Nashville finds opportunity in the hole a bomber left in the heart of the city

A year ago,
on Christmas morning, a man enmeshed in a web of bizarre conspiracy theories
detonated a recreational vehicle packed with explosives. No one other than the
perpetrator was killed, but a stretch of Second Avenue — a tree-lined row of
restaurants, bars, shops and lofts in some of the city’s oldest buildings — was
wiped out. A gaping void suddenly emerged in the center of Nashville.

It was a
painful addition to the roster of recent setbacks the city has endured,
including a devastating tornado in 2020 and deadly flooding in March. But the
challenge of rebuilding Second Avenue has also led civic leaders to confront
the side effects of years of extraordinary growth.

“Seize the
moment to make something happen,” John Cooper, Nashville’s mayor, said in an
interview, describing an expanded vision for downtown, more focused on
improving the quality of life for city residents.

He noted
that there had been talk for years about overhauling Second Avenue, yet it had
never materialized before the bombing.

has, in many ways, enjoyed the fruits of its ascendance. Major companies,
including automakers and technology firms, have been lured by an accommodating
business climate. Shiny glass office towers have popped up all over the city,
as have upscale apartment complexes promising amenities like quartz
countertops, resort-style pools and — this being Nashville — community
recording studios.

Still, as in
Austin, Texas, and other midsize cities that have seen similar influxes, that
expansion has also brought snarled traffic, staggering housing prices and deep
concerns about who has paid the price for Nashville’s prosperity.

officials and developers have ambitions of turning downtown into more of a
neighborhood, a hub of commerce but also a place where a community can
flourish. Yet that vision has sometimes been stymied by a more complicated
reality: The raucous hordes of revelers and daily parade of party vehicles
might be a sign of one way that downtown is thriving. But they are also a
source of exasperation for people who live and work in the city.

Avenue, they hope, could be a solution.

that is more family-friendly, more Nashvillian-friendly,” said Ron Gobbell, the
project manager for the revitalisation effort, describing plans for a gathering
place for people looking to dine or socialise in a setting that is “a little
less intense.”

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The rebuilt
Second Avenue, according to plans rolled out in recent weeks, will be
friendlier to pedestrians, with a lush canopy of trees, sidewalk dining and a
spacious walkway that opens the avenue up to the Cumberland River a block away.

It fits into
a broader effort to transform the river and make sure that downtown is powered
by more than tourism, with plans for mixed-use retail and residential
developments and for Oracle, the giant software company, to construct a sprawling
new campus.

Nashville is
grappling with challenges familiar to cities that have been remolded by growth:
Economic disparities widen. The limits of infrastructure are tested. The
character at the root of its appeal becomes strained by the demands of
development, a tension evident in persisting worries over the condition of
Nashville’s soul.

“I think
every city that is growing at the pace that we are has to struggle with making
sure it keeps its identity,” said Bert Mathews, a developer who once owned a
building on Second Avenue that he sold years before the blast. “We are really
struggling to hold on to what is critical and what’s important.”

For years,
downtown has been one of the clearest signs of Nashville’s upward trajectory.
Decades ago, music venues shared blighted streets with dingy pool halls and sex
shops. But as the number of tourists multiplied — rising to more than 15
million a year just before the pandemic, compared to 2 million in 1998 — Lower
Broadway was transformed.

old honky-tonks, country music stars opened bars where patrons spread out over
three stories or more, and downtown is filled with new restaurants and luxury

A prevailing
concern has been an unevenness in reaping the benefits of growth. The Nashville
Scene, the city’s alternative newspaper, started selling a T-shirt declaring
“RIP Old Nashville” with a lengthy lineup of music venues and beloved haunts
that have not survived.

Avenue has not been immune: One fixture, BB King’s Blues Club, is not returning.
Old Spaghetti Factory, a restaurant that opened there in 1979, had its lease
terminated by its landlord.

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“I’m not
totally sure we can afford to be downtown,” said Dean Griffith, president of
the company. “It’s really expensive right now.”

Cooper said
that affordable housing has been a priority. Tens of millions of dollars have
been allocated to build or improve affordable-housing developments, much of it
located in the city’s core.

have been advocating for more, as rampant gentrification and a soaring cost of
living has had a disproportionate impact on working-class and minority
communities. Even as Nashville’s population has climbed, surpassing Memphis as
Tennessee’s most populous city as it reached about 700,000 residents, the African
American population has spiraled downward by 20 percentage points or more in
some historically Black neighborhoods.

people are not sharing in the prosperity,” said Jessica Williams,
communications director for the Equity Alliance, an organisation advocating for
more opportunity and a better quality of life.

In North
Nashville, her neighbourhood and a cultural hub for Black life in the city, she
has seen new houses cropping up that are too expensive for most residents
already in the neighborhood. Many of the newcomers she sees are white.

has undoubtedly become more diverse. In the southeastern corner of the city,
Nolensville Pike has become a delectable corridor where fast-food chains and
one of Nashville’s original purveyors of hot chicken are wedged into shopping
centers with Peruvian chicken spots, Salvadoran pupuserias and markets serving
Kurdish and Indian communities.

downtown, Williams said, can feel homogeneous.

“When you go
there, it’s white,” she said. “These are white spaces.”

and developers have been laying the groundwork to broaden the appeal of
downtown and to make it the sort of urban environment where residents could
live and work. The plan is meant to reduce the load on area roadways and bring
even more vigor to the city’s core.

One of the
most ambitious development projects — a $450 million complex with major brands
and outposts of popular local restaurants, office space, housing and a museum
of African American music — opened this year. (Monthly rent for the apartments
range from just over $2,000 for a studio to more than $14,000 for a
three-bedroom penthouse.)

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There are
plans to add thousands of apartments and condominiums. The City Council has
also adopted measures to rein in the proliferation of party vehicles, which
have been popular with tourists but annoying to many residents.

Second Avenue had not figured into their designs. But then the bombing forced
officials to recalibrate.

Around dawn
on Christmas morning last year, police officers were called to the area and
found a recreational vehicle parked outside of an AT&T communications hub.
A speaker blared the Petula Clark song “Downtown” interspersed with a countdown
and warning that the vehicle would soon explode. The officers rushed to roust
nearby residents out of their homes and clear the avenue.

concussion unleashed a wave of destruction through downtown. Telecommunications
were disrupted across the region for days. Dozens of buildings were destroyed
or damaged, including warehouses and storefronts from the Victorian era built
in the years after the Civil War, dealing an agonising blow to historic

“It felt
like almost a continuation of the nightmare of COVID, tornado — all those
different sort of things,” Mathews said of the litany of hardship that
Nashville had weathered in the months before the bombing. “How many unnatural
things can happen to our community? And how do we recover?”

Topping, one of the police officers who was there when the bomb went off, is
eager to see the area rebuilt.

“I live
here. I have family here, nieces and nephews,” she said. “I want to be able to
bring them downtown to a new park, restaurants, the outdoor dining.”

There is a
fear that something gets lost when an area becomes dominated by crowds who are
there for a good time but are ultimately just passing through, with little
interest in sustaining a community.

“You end up
with just Bourbon Street or Times Square,” said Ray Hensler, a developer. “I
just don’t think most Nashvillians want to see that happen.”

© 2022 The
New York Times Company

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