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VOL. 44 | NO. 43 | Friday, October 23, 2020

A Nashville community segregated by design

How Black business district was shattered by highway planners

By Hollie Deese

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The first time Chakita Patterson ran through her initial vision for United Street Tours, detailing her idea with friends and family, the reaction was not good.

Sure, it was filled with facts, details and history, but what it was missing was the storytelling, the story behind the story.

And Patterson knew it would take great storytelling to engage teenagers in learning the history of Black Nashville, a history of redlining due to race, segregation by government design, gentrification and today’s efforts to preserve neighborhoods amid development.

Patterson will join a virtual panel session, Segregated By Design, presented by the Nashville Ledger and the Civic Design Center (https://nashvilledesignweek.org) for Nashville Design Week on Thursday, Oct. 29, 5 p.m. The event includes a screening of the 17-minute film “Segregated By Design,” a film by Mark Lopez that shows how the history of federal, state and local governments unconstitutionally segregated major metropolitan areas in the U.S. through law and policy.

Following the screening will be a panel discussion about how decades of policies have reshaped Nashville’s Black neighborhoods, including urban redevelopment, interstates and redlining, past and present, and what can be done to foster and bring about change.

“The biggest thing that really reshaped our community was the construction of the highway, segregating one street from another so you couldn’t even cross,” says Joe Mayes, project and program manager for the Civic Design Center. “There’s only one connection over the highway within a three-block span to get from one part of North Nashville to the other side of the highway.

“So that took people away from the historic businesses that were there. There was less connectivity.”

Avoiding white guilt

Originally from Memphis, Patterson moved to Murfreesboro to attend Middle Tennessee State University before eventually settling in Nashville in 2015 with a master’s degree in social work from Radford University. Here, she worked with younger people doing financial advising at high schools and at organizations like Youth Villages.

She started out working in elementary schools in town, but found she truly connects with older students.

“High school, those are my people,” she says.

Chakita Patterson with United Street Tours in front of a mural on Jefferson Street.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

It was while trying to engage those students in planning the curriculum for Black history that she got the idea for United Street Tours as she realized the students were largely unaware of local civil rights activists.

“They weren’t aware of the Black history in their backyard,” Patterson says. “A lot of that has to do with avoiding white guilt and protecting white feelings. But this effort to whitewash the reality of what happened, as you grow older, does way more harm than it does good.

“Because you create a community or a culture of people who have so many blind spots, it’s difficult for them to relate to people outside of their own race or community or ethnicity.”

United Street Tours has three offerings:

The Nashville Black History Walking Tour, which covers the history of downtown Nashville from slavery and the underground railroad

A Nashville Civil Rights Walking Tour, the most popular walking tour among school groups and those who visit Nashville

The Black Neighborhood Walking Tour that includes North Nashville and Jefferson Street.

Patterson’s business has been hit hard by COVID, with all in-person tours suspended until next year. In the meantime, she has been building an online community with classes and courses, including an online classroom for a teenagers to teach them about Black history, entrepreneurship and anti-racism.

“If you go through your life without understanding the perspective of someone who’s different than you are, like the perspective of marginalized individuals, their community, their culture, their history, you literally walk through life being an ass,” she points out.

“I think it’s important for you to have a compassionate empathy for other people. And children are our future leaders. They’re not going to be kids forever. They will be making real and crucial decisions on behalf of our entire community. And so it is important that we instill with them a wide variety of knowledge that they can pull from when they’re making critical decisions that affect others.”

Patterson stands next to a photo of former statesman and civil rights leader John Lewis.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

Lopez mainly works on motion graphics for commercial projects, incorporating design and animation. But after he read “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America,” by Richard Rothstein, he set out to make a film that laid out the book’s explanation of how the government systematically imposed residential segregation with racial zoning, public housing that segregated previously mixed communities, subsidies for builders to create whites-only suburbs, tax exemptions for institutions that enforced segregation and support for violent resistance to African Americans in white neighborhoods.

“There’s a whole faction of people who don’t believe in systemic racism, so I actively tried to make the film apolitical so that it wasn’t offensive and wouldn’t make someone turn away from it,” Lopez says. “I just wanted it to be about history, and you can’t really deny facts. You can’t deny what happened.”

Redlining in Nashville

Originally from Nashville, Kathy Trawick mostly grew up in West Tennessee but remembers visiting her grandparents’ Green Hills home, which has since been torn down and replaced with two tall, skinny homes.

She worked for West Tennessee Legal Services in Jackson as a staff attorney doing fair housing work. She returned to Nashville to take the job as the executive director of the Tennessee Fair Housing Council after her friend and former director died, continuing the group’s mission of eliminating housing discrimination in Tennessee, including for people with disabilities, minorities and victims of domestic abuse.

Redlining in Nashville, Trawick says, began in the1940s when the Homeowners Loan Corporation developed loans and decided that some areas were hazardous, generally minority areas.

“And that meant they were less likely to be able to pay the loan back for no other reason than the color of their skin,” she explains. “And those areas were colored in red. Not surprisingly, the red was North Nashville, East Nashville and bordering the Cumberland river. Then as you move out from it, it becomes yellow, meaning it might be OK. And then green is Southwest Nashville, like Green Hills.

“Interestingly enough, that has not changed a lot,” Trawick acknowledges. “But then when you have areas that are suddenly the cool place… I’m not opposed to renewing depressed areas. But there’s a big difference between a renewal to help the people that live there and gentrification.

Jefferson Street Gateway mural and museum along Jefferson Street near I-40.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

“Gentrification is a serious issue,’’ she continues. “And, unfortunately, right now that is North Nashville. There’s nothing wrong with revitalization, but when people come in and purchase homes for less than the market value and build larger homes that don’t fit in the area, taxes start to go up and families who have lived there for generations can no longer pay their taxes.”

Trawick says that while some housing policies have changed, some of them have just gone underground.

“Strict redlining was outlawed in the 60s with the passage of civil rights,” she says. “And you can change a law, but that doesn’t change perception. And the underlying basis for a lot of discrimination is perception.”

It included the process of “blockbusting,” a concept Lopez covers in the film. That could include Realtors going into neighborhoods and giving homeowners the impression the area was about to change because of Black families moving in, maybe even mailing out innocent-seeming flyers with a smiling Black family announcing the Realtor’s help in finding them a home in the neighborhood, and maybe they could help you sell your home, too.

“And I received one of those letters in Jackson when the first African American family moved into our neighborhood,” Trawick recalls.

Pro- or anti-people?

Odessa Kelly grew up in East Nashville. She attended Stratford High School, Tennessee State University and worked for the Metro Parks Department for 14 years. She became executive director of Standup Nashville in August 2019 after years with the organization, which addresses racial and economic equality through education and community organization and strategic action around public investment and city planning. The goal is to create thriving neighborhoods and shared prosperity.

But even as a Nashville native she was largely unaware of the policies that segregated neighborhoods into labels of “good” or “bad” based on class and color.

“I was just like any other typical kid - do well through school, get a job and then you’ve done everything, right?” she says. “It wasn’t until 10 years being a part of the workforce and not seeing me accelerate at the rate that I think I should that I really started to dig in and understand what the crux of it was.”

Stand Up Nashville, Kelly says, focuses on representing marginalized working-class communities no matter their race.

“And the reason why we say that is because any time you have a class issue you’re always going to have a race issue,” she adds. “Unfortunately, a lot of people get stuck thinking it is a race issue, not understanding that this is affecting you, as well.

“In the South, we have been so taken by tradition that we don’t understand we have the autonomy to change that and have control over the type of quality of lives that we lead.”

Kelly says some of the biggest challenges facing neighborhoods and communities during Nashville’s growth and development is public policy.

“Nashville has been booming for a while, but traditionally it’s been a working-class town,” Kelly notes. “$71,000 is what it takes to live in Nashville – let’s just be realistic about who was making that. Individuals who are civil servants, or those who work in call centers, or people who have made a career out of working in the hospitality industry, those individuals can’t make $70,000 to live here.”

It also means being intentional about taking care of our most marginalized communities before entire neighborhoods are displaced, like East Nashville where she grew up.

“It’s a wonderful neighborhood now, but at the same time, I hate to say it, I have seen so many of my neighbors have to leave basically because they couldn’t afford it,” Kelly says.

“It’s like, you’re almost punished for not working in two or three specific sectors of the industry now here in Nashville. And it has to change if we’re really going to be the diverse and intentional city that we want to be. We call ourselves a blue city in a red state. Well, we have to really challenge what the definition of that means and how we do that is through public policy.”

When talking about preserving what Nashville was, there needs to be a realization that what that means does not have the same benefits for everyone. Sometimes outside ideas are what is needed to improve on what wasn’t working in the past.

“I’m spoiled in the fact that I’m a native here,” Kelly says. “At the same time the newbies have pushed the progressivism of the city, which as an African American, you always want people who are going to push back, especially against old Southern tradition.

“I think the biggest challenge that comes with that is that even though people find themselves to be progressive, they also find themselves to be very pro-business. And we have to just face the fact that here in Nashville, right now being pro-business can very easily turn into being an anti-people.”

“And I think that’s where the real struggle is - we have to figure out how we can be pro-business and pro people. How do we intentionally grow at a rate that doesn’t leave people behind or push them out of the city that they’ve grown up in.”

Nashville is a microcosm of what’s going on across America, Kelly adds, which this summer has brought up difficult conversations of where we are and what caused us to get here.

“Redlining was here and it was rampant and took place. And sometimes as Nashvillians we feel uncomfortable if we tried something and it didn’t turn out exactly the way we wanted it, or it becomes another debacle that we have to handle, but that’s a part of the process,” Kelly says.

“Progress is messy, and I think that’s one of the things that I’m hoping that we as a city are proud of - the fact that at least we are actively looking at how do we make this city work for everyone. We’re eventually going to get there, because there are a lot of other metropolitan areas that have given up completely.

“But we’re in this battle, and we’re going to make sure that we can get it right.”

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