In 1976, the neighborhood of Edgefield in East Nashville was territory that only an urban pioneer could love. That’s where Charlie Williams came in. Williams had come to the 800 block of Russell Street to investigate the physical circumstances of a stabbing he was lawyering. “I was amazed by two things: the great buildings and the old people who lived in fear, locked in their houses,” he recalled in 1999. He and his wife Carol bought the Queen Anne cottage on the corner for $9,000. “The place next door had eight apartments in it, and had recently sold for $12,000.” In Charlie Williams, Edgefield got more than a new resident. The historic suburb also got a passionate advocate with the scrappy skills befitting one of Nashville’s top personal injury attorneys. What he got in return was all work, no pay and a high ranking on the civic honor rolls. With his suicide Thursday, he leaves a legacy for all community caretakers to live up to and a hole in East Nashville’s heart. Williams was born in Virginia, but grew up in Nashville, graduating from Isaac Litton high school in 1962; he received his B.A. from David Lipscomb University and J.D. from Vanderbilt School of Law. He quickly developed a reputation as a savvy negotiator and relentless proponent of his clients’ interests. Williams’ advocacy, however, reached far beyond his case list. He was an unabashed liberal Democrat and a champion of the children of Edgefield’s Warner School. His work on behalf of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP)—much of it pro bono—helping to transform the police department from a “who you know” to a “what you know” culture, says former FOP president Capt. Robert Nash. “Charlie thought that the police should be seen as professionals occupying a position of respect in the community,” Nash says. “A merit-based selection and promotion system independent of outside political influence was part of that.... By the time I became president in 1990, we could speak for ourselves without fear of political repercussions.” But it’s the pioneering efforts of Charlie and Carol Williams on behalf of their neighborhood that will leave the most lasting impact on this city. In the course of those efforts, they pretty much wrote the manual on how to pull a neighborhood back from the brink. “And it was at the brink,” says Metro Historical Commission executive director Ann Roberts. Urban renewal had hit East Nashville hard, leveling houses and delivering public housing superblocks that bracketed Edgefield. The concentration of poverty bred crime that leached into the adjacent neighborhoods. The construction of the interstate between the neighborhood and downtown added a third wall to those of the projects. Zoning encouraged the carving up of the remaining homes into small rental units and the building of new multifamily units, many of them shoddy. Simple services like street light repair and garbage pickup were problematic. It was as if government was saying that East Nashville was where the working and welfare classes would live—and everyone else would avoid. But Charlie and Carol Williams didn’t avoid East Nashville, they embraced it. They founded the Historic Edgefield Association, for which Charlie served as the first president, to give the neighborhood a stronger voice. They lobbied for codes enforcement, for a general downzoning of properties from multifamily, for federal Community Development Block Grants for small loans to bridge the lending gap left by the banks. Those gaps were broad, because lending institutions had essentially redlined the area. “All you could get were 90-day notes for $5,000 a pop,” Charlie explained. “I used to say that in Edgefield taking the fifth didn’t refer to your constitutional right; it meant the number of notes you had to have on your house to restore it.” The couple used up a lot of notes until they had a nice house with a $39,500 30-year mortgage. “My loan was the first foot in the door,” Charlie said. “The second applicant got $60,000. We were establishing comparables.” Edgefield’s turning point came in 1978 when the Metro Council placed a historic zoning overlay on the area—Nashville’s first—to protect the character of the architecture. To get the overlay, Charlie staged a labor-intensive, door-to-door campaign. “You’d have thought we were asking the Council to become members of the Communist Party,” he remembered. “In the first two-and-a-half years I lived in Edgefield, I spent more time on the neighborhood than on my law practice.” Through it all, says May Dean Eberling, the first director of the Metro Historical Commission, “Charlie was the bridge-builder, the peacemaker.... They all trusted Charlie.” Charlie also built bridges to the historic neighborhoods across the river. “We called them the donut neighborhoods, because they formed a ring around downtown,” says Jan Bushing, an advocate for the Hillsboro-West End area who served on the Planning Commission for 14 years beginning in the late 1970s. “We all had the same problem: absentee landlords who drained property dry, let it rot until it became a canker for the city. “We weren’t trying to gentrify but to stabilize. That meant you got Fannie Mae to guarantee loans that covered the cost of rehab, but it also meant that if old Mrs. McGillicuddy needed her grass cut, you cut hers after you cut yours.” Three decades later, Nashville has 13 preservation districts with more on the way. Every area with more than 10 houses and a grievance, it seems, has a neighborhood association. And the preservation zoning overlay is still a battle—although not between residents and absentee landlords, but between those who want to exercise their God-given property rights to put a dormer on the front of their houses and those who think those dormers should go out back. Charlie, of course, valued the preservation of historic architecture and the investment in new infill construction. But for him, these were means, not an end. His larger purpose was to make a neighborhood where the strong protected the weak, where all had standing. Charlie Williams was quintessentially tolerant, but there were limits. He had caustic words for those who had concentrated in East Nashville the halfway houses and alcohol abuse treatment centers, making the area “a dumping ground for social ills. The social workers who drive in to serve their constituencies by day and go home to the ’burbs at night don’t always realize the damage to all the other constituencies. When you have winos hanging out in East Park, you’re penalizing the kids who have to play in East Park.” Charlie also had little patience with those who were elitists, those who didn’t worry about the kids in the park or the women walking the streets or the underinsured elderly with a leaky roof. For him, a neighborhood was a social compact. “Everybody has the right to live in a safe neighborhood,” he said. It was Charlie’s mission to bring that safety to the neighborhood in which he lived. He accomplished that mission, as much as anyone can. That he did so is all the more remarkable given the crushing burden of severe and chronic depression against which he fought for decades, a depression rooted in childhood sexual abuse that made it difficult, if not impossible, for him to realize his worth. That his family chose to make public Charlie’s personal demons on the occasion of his memorial service, in the hope that some life might be saved in the future, is the ultimate testament to his legacy of caring. In the traditional pattern of neighborhood design that Edgefield so exemplifies, you often find the largest homes at the ends of blocks, with smaller structures nestled—as if for protection—in between. The builders of the late 19th and early 20th centuries employed this device—it’s called “holding the corner”—to emphasize the visual unity of a block by punctuating it with a strong solid before the void of the street. Charlie Williams held his corner.
He Held His Corner
Charles J. Williams (1944-2006)
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