Who owns downtown Nashville? The world does
Not long ago I found myself differing— a rare occurrence during the past several decades—- with my friend Keel Hunt’s thoughts about “Who owns downtown Nashville, and what should its future be?” That subject, the centerpiece of his most recent column, totally got my attention.
I don’t think I’d be exaggerating in suggesting that downtown Nashville is owned these days, not by us, but instead, by the world. My perspective is not so much in disagreement with Keel’s, as it is a refocusing and a refining about what “the world” sees as one of its places.
Nashville has taken its place among the few, truly unique cities in the U.S., and, thus, the world. What makes us like no other? One word: Music. We, like many other charming cities in the world, have a diverse set of attributes that are both attractive and challenging; but, we also have that one dynamic thing that no other place has……a high-octane, electric environment propelled by the city’s hive-like creative atmosphere. Music inspires, soothes, comforts, and taps emotions like few other elements in our lives.
A city among the world’s great cities
Nashville stands alongside a few other U.S. cities: New Orleans, San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles, in offering something that no other city offers. Yes, Nashville could be a transcendent city without its music, just like hundreds of other cities can showcase their interesting, thoroughly enjoyable aspects, but none offer what was born here in the 1930s—an entertainment business which was occasionally nourished, sometimes disdained, grudgingly understood, and, finally, fully appreciated for what it brought to the party.
When I moved back to Nashville in 1985, downtown was not a place where many were fighting to stake ownership. In fact, most folks I knew would not only not go downtown, but would not want to be seen amidst the XXX Peep Shows and massage parlors which populated much of the district at that time. Somehow a few landmarks, like Tootsies, managed to continue operating as a respite to Grand Ole Opry performers and fans.
Downtown Nashville, once a shopping mecca, had lost its prestigious merchants. Like most cities, the grand stores had fled to the suburbs and locals “just didn’t go downtown” anymore.
A great revival
In my mind, the turning point started in 1993, when then-Mayor Phil Bredesen visioned a public investment in an arena, to be followed by private and public developments such as the Hilton Hotel, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center and on and on. Gaylord Entertainment made major commitments to remodel and revitalize the historic Ryman Auditorium and invested in the Wildhorse Saloon.
Then came the “Music City” branding focus led by Butch Spyridon and the Nashville CVC in 2003, with the preservation of the old Ryman by Opryland Hotel and Convention Center in the mix.
Private developers, such as Brenda and Ruble Sanderson began converting downtown buildings to performing outlets – call them “honky tonks” if you like – and visitors were flocking here to see actual live music in an exciting atmosphere. Sprinkle in a major, world-class competitive convention center, and we had a sonic-like boom in revitalization which only an overwhelming pandemic could bring to a screeching halt.
There’s a lot good about downtown Nashville
Is everything perfect? No. Could some venues have been better? Sure.
But our unique “sister” cities have their warts and outliers too.
Do I like seeing partiers flaunting safety protocols during our battle to gain our footing in this battle for health itself? No. But I don’t want to throw our talented “baby” out with the tainted bathwater either.
I look forward to coming back downtown to yell at a Predators game, to eat oysters at the Southern, BBQ at Jacks, and to attend concerts at the Bridgestone and the Schemerhorn after a meal at The Palm; to celebrate or commiserate with SEC fans at the basketball tournament to which our visitors and locals are so devoted.
I seldom visit any of the honky tonks, but I do enjoy hearing the music, and seeing the unbridled joy which it brings to the thousands upon thousands of folks who regularly descend on Nashville from around the world. I have friends who live downtown and relish sampling the free concerts and musical festivities offered during the star-studded CMA week, among other enticing events.
I love seeing Titans and Music City Bowl fans getting their share of the sports mania Music City provides. I enjoyed sampling the exhilaration of the 2019 NFL Draft on Broadway…and on and on.
Many visitors stayed long enough or returned to discover local treasures like Jimmy Kelly’s Steakhouse, Arnold’s and our meat ‘n threes, Centennial Park, Swett’s and, again, on and on. I love what Nashville has to offer to me and to visitors from around the world.
Too big to take away
Just like jazz and creole, Chinatown and cable cars, Broadway plays and restaurants, studios and aspiring actors and entertainers, the music plays on in Nashville. We occupy this city and we can help shape it a bit, but we can’t think about taking it away because we now share its ownership with everyone. The world now arrives at our doorstep with regularity.