Even with concerns, Nashville will likely push for more growth

Nashville is growing and reactions are mixed:

The Nashville region population grew 45% from 2000 to 2017, reaching about 1.9 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Ms. Ervin represents both sides of the city’s extraordinary growth: a transplant who was attracted to a booming urban hub, and a resident increasingly concerned that unbridled development may threaten the Tennessee capital’s charm…

Nashville’s thriving health-care, financial and tourism sectors have drawn national attention. In April, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the city had an unemployment rate of 2.7%—lower than any other major metro area in the U.S. From 2010 to 2016, Tennessee’s large urban areas, led by Nashville, accounted for 57% of all employment growth in the state, according to the Brookings Institution…

With urbanization comes pressure on local government to improve housing affordability, workforce education and public transit, Mr. Briley said…

The government has been working to manage growth, such as preserving green space and establishing a special fund to build low-income housing in the city, which spent $10 million last year, Mr. Briley said.

Generally, population growth is good in the United States. It is seen as a positive sign for business and the status of the city. It means that the city will be taken more seriously by outsiders, whether that includes businesses considering moving, sports teams wondering where to locate, or where government money should be spent. Nashville is now the 24th largest city in the United States and moving up that list – with established cities like Detroit and Boston in sight – means something.

At the same time, significant growth does inevitable change cities and communities. At the least, it pits longer-term residents versus newer residents who can be perceived as jumping on the bandwagon. Growth can transform a lot of neighborhoods and open space as demand for housing and other land uses increases. It can lead to questions about how to bridge the gap between being a smaller big city and a big city. Some will perceive that they are being left behind as the city now tries to chase bigger dreams.

Two final thoughts:

  1. Even with concerns expressed by some, very few leaders will ever try to limit growth. Whatever problems arise with changes due to growth will be seen as secondary to the goal of growing in population, business, popularity, and capital.
  2. It is too bad this story does not include more about the suburbs and the whole region. The city of Nashville is growing but what about the suburbs? As noted above, a recent vote over mass transit in the region pitted city and suburban voters against each other.

City vs. suburbs in Nashville transit vote

An ambitious transit plan in the Nashville metropolitan area was roundly defeated by voters:

Had it passed, Let’s Move Nashville—the boldest municipal transit plan in recent memory—would have launched five light-rail lines, one downtown tunnel, four bus rapid transit lines, four new crosstown buses, and more than a dozen transit centers around the city. Depending on how you do the math, the scheme would have cost $5.4 billion or more like $9 billion, funded by a raft of boosted local taxes. More than 44,000 voters across Metro Nashville’s Davidson County came out in favor of the referendum, with more than 79,000 voting against it…

That’s a simplified version of the city’s politics, of course; while the vote fell broadly along urbanite versus suburbanite lines, a map reflecting the vote tally, and not just the vote result, would look more purplish. But not all that purplish. In the end, a vision for transforming transit in Nashville could not transform the politics of the city.

“There were a host of reasons [the proposal failed], like the cost ($9 billion), the scale (20 plus miles of light rail), the funding source (sales tax increase) and the financing structure (a decade of interest-only payments),” writes Emily Evans, managing director for healthcare policy for Hedgeye Potomac Research, in an email. Evans previously worked as a municipal financial analyst and served on the Nashville City Council for nine years.

A complicated plan like this has a lot of moving parts that voters could either support or vote against. At the same time, it can be a difficult sell for those outside the city core or in the suburbs to support mass transit plans that (1) they feel are not as necessary since they are able to drive where they need to go and (2) that might bring new people to their neighborhoods. When given a choice and their own personal resources, many Americans would prefer not to use mass transit, particularly if they would have to pay more for something they do not perceive helping them.

I would suggest this gets back to larger issues of whether regions really want to work together. Can cities and suburbs both thrive due to joint projects and shared resources? Or, is this a zero-sum game where resources can taken from one area and given to another in the same region is seen as a loss? The voters of Nashville remain to be convinced that mass transit is a big enough boon for themselves, let alone everyone.

Nashville police chief: crime fighting more about psychology, sociology

At a recent Nashville City Council meeting, the police chief explain what it takes to fight crime today:

After a recent spike in Nashville’s gun violence, Police Chief Steve Anderson and Health Director Bill Paul, appeared before the Metro Council Tuesday night. They discussed the numbers behind the shootings and how the city plans to combat them…

At the meeting, Chief Anderson outlined the statistics, but he also talked about the complexity of modern policing when it comes to gun violence, which disproportionally impacts poor minority residents.

“Police work has turned into more psychology and sociology than actually crime fighting. So that is where we all need to be,” Anderson said.

If only a broader set of civic leaders and the American public would pick up these ideas. To make such suggestions sometimes meets the counterargument that explanation like this excuse or condone the behavior. Not so: a better understanding of the social science behind crime should help communities alleviate the conditions that lead to crime rather than try to play whack-a-mole.

Going further with the police: does this mean Nashville police receive training based on psychology and sociology research? How does the force as a whole leverage this research? For example, the Chicago police force has been working with social network data to identify who is likely to be involved in or affected by crime.

At the least, the police and the public could follow a suggestion one of my colleagues made several years ago:

Our nation is only becoming more complex and diverse. We need police prepared to interact with complex and diverse people. Training in tactical procedures and weapon use, without a comparable ability for the police to think differently, learn quickly, and engage complexity is an invitation for more chaos.

Liberal arts graduates, if you want to make a difference in the world, consider this: become a cop.


How Nashville became a music center

Nashville wasn’t always a thriving place for music and a sociologist examined what led to the transformation:

Since 2005, he has conducted over 300 hours of in-depth interviews with over 75 music professionals in Nashville. He compiled the findings in his new book, “Beyond the Beat: Musician Building Community in Nashville,” released in September 2015…

In order to track the rapid evolution of Nashville, Cornfield examined the city before recording labels arrived. Regional artists — from across the state of Tennessee — had been gathering in Nashville to showcase their musical skills. This large amalgamation of talented local voices allowed Nashville to stand out amongst other Southern music cities.

When record labels sought opportunities in the south in the 1970s, they were pleased to stumble upon the world-class musical production talent harbored in this small city. Cornfield discovered that Nashville mixed opportunity with a rich history, making it attractive to hopeful musicians…

Music City exploded in the 1980s, becoming the country music metropolis that it is now famed to be. As the music industry both expanded and diversified throughout the decade, musicians sought smaller, more intimate audiences, rather than performing for an anonymous mass of a crowd. This way, they no longer had to rely on record labels and could manage the entire music production process themselves.

While such diversification presents opportunities for music professionals, it also made it more difficult for them to establish an occupational community and build a mutual support network. Cornfield makes a point to study this social trend.

Cultural centers and communities don’t just happen: they develop over time (and can also decline over time). Here, it sounds like Nashville was a regional music center that later attracted large actors in the music industry.

I would guess one thing other cities would want to know is how to replicate Nashville’s success in this area. Developing such a niche in a culture industry – whether music, movies, fashion, publishing, or something else – not only provides jobs and tax revenues but leads to visitors, tourists, and a reputation as a happening place. Yet, not every city can be a major player in a culture industry and even the best laid plans don’t necessarily come to fruition.

Arguments for and against bus rapid transit in Nashville

Here is an overview of arguments for and against plans to introduce mass transit in the form of rapid bus service to Nashville:

The Amp, a referential name in Music City, is the $174 million bus-rapid transit project proposed to link the western stretches of the city to East Nashville over a 7.1-mile span. It’s the first in-earnest attempt at reliable mass transit in Tennessee, and it has been pitched as a way to keep pace with peer cities like Austin and Charlotte. Nashville is poised to add a million more residents in the next two decades, further snarling already-jammed travels along the busiest corridors. The hope is that the Amp, running in a bus-only lane and with priority at traffic signals, will, over time, help unclog commutes and improve quality of life…

Detractors include residents from North Nashville, a mostly lower-income African-American neighborhood, who feel like they’re being left out and would prefer to see increased regular bus service in their community. (One state representative even threatened to sue city officials if North Nashville is not more integral to the project.) Fiscal conservatives, of which Nashville has plenty, say the project is an example of government largess. And then there are the residents in and around the mayor’s neighborhood, whose traffic and parking concerns have been rolled into an increasingly fraught class war.

Back when public debate over the BRT first started heating up in fall of 2012, a West End resident actually told a transit planner at a public hearing that “we don’t want the riffraff from East Nashville in our neighborhood.” Another homeowner said an influx of “burger-flippers” into the western precincts was a worry, prompting one East Nashville merchant to propose a T-shirt idea: “Burger flippers for the Amp.”…

Malcolm Getz, an economist at Vanderbilt University and a lightning rod of the opposition, has tried to make the case that the Amp’s route, which starts in a gentrified East Nashville neighborhood, crossing the Cumberland River before coursing its way up the densely developed West End Avenue, was chosen to benefit landowners, who are banking on increased land values and more development.

But Jason Holleman, a city councilman who supports public transportation but whose western district includes some of the loudest naysayers, counters that in reality, the route was chosen to serve areas with the highest commercial density, including the city’s two largest employers, HCA and Vanderbilt University…

Opinion polls on the Amp have offered mixed results. One survey, funded by a Rockefeller Foundation grant aimed at boosting transit support, found that around 77 percent supported the Amp after surveying 500 registered voters. In another survey conducted by the Nashville Business Journal in which 2,200 participated, the results yielded an almost 50-50 split. Anecdotally, support appears to be tied to where residents reside, with the East-West divide coming up again and again.

Common themes that come up with major projects: who exactly is the mass transit going to serve? Do the costs lead to increased business and revenues down the road? Who benefits from all of this? Aren’t buses for lower-class residents? It is interesting that Nashville feels like it should catch up with other cities it competes with; bus rapid transit as an exciting amenity for visitors and tourists! And, as is noted in the final paragraph, a single bus corridor may not be able to do much for a big city built around cars but it could be part of a larger package that eventually effectively utilizes mass transit (though this may be a long time off).

All of this reminds me that it is often easier to have mass transit or major infrastructure from the past to add to rather than trying to create something new in today’s world where there are so many competing interests and costs seem so high. Of course, older projects had their own problems. For example, a lot of major post-World War II projects involved more liberal use of slum clearance with little regard to the people who lived there. (I’m thinking of the construction of interstates through Chicago as well as the University of Illinois-Chicago campus.)

Seeing low-density Nashville as well as its revived core on TV

Nashville may be about country music but it also provides some views of sprawling Nashville:

Nashville remains one of the lowest density cities in the United States, and both film and series rove widely over its suburban homes and scattered music venues. ABC’s principle location, the Bluebird Cafe, occupies a strip mall in traffic-snarled Green Hills, surrounded by chain retail and McMansions. Reyna James lives in snobbish Beale Meade, a former plantation turned moneyed bastion that pointedly excluded the music community in the 1970s. Then country was considered the music of loud and ugly bumpkins. But as legendary Nashville producer Tony Brown observes: “Money can kinda pretty you up.”

Sprawl now competes with new urban designs in Nashville. Employing soaring aerial views, the series’ opening sequence scans acres of wooded hills and pasture, within which are carved oases of development, including the Opryland Hotel, the Mall in Green Hills and the Belle Meade estates. But no longer is Nashville a city without a center. The camera circles the downtown’s middling skyscrapers, zeroing in on Nashville’s resuscitated heart, the 120 year-old Ryman Auditorium, a former tabernacle and “the Mother Church of Country Music.”

The rest of the article provides some interesting insight into how Nashville has been viewed in movies and on TV.

One thought while reading about the changes in Nashville and how it is portrayed on Nashville: TV and movies tend to show the “high points” of urban and suburban life. In other words, we tend to get sweeping shots of urban cores that show off tall buildings and lights. When showing suburbs, we tend to see big houses and well-kept lawns. Both sets of images tend to promote a more glitzy image. What we tend not to see is the more mundane aspects of suburban and urban life. In the suburbs, you don’t see much of the big box stores or strip malls or fast food joints or local institutions like churches, schools, and civic buildings. (I’m also thinking here of Modern Family – we don’t see much of their actual community as most of the action takes place inside of several large houses.) In the city, we don’t see “normal” neighborhoods but tend to see neighborhood hangouts, which always tend to look like nice bars or coffee shops, as well as cool apartments or condos. Perhaps “normal life” is too boring for these story lines but movies and TV shows aren’t exactly providing an honest image of places.