At midday last Saturday, the wind was blowing like crazy, lifting thin layers of dirt from the rubble on the stadium construction site and whisking them away. Yet, with all the motorists pouring across Woodland Street, there was scant space for parking, even for a small compact.
Mayor Phil Bredesen’s green Jeep Grand Cherokee sat parked and lonely in its usual space in the lot beside the Metro Courthouse. But there were no empty parking lots on the other side of the Cumberland, just across the bridge. A healthy crowd was swarming over the expansive parking lots near the construction site, which is located just below the point where Woodland Street dips down into East Nashville. Every few minutes, many in the crowd were anxiously peering up into the cloudy sky, hoping for a glimpse of what was perhaps the day’s biggest draw: three sky divers dressed as Elvis, the Elvis who’s easy to imitate, the one from the late entertainer’s middle-aged, chunky stage.
It was ground-breaking day for the East Bank stadium, and the importance of the ceremony couldn’t have gone unnoticed. For all the cheesy carnival appearance of the festivities, the three-hour ceremony was fairly well attended. Better yet, it gave cause for optimism, since it actually gathered together a crowd that represented all layers of Nashville society.
What was going on across the street from the Juvenile Justice Center was more than an expensive pep rally for overpaid football players and football team executives. Admittedly, the experience had that distinctly hollow, somewhat sad feeling that hovers over most any urban crowd scene. Sometimes it can be a test of the spirit to be in close contact with the exceedingly old, the very young, and the obviously less fortunate of every age. But for anybody who cared to take notice, Saturday’s ceremony also provided an important lesson in the politics of Nashville.
To get to the ground-breaking, Nashvillians entered through a chain-link-fenced area just outside the double-wide trailer that has become affectionately known as “Stadium Place.” Stadium Place serves as home base for the engineers and managers who keep track of the demolition and construction progress at the stadium site. The temporary “Arena House” on Broadway may have been more attractive, but it served the same workaday function during the arena’s construction.
The steps that lead up to the cream-colored Stadium Place trailer are built from unpainted two-by-fours, and there is even a handicap-access ramp. The wind creeps through the cracks around the windows, and the rain beats a noisy concert on the thin roof, but the double-wide is the nerve center of the stadium’s constuction nevertheless.
The parking lot’s chain-link fences kept the crowd away from the dirt and rubble of the actual construction site, but within the fenced-off areas, it was like a day at the Mayberry Town Fair. Plastic football cups and little baggies of stadium-site dirt were being given away, as were free hot dogs and ice cream sandwiches. That fact alone would have been enough to make the corner of South First and Woodland a crossroads for representatives from every socioeconomic class in Nashville. Anytime there’s free food and free Coke at a public event, the masses will come running.
But it wasn’t the hot dogs and ice cream alone that drew the crowd. It looked as if most of the 4,000-or-so peoplewho, incidentally, were of varied races as wellhad made a conscious effort to come together in support of professional football for Nashville and in expectation of all the pride, notoriety, and civic identity that pro football will supposedly bring with it. In other words, most of the people there hadn’t just meandered in to see what was going on. The only sign of protest came from several Native Americans who stood at the corner, handing out flyers warning that the stadium is being built on land where Indian artifacts are buried and where Indian graves are located.
Nevertheless, the gathering was, all in all, a pleasant sight to see. It was like a mini-version of Times Square on New Year’s Eve. People from all parts of townblue collar and white collarwere there to see the ball drop. And a ball did drop, although it wasn’t shiny and round. Near the end of the afternoon, when the three Elvises leapt from their airplane and began their freefall through the sky, they brought a football with them. Once they had landed safely, they presented it to Bredesen. The mayor, wearing his not-very-athletic-looking tan boat shoes, khaki pants, and a blazer, was onstage to accept the handoff. Before the Elvis jump was actually announced, even the mayor had been looking up, from time to time, in search of the parachutists’ plane, raising his hand to shield his eyes from the occasional sun.
Almost every Metro Council member attended the day’s events as a VIP. Even Eric Crafton, who represents Bellevue in Metro Council and who, early on, had supported a county-wide referendum to determine whether Nashville really wanted the Oilers, was on hand. His name boomed over the loudspeaker along with the other names on the VIP list. Many of the Council members seemed almost pathetically proud of the white hard hats that were the symbols of their status for the day.
Bredesen’s handlers, Oilers officials, and Metro department heads were part of the mix, as were the leaders and campaign workers from the “NFL Yes” campaign that had concluded, successfully, just a year earlier. It seemed to be a day on which disagreements and grievances could be set aside, a time of unity that could have made even the worst cynic grow a little misty-eyed.
The votes are in
Last year’s public referendum on whether or not to build the stadium brought together different generations and socioeconomic classes in much the same way that last weekend’s ground-breaking ceremony did. Admittedly, the “NFL Yes” campaign drew from big corporate interests as well as from affluent individuals, raising a total of $500,000, as opposed to the naysayers’ $20,000. But ultimately, it was the average citizen that made the deal a go.
It was a grass-roots coalition that guaranteed the “NFL Yes” campaign’s success, with a little cash provided by the more straitlaced upper classes. During the days leading up to the vote, thousands of people had showed up for rallies on the East Bank, near the very site where last weekend’s festivities took place. They had also turned out in places such as the Bordeaux YMCA, a neighborhood and community gathering place.
The “Yes” camp scored about 60 percent of the vote, proving not only that professional football was a popular proposition in Nashville but that Nashvillians can be bound together by more than class, color, and political affiliations.
Like last May’s election day, when voters had their say on the stadium referendum, Saturday had its share of dark skies. Still, the threatening weather didn’t keep the people away. The looming clouds and the windy weather didn’t stop 3-year-old Andrew Thompson, the Oscar Mayer kid, from belting out the wiener song, plus a verse of “Proud Mary.” It didn’t make Hank Williams Jr.’s “Are You Ready for Football?” any less inspiring for the fans as it blared over the loudspeakers. And it didn’t keep Houston Oilers place kicker Al Del Greco’s ballthe same one the Elvises had just passed along to Bredesenfrom landing in just the right spot when he kicked it.
What last weekend’s celebration should do for Nashville is what the referendum did for the various constituencies in last year’s “Yes” campthat is, it should help establish some common ground. The Nos have lost the fight. There’s little reason anymore for their phone calls to reporters, detailing conspiracy theories involving Bud Adams and Phil Bredesen.
It has been a year since the referendum, and the stadium is going up. Like the beauty queens who signed autographs for kids last weekend and the sports fanatics who came out in droves to support the stadium, Nashvillians at large should support the effort, or at the very least, move on to the next cause.
As Bredesen put it last May, “The Yeses have prevailed, but there are a lot of good people in this community who felt the other way and voted no. Tomorrow there are no yeses and nos. Tomorrow we are all Nashvillians.” And that’s how we looked on Saturday afternoon, at least for a few hours, as the rain clouds began to blow away.
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