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VOL. 42 | NO. 49 | Friday, December 7, 2018

Nashvillians seeing red from an island of blue

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When I decided to move back to Nashville, everyone I told in New York seemed to approve of the destination. People had either been here and liked it, knew someone who’d been and liked it or wanted to come, expecting to like it.

My mentions of the South in general, and my home state, Mississippi, in particular, didn’t always get such a warm reception. It was as if it were slightly alien – and perhaps hostile – territory.

But Nashville, you bet.

Which is perhaps why a recent tweet I came across hit home. It took the form of a hypothetical question and response. The question was, “What’s it like being from Tennessee?”

The response: “I’m not from Tennessee. I’m from Nashville.”

Boy, I thought. Ain’t that the truth?

To emphasize the point, the tweet included a color-coded map of the Tennessee midterm voting, with Davidson County a lonely dark blue island in a pink-to-red expanse. Off to the west, miles and miles distant, was a lighter blue political cousin, Shelby County.

Third cousin, maybe. Or fifth.

I took it all as a commentary not just on the political situation in Tennessee, but on its culture, as well. I wanted to test my theory, so I contacted the author of the tweet, Aditya Thawardas.

Turns out he meant it even more broadly.

“Nashville not being completely Tennessee is in some ways a microcosm for the current state of the country,” he told me by email. “Urban areas tend to be more liberal, while the rest of America tends to be conservative, as we clearly saw in the 2016 election.”

Yes, we did. Painfully.

Thawardas brings a perspective that not many of us can call upon. He moved with his parents from India to Nashville in 1999, when he was 5. They arrived in a much different Nashville then.

It was, as Thawardas put it, “far from a progressive, urban, cultural town.”

“My parents constantly tell me about how they knew every single Indian they would run into in Nashville,” he told me, “or at least knew someone who knew them. You could count the number of Indian restaurants in the city on one hand. Hell, you could count the number of non-Chinese/Mexican international restaurants in the city on two hands.”

Thawardas stayed in Nashville until heading north for college at the University of Pittsburgh. He now lives and works just outside Washington, D.C. The proximity to government makes politics a frequent talking point, he says, with the usual judgments and debates.

“Explaining Nashville to others has been a fluid experience that keeps changing year by year,” he adds. “At first when explaining I grew up in Nashville to Northerners, I’d get sassy remarks like ‘Where?’ or ‘Do you even have running water down there?’”

That doesn’t happen anymore, he says. Instead, he now gets remarks like “Oh, I’ve been dying to visit!”

And, as the numbers show, a lot of people are doing more than visiting. They’re making Nashville their new home.

The about-face is one result of Nashville’s having attained “It” city status in the succeeding years. As Thawardas also notes, Nashville’s situation is part of a larger trend in the region as a whole. Hence his tweet.

“I wanted to explain to my followers, most of whom are not from Tennessee, that cities in the South are urbanizing and becoming more progressive in politics as well,” he says, “and shouldn’t all fall to the closed-minded, Confederate flag stickered, MAGA hat-clad stereotype.”

That was pretty much my goal during what my wife and I initially called the New York Experiment, which ended up lasting 20 years. We were goodwill ambassadors, of a sort, from an often misunderstood and underappreciated land.

I think of Nashville as its capital.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at