Last week I went back to Radio Cafe. The restaurant in the elderly corner store at Woodland and 14th streets in East Nashville had recently reopened with a reputation for fried catfish and a fresh veggie plateno cans. But I didn’t really go for the food.
The return to Radio was a reunion of sorts. After the tornado in April 1998, the cafe served up R&R to survivors suffering from post-storm stress syndrome. For many months, I shared almost weekly meals there with two friends: Lockeland Springs resident Steve Neighbors and Ann Roberts, executive director of the Metro Historical Commission.
We gathered at Radio to brainstorm about how to repair the neighborhood’s delicate architectural and social fabric once the immediate problems of blue tarps and stumps and recalcitrant insurance companies passed. As semi-retired neighborhood activists, Steve and I also used the occasions to reassure each other that we had enough left in the glands for another sweat equity situation. The cafe was where we went to plotand to laugh.
It was at Radio that Ann first discussed her idea of a master plan to chart the future of the tornado-damaged area. It was also at Radio that we joked about a memorial sculpture for East Park in the form of a bronze stump. Five years later, with Radio Cafe back in businessand with East Nashville cooking beyond any tornado survivor’s wildest dreamsit was time to celebrate the revival, and try to figure out how it happened, with Ann and Steve.
It seems counterintuitive to assert that the tornado was an ill wind that blew new life into East Nashville. But after listing what’s new in the Near East since the storm, we concluded that the timing is more than coincidental.
The most obvious change is in eats and drinks. Pre-tornado, a homeless person had more dining options than those of middle income. Post-tornado, 17 restaurants and bars have opened. The dining offerings are all over the culinary map: upscale and sports bar, Mediterranean and Mexican, latte with bagel and meat-and-three.
Many operate in recycled architecture, exploiting the area’s funky urban character. An old gas station is now Cafe Margot; a 1930s pharmacy is now Chapel Bistro. Red Wagon Cafe occupies a corner cottage and a former dairy dip is now Italia take out. Bongo Java roasts coffee in an old electronics repair shop. A building once used to store vending machines is home to Beyond the Edge sports bar. A concrete block shed now sports the deep purple pigment of the Alleycat Lounge, and Family Wash serves pub food in a former laundromat. After dinner, there’s drinks and music at the Slow Bar, the Five Spot and the Lipstick Lounge.
When East Nashvillians take a breather from drinking and dining out, we no longer have to hit the interstate seeking ingredients for home cooking. The first time I saw fresh mozzarella and Provence bread at Turnip Truckthe auto body shop turned health food groceryI almost cried.
New retail enhances the street life. Parents push kids in strollers through the plants at Gardens of Babylon. Pet owners drop off Fido and Fiona at the doggie day spa, Four Paws at Five Points. Hordes gather at Garage Mahal, the former tow truck shed where 700-plus aesthetes showed up for the Peruvian art opening last May. And cool commerce is not restricted to Five Points. The brand new Alegria boutique offers classy leather and gifts on 16th Street next to new construction for a bakery.
My personal pick for major breakthrough came with the first issue of The New York Times that landed on my sidewalk. For years I’d logged on to the Times’ Web site begging for home delivery of the paper of record, only to encounter defeat when I entered my 37206 zip code. In 2001, the answer was a hefty bill instead of “service unavailable,” and I established contact with the larger world.
These are overt manifestations of the rising tide. But there are less visible indicators of progress. According to Metro Planning Department figures, the average home sale price for Edgefield, East End and Lockeland Springs was $98,842 in 1997. In 2002, it was $131,920. That sounds like affordable housing to westerners, but the figures include fixer-uppers that only a compulsive handyman could love. These days, the larger renovated homes are breaking the $300,000 barrier, and well-done cottages are crossing the $200,000 line. To urban pioneers who recall the days when fine architecture in need of some TLC could be had for under $30,000, these prices sound like fantasyland.
It’s not just East Nashville’s old architecture, however, that now merits investment. The condo developers are migrating east.
Brentwood’s Coda Development has pre-sold 20 of the 30 condos it’s constructing at the corner of Woodland and Eighth streets. The units range in size from 821 to 1,625 square feet, and in price from $105,000 to $265,000. Affordable Housing Resources, which developed the mixed-income Row 8.9 across from the Farmers’ Market, plans to build 10 townhomes of similar ilk at the corner of Eastland Avenue and Scott Street. Germantown Partners, known for its infill in the Germantown neighborhood, intends to develop a parcel in Five Points as mixed-use, with a floor of retail topped by two floors of condos. And Glen Bartosh, who built Prestwick on the former Richland Country Club site, has plans for an acre on Woodland Street that feature eight two-story townhomes over a first floor of retail. Bartosh says he “will test East Nashville’s upscale limits” by pre-selling units for custom build out that will range from 1,880 to 3,000 square feet, and start at $275,000.
So what made East Nashville hot? A groundwork laid over decades, with the winds of 1998 to give things a push.
Much of the foundation was built in the 1980s through intense lobbying by a determined group of true believers. Down-zoning from multi-family to duplex max stopped the subdivision of single-family homes into apartments and boarding houses. The Metro Development and Housing Agency established the Five Points Redevelopment district to offer incentives to commerce. Historic and conservation zoning overlays halted the erosion of the architectural fabric.
But when the tornado tore through the neighborhood, many envisioned all their hard work swirling in the toilet bowl. In retrospect, however, the vision was of the phoenix rising.
“There’s no question that the tornado ultimately has helped the neighborhood,” Neighbors says. “It brought an infusion of capital.” Owners used insurance money to fix up houses, in many cases improving their pre-storm condition.
Roberts explains that the preservation overlays channeled the insurance money in the proper direction. “The overlays set standards for the repairs, insisted that the work be well done,” she says. “And it wasn’t just the big Victorians. A lot of smaller houses that had been derelict were fixed.”
On a larger scale, a master planning effort led by a team of national experts supplied by the American Institute of Architects emerged in the tornado’s wake. This blueprint for future development spawned the Rediscover East pan-neighborhood association, as well as design guidelines for the commercial core of the area. These guidelines mandate that future construction be compatible with the traditional urban character of the neighborhood, assuring new investors of a compatible level of quality in infill development.
One unexpected consequence of the tornado, Neighbors says, was that the storm broke the psychological barrier of the Cumberland. “People who crossed the river to help with the recovery effort, or even just to view the damage, saw that the demographics were different than they’d imagined, that we had great houses and a real sense of community,” he says. He notes that the ReLeaf effort by the Nashville Tree Foundation not only restored greenscape, but brought in hundreds of volunteers in the process.
These volunteers had something to see besides stumps and gingerbread. “I have to think that Shelby Bottoms was a giant step forward,” Neighbors says. “An 800-acre greenway and nature preserve that close to downtown is a major asset for the neighborhood.”
It’s important to note, however, that the East Nashville of today is not all onward and upward. While new private educational offerings include Linden Corner’s preschool and kindergarten and East Academy, the quality of public schools is uneven. The police still tend to respond to calls for help with a “what do you expect if you live here?” attitude. Codes violations reported four years ago have still not been brought into compliance. Transients still routinely pass out in East Park. Without a major overhaul, the Cayce Homes housing project will remain a perennial crime spot impacting the surrounding neighborhoods.
Edgefield pioneer Carol Williams warns that the “arduous task to make East Nashville work for all the people” continues. Nevertheless, Williams feels that East Nashville has passed the tipping point. “We might not see as much progress as quickly as we’d like, but I no longer fear that we’ll lose the neighborhood.”
One Easterner thinks the revival is long overdue. “I sometimes wonder, not why we’re moving forward so quickly, but why it took so long,” says East End resident and former Metro Council member Jeff Ockerman. “When we bought our house in 1983, I thought the area would take off in three to five years. It took almost 20.”
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