When I moved here in 1983, I got a job at the Nashville Banner covering the “night Metro” beat. That meant I covered all the meetings, press conferences and whatever else was going on in Metro Government from mid-afternoon until midnight.
I may as well have been living on Pluto.
As the new guy, I covered truly inconsequential stuff: endless and oftentimes unproductive meetings related to codes, beer permits, a developer’s plan for a new condo complex in Bellevue and whatever else was on the city calendar. Sometimes I stumbled into covering a good story, such as the debate over whether to build a downtown convention center, which had basically remained a gargantuan hole in the ground for nearly a year as the city struggled to figure out how to pay for it. As the months went by, I started figuring certain things out. For instance, I never called the city’s (now deceased) tax assessor after 11 a.m., because he would always be polluted. And whenever the mayor’s press secretary called, I always tried to keep her on the line, because she was so beautiful and classy. (I later married her.)
It was a small, narrow, political world, a parochial, inward-looking place. It was a world of wide ties, bad grammar and people who enjoyed a good practical joke. It was peopled by former cops and firemen who had gone on to become Metro Council members and stake their claim in the headlines. Virtually everyone I met seemed to have graduated from East High School. Wealth didn’t matter. One’s worth depended instead on the ability to get yard signs out when the time came, or get a cousin a job in Public Works or secure a supporter a seat on a commission dealing with some remote part of Metro Government that didn’t really seem all that important anyway.
In this little orbit a person could live to his or her heart’s content. In the nooks and crannies of the Metro Courthouse, and in the law offices and bail shops that surround the place, people operated in a nearly perfectly sealed closed loop. As I lived here longer, I began to discover how most of my friends had absolutely no understanding of the world I was covering. The contained universe of Nashville politics had no intersection with many other parts of the city. Nashville was thenand still is to a large degreea city of parallel universes.
Take the city’s “business community” in the early ’80s. Out West End Avenue, in the city’s finer homes, were Nashville’s well-educated and genteel families, most of whom wouldn’t know a council member if they saw one. For much of that decade, the city’s business classes had established a beachhead of power in the former First American Bank. (It has since been bought by Birmingham-based AmSouth.) From its perch, it communicated to the rest of the city through Eddie Jones, the very powerful former head of the Chamber of Commerce, and one of the few individuals in Nashville who has ever successfully straddled several of our little worlds here. But by and large, the business class commuted into downtown from West Nashville at daybreak, and returned home to one another by nightfall.
Up and down 17th and 18th avenues, meanwhile, atop Harley Davidsons, or wearing boots from Rodeo Drive, the music business community existed in its own bubble, self-contained, often caring more for the civic life of Los Angeles or New York than what transpired here. For the most part, these people only came into play with the political and business communities when someone needed an entertainer to perform for an event. It was only then that phone calls would be exchanged.
And what about the city’s black community? African Americans had significant intersections with the political world, and to a large extent that explains why the city was spared violence during the civil rights years. But as for African American intersection with the entertainment world, or the business world, their involvement was considerably less.
You could find the isolation, the parallel universes, existing virtually everywhere. Vanderbilt University never left its comfortable zone. And with the exception of New Orleans, and possibly Charleston, I think it is safe to say that there were few cities with as many lunch clubs, civic clubs, garden clubs, speaking clubs, professional clubs and country clubs in which people got together, behind closed doors, to socialize.
Today, as the city breathes in and out, expanding and contracting with the latest wave of newcomers, company relocations or whatever it is that causes us to reconstitute ourselves as a different kind of community, I tend to think that while we are different, we remain who we’ve been. We are still, I would argue, a city of parallel universes, with few reasons to intersect, mingle, mix.
Consider, for a moment, the head of a major country music label, as he sits at his sleek, Swedish desk, making decisions that will almost certainly affect the economic and cultural life of the city. Less than a mile away sits the head of the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, who, with hundreds of millions of research dollars at his disposal, would like to find a cure for cancer. These are two people who will likely never meet. It is likely that if they did, they would not have much common ground. The reasonable question to ask is, if they did get together, would the city be a better place?
In fact, the question becomes increasingly meaningless with each passing year in Nashville.
We operate much less in isolation than we used to. For one, the city is less in the grip of a handful of folks interested in exercising power. Well into the 1980s, you could accurately name five or six white men who ran the city. Today Nashville has hundreds of people within its borders who can be considered “powerful.” To that extent, communication between the component parts of the city comes more naturally. With a very broad oligarchyrather than a self-appointed aristocracyat the wheel, the preservation of social loops just doesn’t thrive like it used to.
As well, the city has benefited by all the moving vans we’ve seen rolling into town. Gordon Gee has arrived to run Vanderbilt University, and he has stepped well beyond the fence posts of his institution to exert an influence on the city that surrounds him. Dr. Pedro Garcia, the city’s new public schools director, is expressing a mission that requires the commitment of all the city, not just people at the Metro Courthouse. The mayor, Bill Purcell, who lives in East Nashville, has appointed an arts czar to pull the entertainment communities of the city into the civic stew. That has helped bring the different worlds together.
The population changes here are now so inexorable, and so massive, that they are likely to transform us into some completely different kind of civic organization altogether. Up until the ’80s, most Nashvillians were natives of this city, or came from somewhere else in Tennessee. But today, some 50,000 Hispanics are said to be living within the Davidson County lines. Vietnamese, Laotians and Somalis congregate in spaces once occupied by low-income pawn shop operators. Our city is now heaving with a complexity and ethnicity that few can appreciate; it is likely that our old civic order of parallel universes will die a speedier a death under the weight of such change.
But if our city’s structure changes, that does not mean our personality will necessarily change. The past is not dead, William Faulkner pointed out. It is not even past. The attitudinal roots of the old Nashvilleeasygoing, parochial, friendly, charitablestill seem to be with us. It is true that more drivers seem to be willing to honk their horns than they used to. And people are speaking urgently into cell phones at The Trace and Sunset Grill. Yet I still sense people operating with a nod to old-style Southern graciousness. Nashvillians feel comfortable talking to strangers. Old ladies can still get a hand crossing the street.
Cities, and how they constitute themselves, are forever changing. But the character of a place never completely goes away. Nashville is now an open-border city, and the city is richer for it. In the exchange between old Nashville and new Nashville, I tend to think both have gotten the best of each others’ worlds.
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