Monday, May 28th, 2007

Impressions of Nashville

I spent a very brief Memorial Day weekend in Nashville, Tennessee. It was my first visit to the city. While I normally focus on Midwestern cities, Nashville and some others in the southeast are very much along the lines of what I would call “aspirational” cities. Of course, this is based on a too-brief visit, but let’s face it, first impressions matter.

Two somewhat contradictory things stand out in my mind. The first is that Nashville is a city on the make. Like many Sun Belt metros with heady growth, Nashville really has the feel that it is coming into its own, and has huge ambitions to shoot for the next level. On the other hand, the city is clearly underwhelming to see and visit, and I can’t see too many people being that impressed after just one trip.

The big ambitions part is made evident just from driving in on one of the area expressways. TDOT doesn’t even both with building six lane expressways. Everything they are doing goes straight to eight lanes minimum. This is the only place I’ve seen where roads go straight from a four lane rural interstate to an eight to ten lane mega urban one. And they are building these monsters well out into the surrounding areas. Clearly, they are expecting big growth and see having a first class freeway system as a big part of that. The roads also are a testament to growth, as there isn’t a classic beltway like you’d find in Midwest cities. Rather, there is a sort of inner loop fairly close to downtown showing that this used to be a much smaller place than it is today.

You also find a downtown with lots of new buildings, including a new arena and a new football stadium, each holding the pro sports teams the town was recently able to lure. (The Predators NHL team is being sold to a Canadian billionaire, and may shortly be headed out of town, however). Also, like many a city that is feeling that its time has come, Nashville is building up. Several downtown high rises are under construction. Most notable is the Signature Tower proposal, that would be 1000 feet tall.

You can see the enthusiasm in the mayor’s state of the city speech, where he said that Nashville is now in “the front of all American cities” and “The people of Nashville know we have been single-minded in pursuing what makes a city great”. Now, all mayors talk a good game. And I’ve criticized a lot of people for basically talking trash without the ability to back it up. I think the mayor is a bit over the top here, but you can get a sense of local enthusiasm and that locals believe they are really on the way up. We’ll have to see where it goes.

On the downside, Nashville is a classic, sprawling, Generica type of place. I’m sure there are nice neighborhoods in the old city I didn’t get to see. But the vast bulk of what you see if could-be-anywhere sprawl. I even found that the quality of much of this is not up to even low end standards elsewhere. For example, the friend I was visiting lives in a nearly new subdivision inside the limits of Nashville-Davidson, yet there weren’t sidewalks on both sides of the interior streets. Some cul-de-sacs didn’t have any sidewalks. What’s more, the perimeter of these developments often don’t have sidewalks either. I observed several sections of newly paved road as well, with curb/gutter/storm sewer, etc., but no sidewalks at all. Very strange. And don’t think my friend lives in a low end development, because that is not the case.

The downtown is filled with a mixed bag of developments. The traditional government/civic buildings are in a classical style. They even built a new symphony hall in a classical style, eschewing the modernistic trend that most places are following. I actually like classicism, but these buildings are only variably effective. The modern skyscrapers are all terminally dull, or else gaudy in a Singapore style way, flashy without much real architectural distinction. The iconic “Batman” tower is probably the best example of this.

The main tourist area has all the pluses and minuses you would expect. I guess I was shocked to find that not one of the clubs in the downtown district was featuring original music. I consider conver bands anathema, but at least these cover band joints had the decency not to charge a cover. The crowds were pretty thick in this area, but as with many similar sized cities, get a block or so away from the main drag, and the streets are nearly deserted.

Nashville on the whole strikes me as a city with a lot of potential, but one where an ethos of quality not just quantity needs to get instilled. The growth rate is starting to ramp up here, so we’ll just have to see where Nashville ends up.

Here are a few pictures I took downtown. As always, click the image for a full sized version.

The Batman building I mentioned earlier:

Classicism in action as evidenced by the imposing Tennessee World War Memorial.

And the Davidson County Court House:

And the Schermerhorn Center, the new home of the symphony. This building was criticized by a number of people for its classical style, but I personally think that’s a valid choice for the community to make. I think this is a handsome building. By the way, the Carmel, Indiana Performing Arts Center I have mentioned earlier is done in a similar style by the same architect.

The arena is not as successful.

The convention center is not attractive at all.

Nor is the Tennessee State Museum, which reminds me of a telephone central office.

No photo series of Nashville would be complete without a view of Broadway, the main tourist street, lined with old school honky tonks, souvenier shops, and platistic Elvis statutes. This is a broad street alright. The scale and architecture actually remind me of a small town Main St., and I mean that as a compliment. The actual size of the downtown touristic district is fairly small.

See also:

Nashville: Next Boomtown of the New South?
Pedestrian Deaths, Nashville Style

Topics: Architecture and Design, Economic Development, Public Policy, Strategic Planning, Transportation, Urban Culture
Cities: Nashville

2 Responses to “Impressions of Nashville”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Nashville is a good place to live but the metro area is much larger than just the City. It is sprawly like most Southern Cities but that’s mostly due to the fact that the major growth did not occur in a dense urban fashion like it did up north about 100 years ago.

    Modern growth means modern building which does not, unfortunately, include a grid like system. Rather, it feeds off of freeways instead of rivers.

  2. Anonymous says:

    There is a good reason that the Tennessee Memorial is not that appealing to you. It is one of the oldest "skyscrapers" in the city and it is approx. 40 years old. Also the Nashville Convention Center is going to be demolished and turned into a plaza of sorts for the Rhyman. It is going to be replaced in the near future when funds are available. Also most private neighborhoods are responsible for sidewalks, not the city.

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