Once a month, reporter and resident historian J.R. Lind will pick an area in the city to examine while accompanied by a photographer. With his column Walk a Mile, he’ll walk a one-mile stretch of that area, exploring the neighborhood’s history and character, its developments, its current homes and businesses, and what makes it a unique part of Nashville. If you have a suggestion for a future Walk a Mile, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The route: From the Nashville Public Library’s North Branch, south on 10th Avenue to Locklayer Street. Cross Monroe then north to Jackson Street. Left on Jackson to Warren Street. Right on Warren, then north to Jefferson Street. Left on Jefferson and then right at 11th Avenue. Right on Monroe, returning to the library.
Like a grande dame from Hollywood’s Golden Age with a cold sore, the classic beauty of the North Branch Library at Monroe Street and 10th Avenue is marred.
The 105-year-old Beaux Arts building is still beautiful, no doubt, though it is dark and empty inside. The loss of the unique gifts of public libraries — free and boundless democratized knowledge available to all — is yet another concession made to the pandemic.
But the virus is invisible, and though it shatters our sense of safety, it cannot shatter glass. Instead of toppling walls, it has thrown up more, as we fight against the very human need to be around one another.
For all that the virus has broken, it did not break the windows at the North Branch Library. The March 3 tornado did that. The virus didn’t put the pox of plywood there, shutting out the sunlight that in normal times would flood the stacks with a golden glow.
The North Branch is one of six Nashville libraries built as part of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie’s ambitious international philanthropic effort to provide cities and institutions with libraries. Inspired by his lifelong love of books and an autodidactism that lifted him from poor immigrant to one of the world’s wealthiest men (plus a little self-righteous indignation at the prevailing view of the time that “working boys” didn’t deserve access to books), Carnegie built more than 2,500 libraries around the world. In Nashville, there was North (officially, at first, the Nashville Carnegie Library), East on Gallatin Avenue, the Main Branch where the Music City Center now sits and the Nashville Negro Branch, now a parking lot behind the NES building. In addition, he funded libraries at Fisk University (that one is now the school’s Academic Building) and at the Peabody College for Teachers, which remains a working library.
The Nashville Public Library’s North Branch isn’t the only building in sight with damage. Tarps on roofs flap in the spring breeze, and pressboard has replaced glass in many windows. Recovery is ongoing all over Hope Gardens and Buena Vista, the two neighborhoods west of Rosa Parks Boulevard tucked northwest of downtown.
Walking south on 10th, the sound of construction and, disturbingly, the smell of sewage waft in the air. It’s not post-storm rehab bringing the noise but rather new development. Work on Ludlow Row, a townhome project, blocks 10th Avenue between Monroe and Scovel streets. But the neighborhood as it was — and in many cases, is — stubbornly remains. Jones Towing, a shade-tree mechanic, abuts the shiny new homes, its parking lot full — almost exclusively — of Cadillacs in various states of disrepair.
Farther south, as Buena Vista gives way to Hope Gardens at Jefferson, a legacy barber sits across the street from a newer office building with tenants including a real estate agent and developer (of course) and a marketing firm (of course). Plinths announce the entrance to Hope Gardens, a once-poverty-stricken neighborhood now on the come-up. An old Family Dollar neighbors new condo projects and single-family homes. Construction trucks buzz down 10th as the grind of a saw and thuds of hammers pierce the otherwise quiet morning.
Not all the older homes here have fallen to the wrecking ball. Many of the vintage cottages remain, albeit with fresh coats of paint or new siding, preserving the character of the neighborhood instead of giving way to the exposed sheet metal and faux-reclaimed barnwood of the tall-and-skinny set. Whitewashed stone walls hold up several lawns, like dams pressing against rivers, and perhaps against the coming flood of gentrification. Other properties are framed by the exuberance of erupting bright-pink roses, so fecund the flowers are bursting everywhere. These aren’t the well-manicured bushes of botanical gardens or the pages of Southern Living. These are almost feral, the blooms stretching and twisting for the sun in competition with the trees, beguiling in the way they are rebelling against the domestication we’ve forced on the species for thousands of years.
Construction is underway at 10th’s intersection with Locklayer Street (one of the more subtly beautiful street names in the city) as men work outside Silver Sands Cafe, Hope Gardens’ only business, where they’ve been serving soul food to hungry residents for more than a half-century.
Catty-corner across 10th is the neighborhood’s community garden, where a sign reads: “Free Food. Take Some.” All it asks in exchange is that browsers water some plants or pull some weeds. The little pocket of agriculture is impressive in its variety. There are the usual tomatoes and carrots and pole beans and watermelon and greens and herbs of various description. But there are also potatoes, eggplant and the early shoots of corn stalks. And shockingly, there’s also a small effort at pineapple.
Just up the street at the corner of 10th and Jackson, two plastic bats form a rough saltire on a rubber home plate. A massive pile of mulch marks where second base ought to be, and a tiki torch is at first.
In the yard of a newer home at Jackson and Warren, a clutch of mushrooms grow where a tree once stood. They look vaguely like the psilocybin-bearing liberty caps. We didn’t confirm the identification. There are new homes on Warren Street, just as there are everywhere, but these have a sense of place. Cottages properly address the tree-lined street and wide sidewalks, Adirondack chairs sitting on their appropriately sized porches.
A cat eating from a paper plate left by a loving neighbor is the only patron of Hope Gardens Park. Cats do not particularly care about mandated closures, though they are quite fond of social distancing in general. Police tape and warning signs decorate the playground equipment at the otherwise pleasant little pocket park with its charming pavilion, which in better times would be full of neighbors chatting as the kids swing.
At Jefferson and Warren, the path of the tornado is obvious. Debris still flutters in the parking lot at the building shared by the Jefferson Street Sports Bar and Jefferson Street Bookstore, possibly the only such co-located businesses in the city. Branches hang low, obscuring a mural of Tennessee State and U.S. Olympic great Wilma Rudolph breaking the tape on her way to another gold medal. R&R Liquors is still recognizable, its multicolored castellations still bright and distinct, though its iconic vintage sign was torn from its pole by the tornado. It now lies flat in the parking lot, occupying a handful of spots mid-restoration.
What has to be one of Nashville’s last pay phones sits outside Phaze 1 Cutz across 11th. The phone’s receiver, broken at the earpiece, hangs down and swings like a pendulum. There’s no trade going on at Phaze 1 Cutz, of course, but the smell of hickory smoke from the legendary Mary’s Old Fashioned Pit Bar-B-Que reveals that it’s ready for customers. Mary’s western wall is tagged with a plethora of bright colors and names and an admonishment to either “THRUST JAYDEN” or “TRUST JAYDEN.” It’s hard to decipher.
Like Hope Gardens Park, Monroe Park is closed as well, but it took far more storm damage than its southern brother. Unkempt weeds and grasses poke through cracks on the blacktop basketball courts, their hoops gone. The chain-link fences surrounding the courts are damaged or missing, one section blown so violently that its footings ripped up the sidewalk it borders.
As I turn east on Monroe, the stochasticity of the tornado is laid plain. Some homes have mere cosmetic damage, others none at all. And yet others were ripped apart. The entire front of a house near Monroe and Arthur was blown away, its front room now open to the street. But for the coal-burning fireplace along the back wall, it’d be easy to mistake what was the den for the front porch. Building permits and “DO NOT CROSS” tape flap on the front of many houses, but others are instead fronted by those nearly ubiquitous red-and-white Metro Planning and Zoning signs, advising that a public hearing (in one virtual form or another, presumably) is in the offing. The entire nature of the specific request on each sign is squeezed in tiny typeface onto the sign, looking rather more like a Fiona Apple album cover than a legally mandated government notice.
On one side of the intersection of Monroe and 10th is Hopewell Baptist Church, which took the wind on the chin. But the sheer randomness that is so frightening about tornadoes is more obvious in the church’s overflow parking where two church vans sit — one with its windows blown out and bearing the scars of extensive body damage, the other pristine.
Across 10th from the library is what was clearly a once-gorgeous, sprawling 3,200-square-foot home. Roaring (or yawning) lions guard the stairs from the street to the yard, now overgrown and strewn with branches and shingles. The windows, like so many others in the neighborhood, are now boarded over. So much in the neighborhood is gone or damaged, shuttered due to one tragedy or another. But in the yard of this house, a sign of permanence and perseverance. A tree (though largely denuded, the remaining leaves make obvious it’s a magnolia) stretches for the zenith. Tall and wide and, having survived the storm, clearly strong, the magnolia has seen many storms and much change, the lower portion of its trunk twisted into a tight helix, evidence the tree fought for its survival as it grew.
And fight on it did and it will: Though it lost many of this year’s bounty of the waxy green leaves distinctive to its species, it grew more. Maybe this summer, only a few of the stunning white flowers will bloom.
But next summer will be better.