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Nashville, seen and unseen

I’m flying back from Nashville today, and I keep thinking about what I saw—and what I didn’t see. Let me explain: there are now many places that, in demographic, income, and related terms, don’t look like a normally distributed curve, with a big hump in the middle and trailing, small tails of the very rich and very poor. There are still of course some places that are nearly all poor and nearly all rich; we write about some of the former, for obvious reasons, and pretty much none of the latter. Unlike where Apple Stores locate, we primarily work where the affluent aren’t.

Many places, however, increasingly see a bimodal distribution, like this:

In these places—and we’ve written about a lot of them for clients—more and more people are well-off. These places are often gentrification stories, in which once-poor or marginal areas are taken over by college-educated high-earners looking for a reprieve from big-city housing prices.

But there’s often a second, shadow story as well, and in that story far more people are simply not making it—but not showing up in data like median household income. They’ve fallen out of the middle class or never quite made it there in the first place. Their lives were okay until opioid addiction or an accident or a factory closure turned those lives downwards. They’re making it every month until draconian zoning laws increase their rent to unrealistic levels, leading to eviction.

Those people are part of the data too, but the bifurcation means they can get lost from a cursory glance at Census or similar data. At the city or county level, data can look pretty good, even if at the zip code or Census Tract level reveal many pockets that aren’t doing well. We’ve seen that kind of data reappear over and over again as we write needs assessments for proposals, most prominently in L.A. and New York, but this bimodal dynamic appears elsewhere too—and I’m confident that Nashville is one of the places where a “two worlds” story can be told.

One of those worlds is downtown and near Vanderbilt University, with no shortage of trendy coffee shops like Crema, where sublime, rococo $6 pourovers are available.* In that world, construction cranes are seemingly everywhere. I checked a couple of new apartment buildings where one-bedroom apartments are almost $2,000 a month. For that price, I’d take Brooklyn or Queens, but someone must be willing to pay—however absurd those prices seem to me. I suspect the next recession will be an interesting experience for those building developers/owners.

The other world is not very far away, and I found some evidence of it off West End Avenue: the mom-and-pop nonprofits renting storefronts, cheap ethnic restaurants (which I like!), and halfway houses/treatment facilities. I’m guessing that a lot of downtown and Vanderbilt residents only rarely wander into those parts of town, even though they’re pretty close, geographically speaking.

Almost every Nashville native I talked to mentioned traffic and parking problems. To me that’s hilarious; I saw no traffic issues whatsoever, or nothing that I’d consider real traffic, but my internal calibration comes from Seattle, NYC, and L.A., with those last two being the biggest cities in the U.S. Urban planners like to say that every place worth being has a “traffic problem,” so I tend to discount those complaints. And parking problems make sense too, due to the hidden high cost of free parking. But most people don’t think in terms of systems; they think in terms of what’s immediately in front of them. To fix the “problem” at the forefront, it’s often necessary to think about the system as a whole—exactly like most people don’t.

To my eyes, I didn’t see traffic in Nashville; I saw underutilized roads that were empty almost all the time. Empty parking spots could be seen almost everywhere I walked and rode. The city seems to have lots of space for growth, and there are even plans for a rail network that will make the transportation system more functional. I have no idea if that’ll come to fruition, but if Nashville voters are smart they’ll think about the future and avoid Seattle’s errors.**

I write about transit here because transit issues are linked to housing issues, and housing is becoming (or has become) a major issue driving poverty, problems with the middle class, and other economic challenges that grant-funded programs are supposed to ameliorate. Without addressing them, many job training and housing are doomed to fail, much like L.A’s Prop HHH for homelessness services.

Some other thoughts, less cogently developed: Vanderbilt dominates the educational landscape. There are also some HBCUs in the city, but it’s striking how this single university sprawls almost everywhere. In Seattle, the University of Washington plays an analogous role, but Seattle seems to have more community colleges in it, along with the private Seattle University and the University of Puget Sound in nearby Tacoma. I don’t have a huge amount to say about what this means, but as someone who likes to teach as well as write proposals, it’s noticeable.

There’s a lot of “sir” and “ma’am,” or at least more than I’m used to. It’s charming. Coming from NYC, it’s hackneyed to say it, but people really are more polite in the South!

Most city ads and slogans are, uh, BS—or at least overstated. Nashville bills itself as “Music City” and lives up to the name. Guitars are everywhere, as is live music. The guy who played at my hotel on a random Thursday night sounded really good. Most of the time, where I hear “live music” at a bar, I want to go elsewhere. Not so in Nashville. I kept chatting with people and asked, “What made you move here?”, and many said, “music.” I stopped to listen to many singers in random bars and most of those singers were good.

Of the new residents who didn’t say “music,” many were from smaller towns elsewhere in the vicinity. One hostess, for example, was from a small town in Arkansas, and she had the charming accent to match. Another guy said he’d moved from Mississippi for “opportunity.”

The bike share program is so small that its utility is limited, and I don’t think I saw anyone apart from myself on a bike for the first few days. If traffic were truly bad, that would change. The city is ripe for Ofo, Spin, and Limewire: dockless companies that make the bike pickup and dropoff experience far simpler. Sidewalk space is copious, too.

While I visited, a fire department conference was going on, so I spontaneously pitched grant writing to some of the fire chiefs I met for the Assistance to Firefighters Grants (AFG) program. We’ve done a fair amount of work for fire and police departments over the years, although we don’t emphasize that on our website or in general marketing.

Austin is the next city on the visit list. I already have one person lined up for a meeting there; if you’re in Austin and want to talk grants, teaching, and related matters, drop me an email.

* While I was writing this post, a hipster-looking dude in a checked shirt and glasses came over to ask if I knew the wi-fi password. I didn’t—I often like to write “offline,” so to speak, and away from the endless carnival of the Internet—but somehow the experience is emblematic of the nerd economy.

** Briefly, Seattle had various rail plans that by some estimates date back to 1912; in the ’70s, Seattle almost started a rail system funded with federal money, but cutbacks at Boeing made people wonder if the city was going to shrink into itself. Then the city began to recover in the in the mid ’90s and began planning its current light rail projects. Unfortunately, the early parts of the project were ill-managed, but there’s now a light rail line stretching from the SEATAC Airport in the south to the University of Washington (“U-Dub” in local lingo) in the north. Still, no train lines cross Lake Washington to Bellevue (home to many Amazon execs) and Redmond (Microsoftville)—yet. The next major line is supposed to open in 2021 or 2023. The slowness of the projects is notable.

1 thought on “Nashville, seen and unseen

  1. Vanberbilt may be the largest university in Nashville, but there are dozens throughout the city and dozens more just outside. Belmont is across the street from Vandy and a pretty sizable institution, Tennessee State University, Nashville State, Middle Tennessee State, Fisk, Lipscomb, O’More College of Design, Trevecca Nazarene, Watkins, and many more.

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