Should rebuilding historic downtown include renaming?

Friday, December 24, 2021, Vol. 45, No. 52

Lower Broad gets most of the media fanfare and tourist buzz. But Second Avenue, with its stretch of handsome, Victorian-era buildings, is the historic heart of Nashville.

“That’s where the city was founded,” the local historian Carole Bucy told The Tennessean back in January. “It’s the oldest history we’ve got.”

Since the bombing last Christmas, a block of that history, between Commerce and Church Streets, has been an open wound.

Dinner and music plans took my wife and me downtown recently for the first time in a while, and we took the opportunity to check the status of that desolate portion of Second Avenue. I’d thought that maybe we could walk down the street fronting the buildings hardest hit.

A couple of my regular haunts, Buffalo Billiards and the Beer Sellar, were housed in that area, so I have a rooting interest in when and whether it recovers. But we couldn’t get close, as you may well be aware: Chain link fencing still seals off that block from the public.

What can be seen from the barriers is depressing. And it’s maddening that all the destruction was the work of, as Kayne put it, “one crazy guy.”

Advocates for those living with mental health issues would probably take issue with that description. They’d argue that it reinforces a stigma against the great majority of people struggling with such problems who do not blow up significant portions of historic downtown areas.

Which is true. But it’s also true that this one guy – who, among other delusions, believed that shape-shifting lizard aliens lived among us – did just that. It’s disingenuous not to acknowledge a contributing factor to his heinous act.

It’s also unfortunate that the bomber – whom I won’t dignify by naming – chose Christmas for his suicide mission. Nashville will forever have that sad association with an otherwise joyful – and holy – holiday.

And it looked for a while as if a full recovery wouldn’t be possible. In July, representatives for owners of four of the most seriously damaged buildings asked for permission to demolish them.

Characterless structures – or worse, a parking lot – were feared as possible replacements.

Fortunately, the owners decided to withdraw the request in favor of a “selective demolition permit” limited to the most extensively damaged portions.

“We now want to move forward with a new vision for the site that will honor its history, creating something that seamlessly blends in with this iconic row of historic buildings and feels as though it has always been part of the fabric,” representatives of the owners said in a letter to the Metro Historic Zoning Commission.

The plan that Mayor John Cooper outlined this month offered much to be pleased about: Rebuilt facades to retain the character of the area, a pedestrian pathway lined with stores that would connect First and Second Avenues, widened sidewalks and public art.

I’m particularly pleased by news that AT&T – inhabitants of the nondescript, windowless brick building opposite the damaged ones which weathered the blast better than its 19th-century neighbors – plans to install a giant mural based of the artist Phil Ponder’s work “Market Street Too.”

As it happens, we have that very Market Street rendering by Ponder in our own house, albeit a considerably smaller version.

I’d also like to add my voice to a suggestion made by the Urban Land Institute in April that, as part of the whole recovery process for the area, First, Second and Third Avenues revert to their earlier names: Front Street, Market Street and College Street.

If I had my way, all the street names changed to numbers by the Nashville City Council in 1904 would go back to the originals. That would include 11th Avenue once again being known as Kayne Avenue.

Though, given our experience, people would probably pronounce it Kanye.

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 jrogink@gmail.com