel. And when we do, we see things the city could use. When we read—and, we confess, it’s often the advertisements that provide the greatest clues—we come across cool businesses, restaurant ideas, gallery concepts. When we walk through downtown Nashville, or take a jog along the city’s riverbank, or drive along streets we rarely journey down, ideas sometimes pop in our heads. “My, wouldn’t that be a great place for a such-and-such,” we muse.

Years ago, in 1990, the Scene penned a story titled “A Master Plan: The 30 Things Nashville Needs & the People to Do Them,” and, amazingly, many of the things we hoped for came true. We dreamed then of bike paths and an art museum, a first-rate bakery and a lively Hillsboro Village. Back then, in a city sorely lacking in infrastructure, many of our ideas seemed so self-evident as to be painful.

Debates rage among urban theorists about whether huge projects—stadia, arenas, convention centers—are worth the money it costs to build them. Those arguing for them say that the spillover economic effect from people visiting these institutions is more than worth the cost. Another school of thought holds that smaller is beautiful: that spending the same amount of money in dozens of tiny increments has a more positive influence on quality of life.

Whatever your persuasion, as we went about assembling our list we’ve tried to think about what makes this city tick. As you’ll see, we’ve got a few construction projects in mind. But overall, we’ve kept an eye toward keying on this city’s character and bringing that character to the fore. Nashville’s personality is not in doubt; but how to play to its strength often is.

For what it’s worth, some of these projects would be paid for by the blood, sweat and tears of people in the private sector. Others would come from the public till. Still others would cost almost nothing.

Cities are in many ways like people: When they dream, they live more fully. Dreaming is cheap. Dreaming doesn’t hurt anything. Herewith are a few dreams.

1 Praise Where Praise is Due

idea: An outdoor sculpture on Church Street honoring those who desegregated the city’s lunch counters.

argument: Downtown Church Street in early 1960 was an amazing snapshot in this nation’s history. Civil rights pioneer James Lawson had been teaching workshops based on Ghandian notions of nonviolence. His recruits were young students culled from institutions like Tennessee State University, Fisk University and American Baptist College.

In February 1960, dozens of these brave African Americans sat down at the lunch counter of Woolworth’s on Church Street. It was the first of many sit-ins that would try to end segregation. Many of the participants were beaten. Still more were arrested.

Those students leaders—people like Bernard Lafayette, Congressman John Lewis, Diane Nash, C.T. Vivian and James Bevel—became famous by their actions. (If you haven’t read David Halberstam’s wonderful account of the Nashville desegregation movement here, called The Children, you should.) Their peaceful protests ultimately culminated in a march on the Metro Courthouse, where they met with Mayor Ben West. Nash asked him: “Do you feel it is wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of their race or color?” West replied, “Yes.”

A few weeks later, on May 10, 1960, six lunch counters began serving African American customers. Nashville had led the way for the rest of the nation.

plan:A sculpture honoring “The Children” should be placed at the site where many of the sit-ins occurred, downtown on Church Street. A national-caliber sculptor should be recruited to tackle the project. The work itself could take one of several designs: It could either depict the rank-and-file African American protesters or show them seated at bar stools as they desegregated the lunch counters. Or it could pay homage to specific leaders like Lawson, Bevel, Lewis and others. Either way, a fabulous location for the sculpture might be in the pocket park across from the downtown public library. Nearby signage could explain the basis for the sculpture.

who to do it: The Metro Arts Commission, under the direction of its chairman Nancy Saturn, who is a great advocate for the arts. Financing could come from both private donations—wealthy downtown supporter Steve Turner should get involved—and the city’s public art fund.

who to do it: The Metro Arts Commission, under the direction of its chairman Nancy Saturn, who is a great advocate for the arts. Financing could come from both private donations—wealthy downtown supporter Steve Turner should get involved—and the city’s public art fund.

2 Climb Box, Let ’Er Rip

idea: A so-called “Speaker’s Corner,” similar to the one in London’s Hyde Park, to be located in Centennial Park.

argument: We’ve got some talkers here in town. We’ve got your preachers. We’ve got your tax protesters. We’ve got your poets. We’ve got your singers. We’ve got your mentally ill orators who have no clue what they’re saying.

Wouldn’t it be a hoot if we were to construct a bunch of soapboxes, put five or six of them up in Centennial Park, and let people climb on top of them and speak to their heart’s content? On a sunny weekend afternoon, we could stroll from one speaker to the next, getting our fill of what the people-who-want-to-be-heard are thinking. It would be both a testament to the greatness of the First Amendment and mankind’s willingness to entertain the absurd. Night Court itself might be deposed as the best free entertainment in town.

plan: Buy plywood. Saw pieces and nail them together in the form of a box. Get permission from the Metro Parks Department to put them in Centennial Park. Issue a press release. Watch them come. Invite John Jay Hooker to give the inaugural address.

who to do it: Steve Gill, conservative radio talk show host, who has made a career out of talking, in conjunction with The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center.

3 Life Imitating Art

idea: A 30th-anniversary tribute to the movie Nashville, featuring director Robert Altman, a reunion of cast, crew and local participants, and panel discussions with academics and critics about the movie’s continued relevance.

argument: Released in 1975, Nashville may be the only Hollywood creation to date that absolutely nails the sorrows and splendor of Music City life. Or does it? At the time, many locals saw the movie as a carpetbagger putdown. The city's business patriarchs and society mavens flew into a panic, and producer Billy Sherrill spoke for Music Row when he said the best part was “when they shot that miserable excuse for a country singer.”

Regardless, the movie painted a beautiful portrait of a slow, inward-looking Southern city trapped in a variety of illnesses, from post-civil-rights racial tensions to conflict between its rural roots and the culture at large. It treats Nashville as the nation’s symbolic center at the height of Bicentennial frenzy. And in so doing, it captures the utter social dysfunction of a Dixie refusing to go away.

Dozens of people living in Nashville today took part in the movie's filming. Some were simply extras in the movie’s massive crowd scenes, while others got to say a word or two, thanks to Altman’s loose-limbed, flexible shooting style. Their participation added a separate plot to that which eventually was shown on screen. With its priceless record of faces and places that are gone, Altman’s film didn’t just fabricate or embellish the city’s history: It became a part of it.

plan: A day's worth of panels, presentations and celebrations would discuss what Nashville meant to the city then and what it means today. Altman, one of the most important directors working today, would keynote an address about the film. The event could be integrated into the city's burgeoning Nashville Film Festival, possibly in conjunction with a long-overdue Altman retrospective—two historic occasions in one. Owing to the movie’s status as a key film of the 1970s, it is likely national media would attend, lending key visibility to the city. The event would also serve as a homecoming of sorts for those who took part in its creation.

who to do it: John Bridges, Metro Government's culture czar, acting in concert with Nashville Film Festival artistic director Brian Gordon, David Hinton at the Watkins Film School and Scott and Mimi Manzler at Nashville Premieres.

4 Mr. Purcell, Tear Down Those Interstates

idea: Rip up interstates 65, 40 and 24 within the 440 loop.

argument/plan: Okay, we’re stealing a little bit of thunder from a soon-to-be-released urban studies plan coming out of Nashville Civic Design Center, but the idea’s so good we can’t stop ourselves.

For starters, it makes no sense to have hundreds of thousands of cars and trucks—most of which are from out-of-state—pouring through the heart of our city on three interstates on a regular basis. It’s loud. It’s unhealthy. It does not contribute to a nice, compact, pedestrian-oriented, comfortable urban core. Instead, it trashes it, interrupts it, shatters it.

Let us also point out something that would make your average developer drool: The land in question is highly valuable property. Suppose—theoretically speaking—that this land were to become whatever the citizenry wanted it to be. Apartments! Houses! Shops! Parks! The private sector could get a chunk; the public sector could have a piece. What a thought!

A bunch of local urban theorists have begun bandying about the notion of ripping up some of the interstates that pass near the central part of the city, and getting rid of them. (More specifically, when we looked at the map ourselves, we were intrigued by the possibilities of getting rid of everything within the loop created by interstates 440, 24/40, 24/65, and 265/40.) If you dig up all those massive thoroughfares, and replace them with apartments, parks, houses, stores, bike paths and a grid of streets and sidewalks, then the city will be a warmer, more human, more livable place. Ask the people in Portland, Ore.: They dug up an interstate to positive effect. The streets, sidewalks and other corridors now interact nicely with one another.

One of this city’s great economic strengths is that it is so centrally located and has transportation arteries to the rest of the nation. We’re not proposing that strength be eliminated. The trucks will still be able to roar out of town just as they did before. As to the objections from people who currently use one of the interstates to get very close to downtown, there will be plenty of exits off the interstate that would allow for cars to speed to their final destinations. To be certain, other connector roads would have to be strengthened.

But if you dig up all those interstates and force pass-through traffic to use an interstate loop, then the city will be a better place.

who to do it: Gov. Phil Bredesen has turned the Tennessee Department of Transportation completely upside down. Bredesen and that department’s commissioner, Gerald Nicely, are well acquainted with Nashville, and if they’re looking to make a splash, this would certainly get national acclaim.

5 See Spot Run

idea: Dog parks in all Metro parks, allowing our canines to run free, and transforming Nashville into the most dog friendly city in America

argument: In Sevier Park, and in Elmington Park, and in Shelby Park, Nashville dog owners surreptitiously get together at specific times and allow their dogs to go off-leash, which is against the law. They do this because they: 1) want their dogs to play with other dogs; 2) they want their dogs to get some exercise; 3) it’s a great way to pick up chicks.

Now, various officers of the law have been cracking down on these dog owners for months, if not years. Sometimes dogs go poopy in the parks, or park patrons who are not dog-friendly complain, so there’s a reason for making these busts. But it rightfully angers dog owners who are simply looking to get their mutt some fun in the sun.

plan: Nashville becomes a friend of the dog. No city—the mayor should announce—will be more dog-friendly. Dog parks will be constructed in as many Nashville parks as can handle them. These dog parks—like the one being built in Shelby Park—will provide designated areas for dogs to run around, fetch Frisbees, expend some energy. Signage would alert the dog owners to rules they have to observe. And dog owners would flock to the parks in droves.

Such dog parks will establish yet one more way for a particular part of the population to create community. And that, after all, is what parks are for.

who to do it: Community activist Sue Fort-White, owner of a very large black dog who can occasionally be found breaking the law in Elmington Park, and Metro Parks Department.

6 It’s All About the Retail

idea: Attention all entrepreneurs: Here are some ideas you might want to capitalize on to satisfy our retail urgings. In no particular order, this city needs:

6 It’s All About the Retail

A Boutique Hotel—Kind of like a “W.” Twenty-five to 75 rooms max. We’ve got the larger luxury hotels covered (Loews, Hermitage, Union Station), but we need something more intimate, with a very nice, little bar.

A French Bistro—Maybe it’s in the boutique hotel. Also small, with a menu of only eight items, including steak-frites and roast chicken. A perfectly delicious ratatouille. A dozen wines by the glass, no more. Banquettes, black-and-white tile floors, you get the picture. Like New York’s Balthazar.

An Outdoor Newsstand—Put it near all the pedestrians. Oh, what pedestrians?

A Good Hot Dog—With all different varieties, and all different kinds of toppings, maybe near the newsstand.

A Decent Place to Rent a Sailboat—We’ve got all these lakes—what a great afternoon diversion it would be to jump in the car, throw out some money and be clipping along with nothing but the wind pushing you in your fabulous rented sailboat.

A Restaurant on the Cumberland River, Preferably Downtown—Why not have a look at the historic and fabled Cumberland from your tabletop?

An Amoeba, or Virgin, record store—Even in the age of downloading, some record stores have found a way to exist, and for a reason. Bring one here.

A First-Class Culinary School—What if there was a full-blown professional cooking school here? We’re talking about something like the Culinary Institute of America—a highfalutin program churning out the tops chefs in America. And maybe some of them would decide to stick around?

7 Bring in Da Money

idea: Introducing the so-called “Benefit Bank” to the city, which would have the effect of bringing millions more in spending dollars to Nashville.

argument: Here’s the deal: Plenty of federal programs are out there that nobody—particularly the underprivileged—take advantage of. There’s the earned income tax credit, the child and dependent care credit, pharmaceutical coverage for the elderly, low-income heating and energy assistance and more. It is estimated that nationally, more than $35 billion in public funds for low-income recipients go unclaimed every year.

An outfit out of Philadelphia called Solutions for Progress Inc. has written some very sophisticated software, which can be used by people with extremely limited computer skills, called The Benefit Bank. The software researches, locates and automatically applies for benefits. The software requires the applicant to submit fundamental information, such as levels of income, marital status, family size and so on. It then determines the amount of taxes the family owes, what benefits the family can apply for, and how it needs to apply. Often, The Benefit Bank applies for the benefits over the Internet.

The benefits are enormous. First of all, recipients wouldn’t have to deal with complex requirements and confusing application forms. They would be able to lead better lives. Secondly, there would be more money spent in the local economy and more investment in the community.

plan:The company that developed the software is interested in implementing The Benefit Bank for use in the entire state. Cost of implementation is said to be in the $100,000 to $150,000 range. Annual operational costs in Tennessee would total $20,000 a year. The total return to the state would be many times the amount of money it would take to introduce it.

who to do it: Patricia Davis, development director at the local YWCA, recently had the Benefit Bank in town for a dog-and-pony demonstration. The idea makes sense for any local foundation—or for Metro Government. The economic effect in sales taxes alone that would result from the additional dollars spent in Davidson County might actually pay the entire cost. Attention Metro finance director David Manning: Do this.

Farms In The Inner City

idea: Everywhere you see a vacant lot in the inner city, put a community garden on it and start growing food.

argument: One of the tragedies of our time is that developers are buying all the farm land in the outlying areas and developing it. If the developers are going to be transforming valuable farmland, then we’ll just start farming in the inner city.

The idea is that you start snatching up vacant lots, one at a time, in the core part of Nashville. In particularly poor neighborhoods, many of these abandoned lots—covered in trash, abandoned buildings and other detritus—can be had for cheap. You spend a little money cleaning the lots up, you bring in a load of dirt, and you plant crops.

And you don’t just plant any crops: You plant food that area restaurants might want to eat, things that grow well here. After all, most local restaurants are buying hothouse tomatoes from an assembly-line food wholesaler. Why not buy fresh tomatoes, basil, corn and whatever else grown in a local neighborhood? We’re talking about serving food that was plucked from the vine that very same day, not shipped hundreds of miles in a truck and fertilized with enough petro-chemicals to make a grown man wheeze.

Community gardens are not just about food on a plate. They improve the value of the land on which they sit. They make a neighborhood look better. They give residents pride. Community gardens thrive in some American cities, primarily progressive places where hippies really know their arugula. We may not rank high on the counterculture scale, but Nashville’s got enough good-ol’-boys who know how to farm a plot of land. Nashville: The city that feeds itself.

9 Pedal Power

idea: The Bike Ride Around Nashville (B.R.A.N.): A massive, one-day, circular bicycling tour all the way around Davidson County

argument: This city’s Music City Marathon is a blast. People take to the streets, encourage the participating runners, wave signs, drink Bloody Marys. If you think there are a lot of runners, you ain’t seen nothing yet. People are flocking to cycling as a great form of recreation and conditioning. You, too, will understand when you get old.

Davidson County is a huge county, with hills, flatlands, creeks and rivers, and everything in between. What better way to encourage people who live here to see how unique their county is than by holding a bike ride through all parts of it?

plan: Old Hickory Boulevard already cuts a nearly perfect loop through Davidson County. Close Old Hickory one day a year to B.R.A.N. Potential exists for turning this event into something with prizes—cash sponsors might want to get involved—and so a flight for riders who want to compete for money might leave early in the day. Then, there could be a later flight for people who simply want to finish the thing. Two routes—one of 50 miles, the other of 100—could be developed.

Wouldn’t it be fabulous to have thousands of cyclists flying across the roads of Nashville on a beautiful spring day?

who to do it: Walker Mathews of The Mathews Co., a real estate development and leasing company, is a huge cyclist. The company is civic-minded. Let ’em roll.

10 Church-Swapping

idea: Every church, temple and mosque in the city would sign up with another church, temple or mosque completely unlike it and swap congregations.

argument: Sundays are the most segregated time in America. The sad fact is that many of us go to church with people a lot like us. In the black community, the church has long been a central and organizing principle around which African Americans have gathered. In the white community, entire faiths in the not-too-distant past could accurately be described as racist. Both follow their own, convenient histories.

Come on. This is crazy. Whatever our faith, we can all unite around the principal that we should at least check out our neighbor and get to know him, if not love him.

plan: Once a year—it would be the same week every year—religious institutions in Nashville would attend religious services at a place much unlike it. The primarily white worshippers who attend West End United Methodist Church, for example, would attend services one Sunday at the Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church, which is predominantly African American. Six months later, the worshippers at Jefferson Street would head over to West End.

Churches, synagogues and mosques would be paired off with one another based on their sizes and how many people they can fit in their pews. To be certain, some local religious houses have experimented with doing this in the past. But having the entire city and all of its congregations take part would make a profound and dramatic statement.

who to do it: Every worshipper in the city.

who to do it: Every worshipper in the city.


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