Sunday, May 26, 2019

Ending and Beginning

I have long tried to integrate myself in Nashville but that became more ingratiating as the time passed.  To experience an entire city undergoing gentrification and the desperation in seeking an identity in which to validate the methodology behind it has been utterly fascinating for about a hot minute.  That minute long passed.

I am not the only one who has commented on the bizarre strategies and failures to address the larger scale problems that literally plague the city like anal warts.

First it is the income issues. Followed by education as they go hand in hand.  How this place was designated the Athens of the South is beyond belief as I agree with the CEO of Waste Management that the Universities and Colleges are lacking.  Fisk is and getting its first new building in 20 years. Meanwhile Vanderbilt just continues to build all kinds of special things for their special snowflakes who seem ready to melt at the first sign of sun.  To say stupid is insufficient.  We could go on with the non-secular schools but we won't and the outlying ones, MSTU, Austin Peay, Knoxville, Sewanee are all fine and dandy if you want to pretend they are servicing students.    There are over 41 schools in the greater region and half of them I wouldn't send my dog to training as Tennessee has been consistently on the bottom of educational attainment for decades. Nuff said.  I want to point out that Oklahoma finally got busted for ginning the US News list for decades which goes to show you those lists are bullshit anyway.

After that we have infrastructure problems and now the transit in Nashville is gearing down, reducing and eliminating routes and raising fares.  Good timing to be leaving I just won't be on a bus.

The Government, be it municipal or state it is a fucked up hot mess like the chicken indigestible.   Sex scandals to budget issues this city could not manage its way out of a paper bag.  But then voting falls here at the bottom of the list along with Kentucky also near the bottom. Something I always suspected Mitch McConnell of being. 

And then we have the people.  Again see number one.  Moving on.

So when I read this flaming piece in the Nashville Scene I felt relieved that I was not losing my marbles  when it comes to sensing the bizarre notions of what defines idiocy here.  It is a money grab that has somehow made it acceptable to do so our of a sense of entitlement and history.  The same Scene documented the times Nashville was "it" and had always been just not to this level of insanity. I have equated it with addictive behavior - lying, cheating, bribery, desperation and fear.  Nashville I leave here in four months and oddly I am going to make the best of it to leave on a better note than the one I heard on arrival. That is truly music to my ears.

R.I.P. 'It City'

Six years ago, Nashville fell in love with a New York Times piece deeming us the nation’s ‘it city.’ The title no longer fits.

Steve Cavendish
Nashville Scene
May 23, 2019

I want to stay at the Joseph Hotel.

The pictures of the rooftop pool deck look spectacular. The building will tower 21 floors above the corner of Fourth Avenue South and Korean Veterans Boulevard, where I’m sitting as I look at a slideshow of renderings on my phone. Slender, beautiful people (apparently) will adorn lounge chairs and poolside cabanas looking off toward the Nashville skyline. Inside, works of art from the developer’s collection will hang alongside pieces by Tennessee artists. The Joseph will feature luxury, fine dining and all the best amenities.

But mostly I want to stay there because Nashville taxes are helping pay to construct it.

Yes, that’s right. A city that has more tourists than it can say grace over and not enough rooms to house them all is forking over $4.5 million in tax-increment financing to help the developer build what market forces apparently couldn’t: a 297-room hotel just steps away from an area that one month ago threw a three-day NFL party for a few hundred thousand people.

For about 10 minutes, I just stare at the construction site and one of the many cranes now visible as you approach the city’s center. In the past decade, Nashville has funded more than $200 million in development through tax-increment financing deals, mostly downtown. On the SoBro sidewalk where I’m standing, I am surrounded by an area reshaped from light industrial usage and small buildings to soaring high-rises that have altered the city’s skyline. Where once we had a dearth of downtown hotels, I now stand within a couple of blocks of thousands of current or soon-to-be-built rooms, including the massive 800-room Omni Hotel, which the city subsidized to the tune of $62 million.

But this isn’t a story about the economics of changing a city. We can’t undo the Metro Council’s 2010 decision to build the $623 million Music City Center, which drove so many later decisions by the city. We’re not just a nice place to visit — we’re now a capital-T Tourism-Based Economy, with all of the good and bad that comes with it. In 2018, 5 million more people visited than did in 2012, when a whopping 11.2 million visitors came through.

No, this is a story about who we are now, and about one very specific problem: It’s time to put a bullet in the phrase “It City.”

For the most part, I don’t visit the Honky-Tonk Industrial Complex unless I have to. I like going to see the Predators play, and there are a few downtown restaurants I enjoy. But by and large, I — like many longtime locals — avoid the two-block zone on either side of Lower Broadway like the plague. On this night, however, I decide to see what so many people come to the “It City” for.

At 8 p.m. on a Tuesday night just a bit south of Lower Broad, there’s a line out the door at Martin’s Bar-B-Que. It looks like a half-hour wait or more, so I walk around the block. I’d taken a $10 Lyft downtown to avoid parking — not to mention navigating a mélange of scooters, jaywalking tourists and pedal taverns, the first of which passes me festooned with drinking singers belting “Sweet Caroline” at the tops of their lungs. Pitmaster Pat Martin outfitted his multi-story Temple of Pig on Fourth Avenue South with many things, including a way to shortcut the masses and get a seat upstairs at the bar quickly. A lot of future Joseph customers will come here, but hopefully none of them will learn about the back door.

Waiting for my sandwich, I pull up the article that started all the “It City” bullshit. In January 2013, The New York Times’ Kim Severson wrote a story headlined “Nashville’s Latest Big Hit Could Be the City Itself.” As the Times’ then-Atlanta bureau chief, Severson spent a lot of time traveling around the South covering news and writing features, including exploring trends she saw. In our city, she noted, “It is hard to find a resident who does not break into the goofy grin of the newly popular when the subject of Nashville’s status comes up.”

It was true. Behind the network TV show Nashville (which launched in 2012, something else our tax dollars helped pay for) and a booming economy, it was hard not to argue that we were riding a wave of unprecedented popularity.

“Portland knows the feeling,” she wrote. “Austin had it once, too. So did Dallas. Even Las Vegas enjoyed a brief moment as the nation’s ‘it’ city. Now, it’s Nashville’s turn.”

And there it was — the nickname that launched a thousand press releases.

Cover1Patrons on BroadwayPhoto: Daniel MeigsI don’t think Severson had any idea of the wave of absurdly self-congratulatory behavior the moniker would set off. It’s not like she’d been endowed with any particular power to designate a place the nation’s “It City.” She was no pageant judge presenting a trophy or a reality-show star passing out a rose. The turn of phrase was just a way of noting something she saw in Nashville. But when you print “It” in The New York Times, “It” takes on a special power, an imprimatur of truth no matter what the guy in the White House says. All of our mayors (and our mayoral candidates, too) have unironically referred to us as the “It City” for years, as have Metro Council members and other elected officials, reporters, critics and commentators. A search reveals that The Tennessean has used the phrase 813 times — a little more than once every four days since Severson’s piece ran. What the phrase’s usage reveals is just how thirsty Nashville was for attention.

Severson wrestled with a lot of Nashville’s challenges in her story — challenges Nashville still faces, the things you don’t usually hear about when “It City” is invoked. To her eye, the city struggled with educating its children and housing its residents. She mentioned the tax breaks we’re so fond of using and quoted a critic of their use. And though she mentioned Lower Broadway and the surrounding area that attracts tourists, there’s no way she could have known what it would grow into.

Even on a Tuesday, both bars and all the tables upstairs at Martin’s are packed. This is now de rigueur for a weeknight in early summer. There are conventioneers and vacationers and even a midweek bachelorette party, a lower-key bunch than the packs of soon-to-be-weds who roam the area on weekends. (I see no penis whistles, no “getting shitty in Music City” shirts, no garish matching attire). Many diners, like me, are pregaming at Martin’s before heading into the maw.

You can hear the low roar of the Honky-Tonk Industrial Complex about two blocks away. By the time you get within half a block, the din is spilling out of every bar’s windows, although hardly any of the noise is what you might consider classic country music. Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do” is fighting for your attention against Joan Jett’s “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” which is straining against Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Pride and Joy.” Think of it as four solid blocks of Battle of the Cover Bands every night of the week. Many of these musicians may have come to Nashville with dreams of making their own music — and, sure, you’ll hear classic country issuing from spots like Robert’s and Layla’s — but it’s the hits of the ’80s and ’90s that largely pay the bills on Lower Broad.

The drunks are already out by 9 p.m. And the panhandlers, too. Steve Smith, owner of Tootsie’s and a few other spots, has been vocal lately about wanting to get the homeless off Lower Broad, arguing their presence ruins the experience for tourists who have come from far away to enjoy whatever it is we’re supposedly experiencing. The guys holding signs reading “Won’t Lie, Need Weed” can’t be affecting business that much, though, as Smith’s Honky Tonk Central cleared more than $20 million in revenue in 2017. Smith has been the most outspoken and right-wing of the downtown bar owners, plastering “Diane Black for Governor” signs in the windows of some of his places, so his stance on the homeless isn’t surprising. It’s his latest project, though, that seems to be garnering the most attention.

Kid Rock’s Big Ass Honky Tonk and Rock ’n’ Roll Steakhouse made waves before it even opened. That’s because Smith tried to make Rock the grand marshal of Nashville’s Christmas parade back in December, part of a publicity stunt for the opening of Lower Broad’s new place. On a Fox & Friends segment televised live from the bar, native Michigander Rock (né Robert James Ritchie) called The View co-host Joy Behar a “bitch,” setting off a wave of recriminations that led to Mayor David Briley, District 19 Councilmember Freddie O’Connell and others boycotting the parade. Rock was removed, and Smith threatened to sue, even trotting out Bryan Lewis — the lawyer, best friend and traveling companion of disgraced judge Casey Moreland — for a press conference promising litigation. It never materialized, and Waffle House hero James Shaw stepped in to save whatever dignity remained.

Of course, none of that seems to concern the people lining up just inside the front door of Rock’s place on this Tuesday night: They’re getting pictures made next to a glass display case with a red pimp suit from the era of Devil Without a Cause, Rock’s 1998 breakthrough album. The female-led band breaks into a rendition of his “Bawitdaba,” and the crowd eats it up. Balding middle-aged men point at one another at the bar and bark out the nu-metal hit’s lyrics while a loosely moshing group of women throw their heads back and forth in front of the stage. A large eagle that looks like it’s made of pewter looms over the far end of the bar, emblazoned with the words “AMERICAN BAD ASS.”

“Where’s Tony at?” the singer yells at the end of the song. “Where’s Tony at? Tony is turning TWENTY-ONNNNNNNNNNEEEEE!” Security escorts a couple of the more unruly patrons out the front door and onto the sidewalk, while Tony and his friends raise glasses to a night that they may or may not remember tomorrow. Their table sits under two oversize replica shotguns that run the length of the room, the words “BORN FREE” emblazoned on them.

There are four floors dedicated to Rock’s cult of personality, with the top two branded as Motor City Wash Works. The paraphernalia tends to thin out the higher you go — how much can there be for a guy who’s only had one Top 10 single in the U.S.? But in case you needed reminding, a “Kid Rock for U.S. Senate” sign hangs over the third-floor bar, a vestige of the fake campaign/attention-grab he pulled back home in Michigan a couple of years ago.

I would like to blame Smith for elevating a washed-up, third-tier rock artist to name-on-neon-sign status on the most visible street in my hometown, but at some point maybe you just have to hand it to him for leaning into the trend. First Florida-Georgia Line opened a place. Then nearly every bro-country artist in the game raced to have a spot: Dierks Bentley jumped in, followed by Jason Aldean, John Rich, Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton. Inside, the bars all seem to steal from the same formula: TVs, aggressive amounts of barnwood, more TVs, roof decks for sipping on that “good stuff,” loud music that may or may not be country, more TVs, electric signs, street signs, beer signs and more TVs. Kid Rock’s place may be terrible, but at least it’s a little different.

Thank God for Robert’s Western World, maybe the last tiny bit of authenticity in the middle of this pulsing, booming, awful Times Square-on-the-Cumberland we’ve created. It’s an oasis. But when ESPN’s eye zoomed over the 200,000 or so people congregated in a neon canyon of Bud Light signs for the NFL Draft, the cameras weren’t there for the music at Robert’s or anywhere else — they were there to see the party.

That’s the thing most people don’t remember: Fonzie may have jumped a shark in Season 5 of Happy Days, but it was the biggest ratings in the series’ history.

In the process of creating all of this glitz, we’ve essentially built two Nashvilles. The one downtown drives much of our economy, both inside and outside the Honky-Tonk Industrial Complex. Corporate headquarters tower over the HTIC revelers below, and jobs continue to move toward the city center rather than away from it. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But we’ve also erected a giant party district full of tractors pulling tourists around on flatbeds equipped with thumping subwoofers. Six years ago, did we really want such a huge “transportainment” industry? Is it really our preference to throw a giant drunken party every night? Is this what makes us “It City”?

Away from the tall buildings and bright lights is the other Nashville — the one that charmed Severson and others in the first place. It’s made up of diverse neighborhoods and dynamic food; it has a thriving health care industry and a music scene that is rich and diverse. On the night I was navigating multiple covers of “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” Emmylou Harris and Vince Gill played a surprise show at a VFW in East Nashville with a $10 cover.

That’s why when some cherry trees were sacrificed to the NFL gods in April, it struck such a chord. The incident crystallized our concerns about the separation of Nashville into two pieces.

Which brings us back to the problem of being the “It City.” What exactly makes us “It”? Popularity? Culture? Economy? An indefinable combination of factors?

Ultimately “It” is a fleeting concept, never meant to be a perpetual title. We’ve got to stop using “It City,” because “It” is meaningless.

“People are too smug about how fortunate we are now,” late, great journalist and author John Egerton told Severson six years ago. He was right then, and his sentiment is even more right now. There is an air of exceptionalism that has crept into our city’s consciousness, a subtle belief that maybe we’re entitled to our good fortune, that we don’t have to earn it. That’s dangerous.

Even so, Egerton was hopeful about our future, and I find a lot of comfort in the way he saw us.

“I love the rhythm of this town and the pace of it and the tone of it,” he said. “I think Nashville is a big unfinished song.”

Death to It City. Long live Nashville.

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