One man’s push to revitalize Jefferson Street

Friday, November 13, 2015, Vol. 39, No. 46

Nathaniel -- “’just call me Nate’’ -- Harris in his Woodcuts Gallery & Framing, which is thriving and inspiring others as Jefferson Street makes a slow turnaround.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

A cheery void of sirens screaming on the North Nashville horizon, pretty college girls, talking about Jimmy Hendrix (before he became Jimi) and “Jefferson Street Joe,” the sun busting the gray wall of gloom … there’s no reason not to enjoy an hour or two inside this former “shooting gallery,” the pioneer outpost Nathaniel “Nate” Harris’ sweat equity purchased from the squalor that had consumed his home neighborhood.

That was 28 years ago, when revitalizing a building along Jefferson Street, Nashville’s historic avenue of African-American culture, commerce and gently weeping guitars was a foreign concept.

The young women are members of the Fisk University Art Club, residents of Jubilee Hall, just across 17th from Woodcuts Gallery & Framing, Nate’s oasis where African-American artwork shares wall and floor space with framing implements.

“When I first came here, there were syringes everywhere,” he says, pointing at a series of snapshots detailing his reclamation project at 1613 Jefferson St., the same building where he got burgers as a kid before urban rot set in and it descended into a hell where needle-users sought shelter from hope.

“I grew up right over by Swett’s,” he says, pointing more or less westward. “You know where that is?”

The fact I answer with the Clifton Street address of the family establishment I have visited and written of often over my Nashville decades probably would gain me a point or two on the “trust this old white guy” scale if Nate was judging. But he’s not. That’s not what he does.

A customer stepping in from the windy day causes Nate to push the pause button on our discussion of how he established this still-too-lonesome foothold of hope almost three decades ago, at a time when folks of all hues had mentally surrendered Jefferson Street to the vile influences of guns and drugs.

The visitor is white, friendly and familiar as he asks Nate to put a rush job on the framing of a legislative proclamation – one of those certificates dispensed by goodwill-hunting lawmakers.

“If you can get it done by tomorrow morning, that would be great,” he says.

“Everything is possible at Woodcuts,” Nate explains as he scans the two-page proclamation, pondering before promising to get it matted and framed by next day’s 10 a.m. opening. “We can do this.”

After that customer retreats into the sunshine, Nate ambles from behind the front counter where he conducts his daily business of decorating walls all over Nashville – “I did some of the framing for the Music City Center” – and walks to that framed collection of snapshots detailing history of both this building and this urban dreamer.

“Right there is where you are standing now,” he says, pointing to a picture of a young man with a full head of hair and a beard toiling with one of the many 2-by-4 studs he installed during reclamation of this former drug den.

“I put up all the walls in here and found the windows and doors in a salvage yard and I reclaimed them,” he says, noting he did that work while fully engaged in his day job as an engineer and technician for an engineering consulting firm.

“My father was a contractor. He passed when I was 8,” says this 65-year-old youngest of six sons and two daughters of Adolphus and Sarah Harris.

“He worked for himself. I always remembered going out on the job with him, because he poured concrete and was a masonry contractor,” Nate recalls. “I loved to get on that dump truck and go to the job with him when I was 7 or 8. I knew how to use the trowels and other tools.”

He also witnessed Adolphus’ pride of independence, the joy of being his own boss. Those lessons guided Nate even after he got his Tennessee State University bachelor’s in industrial arts education and master’s in vocational industrial education, preparation to teach what early in my ever-lengthening (thankfully) life was called “shop class.”

Instead of teaching, he went to work for the engineering consulting firm, thinking all the while of his dad. “I always wanted to have my own business” just like Adolphus.

“I was always interested in building and construction because of him,” Nate says. “He died of kidney failure. He was self-employed. I’m thinking he didn’t have insurance so for whatever reason he didn’t have dialysis. Dialysis was sort of new at the time….

“I was heartbroken when I found out they did have dialysis at the hospital, but they sent him home to die. May 1, 1957. He was 53 years old. Young man.”

Nate shifts his gaze to a wall of framed Barack Obama memorabilia, brisk sellers in North Nashville.

“A lot of people are interested in him, being the first African-American president,” he says, then reroutes the conversation to health insurance and how Obama has fought a well-insured Congress to change “the system” that killed Adolphus.

“I don’t know why people get all angry about Obamacare,” he adds. “It’s helping people who need help.”

The topic returns to his pursuit of the dream of opening his own business, being his own boss, employing not only long-time mat maker, Jean Corder, but also putting TSU and Fisk students to work part-time and even finding an occasional spot for his older brother, Howard.

“He had retired from Avco. I told him that if he could make airplane wings, he could learn how to frame pictures.” (Later, Howard allows that his baby brother is a pretty good boss, which leads Nate to add with a laugh, “We don’t run no sweat shop here.”)

Even during his days as an engineer and technician, the dream of having his own business fueled Nate. At first he did picture-framing and woodworking – including cabinet-making for some of Genesco’s Jarman shoe stores – after a full-day’s work.

“It was my second job,” says the father of two grown daughters, both of whom went to historically black Clark Atlanta University. He’s quick to add, with pride, that his wife, Brenda, is a retired nurse.

Everything pretty much came together for him when he came upon this decrepit building, a place where the neighborhood enjoyed Maxi Burgers and malteds when Jefferson Street thrived. Back when he was a kid.

“I wanted to open my own frame business, and it seemed North Nashville was the logical location,” he says, adding that 28 years ago there was a lot of talk of revitalizing the former nightclub, restaurant and mercantile neighborhood, the center of black culture and commerce.

“Back then, the people here had a lot of business from the African-American community, because we couldn’t shop elsewhere,” he notes, referring to the days before the downtown Harveys lunch counter sit-in helped launch disciples of Dr. King, white and black, into the hard-fought battle for integration.

“Everything is possible at Woodcuts,” owner Nate Harris explains.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

Even though he’s thriving here, the resurrection of Jefferson Street really is just beginning, at least partly sparked by the new baseball stadium in the location of old Sulphur Dell, the park the Negro League Elite Giants shared with a variety of white ball clubs.

Nate’s one of the scattered businesses now thriving in the neighborhood where young Army paratrooper-washout Jimmy Hendrix learned guitar tricks from my old friend, Johnny Jones.

Just about every older Baby Boom member of this community “remembers” being at the historic guitar duel between the two men at what was then the Club Baron and is now the Elks Lodge.

Asking a mature (well, we Baby Boomers at least feign maturity) black North Nashville resident if he or she witnessed the battle Johnny won is sort of like asking Titans fans if they were in Adelphia when Dyson took Wycheck’s lateral 75 yards to finish the Music City Miracle.

Jimmy later became Jimi, of course, and used his Stratocasters to guide a generation though lysergic acid and other experiences before too soon kissing the sky. Johnny toured the world and then worked as a quick-shop clerk before being found dead in his apartment by an exterminator back in 2009.

Nate enjoys discussing Jefferson Street’s glory days as he sees more triumphs on the not-distant horizon. About three decades back he became a mercantile Johnny Appleseed, planting a thriving business among the ruins along this historic highway, encouraging others to do likewise.

“Jefferson Street was ruined when the interstate (I-40) came through and destroyed the neighborhood. It’s the same story all across the United States, the interstates coming through black communities. No telling how many businesses were lost.”

Why such a cost among black businesses?

“Well, they didn’t want to go through white neighborhoods and ruin their businesses.” (If it had been up to him, he wouldn’t have taken the interstate through his own neighborhood either, he reckons.)

“When I was in high school (at Pearl, now MLK), I can remember taking driver’s education. Sometimes we’d stop here at Maxi Burgers for lunch on the way back to school. Who’d ever figure I’d open my business in the same building?”

When he rediscovered the building, it had been a dozen years vacant and in horrible repair. But it was in an ideal location, not just on Jefferson Street, but just across 17th Avenue North from Jubilee Hall, the historic residential building erected with funds gathered during the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ 1871 conquest of Europe’s kings and queens.

Naysayers told Nate not to invest his life here and that an art gallery and frame shop couldn’t survive on what had turned into a street all colors of people avoided at night.

“They weren’t thinking about all the professionals and the doctors in this neighborhood during the day, because of Fisk and Meharry Medical College and Tennessee State University,” Nate says. What doctor wants an office without at least one framed diploma or three?

The derelict building and property was owned by Fisk, which “couldn’t afford to renovate it and couldn’t afford to tear it down at that time,” he explains.

Nate accepted a challenge from the university: He would lease the property long-term, shovel away the building’s shooting-gallery refuse and create a reputable establishment deserving of its location across the street from Jubilee Hall.

The project was scheduled to last from May until September. “I did most of the work after working my full-time job. I had only a certain amount of time to get it done, so for the last three days I worked around the clock to finish this building,” he says.

“Then the newspaper was going to come out here and do a story on me. I was so nasty from all that work that I had to go next door to the barber shop to borrow a shirt.”

Nathaniel Harris’ older brother Howard, who retired from making airplane wings, spends a couple days a week helping out at Woodcuts.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

He points with pride to a framed news clipping that includes a photo of the young man in borrowed shirt published in The Tennessean back when it was a true broadsheet and had a local section front.

He not only made the Fisk deadline, he has since expanded this building.

Now others are moving in, following his example, and, in a few years the heart of North Nashville, Jefferson Street, will throb with life, Nate figures.

Scanning the walls filled with art by James Threalkill and other native sons and daughters, Nate recalls the barbers, politicians, entertainers and football players who have come through his doors.

He suddenly stops, shakes his head and, describes the best-known resident of this neighborhood, “Jefferson Street Joe” Gilliam, who went from playing ball at Pearl and TSU to a star-crossed NFL career.

”He was one year behind me in school. I think he was the first black NFL quarterback. There never has been a quarterback who has thrown the ball as well as Joe,” he adds, looking into the distance as if trailing a perfectly spiraling Wilson Duke.

The demons that had already eaten away at the soul of Jefferson Street – as illustrated by the shooting gallery that occupied the building Nate rehabilitated – eventually cost “Joey” his life. But they still talk about him with love in his home neighborhood.

Nate, who was the first president of Jefferson United Merchants Partnership (J.U.M.P.), has used his own workspace as an example of just what can be done with the old buildings, many vacant, others in disrepair.

“I’ve always seen the potential for tourism and nightclubs and restaurants and all types of businesses on Jefferson Street. Who would have thought I’d have a framing shop here for 28 years?” he says of the proud example he sets on this corner near Jubilee Hall.

“I think if the younger kids here are exposed to other professions and businesses, I think they would thrive. You don’t see many stories about African-American successes in The Tennessean.

“I think the younger guys need to see that. Some of them are great salesmen, but we need to show them how they can turn that talent into selling something good. Like refrigerators.” Not crack, heroin or rigor mortis.

Unlike his favorite football player and schoolmate, Nate didn’t let the neighborhood consume him. Instead, he established this foothold for progress, a place where students like the pretty girls from Fisk can come and look at African-American artwork while WFSK (Fisk’s radio station) plays contemporary jazz over the sound system.

“I’ve been telling people who ask ‘what types of businesses should come here?’ that they should look at West End, look at 21st Avenue. Look by the other universities. Those same restaurants, hotels and businesses would be welcomed here,” he points out.

He catches up with the lovely young women of the Fisk Art Club and guides them through the artwork on his walls, stuff that represents the culture of African-Americans in Nashville.

“You got anything you need framed?” he asks me as I prepare to leave. I note I have a poster from the first Rolling Stones concert I’d ever attended, back when time was on my side.

Nate beams. “Framing Rolling Stones posters is my specialty.”