When I think of boulevardiers, I don’t usually think of raccoons. The term “boulevardier” summons up images of well-dressed dudes sauntering under Parisian plane trees, of Maurice Chevalier thanking heaven for little girls. Renoir obviously suffered from the same lack of imagination. He never once painted a raccoon into his impressions of life along the boulevardsbut then, August Renoir never saw “The Boulevard” of Belle Meade.
A whole family of raccoons has recently emerged to promenade on the median of the main thoroughfare that slices into Nashville’s most exclusive suburb. They frolic in a picturesque little grouping near the intersection of Belle Meade and Tyne Boulevards. Commissioned by a private fund-raising group headed by Joe Ledbetter, the creatures were cast in bronze to the design of Boston-based sculptor Nancy Schön.
The raccoon was honored with pride of place, says Chippy Pirtle, chairperson of the Belle Meade City Beautiful Committee, “because it’s the state animal of Tennessee, like the tulip poplar is the state tree.” Rumor has it that bronze replicas of the deer that once roamed Belle Meade Plantation were rejected because they might make tempting targets for trigger-happy hunters, out for a little sharpshooting along the boulevard. Even rapidly rising real estate values might not protect homeowners against damage by ricocheting lead.
In Belle Meade, a city-within-a-city where allegiance to the Swan Ball indicates an unerring grasp of the value of communal ritual, the raccoons quite obviously merited their own dedication ceremony. On Oct. 22, says Pirtle, over 200 citizens turned out to witness the official naming of “Rodney,” “Randy,” “Ricky,” “Ruthie,” “Rosie” and “Rex Raccoon.” (The absence of “Rocky” from the roll call clearly indicates an anti-Beatle bias.) While Belle Meade’s finest watched, Mayor Scott T. Fillebrown, as master of ceremonies, presided at a program that included an invocation by the Rev. W. Robert Abstein of St. George’s Episcopal Church, historical remarks by Vice-Mayor Bruce Crabtree, a drill by the City of Belle Meade Police Color Guard, complete with Old Glory held proudly aloft, and Scottish airs played by Nashville Pipes and Drums. After the formalities, the citizens adjourned to the nearby home of Alyne Massey for lemonade, cookies and more Scottish airs.
The bronze raccoons are a small but costly part of the considerable efforts made by Belle Meade to naturalize a median whose most striking feature is still the column of telephone poles marching resolutely down its center. The impulse to contrive a picturesquely landscaped meadow down the middle of a four-lane surface road sets Belle Meade Boulevard apart from other grand American avenues. The citizens of Boston’s Back Bay placed sculptures of explorer Leif Eriksson, first Federalist Alexander Hamilton, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and historian Samuel Eliot Morison under the elms of Commonwealth Avenue. Richmond preferred the likes of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson for Monument Avenue, its tribute to the Confederate dead.
Belle Meade has chosen for its boulevard larger-than-life-size civic versions of patio kitsch: the concrete or verdigris fauna that can be ordered from garden catalogs to add a naturalistic touch to the backyard. These ornaments sentimentalize the wildlife of suburbiamoles pushing up the turf, squirrels eating all the birdseed, rabbits gobbling up the tender shoots of spring, chipmunks burrowing into the mortarless retaining wallsthe subjects of endless “how to get rid of them” columns by The Tennessean’s Deanna Deck.
The Belle Meade raccoons are vivid enough to have caused several unwary motorists to fear that they were witnessing the results of some upscale road-kill massacre. More careful observers have detected a lack of psychological realism in the family portrait: The real suburban raccoon is most often observed as a masked bandit making a lumbering getaway from the garbage can the night before pickup. Even for the wilds of Belle Meade, apparently, a cast-bronze garbage can might have been a bit much.
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