I consider myself fortunate if I visit any city in the world today and come away with a special impression of the place. Something that tells me what the city is, what it was and hopefully what it might become. Recently, I spent three days in downtown Nashville, Tennessee.
Of course, many know the city by its self-proclaimed nickname of Music City USA. That, in a sense, is what Nashville is. Aside from being the state capitol, many come to the city for its rich musical heritage and Nashville works very hard to give them abundant opportunities to experience what they came to see. Live music, at least in the downtown tourist district, is everywhere, all the time.
What Nashville was, was a shipping port, a center of trade. A mercantile city on the Cumberland River as evidenced by the many historic warehouse buildings in the downtown core. This economic function of course, is gone now. What remains of that past history has been largely converted to house kitschy honky-tonks, juke joints and all things “Country,” y’all.
What Nashville is becoming, at least I hope, is a real city again. One that is working hard attract people to its downtown for what good downtowns have to offer – the opportunity to live a whole life in a vibrant, walkable, urban environment. Currently, what’s missing in downtown Nashville now is any sense that urban people, the ones that call the city home, actually live there. Sure, there are a few residential buildings sprinkled about. But, as I walked through downtown I noticed that much of the city services the aforementioned tourists or office workers that drive into downtown from someplace else. Look up and you’ll see that many of the upper floors of those old, warehouse buildings are underutilized or abandoned. The overall feeling was that the majority of whatever life that exists in downtown occurs primarily at street level. What’s also changing is that the downtown is becoming more pedestrian and bicycle friendly. This is a very good thing. Nashville has improved pedestrian-friendly crosswalks that don’t require call buttons, on-street shared bicycle lanes and the awesome John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge, a forward thinking preservation project that allows pedestrians and bicyclists to safely cross the river while pausing along the way to enjoy the view.
I hope I’m able to someday revisit Nashville. I’d love to see how by focusing on the needs of urban people, those who choose to call cities home, Nashville’s downtown becomes whole and real once more.