The transformation of Lower Broadway over Nashville’s long history has reflected much about how the city sees and presents itself. Now it appears as though the downtown thoroughfare could be undergoing another transformation — a “rebirth.” But what will this rebirth look like?
Established by white settlers in the late 1700s and early 1800s, Nashville grew up along the Cumberland River and what is now First Avenue, originally called Front Street. The buildings built along the riverfront are considered the “birthplace” of Nashville as we know it. Warehouses were aligned to receive goods delivered by boat, which were then sold on Market Street (now Second Avenue). By the 1860s, Nashville was thriving. Then came the Civil War, and the city suffered tremendously.
Dan Pomeroy, chief curator and director of collections at the Tennessee State Museum, recently explained to WKRN that another change came with the addition of the Silver Dollar Saloon in 1890. The Silver Dollar served riverboat crews, creating a “rough and tumble district.” Once modern transportation arrived, the river was no longer as vital. After World War II, many businesses and their customers left downtown, and the commercial district crumbled. Still, the iconic Ernest Tubb Record Shop — opened in 1947 — was there, and there remained an interest in country music.
In the 1960s, the city had a rebirth of sorts. To save the historic riverfront buildings, the nonprofit Historic Nashville Inc. was formed, and events were planned to attract tourists back to downtown. Country music artists brought the honky-tonk vibe back to Broadway, and stars performed on the Grand Ole Opry, then held at the Ryman.
But in 1974, the Grand Ole Opry left the Ryman to settle into its new home at The Grand Ole Opry House at Opryland. In the years following, there was talk of destroying the Ryman. Country music artists Marty Stuart, Emmylou Harris and others — along with then-Gaylord Entertainment president and CEO Bud Wendell — eventually saved it. But for years the downtown district featured a lot of empty buildings, the Mother Church of Country Music among them. By 1994, the Ryman was reopened as a concert venue, and tourists began to return.
In 1985, two historic buildings that had existed since before the Civil War burned, and wrecking balls demolished any remnants of them. The Metro Council in 1996 adopted a historic zoning overlay for Second Avenue, preventing owners from changing the appearance of their historic buildings. This era was more or less the start of another rebirth for Nashville. The Tennessee Titans were recruited to Nashville, and Nissan Stadium (then called Adelphia Coliseum) opened in 1999. Bridgestone Arena (then Nashville Arena) was completed in 1996, and soon after the city landed a National Hockey League expansion team — the Predators. Professional sports became a significant catalyst for Nashville’s growth and the resurgence of Lower Broadway.
In 2006, world-class concert venue the Schermerhorn Symphony Center came to Lower Broad. Nashville had all the big-city amenities — pro sports, museums, art and music. Great cuisine followed soon after as tourists flocked to our city. Lower Broadway became known as the place to host big events, like 2019’s NFL Draft, which drew an estimated 600,000 fans to Nashville.
Then, nine months into a global pandemic, on Christmas Day 2020, a bomb went off on Second Avenue, nearly destroying several historic buildings that were protected by the 1996 overlay. What will happen now? Davidson County historian Carole Bucy says “another rebirth” could be spurred in the aftermath of the destruction.
Some of the owners of the damaged buildings think there is no way to reestablish their original use or appearance. Owners of four of the buildings hope to develop a boutique hotel in the area and keep the “historic fabric” intact. Nashville history experts like Bucy and Pomeroy think Nashvillians should have a hand in the next rebirth. Pomeroy says that those on the Metro Council will be “making decisions that will affect the future of this city and … the quality of life for each and every one of us.”
While we definitely should do what we can to keep the historic fabric of our city intact, we face other obstacles in maintaining our city’s reputation — things that could define us perhaps even more than our history. One obstacle is unregulated entertainment vehicles. Since the 22-year-old tourist fell from one of these party vessels back in July, Nashville leaders are more concerned than ever about the lack of regulations. Just last week, Metro Councilmember Freddie O’Connell introduced a bill that would regulate these vehicles and ban alcohol on them. Alongside this issue is the rising crime rate in Nashville, particularly downtown. In May, nearly 200 calls for police service were made over the course of one weekend.
Perhaps a “rebirth” is exactly what we need.
Broadway has seen lots of ups and downs over the years. The opening of the new Fifth + Broadway development, which houses dozens of retail and dining spots, brought a new look and a new energy to the area, as did the excellent new National Museum of African American Music. I certainly hope the district grows out from there and keeps attracting people who want to enjoy Nashville’s history, music and other amenities.
If a rebirth means we have to crack the whip on some of the partygoers — then let’s get cracking.
Bill Freeman is the owner of FW Publishing, the publishing company that produces the Nashville Scene, Nfocus, the Nashville Post and Home Page Media Group in Williamson County.