Noise in the 'Hood

Nashville neighborhoods are growing stronger—and so is their political clout.

Touring the streets of Nashville's center city, you can find plenty of parallels to Knoxville's neighborhoods.

Germantown, just of north of downtown, and Edgefield, just over the river in East Nashville, are a lot like 4th and Gill and Parkridge—historic neighborhoods that fell on hard times but have been rejuvenated by young, upper-middle-class professionals who valued the character of the old homes. Cameron-Trimble and Salem Town—poor, working class neighborhoods with lots of problems, but also lots of potential—could easily be compared to Lonsdale or Burlington. There are also, of course, the more upper-crusty neighborhoods like Belle Meade and a sprawling number of suburban neighborhoods.

But there's one way that Nashville's neighborhoods are simply unique compared to Knoxville's—they have a loud voice in local government. In the past couple of decades, a grassroots neighborhood movement slowly simmered, percolated and finally boiled over.

"Twenty-five or 30 years ago, there were only a few neighborhood organizations," says Michael Hodge, project manager at the Neighborhoods Resource Center. "Now we think there are between 200 and 300. There are more and more people who realize if you want to get something done, you've got to band together with neighbors to do it."

"Over the years, these neighborhood leaders have come to understand how to get attention and power," Hodge adds.

The neighborhood movement gained enough power to help elect Mayor Bill Purcell. Purcell made good on his promises by making neighborhood concerns a priority.

"We've seen a major transition in the interest of city government in addressing neighborhood concerns in the last three years," says John Stern, president of the Nashville Neighborhood Alliance. "Mayor Bill Purcell was effectively elected on a neighborhood platform, and has proceeded forward in making significant improvements in the way government interacts with and supports neighborhoods."

"A lot of the focus in the previous years had been on downtown development stuff," says Anita McCaig, a neighborhood planner with metropolitan government. "We'd been ignored for years, until it was like, 'Hey, we think it's wonderful all this stuff is going on downtown, but we need some help as well.'"

The neighborhood movement sprung up first in the historic center city neighborhoods. These were seeing some investment from outsiders but were dealing with a lot of crime and zoning issues. Tackling those problems was more complicated than calling a councilman. With Nashville's 40-member Metro Council, one council member has little power. So the neighborhood groups started talking to each other, networking and joining forces to fight certain battles. Eventually, they formed the Neighborhood Alliance. The group lobbied Council and various city departments and helped other neighborhoods get organized. Today, it lists 169 neighborhood organizations as members. The group has courted allies in city government and honed its approach. In '97, it helped form the Neighborhoods Resource Center, a non-profit group to offer technical and organizing assistance.

With these mechanisms in place, they offered a powerful campaign tool to help get Purcell elected.

It's probably too early to know what kind of effect this will have on the city in the long term. And certainly, many residents still distrust city government, believing it always favors developers' desires over their own. But neighborhood advocates say they've noticed an immediate change.

"Since [Purcell's] been elected, he's essentially made it clear he wants neighborhood groups to be listened to," Hodge says. "Where once you had trouble getting the attention of department heads, now you can get a meeting with them."

Stern credits planning director Rick Bernhardt with carrying through on those promises. "It's been a 180-degree transition from really just giving minimal opportunity for citizen participation to a director who is extremely interested in engaging the community," Stern says.

The list of problems facing Nashville's residential areas are nearly identical to Knoxville's. The interstates cut through the city, slicing many neighborhoods in half and cutting others completely off from downtown. Sprawling development in the suburbs has created a host of problems for both the suburbs and urban areas. Decent affordable housing is tough to find. Thoughtful, planned development is rare. And public transportation is inadequate.

Hodge says residential groups typically come to the resource center with problems of crime, zoning issues, neighborhood conditions, and developmental pressure.

The return of professionals to the city's historic neighborhoods have provided a needed investment in the inner city and helped save many old homes. A group called Rediscovering East has done a lot to spark interest in the Edgefield, East End and Lockeland Springs neighborhoods. Edgefield was one of the first urban neighborhoods to be revitalized, and it is one of two neighborhoods designated a historic preservation district. The three neighborhoods have brick sidewalks and large brick mansions alongside smaller homes—styles include Queen Anne, American Foursquare, neo-Classical, Princess Anne, Victorian, Colonial Revival, and bungalows.

But the renewed interest in the center city has created another problem by depleting the affordable housing stock, Hodge says.

"Many of these things are like a water balloon, you squeeze it at one end, and it bulges at another. If we're not careful, the solution to one problem creates a different problem for a different group of people," he says.

And Nashville hasn't been exactly a model of mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly communities. The neighborhood that probably most exemplifies that approach is the Hillsboro area around Vanderbilt (split into two neighborhoods, Belmont-Hillsboro and Hillsboro-West End, the area boasts two of the oldest neighborhood associations, formed in 1971 and 1976 respectively).

Driving through the area, McCaig points to her favorite coffee shop off of 21st. It's a beautiful neighborhood of large, stately homes, quaint bungalows, along with corner shops and the university. Pedestrians crowd the sidewalks. But McCaig says they have to be careful about using it for a model. "People see all these people here and think this is what their neighborhood will look like. They don't take into account that the university is here," she says, sitting in traffic that inches along.

It's hard not to wonder whether Fort Sanders could have followed a similar path of development and protected its old homes. The major difference between Fort Sanders and Hillsboro is that the Fort's housing is a lot cheaper. Hillsboro is so expensive that few students can afford to live there.

There are conflicting figures for housing costs. The Knoxville Area Chamber of Commerce lists average rents in Knoxville at $582 and $725 in Nashville; but the Nashville chamber lists average rent in their city at $602 a month. According to the Nashville chamber, the median price for a single-family home in the Nashville area is $132,000. However, the Knoxville Area Chamber says average housing costs in Knoxville are $185,541 and lists Nashville's average home cost at $181,667. Whichever stat is true for Nashville, it's hard to believe houses cost less there than here. High housing costs are one of the things Knoxvillians living in Nashville complain about the most.

"The main drawback is the cost of living," says Paul Noe, a musician who moved to Nashville in 1996. "You look back and say, 'God, we really had it good.'"

Nashville neighborhood planners agree that housing costs are exceptionally high. McCaig says they're a bit higher than wages comfortably allow for.

Hodge says, "I've had a friend come from New York who said housing costs are awful here. She thought they were almost as bad as New York."

In poorer neighborhoods like Cameron-Trimble, people are trying to deal with crime and work better with the business and industry located around them, McCaig says. She says a big effort is being made to better connect the inner-city neighborhoods. Hodge says the Dickerson Road area has made efforts to combat the drugs and prostitution the area is known for, with the help of the merchants association.

Nashville hasn't made much progress in dealing with sprawl. Mass transportation is poor, although there are plans for a commuter rail system, starting with a $55 million line stretching from downtown to Lebanon. Details and funding are still being worked out.

"We've been aware of sprawl for quite a while. We've been taking more proactive measures in the last four or five years," Stern says.

But, in many ways, neighborhood leaders have already won the toughest battle. And that's just making their voices heard.

© 2002 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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