“You have in your hands a different sort of guidebook,” promises the first line of I’ll Take You There: Exploring Nashville’s Social Justice Sites. “In place of offering a single voice and perspective on the city,” editors Amie Thurber and Learotha Williams write, “we offer a multitude, and intentionally privilege the perspectives of those most directly impacted by injustice in the city.” Privileging these voices may, at first, seem to represent an alternative history — another way of understanding Nashville. But as the work progresses, offering perspectives of more than 100 local contributors, the purpose becomes clear: This is not just “alternative history.” Instead, it is an unflinching, full story — one that transcends niceties and commits to complex truth.
I’ll Take You There, published by Vanderbilt University Press, represents a large-scale, citywide project, partially facilitated by the Vanderbilt University Community Development and Action program. Graduate students connected with local communities to find sites of cultural relevance and co-authored many of the stories in the guide. In addition, the editors received submissions from the public. When selecting entries, there were three criteria: “sites that challenge missing or misinformation; sites that reveal privilege or dominance; and sites that celebrate cultural resistance, resilience, and creativity.” The result is intricate and varied. In the “Southwest” section, for instance, there are consecutive entries about CoreCivic, the progressive Glendale Baptist Church and Radnor Lake. Yet the wide range of entries yields unexpected connections and hidden threads. In the case of these sites, it’s the importance of protest — a theme that persists throughout the collection.
The guide is organized geographically into six sections: “Downtown,” “Northwest,” “Northeast,” “Southeast,” “Southwest” and “On the Road” (sites that are within a day trip of the city). It also features four thematic guided tours at the end. “It City” shows tensions around development; “Athens of the South” focuses on educational sites; “Music City” follows Nashville’s “diverse musical past and present”; and “Southern Hospitality” “explores the contested terrain of hospitality in the city.”
Many entries critically examine the histories of well-known spots. In “Mansker Station,” Thurber muses that “for White colonists, Mansker Station represented a place of refuge and safety. For the Indigenous inhabitants of the area, it represented the deepening threat to their sovereignty and continued existence on the land they had called home for generations.” The “Aaittafama’ Archaeological Park” entry notes that Old Hickory Boulevard paved over sacred indigenous burial grounds. The “Downtown” section features the story of Black Bottom, a “center of African-American education, culture, and business in Nashville.” Despite its significant impact on downtown Nashville, Black Bottom was flattened by “revitalization” projects. The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum sits where the district’s slums used to be.
The guide also highlights the human cost of gentrification, noting communities pushed out by new construction, rising housing costs and — especially in the case of various tent communities — environmental and governmental evictions.
There are many moments of resilience — the story of Juanita’s, Nashville’s oldest gay bar; Casa Azafrán, a thriving multicultural center on Nolensville Pike; and Fisk’s Jubilee Hall, originally guarded at night against white supremacists, the guide notes, by the same people who built it. The guide celebrates the city’s diversity, noting that Nashville is “home to the largest Kurdish population outside the Middle East,” and “on Nolensville Road alone there are eighteen places of worship, catering to different faiths and ethnic backgrounds.” Additionally, entries show the impact of faith-based communities — especially Black churches — on civil rights protests throughout the city.
Throughout the work, two persistent narratives emerge: the cost of prosperity and the struggle for progress. “Much of the wealth here can be traced directly to slavery,” reads the introduction to the “Southwest” section, and entries show the significant environmental and health risks many Nashvillians — particularly low-income, minority, indigenous and homeless populations — have faced because of Nashville’s growth. At the same time, I’ll Take You There showcases the continued work necessary to create an equitable city: in urban farms, the first integrated schools, Islamic centers, downtown sites of protest, Stratford High School and many more.
What is a guide for? I’ll Take You There isn’t just a new look at Nashville. Instead, it suggests a new way of looking entirely. The work offers an education; you come away from it more critical of the city, but also more appreciative. The guide is a powerful reminder. Nashville is just a place; it’s the people who give it meaning.