In 1989, when the Nashville Scene took on its current incarnation, it was pretty clear that the city itself was running out of gas.
The previous 30 years had been good for the city, the reason being that some things had been done right from 1959 to 1963, giving Nashville the momentum for three decades of progress and prosperity. Most notably, Nashville had been relatively moderate in its resistance to civil rights. Like many Southern cities, it had flirted with its worst impulses, but at the critical moment Nashville turned away from a deadly duel with the future. Mayor Ben West renounced segregation, and Richard Fulton was elected to Congress in 1962, in part by campaigning up and down Jefferson Street. As a consequence, Nashville was able to ride the Southern growth boom that benefited cities like Atlanta and Charlotteand left behind places like Birmingham and Memphis.
At the same time, Nashville and Davidson County consolidated to form the Metropolitan Government, a move that has largely blunted the issue of suburban flight and guaranteed a stable economic base for the foreseeable future.
On those two cornerstones, Nashville did well in the 1970s and 1980s, less for the active decisions and programs it undertook than for the basic fertility of the soil upon which it stood. There were steps forward and back, of course. On the downside, the Church Street retail district collapsed, busing for school integration remained a contentious issue, and the Grand Ole Opry fled its traditional home. But at the same time, major businesses such as Hospital Corporation of America emerged, the first pieces of the downtown revival were put in place with the convention center and Riverfront Park, and personal income grew at a relatively satisfying rate.
But the wheels seemed to come off in the late 1980s. While the administration of Mayor William Hill (Bill) Boner moved from stumbling earnestness to seven hours of comic relief, the economy slowed as a local recession segued into the national one. The developers who had been flying so high in the mid-1980s found their fortunes reversing as the federal government reigned in some of the overly generous tax breaks of a few years earlier. At the same time, many of the city’s leading financial institutions started coming under the control of bigger, multi-state companies, which undermined Nashville’s sense of itself as the center of its own universe.
But Nashville was too strong a place to be crippled by such transitory reverses, and the 1990s represented for Nashville a modest civic renaissance, in which the city took on a somewhat different shape and spirit. Not everyone has been enthusiastic about the way the city has sprung back, and indeed, that process has revealed many of the wedges in the community.
The mayoral election of 1991 was a critical measure of how the city was evolving, with the election of Phil Bredesen being an event of both symbolic and substantive importance. His symbolic importance has nothing to do with his actual accomplishments, real or imagined; rather, Bredesen as a figure shows us how the city has changed and evolved in the years since he first entered local politics. The failure of his first mayoral campaign in 1987 can be laid in part to the city’s doubts about choosing an outsider without a formal allegiance to the city’s hoary power structure. But by the time Bredesen came back to run a second time, many of those doubts were allayedpartly because the old power structure wasn’t what it once was, and partly because Bredesen had spent some time courting the establishment. The main reason, though, was because the city had gotten used to the idea of Bredesen: By keeping at it, he convinced enough people that his interest in the city was serious, and the city, in turn, became willing to take him seriously.
By electing a man who had lived in the city a mere 16 years, the city asserted its commitment to openness and tolerance. And over time, Nashville probably hasand probably willprofit from being a relatively open society. Bredesen himself has remarked that industrial recruitment targets are perhaps most impressed by the fact that the city was willing to elect a mayor so different from its cultural roots. From Bredesen’s success, they infer that the city will be open to new players.
Of course, that’s not the whole truth, but whatever the case, the old guard doesn’t have the same power it once had over the city (unless, for reasons unknowable, a person actually has the urge to go to the Swan Ball). With the banks now controlled out of Charlotte and Atlanta, and the Republican Party in the clutches of Memphis, Nashville is much more in the hands of its people than its old oligarchy.
Bredesen’s 1991 mayoral victory was also significant in that it represented the political triumph of the city’s more affluent west side. Traditionally, city politics has been the interest of the working-class neighborhoods of the east side. While west-side money made a big difference in which east-sider won at the polls, the contenders still had to show allegiance to their humbler origins. But these days, as Richard Fulton makes his bid for a fourth mayoral term, no one is talking about punishing him for having moved across the Cumberland to the west side.
If Bredesen’s symbolic significance lay in how the city chose to view itself and its outsiders, his substantive contributions lay in the way he chose to be mayor. In a city government largely designed to generate its own momentum regardless of who’s in charge, the mayor has the option to choose what he wants to focus on. Bredesen chose more than anything to be the dealmaker-in-chief, pulling together a string of agreements to be reduced to binding contracts and then formalized by the Council. The list of deals has included partners such as Meharry Medical College, Gaylord, Dell, Columbia/HCA, the city unions, Thomas Nelson, American Airlines, the Predators, and the Titans. These assorted deals have had varying levels of success and varying levels of acceptance in the community.
Without getting into the merits of it, the agreement on the Oilers/Titans was probably the central accelerating event in the city’s emerging division over its own direction. Nashville struck a deal with the Houston Oilers in the fall of 1995 to relocate the football team here, contingent on the building of a new stadium and leasing it to the team on favorable terms. The deal was subsequently approved by the Council the following winter. But there was enough opposition in the community that the vote set in motion a petition drive to force a public referendum on the associated bond issue. When the referendum went to a vote, the bonds were approved by a solid majority, thanks to a well-led campaign with substantial support from the business community.
Opponents of the deal tried to portray it as a matter of misplaced priorities. Such an argument can certainly be made, as the Oilers deal stands alone as the only one that Bredesen did not contend would pay for itself. But with a few honorable exceptions, it’s difficult to make the case that the opposition was actually coming from voters who felt the money could be better spent on schools or other necessities of life instead of such frivolities as football. For the most devastating evidence, one need only compare the 1990 referendum to provide additional funding for schools and the 1996 vote on the stadium bonds. With the exception of the Hillsboro/West End neighborhood, which voted for both proposals, the correlation between opposition to added education funding and opposition to the stadium bonds was powerful.
Using more refined statistical tools (regression models), precinct analysis reveals a clear profile of the dominant opposition: older, less affluent whites from neighborhoods with under-performing property values, i.e., people who hadn’t participated as fully in the city’s growing prosperity. In favor of the deal were more affluent whites from neighborhoods with fast-rising property values and minority voters. These are the same profiles that describe the votes in the 1990 school referendum, although support for the school tax increase was much weaker among all segments of voters.
Broadly interpreted, these profiles show a city divided into those who see themselves tied to the vision of a city becoming more cosmopolitan, more urban, and more growth-oriented and those who see these changes as costly and more for the benefit of people other than themselves.
Nashville is certainly a better place than it was 30 or 40 years earlierricher, more diverse, offering more opportunitiesbut it is not necessarily better for everyone. Many of those people who voted in favor of the stadium bonds will seldom, if ever, go to a football game. But the vote represented a conceptual acceptance of something elsea belief that the city must continue to change and to evolve. As the vote showed, the consensus for that notion was solidbut it didn’t top 60 percent.
That struggle of future and past, expansive and conservative, cosmopolitan and insular will probably remain the central issue of the next decade. While the city will continue to hear the rallying cry of not becoming another Atlanta, it needs to realize that it can’t become another Mayberry either.
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