Walk a Mile: West Park to Robertson Avenue

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 editor@nashvillescene.com.

The route: From West Park on Morrow Road west to 63rd Avenue North, following 63rd through its transition to James Avenue, then south on Croley Drive to Robertson Avenue. East on Robertson to the market. 

Number of cranes: None

Abandoned e-scooters: None

The crowing of an illicit rooster cracks the silence of morning at West Park.

He is late for the stereotypical dawn greeting, but then again, the sun is late too, delayed by the recent transition to daylight saving time. The first rays are burning through the overcast, though — a sort of second dawn, drawing the attention of the contraband chanticleer.

West Park is a little more than two blocks wide and Nebraska-flat, running in a rough rectangle from Morrow Road back to Richland Creek where it abuts Briley Parkway.

There’s nothing particularly remarkable about West Park — there’s no model of an Ancient Greek temple, for example — but it’s nonetheless the Platonic ideal of a neighborhood park. It fits harmoniously into the geometry of the neighborhood. There are well-maintained baseball and softball fields — the outfields are freshly mowed and the red-clay infields raked flat. It’s ringed by a wide and rolling greenway that melds easily into a wide sidewalk along Morrow itself.

There’s a small commercial strip next to the park — home of a restaurant, a market and a church. The signage for all three is in Spanish. The south side of Morrow in this stretch maintains its character as West Nashville’s working-class enclave. The other side of the street shows the future, though. Once just another block of simple and small postwar clapboard homes — what we’d almost certainly call workforce housing today — is now a monotonous block of new tall-and-skinnies looming over Morrow, their homogenous roofs peaking just below the uppermost branches of the ubiquitous oaks that have loomed here far longer.

Those oaks are immortalized in paint on the dominating feature of West Park. At 37 feet high and 260 feet in diameter, the park’s 21-million-gallon overflow tank is impossible to miss. It was added to the park during a renovation, completed in 2018, that transformed it from dilapidated to pleasant and included rehab of the park’s community center — which is now the site of a healthy and thriving badminton league — and basketball courts, on this morning occupied by a trio of truants.

The giant water tank is designed to assist the older pumping facility just behind it that keeps the flood-prone park safe from inundation. Artist Eric Henn used a pseudo-trompe-l’oeil style in what is the city’s largest mural, clocking in at more than 80,000 square feet, if the domed roof — painted to match the sky — is included. If the light strikes just right, particularly in the evening gloaming, the tank melds seamlessly into the background.

Along Morrow, there’s more public art, if a bit more inscrutable. “Anchor in the Storm,” a sculpture by Betty and Lee Benson, depicts a hefty limestone boulder chained to a similarly hefty raft. It honors a rock quarry on Robertson Avenue that sucked up untold millions of gallons of the Cumberland in 2010, sparing the low-lying neighborhoods of Charlotte Park, The Nations and Croleywood from further devastation during that year’s massive flood. The boulder comes from the quarry itself, donated by its owner, the Rogers Group. Though it’s likely not the artists’ intention, it would be easy to connect the raft to the history of Nashville’s foundation. After all, James Robertson’s home Richland was just a half-mile south as the crow flies, and his colleague John Donelson brought his half of the first European settlers upriver on the Adventure, a raft not unlike the one depicted.

Plus, just yards away, an important moment in the early history of the area occurred beneath one of the oaks, when Robertson signed a treaty with the Chickasaw tribe. Though primarily concentrated in southwestern Tennessee and northern Mississippi, the Chickasaws used Middle Tennessee as hunting grounds. A relationship with the British that irked a nascent United States early in the Revolution soured, and Piominko convinced the tribe to ally themselves with the Americans. In 1783, the settlements around Fort Nashborough were under frequent attack by an alliance of Cherokees, Creeks and Shawnee. Robertson signed a treaty with the Chickasaw that undoubtedly saved the young settlement. The negotiations took place at a sulphur spring now in the rear of the Music City Tents and Events property on 60th Avenue North, and the treaty was signed at an oak that, until it fell in 1956, stood at the corner of Louisiana and 61st. Treaty Oaks Drive remains as a memorial. A portion of the tree itself is in the state’s agricultural museum at the Ellington Agricultural Center.

Walking northwest on Morrow, the park gives way to a residential strip, the homes stubbornly in the older style, close to the sidewalk and squatting on well-maintained postage-stamp lawns. Eventually the sidewalk gives out as Morrow approaches 63rd Avenue North. Sitting well back from the road beyond a few rolling acres of verdant pleasantness is a windowless 50,000-square-foot brick building that could be mistaken for a secret government facility. It is, in fact, a manufacturing plant for D&P Custom Lights and Wiring, which creates light fixtures for commercial use.

Across 63rd is a not-so-secret quasi-government facility, though: a massive Nashville Electric Service substation and catchall storage area and motor pool. The March 3 tornado passed about a half-mile north, blessedly avoiding the substation and the rows of petroleum-product storage tanks along Centennial Boulevard. Nevertheless, the NES property has been abuzz since the storm. Before, there were piles of wooden and metal utility poles stacked high next to massive spools of electric wire. The property is emptier now, fleets of trucks having hauled the reserves off to points east to restore power to storm-stricken neighborhoods.

The road arches here as 63rd turns harder to the west and becomes James Avenue, lifting as it crosses Richland Creek — bubbling and brisk and unexpectedly crystal-clear, a testament to the tireless and often unsung work of the Richland Creek Watershed Alliance — and then the zipping traffic of Briley Parkway. 

There’s a welcome lack of litter on the wide shoulders of James, for whatever reason, but what is there are monuments to vice: an empty whiskey bottle (Evan Williams), a lottery ticket (a loser) and a Fruitopia bottle (potentially of archaeological interest). As James swoops back down, the bustle of new construction dominates the south side of the street in a development that promises affordable housing. On the north side, it’s still older homes with yards sunken below grade.

And there’s one of Nashville’s more bizarre street-naming anomalies: 23rd Street. Even barely observant Nashvillians know that numbered roads west of the river are “Avenues” and those on the east are “Streets.” Except this one. 

When the Sylvan Park Land Co. began development in the late 19th century, it was outside of Nashville’s city limits and had its own street-numbering scheme. What is now 39th Avenue was First Street in West Nashville and so on. When it was annexed by the city, Nashville simply added 38 to the street numbers and redesignated them as avenues, leaving the ordinal-plus-street specification to the East Side. Except for 23rd, which remains today. 

The sidewalks end at 23rd Street, as does the new construction. Turning left on Croley, the homes are older, but the siding is new and kaleidoscopic: a bright-yellow here, a deep-blue there, a lime-green across the street. It’s a sort of plebian analog to Charleston’s so-called Painted Ladies. Other than the rambunctious random siding-color schemes, the houses along Croley are often mirror images of one another, though a few have other architectural distinctives — a midcentury awning, a set of incongruous columns. Some families have extravagantly decorated yards with gaudy statuettes scattered about. It’s rather like a set of twins who assert their individuality with brightly colored sweaters and faddish hairstyles, and it’s a welcome change from the row after row of total carbon copies in the new developments nearby.

As Croley crosses Franklin, things abruptly change again, back to the bigger new homes on the parcels near Robertson — what passes as a major thoroughfare here. Dump trucks hauling loads from the riverside quarries rumble past the old Dutch Maid Cleaning sign, the neighborhood’s highest point, and the venerable Robertson Avenue Market. Too exhaustive to be a mere convenience store, it’s a gathering place for this part of West Nashville. The proprietors look out for everyone — once, a cashier told an increasingly impatient line of patrons during the morning rush that he strove to keep his “new and rich and old and poor customers happy.” Market staff has been known to harangue and threaten kids skipping school to hang out at the store. 

This part of West Nashville is changing, yes, though certainly not to the degree it has across Morrow in The Nations. The knockdowns have come but are still few and far between, as long-timers hold fast to their homes, and newcomers seem satisfied with what’s already here.

And with anchors like a spruced-up park and an obstinate cinder-block corner store — not to mention its vigilant and percipient staff — it may well weather any storm that comes.

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