A City Swept Clean 

How urban renewal, for better and for worse, created the city we know today

How urban renewal, for better and for worse, created the city we know today

Three decades after the end of urban renewal in Nashville, those two words can still start an argument. Some historic preservationists blame urban renewal for the destruction of entire neighborhoods and hundreds of worthwhile structures. Meanwhile, many current and former local government officials credit it with helping Nashville upgrade its infrastructure, accommodate the automobile, and keep the city’s major employers downtown.

Some believe urban renewal was a legal and ethical use of the government’s power to help cities deal with their problems. Others argue otherwise. What’s undeniable, though, is that it transformed Nashville and set in motion a blueprint for social change that was viewed by different people as either progressive or destructive.

Critics fiercely believe it was one of the worst things ever to happen to the poor, and to many working- and middle-class people as well. “During urban renewal, the government used its bully power to transfer massive amounts of land to corporate America at the expense of the individual,” says Joe Johnston, a Nashville attorney who opposed the Vanderbilt-area urban renewal project, which forced hundreds of citizens to move from their homes in the 1970s.

Others argue that urban renewal dramatically improved quality of life for thousands of Nashvillians. “Before urban renewal, there were people living in utter squalor in many parts of town,” says Bob Howard, who acquired land on behalf of Nashville’s housing authority for over three decades. “Urban renewal helped a lot of people and made Nashville a better city.”

For better or for worse, urban renewal happened all over Nashville. It happened on the slopes of the Capitol, where a poor neighborhood and red light district known as Hell’s Half Acre was cleared in the 1950s to make way for open greenspace, a six-lane road, and commercial buildings. It happened during the 1960s in East Nashville, where more than 1,000 homes were torn down and replaced with other houses, structures, or roads. It happened south and west of downtown, where thousands of residents were moved out of their homes to make way for the Music Row commercial area and myriad public and private projects. And it happened along West End Avenue, where Vanderbilt University teamed with the government to purchase and clear about 100 acres that the university now uses for sports fields and parking.

These days, people sue if the government tries to acquire land to build a bike path near their house. But in the middle of the 20th century, the notion that urban renewal was a justified use of tax dollars was so widely accepted that Nashville mayors Ben West and Beverly Briley both supported it. The idea that entire parts of town were in such bad shape that they should be cleared was so accepted that the City Council usually unanimously approved urban renewal projects. Meanwhile, there was so little disagreement and rancor about the wholesale razing of homes that Nashville newspapers largely glossed over it.

Today, people whose lives were uprooted by the process despair at how little people remember about those years. “There is no way of understanding any of the problems of today when it comes to urban planning, schools, and race relations unless you know something about urban renewal,” says Bill Barnes, a retired pastor and one of Nashville’s highest profile critics of the urban renewal movement. “We are still writing checks to overcome the mistakes that were made then.”

Before urban renewal, thousands of Nashville’s poor inner-city residents lived in crowded shacks with no running water, no heat, and unsafe wiring. There were entire neighborhoods where the plumbing system consisted of water spigots in the front yard and outhouses out back. During the first half of the 20th century, study after study showed that these slums had abnormally high crime and low life-expectancy rates. Some of the neighborhoods were also home to every vice imaginable, from open prostitution to cockfighting to bootlegging.

Behind the idea of public housing and urban renewal was a belief that if the government removed people from such places and put them in new, clean environments, it would not only improve their lives and their self-image, but their behavior. This idealistic philosophy became common in America by the end of World War I but didn’t become a real force in government until Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies of the 1930s. It would remain prevalent in public policy circles through the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations.

In 1937, Congress passed a national housing act, authorizing millions of federal dollars for public housing projects across the country. Within a year, the Public Works Administration was building two projects in Nashville. One, for whites, was called Cheatham Place and was built in a North Nashville slum previously known as Cab Hollow. The other, for blacks, was built adjacent to Fisk University. The city named it Andrew Jackson Courts.

With public housing projects now synonymous with high crime, broken families, and illicit drug use, it’s hard to imagine that they were ever viewed differently. But when public housing was new to Nashville, it was touted as a cure for society’s ills. “Like a breath of spring...a new and clean little town within Nashville is bustling toward completion to house people who formerly existed in dilapidated and unsanitary slums,” one Tennessean reporter wrote in 1937. “The spot will resemble a cozy English village covering approximately 22 acres...situated in a flourishing site flooded with green lawns, flower and vegetable gardens, parks, paved sidewalks, and an air of freshness and healthfulness.”

This positive perception of public housing would remain common until about the early 1960s. Decades after public housing came to Nashville, the family of 14-year-old Leo Waters left a run-down house in North Nashville to move into Cheatham Place. “Our house had no indoor bathtub, and the projects seemed safe, clean, and modern by comparison,” says Waters, now an at-large Metro Council member. “We didn’t really feel poor or deprived. We used to jokingly tell people that we lived in the biggest brick house in Nashville.”

Brenda Wynn, now the director of Mayor Bill Purcell’s Office of Neighborhoods, also has fond childhood memories of moving into the projects. “Our previous house had running water, but our entire heating system consisted of a big pot-bellied stove in the living room,” she says. “When we moved into John Henry Hale Homes, it was a step up.”

After Congress passed another massive housing bill in 1940, Nashville got another influx of public housing money. By the time America entered World War II, the city had two more projects—Boscobel Heights (later known as Cayce Homes) in East Nashville and Napier Homes in South Nashville. The Nashville Housing Authority was also planning three more.

Years later, critics would claim that these projects were too big and poorly planned. But with thousands of people migrating to Nashville to work for the new Vultee airplane factory, the city was in the midst of its worst housing shortage in history. There was no time to argue.

After World War II, Congress passed the Housing Act of 1949, which stretched the limits of local government power. The legislation authorized cities to buy land using power of eminent domain—not just for civic projects such as roads and public housing—but for resale to private owners, who could put commercial, industrial, or residential development on the site under master plans approved by the local planning commission. With the act, Congress committed to funding two-thirds of the cost of urban renewal projects, with local governments required to fund the remaining third.

This act established a legislative precedent for eminent domain that remains today. It not only set in motion massive urban renewal programs across the country; it also gave local governments the legal authority to help large employers acquire land for the buildings that dominate the skylines of virtually every American city today.

Nashville’s leaders were ready. Before the 1949 act, Nashville planning director Charles Hawkins met with representatives of Gov. Gordon Browning’s administration to develop a plan for the blighted area on the north side of the state Capitol. That plan (drawn up by a New York engineering firm called Clarke and Rapuano) called for clearing 97 acres. About half of the land then would be sold to the state and left undeveloped as green space around the Capitol. The flat area that winds around Capitol Hill would be redeveloped into a commercial corridor (eventually called James Robertson Parkway).

“It was an excellent plan, and I believe it has withstood the test of time,” says Barge Waggoner Sumner & Cannon co-founder Dan Barge, who did engineering work on the Capitol Hill Redevelopment Plan. Originally, the plan called for a roundabout where Eighth Avenue intersected with James Robertson Parkway. “Roundabouts were quite the rage in the ’30s and ’40s, but by the time the road was built, the decision was made not to build it,” Barge says.

Under the influence of U.S. Sen. Kenneth McKellar, Nashville’s Capitol Hill Redevelopment Plan became the nation’s first urban renewal project funded by Congress. Within a couple of years, more than 400 homes along roads such as Gay Street north of downtown were assessed, acquired, and razed. All traces of the old streets were removed, and James Robertson Parkway was laid out and paved. Resale of the land to private developers was delayed by a major lawsuit, filed by Bijou Theater owner Alfred Starr and Nashville grocer H.G. Hill Jr. against the Nashville Housing Authority. In that lawsuit, Starr and Hill claimed that the purchase of their land through eminent domain for resale to another private owner violated their property rights. But Starr and Hill lost their case before the U.S. Supreme Court, which opined that such taking was legitimate.

In 1959, the Nashville Housing Authority began selling lots on James Robertson Parkway for redevelopment. The city helped the land sale by buying one large piece for a new arena, now known as Municipal Auditorium. By the mid-1960s, a Holiday Inn, a large apartment building called Capitol Towers, and small office buildings for IBM and the Tennessee Education Association had been built along the parkway.

Many of these commercial tenants would have left downtown Nashville for the suburbs had it not been for the Capitol Hill Redevelopment Project. One was WLAC-TV. “The other stations had already left downtown, and [station co-owner] Tom Baker really wanted WLAC to remain downtown so that we could be near the movers and shakers,” says Chris Clark, who went to work for the station (now called WTVF) in 1966. “If it hadn’t been for that land on James Robertson Parkway, I don’t believe there would’ve been a place to go.”

According to official documents, the Capitol Hill Redevelopment Project displaced 301 families and 196 single residents who previously lived in the area. Gerald Gimre, executive director of the Nashville Housing Authority, once wrote in a trade journal article that most of those residents were African American and “many went into low-rent public housing projects.” Because many of those projects had waiting lists, and because Nashville’s newspapers published few articles about the fate of poor blacks who were being moved, it’s almost impossible to obtain more details about what happened to them.

However, in terms of fiscal planning and beautification, there is little doubt that the project was a success. It alleviated traffic problems downtown and provided state employees with desperately needed parking. Property tax revenues from the area actually increased because of the sale and redevelopment of the land—a notable achievement considering most of the acreage became tax-exempt.

And for the first time ever, Nashville residents could appreciate the beauty of their state Capitol, no longer flanked by slums. “In 1950, Capitol Hill was two-thirds slums and dilapidated commercial structures and one-third littered streets and dismal alleyways,” a Tennessean article declared in 1958. “Today it is a clean and graceful area of parkways, sloping lawns, new streets, and 40 acres of sorely needed desirable new downtown building sites.”

In 1958, Mayor Ben West and the Nashville Housing Authority moved onto another big urban renewal project, this time on a 2,051-acre area of East Nashville roughly bounded by the Cumberland River on the west and south and Eastland/Cleveland Avenue on the North. Unlike the Capitol Hill project, East Nashville was to be a “rehabilitation” area rather than a “slum clearance” area. What this meant was that the housing authority wouldn’t buy and clear every piece of property, but handle each parcel on a case-by-case basis. Some houses would be torn down to make way for commercial or industrial use or a government project. Other houses would be allowed to remain, but only if the owner brought the building up to existing codes.

Under the East Nashville plan, the area between Interstate 65 and the river would be zoned industrial. (At the time, there were still a few residences near the river.) Main and Woodland streets, historically a combination of residential and commercial, would be almost entirely transformed to commercial and industrial use. The rest of the area would be rezoned, using criteria that the housing authority said were “present day” and “logical.” Finally, a new expressway—now known as Ellington Parkway—would be built through East Nashville, following the route of a train track.

On Dec. 9, 1958, Nashville’s City Council voted unanimously to ask the federal government to fund two-thirds of the cost of the $20 million East Nashville Urban Renewal Program. Among the proponents of the idea was Council member Alfred Woodruff of East Nashville, who said urban renewal represented “the greatest opportunity ever offered to the city of Nashville and certainly the greatest thing ever offered to East Nashville.”

At least one person spoke out against the plan. H.P. McCarver, who owned a sheet metal business at 801 Woodland St., called the proposal “the nearest thing to communism that has ever happened in Nashville.” Four months later, Congress agreed to fund it.

One of President John F. Kennedy’s first executive acts was to increase urban renewal spending, leading the Nashville Housing Authority to begin work on three more plans. One was a redevelopment area downtown that would eliminate Nashville’s old Public Square and enable companies to acquire enough land to build large buildings if they chose. Another was a large urban renewal area in Edgehill, stretching from what is now the Music Row area south and east to Interstate 65. A third was a neighborhood, then known as the University Center, between Vanderbilt and what is now Interstate 440.

On Aug. 15, 1961, the Council unanimously approved all three projects totaling 3,243 acres.

If you lived in an inner-city neighborhood in the 1960s, here’s what probably would have happened to you: One day, you’d get a visit from a codes inspector or housing authority official. They’d tell you one of two things: that your house had to be razed to make way for something else, or that it had to be inspected to make certain it met codes.

If the house had to be inspected, everything from the condition of the foundation and roof to the adequacy of the plumbing system to the age of the wiring was inspected. A few weeks later, you’d get a letter from the codes inspector saying whether the house was substandard.

If it were found to be substandard, you’d be offered a low-interest loan to bring the house up to code. If you didn’t want to take a loan, or didn’t think you could afford one, the housing authority acquired your house and tore it down.

Official statements from the housing authority, which were rarely challenged by the newspapers, downplayed the number of homes being destroyed. In truth, homes were being torn down en masse. (Of the first 600 homes inspected in East Nashville, 167 were razed. Repairs were ordered on 243 others, many of which were eventually destroyed.)

The East Nashville Urban Renewal Program gave Nashville’s codes department so much to do that, in April 1958, it hired five new inspectors. One of them, Richard Gordon, works today as Metro’s property standards chief. In the pre-integration days of urban renewal, Gordon usually inspected houses in the so-called “Crappy Chute” black residential area north of Main Street in East Nashville, leaving other parts of the urban renewal area to his white colleagues.

“I grew up in East Nashville in a house that was razed by urban renewal, and I can tell you that some of these places had unsafe wiring, leaky roofs, and outdoor privies,” Gordon says. “What we did was for the betterment of the area.”

Sonny West went to work for Nashville’s codes department in 1955 and describes many of the houses torn down during urban renewal as “atrocious.” He also uses the word “minimal” to describe the list of basic requirements that codes was using at the time. “A house had to have a foundation,” says West, now zoning administrator for the Metro Codes Administration. “It had to have operating windows with screens. It had to have paint. It had to have a tub or shower, a lavatory, and a wash basin. It had to have a hot water heater.”

Codes inspectors such as Gordon and West are no doubt accurate in their insistence that most of the houses razed during urban renewal were hardly worth saving. (One East Nashville man who refused to allow inspectors in his house was later cited by a judge for “harboring rats.”) But some of Nashville’s oldest and most beautiful homes also were destroyed, especially in East Nashville’s Edgefield neighborhood.

Kendrick Hamilton grew up in a Victorian-era mansion at 714 Russell St. and remembers his mother Sarah fighting to keep the house from being destroyed. “The neighborhood was dominated by old people at that time, and a lot of them were intimidated by the codes inspectors and would leave,” he says. “But my mother basically held them off.”

Some time later, Sarah Hamilton sold the house to Bill Boner, who served as mayor from 1987 to 1991. Today, the Hamilton house is flanked on both sides by vacant lots cleared during urban renewal. Some of the longer-standing residents of the area say Hamilton’s fight was key to the area’s renaissance since. “She was a hard-nosed saint,” says Nashville attorney Charlie Williams, who in 1975 became one of the first people to buy and renovate a house in Edgefield. “She was the kind of woman you would want in your foxhole.”

Hamilton’s stance against the codes inspectors and the housing authority was rare. The Nashville Housing Authority razed 1,069 structures (representing 2,297 “dwelling units”) in East Nashville because of urban renewal—far more structures than were destroyed by the legendary fire of 1916. East Nashville homeowners who managed to stave off their homes’ destruction had to spend an average of $702 (more than $4,000 in today’s dollars) on “rehabilitation” costs. However, city leaders were pleased with an official report that claimed that urban renewal reduced the percentage of “substandard” housing units in the area from 48.2 to 10.1 percent.

After houses were cleared, a number of things happened to land in the East Nashville and Edgehill urban renewal areas. Sometimes a parcel would be grouped together with others and converted to commercial or industrial use. Woodland Street was home to several such conversions; the largest of these took place in 1968, when Commerce Union Bank built an operations center on land that had previously held homes. “It was a dream of a deal,” says Ed Nelson, then Commerce Union’s president. “It was real close to downtown and had adequate parking. And the land was real affordable considering what we were looking at in other parts of town.” Today, Bank of America still uses the facility.

Land was also rezoned for commercial use in Edgehill. Among the businesses along 12th Avenue South that acquired land through urban renewal were United Methodist Communications and the Beaman Automotive Collision Center.

In other places, parcels of land were assembled and turned into new roads, public facilities, or public housing owned by the Nashville Housing Authority. Through this process, the Parks Department built several inner-city community centers. The city completely reshaped a part of residential Edgehill into a wide boulevard and commercial area now known as Music Row. And much of the land now used by the Cumberland Science Museum and nearby Rose Park was cleared through urban renewal.

However, the empty lots usually were sold to residential developers, who built ranch-style homes, townhouses, duplexes, or apartment complexes on the site. Many nonprofit groups helped along the way. The Methodist Church built the Silverdene apartment complex around Meigs School in East Nashville. The Catholic Diocese of Nashville developed the 160-unit Marina Manor Apartments, also in East Nashville.

Today, many urban dwellers complain about the architectural disharmony created by the urban renewal-era structures in old neighborhoods, some of which have seen revitalization in recent years. However, Hal Hardaway Jr., whose father built many homes in inner-city Nashville during urban renewal, says that simple construction plans were the only approach that made financial sense at that time. “In order for these projects to make money, the design had to be simple,” says Hardaway, who now owns a renovated Victorian mansion at 516 Russell St.

Finally, urban renewal is credited with mitigating two environmental problems that historically plagued the city. One was persistent air pollution caused by residential coal furnaces—most of which were eliminated when thousands of homes were razed or renovated. The other was frequent flooding during strong rains because of combined sewer and storm-water runoff lines. “There were parts of town where, when it rained, sewage would come out onto the streets, and kids would be playing in it,” says Bob Howard, who went to work as a property acquirer for the Nashville Housing Authority in 1962. A major part of the urban renewal upgrades was the construction of new sewage lines.

For a time, Nashville had the appearance of an American community whose citizens seemed sold on the idea of urban renewal. But opposition to Nashville’s urban renewal policies, and the public housing projects that accompanied them, began to stir by the mid-1960s. One reason for the discontent was the impact urban renewal and interstate construction had on the stability of inner-city neighborhoods. With houses being destroyed, parcels being rezoned, and codes inspectors ordering property owners to make expensive improvements, it’s no wonder that upwardly mobile people didn’t want to move to inner-city Nashville in the 1960s and 1970s. But the more publicized aspect of the controversy had to do with the fate of the poor.

One of the original philosophies that led to urban renewal was a societal desire to clear slums and improve living conditions for the poor. Because of this, slum clearance projects such as the one on the slopes of the Capitol were accompanied by the construction of public housing. In reality, however, urban renewal projects were driven more by the urgency of a big government project than by concern for the individual.

When urban renewal and interstate construction forced thousands of poor families in inner-city Nashville to leave their homes, many of them had no place to go. The money the housing authority gave families to relocate was often inadequate. Meanwhile, the city had a shortage of affordable rental property, plus a long waiting list for space in public housing. “People were being relocated without the resources for them to find new housing,” says Mansfield Douglas, who represented the Edgehill area in the Metro Council from 1963 until 1999.

The Nashville public’s attitude toward housing projects also began to change. By 1965, downtown Nashville was surrounded by a ring of massive housing projects that isolated the poor in places that were crowded and geographically hard to reach. And as years passed, it became obvious that life there was far from idyllic.

One of the first public indications that something was wrong was in January 1963, when a 79-year-old woman named Hattie Harris was brutally murdered in Cayce Homes. A few months later, The Tennessean profiled a female juvenile delinquent who lived in Cheatham Place. The girl said growing up in the projects was difficult because of constant noise and confusion. “There is nothing permanent about the projects,” the 17-year-old girl told reporter Frank Ritter. “There is always the feeling that we’ll be moving away tomorrow.”

In the early 1960s, Bill Barnes was the pastor of the now defunct Carroll Street Methodist Church (then located about where the inner-city interstate loop goes through South Nashville). At that time, the neighborhood surrounding the church was changing due to the influx of public housing and freeway construction. As pastor of Carroll Street Methodist, Barnes could see that the projects were becoming slums of their own. “The culture of the place was becoming dominated by single-mother families, and violence and fear were becoming prevalent there,” he says. “Meanwhile, Fourth Avenue separated the white and black projects. It was like the Great Wall of China.”

In 1966, Barnes became the minister of the Edgehill Methodist Church. When many members of his congregation told him that their homes were being taken by the government to build a 380-unit housing project north of Rose Park School, Barnes helped organize an opposition group. Its legal representative was Avon Williams Sr., the late African American attorney who played a prominent role in Nashville’s civil rights movement.

The Edgehill Committee, as it became known, scored a victory when the housing authority canceled plans for the project. Eventually, the land that the project would have occupied became the site of more than 100 single-family homes, sold to tenants through a Lyndon B. Johnson-era affordable housing program called Turnkey Three.

Barnes, who still lives in Edgehill, now believes the original idea behind public housing was well intentioned. But he says the government has underfunded public housing over the years. He also says federal policies that encouraged upwardly mobile people to leave the inner city and move to the suburbs have isolated public housing and contributed to its downfall. “People forget that billions of dollars are held away from the federal treasury every year because of mortgage income deduction,” he says. “That is a wonderful and generous program that the government has to foster affluent housing. Compare this to the amount of money that the government puts into housing for the poor.”

Because of such sentiments, critics of urban renewal began calling the movement something else entirely. Using the racial vernacular of the day, “urban renewal” became known as “Negro removal.”

Opposition to the Edgehill and Edgefield urban renewal programs was nothing compared to the stink caused by the University Center project.

In the 1950s, universities across the country asked Congress for legislation to help them acquire land. Many of these institutions (such as the University of Chicago and MIT) were hemmed in on all sides and had no room to expand their campuses. Meanwhile, they were facing growing enrollments because of the baby boom and the GI Bill. Some colleges, such as Philadelphia’s Temple University, were seriously considering moving to the suburbs.

Because of these concerns, Congress passed a law in 1959 allowing local governments to partner with four-year colleges that needed land. It said that local governments could acquire land on behalf of universities using the power of eminent domain—as long as that land was in an area that met the government’s definition of a “slum.” Once the university bought this land from the local housing authority, the money could be used to draw matching federal funds.

Mayor Ben West was so excited about this program that he immediately invited representatives of Nashville’s universities to his office to talk to them about using urban renewal to expand. Several considered it. But Vanderbilt ended up being the only university to move ahead with such a plan because it was the only one that could afford it.

The master plan that Vanderbilt and the housing authority developed was for the university to acquire a residential area of about 100 acres south and west of campus. Federal matching money generated through this purchase then would be used to rebuild sewer lines in the area and to build a five-lane road around the campus perimeter (now known as Blakemore Avenue).

However, before Vanderbilt and the city could move ahead, the neighborhood—populated by white, elderly homeowners and students who rented houses—had to meet the government’s official definition of a slum.

In 1962, codes inspectors descended on the area. The nature of these inspections remains in dispute to this day. Inspectors say they acted in an evenhanded manner. However, some neighborhood residents claimed that the official conclusion by the inspectors—that the area was a “slum” by government standards—was absurd. For example, the very act of a house being used as rental property was often cited as criteria for the house being classified as blighted.

Vanderbilt’s position was made all the more awkward by the fact that the university itself owned dozens of homes throughout the neighborhood at the time of the inspections. Many residents, such as Joe Johnston, would later accuse the university of neglecting those homes to further its long-term goal of destroying the entire neighborhood for its expansion.

“By the time the inspections were made, the university made certain that the houses it owned were poorly maintained,” says Johnston, whose grandparents built a house in the neighborhood in 1936. “Then the inspectors came in and applied all sorts of strange rules, such as the fact that if your house was next to a blighted house, then it too would be classified as a blighted house. Using the standards that the inspectors used, they could have had Belle Meade declared a slum.”

In 1963, the engineering firm of Clarke and Rapauno released a report, compiled from the codes inspections, that claimed that the University Center area did, in fact, meet the government’s definition of a slum. The implementation of the plan then was delayed four years, mainly because Nashville was reorganizing itself into a metropolitan form of government. Finally, in 1967, the Nashville Housing Authority (which later evolved into the Metropolitan Housing and Development Agency) and Vanderbilt decided to move ahead. On Aug. 15, 1967, with the blessing of Mayor Beverly Briley and both Nashville newspapers, the Metro Council voted 30 to 4 to accept the plan.

Under the original terms of the University Center Redevelopment Plan, property owners had until 1975 to sell to Vanderbilt; at that time, the Nashville Housing Authority would take the land under eminent domain. Most of the property owners did so without a fight. Some did not. Johnston was involved in numerous attempts to thwart the University Center plan in the courts and in the Metro Council. Since neither the university nor the housing authority had done anything illegal in planning and executing the urban renewal plan, those attempts failed to stop the Vanderbilt project.

However, as court challenges failed and as tenants continued to protest, local public opinion turned against the whole idea of urban renewal. In 1971, a Newsweek article painted a picture of Vanderbilt as an insensitive and greedy neighbor. “This isn’t a slum, never was a slum,” the article quoted resident Robert Gardner saying. “It’s nothing but a free land grab.”

The acts of defiance by residents who were moved by the University Center project are now regarded as legendary. Today, a park across Blakemore from the former site of the neighborhood is named for late activist Fannie Mae Dees. Because of a court settlement between residents and Vanderbilt, Johnston stayed in his house, at 3013 Vanderbilt Place, until 1984. When the university finally acquired his property, he moved the house, piece by piece, to its current location at 2815 Belmont Blvd. Gardner became the last resident of the area to leave a few years later.

Originally, there were plans for another redevelopment program in the Peabody/Scarritt area. However, those plans never materialized because President Richard Nixon effectively stopped funding urban renewal programs, placing more emphasis on smaller initiatives such as the Community Block Grant Program. By that time, urban renewal programs had dislocated more than 6,000 Nashville families.

Today, the effects of urban renewal programs can be felt and seen throughout inner-city Nashville. MDHA still used the legal precedents set during the urban renewal years to help developers build new buildings downtown (such as the BellSouth Tower and the Commerce Center). But the days when a select few sat in a closed office and conceived a master plan for an entire part of town are over. “The old model of getting a plan and then getting a federal match to work it, and then moving ahead got too controversial, and the money ran out,” says Jerry Nicely, MDHA’s executive director since 1979. “Now we have to work a lot more with neighborhoods when it comes to developing plans that will affect them.”

Many of the architectural and urban planning concepts popular during the urban renewal years are now ridiculed. “People originally thought that urban renewal would turn cities into better places,” says Mark Schimmenti, design director for Nashville’s new Civic Design Center. “Most people in the urban planning world don’t see it that way anymore.”

Schimmenti says that the “tower in the park” idea, which played a part in the plan for James Robertson Parkway, has been replaced with an urban philosophy emphasizing pedestrian-friendly buildings with ground floor businesses. He also says that one of the biggest mistakes of the urban renewal era is the assumption that newer is always better. “They took a ‘clean slate’ approach, which was to wipe everything out and start again,” he says. “Today, most urban designers realize that this approach doesn’t work. A city is built with many buildings of many ages and sizes and inhabited by many different people.”

It took years for Vanderbilt to patch up things with its residential neighbors. To aid revitalization of the neighborhoods surrounding it, in the 1970s the university started a loan program meant to encourage its faculty and staff members to move into areas bordering the university. “The [urban renewal] project left a fairly high level of distrust in the neighborhood toward Vanderbilt, and we spent a lot of effort trying to rebuild that relationship,” says Jeff Carr, who became Vanderbilt’s vice chancellor for university relations in the 1990s.

One unexpected consequence of urban renewal was that it served as a catalyst for neighborhoods to organize. In 1970, fear of urban renewal led to the formation of the Belmont-Hillsboro Neighbors, one of Nashville’s first neighborhood organizations. “People fully expected urban renewal to spread out and go further, and a lot of people were afraid of losing their homes,” says Eugene TeSelle, one of the group’s organizers. Today, there are about 100 such neighborhood groups in Davidson County.

The government’s housing policy represents another change as a consequence of urban renewal. Because of a growing sentiment that massive public housing projects weren’t working, the federal government halted funding such construction around 1970. (It did continue to fund the construction of high-rise public housing for the elderly, however.) Since that time, the government has bankrolled a series of smaller but more creative public housing initiatives, such as the Section Eight Rental Program. A few years ago, the Clinton Administration began funding a program called Hope VI, under which old-style housing projects are demolished to make way for less dense multi-unit complexes and scattered-site housing. Nashville has since become one of the first cities in America to tear down a housing project when it razed Vine Hill Homes along Bransford Avenue.

Today, defenders of the urban renewal programs and the movement that led to them remain. They say that had it not been for the infrastructure built by urban renewal that the city’s sewer lines would have been inadequate; that roads such as James Robertson Parkway, Ellington Parkway, and Blakemore Avenue that have been critical to Nashville’s traffic flow for two generations never would have been constructed; that businesses such as the National Life & Accident Insurance Co. and First American might have left downtown in the 1970s.

Most of all, they say that so much time has passed since urban renewal that people have forgotten just how bad living conditions once were for the poorest Nashville residents.

Sonny West, now the city’s zoning administrator, says he understands the distress that owner-occupants suffered when their homes were destroyed. But he points out that many of the owners of the houses were absentee landlords who didn’t care about the condition of their rental property. And he points out that at the time of urban renewal, no one believed that inner-city neighborhoods would come back on their own as they have.

“It’s easy to criticize urban renewal today,” West says. “But 20 years ago, no one could imagine that there would be a lot of people moving into places like East Nashville and Woodland-in-Waverly fixing these houses up. We wanted, for the safety and the health of the whole community, for everyone to live in a safe dwelling.

“The government did what it had to do.”

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