Going Somewhere, USA
Tuning a discordant Music City
by Heather Joyner Spica
Unfortunately, the saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” does not apply to many American cities. Poor long-term planning, the fracturing of neighborhoods by interstate highways, and a host of other misguided choices have resulted in places that are sprawling, segregated, gas-guzzling hellholes. But our state capital could be dazzlingly reinvigorated during the next 50 years—that is, if the plan introduced by Nashville’s Civic Design Center is implemented. Beginning tomorrow, UT’s Ewing Gallery lends its space to “The Plan of Nashville: Avenues to a Great City,” an exhibition of more than 100 architectural drawings illustrating precisely how the city might become far more inspiring.
On a personal note, this particular article marks the beginning of my ninth year as a Metro Pulse columnist. Approximately 200,000 Artbeat words later, I can claim to have lived close to or inside the downtown Knoxville area since 1997. I’ve also worked within the past two decades for Miller’s department store on Henley Street, Watson’s on Market Square, Whittle Communications, and the Lawson McGhee Library, so I’ve seen a lot of center-city transitions up-close and over time.
Observing changes in Knoxville’s urban fabric has made me more interested in cities in general, and in Nashville’s challenges and how they compare to those here at home (speaking of which, the latter half of this two-part review, appearing later this month, features an interview with UT architecture professor Mark Schimmenti and explores what Knoxville can learn from the Nashville project). Where our capital’s history has landed it and specific challenges “The Plan of Nashville” addresses are considered herein, as understanding the city’s evolution and goals for the future precedes considering Nashville’s possible influence on other cities.
Nashville is and has been many things, some of them contradictory. Permanent white inhabitation of the town (called Nashborough until 1784) began with a group from North Carolina’s Watauga settlement, and they considered the Cumberland River a lifeline. In years following, the waterfront became inaccessible to most people, flanked by industrial sites hostile to residential development—and dirty, to boot: in recent years, Metro Water Services has had to spend $685 million dollars to address sewer overflow. As for sewers, Nashville is a city built on limestone that’s problematic for water and sewer lines; 19th-century outhouses contaminating the water table provoked cholera epidemics, and the city—55 years after it became the state capital in 1843—could claim only 682 toilets for a population of almost 100,000. As historian John Egerton has pointed out, despite Nashville’s initial emphasis on speculation in real estate, most early settlers never became landowners.
Finished in 1845, the Capitol building was designed by William Strickland to resemble a Greek temple, symbolically establishing Nashville as “the Athens of the South.” But the city continued to serve as a sort of trading post for an agriculture-dominated region not especially concerned with urban development. Expanding tobacco and cotton markets meant population growth in the early 1800s, and 1859 saw the L&N Railroad linking North and South (just in time to be taken over by the Union army during the Civil War).
As important as rail once was, the city’s Amtrak service ended in 1978. Nashville witnessed completion of the nation’s first structure for African American higher education, at Fisk University in 1876. Later, blacks were allowed access to only 55 out of 3,650 acres of city parkland. After Nashville had distinguished itself as a center for music publishing and performance, preservationists had to fight to save “the mother church of country music” (the Ryman Auditorium) from the wrecking ball in 1973.
According to Christine Kreyling, author of the comprehensive book accompanying the exhibition, “Nashville...has always vibrated uneasily between the commercial and industrial creed of the North and the agrarian creed of the South.” The city strives to represent a less harried, more genteel way of life. But it has been, in the mind of James Howard Kunstler, a “lost city.” In an essay published in Metropolis , he wrote, “a stroll...in Nashville takes you through moonscapes of urban desolation, deserts of parking lots, demoralizing walls of submerged and elevated freeway and past desultory one-story industrial and commercial bunkers—for which there is not enough Prozac in the world to mitigate the psycho-spiritual punishment.”
The Nashville Civic Design Center could change all that. Founded as a nonprofit organization in 2000, it describes its efforts as “a grassroots approach [enabling] the citizens of Nashville to realize the choices before us, what directions we want to take, and what tools will help us get there.” Before architects, preservationists, planners, and others expanded the Plan, they conducted workshops that allowed the local community to “measure the worth of individual projects against the collective good.”
Public participation in “The Plan of Nashville” has yielded a collaborative vision for the city that is reflected in its “Ten Principles.” They include: environmentally sensitive preservation of land and buildings; emphasis on the Cumberland River; good design for streets providing connectedness between neighborhoods and downtown; development of transportation options and a greenway/park system; encouragement of investment in a mixed-use downtown; creation of visually ordered civic spaces and architecture that will set Nashville apart from other cities; and integration of public art into the overall surroundings. Mayor Haslam and others involved in shaping Knoxville’s future would do well to take notice.
What: The Plan of Nashville: Avenues to a Great City