You know what the New Nashville is all about, even if you don’t belong to it yourself. It is (or, more accurately, they are) that group of conspicuously progressive thirty- and fortysomethings who haven’t lost a battle since they sent the former philandering, talk-show-inspiring Bill Boner packing and replaced him with a Harvard-educated Yankee. (Boner’s shenanigans prompted Phil Donahue to invite him on the set, and yes, Boner came.)
Boner’s city was the kind where the union labor political influence wasn’t challenged, where no one much considered that nepotism might be a bad thing, and where cultural considerations weren’t part of the conversation. And where people went to Mario’s for dinner.
College educated with liberal inclinations, members of the New Nashville helped turn their city from a sleepy Southern town to a booming urban campus with pro sports, Starbucks, and a relatively honest roster of political leaders. In the process of transforming that landscape, they defeated the Old Nashville, a crusty coalition of courthouse kingmakers, God-fearin’ preachers, and Belle Meade businessmen.
But the New Nashvillewhich, admittedly, still had the union labor influence and plenty of nepotism, although at least it was challengedwasn’t just interested in civic altruism. From at-large Council member Chris Ferrell to real-estate agent Mark Deutschmann, they’ve managed to carve out vibrant, prominent careers. Some have thrived in law, politics, and media, others in architecture and real estate, and still others in various entrepreneurial ventures. They’ve done well, both for themselves and their city.
Aside from those personal and professional triumphs, though, the New Nashville has become old news. As they drive around Hillsboro Village in their Jeep Cherokees with dusty Gore/Lieberman stickers stubbornly affixed to the rear bumpers, a younger set is cruising around in rumbling and decidedly nonpartisan Nissan Xterras. And pretty soon they’re going to run the New Nashville off the road.
If you haven’t been out on the town lately, rest assured that the next generation has come of age. They’re younger, they dress sharper, and they have cooler jobs. They know (and, more important, go to) all the hot spots in town. And while they may not own their own home just yet, gloat notthey’re better looking than you are.
This somewhat vapid discourse we offer is, of course, about the New New Nashville, a fresh and growing, if not particularly diverse, cast of savvy professionals straight out of the Friends generation. They’re not in charge quite yetand we don’t know what their politics are, if they have any at allbut they’re affecting everything from local TV ratings to downtown development. They propel the nightlife and help set trends in town, from fashion to food. You’ll see them gabbing on their cell phones with a martini attached to their free hand, and maybe, if you’re feeling cynical, you’ll think they’re a tad shallow. But after the earnest activism of the New Nashville, a certain superficiality might be in order.
Marcie Allen, the 27-year-old founder of Mad Booking, may well be the poster child for the New New Nashville. An actual native, Allen launched Mad Booking, a concert promotion company, from the dining room of her apartment. Now she has an office on Music Row and, with the help of a few employees and interns, regularly books bands for such sprawling concerts as the Voodoo Music Festival in New Orleans. If she’d been born in a different generation, this nice Southern girl who studied at Rhodes College probably would be saddled with a husband and a baby right about now.
“I went to Harpeth Hall,” Allen concedes. “But getting married at the age of 30 and joining the Junior League is not my kind of thing. My crowd is the young entrepreneurs.”
And as it turns out, this group is not hard to find. “Earlier this year, we went to the Will Hoge show at Exit/In, and it was sold out,” she recalls. “We all said, ‘Where should we go now?’ and everyone yelled ‘6º!’ That’s just so Nashville.” It’s worth pointing out that the restaurant and bar 6º is barely two months old.
Both 6º, located in the Gulch, and the nearby Virago, a new “fusion cuisine” eatery located in the old Slice of Life building on Division Street, have become clubhouses of sorts for the New New Nashville. They are to these people what Sunset Grill was to the Tony Browns and Chris Ferrells of yesteryearsocial and professional salons where relationships are pursued and networks are broadened.
“I grew up in Nashville, and there was nothing here. You went to Mr. Gatti’s and Houston’s, and you went to the Lion’s Head movie theater,” Allen says. “Now there are a lot of young professionals working here. I can walk into Virago and be guaranteed I’ll see someone I know. It’s a community.”
“6º is my home away from home,” says Amy Fruland, a regional sales manager for a health-care technology and management company. “It’s completely different from anything else we have here. It’s open and spacious and very cosmopolitan.”
Tellingly, she adds, “It makes you feel like you’re not even in Nashville.”
Bob Bernstein, co-owner of Fido’s and Bongo Java, is a New Nashville kind of guy. He fought to save the Jacksonian and has been a progressive force in Hillsboro Village politics for years. But at 39, Bernstein is a little behind the social eight ball.
“Sometimes you feel like this town is too small and that you know everyone,” he says. “But when you walk into a new place and no one knows you, it’s kind of strange. It’s strange to walk into 6º.”
Bernstein recalls that earlier this year, after a Predators game, he dropped by the trendy restaurant for a drink. He says that not only did he not know anyone in the restaurant, but also it looked like the crowd was from another city.
One question came to mind: “Who are these people?”
Others have quipped that the owners of 6º must have imported all those attractive, fashionable twentysomethings from Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood or the set of HBO’s Sex and the City.
“It’s not the first time I’ve heard that comment,” says Kevin Boehm, co-owner of 6º, who describes his restaurant as American contemporary with a sprinkle of funk. “People always ask me who I’m trying to target. But I just put it out there and hope it’s cross-cultural and that it appeals to different ages. Early on, it’s elegant dining, and then late at night it turns into a bar.”
Boehm, who qualifies as a New New Nashvillian himself, says that, not surprisingly, black is the most popular color at his restaurant. “It’s something you don’t have to think about. If you open up my closet, it’s all dark because pretty much everything I own is black.”
And, he adds, it doesn’t stop at his closet door. “We tell our waitresses they have to wear black and they have to look good.”
Still, Boehm says that despite the proliferation of edgier fashion sensibilities, Nashville remains a casual town without the social snobbery you’ll find elsewhere. “The young crowd is very easygoing. I would never run the door and pick people to come in like they do in New York. It doesn’t fit this city.”
As popular as 6º and Virago may be, it was the drink-and-dine trio of the Trace, Havana Lounge, and The Flying Saucer that gave birth to Nashville’s modern nightlifeat least among the young and beautiful crowd. Until then, the city’s twentysomethings were trapped in a social vacuum. They were too old for places like the now defunct Jonathan’s in Hillsboro Village but too young to feel at home at tony West Nashville eateries such as Sunset Grill and Sperry’s.
Trace owner Herb Allen said that before he opened the Hillsboro Village restaurant in 1997, he had realized that Nashville lacked nightspots that were both sophisticated and youthful. “I felt like there was a case of lagging emulation here,” he says. “The people were here and the income was here, but the nightlife was lagging behind. I think now people’s expectations have changed about what kind of nightlife is offered. And I think we were on the front end of things.”
And while today 6º makes The Trace look as gritty as a Madison biker bar, the latter restaurant remains a popular playground for the khakis-and-Coco crowd. Cell phones ring, business cards are exchanged, and everyone looks like they spent hours assembling their on-the-town attire. Jeans and a turtleneck won’t get the job done at The Trace.
“People dress in expectation of who they might see and who might see them,” Herb Allen says.
Thankfully, Nashville still has 12th & Porter and the Slow Bar for those dated souls who simply want to quaff a few drinks, listen to music, and forget about work for a while. As for the New Nashville thirty- and fortysomethings, they can take in an art opening at Cumberland Gallery, a jazz trio at F. Scott’s, or a movie at the Belcourt. They’re not exactly lacking in options.
The social scene of the New New Nashville, in contrast, is a lot more caffeinated. And it revolves as much around work as it does around play. The client you meet for lunch at the Arcade on Monday might be the same person you go dancing with at Johny Jackson’s Soul Satisfaction on Saturday. In the New New Nashville, it’s all right to party with coworkers and drink with contacts. In fact, it’s almost required.
“There’s a lot of mixing between work and play,” says Fruland, who describes Nashville as a good place to network. “In bigger cities, people work during the day and have their separate social setting. Here people socialize with the same people they work with.”
The dating scene has changed as well. In the old days of the New Nashville, men and women would congregate at the Iguana, eye each other from the lonely perches of their barstools, and launch inebriated romantic assaults in the hope of an easy sexual conquest. To paraphrase the underappreciated social observer Pat Benatar, everyone would “come on with a come on, and they wouldn’t fight fair.”
Sometimes the New Nashville singles got lucky; more often than not, however, they went home alone. These days the Iguana is up for sale and many of its past regulars are married with children and residing in a subdivision in Bellevue named after a river or a fox or a species of tree.
In contrast to the previous generation, the New New Nashville features platonic intermingling among the sexes, which can make for more meaningful evenings. Guys and gals will actually go out together. That’s not only easier than dating, it’s less time-consuming. Besides, the New New Nashville is still about building the Rolodex. It’s not talking commitment.
“I haven’t had a boyfriend in two years,” says Marcie Allen, who during that period has built a business from scratch. “I don’t have the time. My guy friends don’t want to get involved with me. I’m pulled in all sorts of different directions.”
What many of the New New Nashville types like about their city is that it provides a calming backdrop to their frantic lives. Many like Allen have chosen demanding, fast-paced careers, and they’d rather not supplement that inherent stress with long commutes, rude neighbors, and high rents.
Annette Kuntz, 28, works as an architectural interior designer at the firm Susman Tisdale Gayle. A native of Boston, she has lived in Texas, Chicago, and Knoxville. “I always say Northern people are like the weather. They’re kind of cold and bitter,” she jokes. “In Nashville, we have a big-city mentality but a small-town feel. People are just very kind. There are lots of kind people who are willing to help you in business or introduce you to their friends.”
Niki Tyree works as the promotions and marketing director for sister stations WQZQ-102.5 FM and WZPC-102.9 FM. She also believes that Nashville’s small-town feel fosters a more intimate social scene. “In bigger cities, you have a hard time finding that group to hang with. But here, you just go out and find each other and people are into the same things,” she says. “You have a good creative community here, and we all have similar interests.”
The problem with this community is that, much like the Friends sitcom that it echoes, it’s lacking in any kind of diversity. The flashy young crowd in Nashville is decidedly white. Christopher Jones is a 26-year-old African American who is a principal at the Ingram Group. He says that while the city has matured over the years, it’s still burdened by a homogeneous social scene.
“In 90 percent of my social situations, I am the only African American there. That’s my biggest, most looming disappointment about where I live and what I do,” he says. “It’s always been a tradeoff. I love where I work, but I hate the social conditions of this city. If I could take my job and move it to another city, I would do it.”
He adds, “Even if you go downtown, how many African Americans do you see packing the clubs? You’d think that given the demographics of people who live close to downtown, you’d see some sort of mixture, but you don’t.”
Nashville’s lack of diversity, among other things, often disappoints people who come from larger cities. After attending college and law school in Washington, D.C., David Sawyer arrived in Nashville to work at the downtown firm of Boult Cummings Conners & Berry. After less than two years, he and his wife decided they had had enough and moved to Pittsburgh, of all places. Both felt Nashville did not deliver enough social and cultural amenities for a young, professional couple.
“I have heard many people claim that Nashville has as much to offer as cities like D.C., New York, Boston, and Chicago. Those people who believe that are, quite frankly, delusional,” Sawyer says. “Nashville lacks culture, diversity, ethnic restaurants, a developed park system, bike trails, sidewalks, a mass transportation system, bagel shops, coffee shops, and the list can go on and on,” he says. “Oh, and also absent is any kind of real downtown scene.”
You don’t have to agree with all of Sawyer’s criticisms to realize that Nashville is not yet a social utopia. The downtown scene that Sawyer singles out almost universally disappoints most young professionals, many of whom see it as a haven for cheesy tourists. But at the very least, the perception of Nashville as a sleepy Southern town is changing. New professional sports teams are helping to alter that, as will a new arts museum and downtown library.
Nancy Eisenbrandt works as the vice president of business services at the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and helps recruit recent college graduates to Nashville. “At many Southeast colleges, what we’re told from the career placement staff is that Nashville is one of the top places their college graduates would like to go. It’s viewed as an exciting city with major-league sports.”
Interestingly, it was the New Nashville that helped build that exciting city with major-league sports. And now it’s the next generation that will reap the rewardsand perhaps pave the way for an even better, even newer Nashville. In the meantime, though, the once trendy New Nashville crowd would do well to figure out how to keep pace.
“I feel like I need a new wardrobe to live in this town. My T-shirt-and-jeans days might be over,” Bob Bernstein quips. “I need a new new look.”
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