With all of the cranes and drilling going on around Vanderbilt and throughout Nashville, it’s possible to forget that Nashville is a living, functioning city and not a construction zone.
“One of my friends was saying the other day that they can’t even take a picture of the sunset anymore without a crane getting in the way,” said Kristyn Fratus, a 2014 Vanderbilt graduate who has stayed in Nashville as an admissions counselor at Vanderbilt.
Nashville’s rapid growth — the city’s population has been increasing by 10 percent per year since 2010 — and gentrification has been a major topic of conversation recently, garnering coverage in many media outlets. Gentrification, the process of wealthier people moving into neighborhoods and creating a drastic increase in rent and property values, can significantly alter the character and culture of an area.
Reverend Mark Forrester, the University Chaplain and Director of Religious Life, who has served at Vanderbilt for 21 years and lived in Nashville for 58 years, has needed to adjust to all of the recent construction and turnover.
“You start to watch your own city take on a different character and a different dimension than before,” he said.
Fratus says she’s worried about this phenomenon — particularly the fact that rent for students and recent graduates will rise significantly. Because the land developers for condos and complexes recognize the popularity of Nashville and residents’ rising incomes, she said, they will begin to charge more in rent. This comes at the cost of people like Fratus not being able to live close to where they work.
“Those of us who have jobs in that part of town can’t really afford to live there,” Fratus said.
People have begun to notice as these changes creep toward the areas immediately surrounding Vanderbilt’s campus.
Buckingham Companies is building the new Aertson Midtown development located on 21st Avenue across from Wilson Hall, one of those high-cost developments. While Scott Travis, Buckingham’s Senior Vice President of Development, said that the company was excited to be “so close to a great university,” he also mentioned that the development would be upscale and marketed toward a higher-income crowd.
Student hangouts in flux
In February, 12th and Porter, a popular music venue, closed its doors permanently. More recently, the land that houses J & J’s Market and Cafe and Noshville Delicatessen was sold to developers for $2.4 million. The developers plan to turn the area into condos, apartments, a hotel and retail space.
J & J’s has been in Midtown since 1972. General manager Sam Huh wants to ensure that fans don’t panic just yet.
“We have this lease until 2021, so the building is mine until then,” according to Huh. J & J’s said the cafe doesn’t intend to close or relocate currently, but Huh wasn’t clear about his immediate plans for the location.
While J & J’s fate remains uncertain, Fratus was “bummed” to find that one of her favorite spots could be in danger.
“It was one of those hidden gems that you talk about,” Fratus said. “J & J’s was one of those untouched spots that wasn’t getting too crowded.”
Since going to J & J’s when she visited Vanderbilt, senior Lily Williams has frequented J & J’s once a week to study, and appreciates its “worn-in” feel.
“It felt so homey and cool, and that was definitely a factor in my choosing to go here,” Williams said. “I love the exposed brick and the worn floors. It’s also acquired its own sort of feel. I feel judged when I go to a place like Starbucks, but at J & J’s I can spread out and work.”
Junior Octavio Edgington appreciates the ability to get off campus and relax at the cafe.
“It’s cool to come here to leave the ‘Vanderbubble’ a bit and interact with Nashville. You get a full sense of Nashville’s community,” Edgington said.
Forrester, who used to frequent Midtown when he studied at Vanderbilt’s divinity school from 1979 to 1983, is sad to see the loss of these types of authentic places.
“When those kinds of spaces go away, it sterilizes the culture in a way that I don’t find appealing,” Forrester said.
Another popular Vanderbilt hangout, karaoke bar Lonnie’s Western Room, had to move from its longtime Printer’s Alley spot in April 2015 after the area was bought to become an upscale boutique hotel. Even though the new Lonnie’s is just steps away, some students feel that the new location has lost some character.
“I miss that dingy, dark feel,” said Hannah Turnbull, senior. “The old building had the odd seating, bottlecaps shoved into the ceiling, all of its little charms. Now it seems like somebody turned the Featheringill lobby into a bar.”
Other students are less worried about the change. Senior Renzo Costa didn’t notice a difference after his recent trip to the new Lonnie’s.
“I wasn’t really able to tell any difference. The old one was dusty, but people will make the new one dusty soon enough,” Costa said.
Beyond the “Vanderbubble”
Forrester points out that the issue has affected many neighborhoods in Nashville beyond the Vanderbilt area.
“Certainly East Nashville … Germantown and the Gulch are seeing a lot of turnover. Ten years ago, certainly 20 years ago, the Gulch was sort of a bottomed-out industrial neighborhood. Those neighborhoods are trending towards becoming more urbane,” Forrester said.
Forrester sees the gentrification in Nashville driven by an attempt to create self-sufficient neighborhoods that allow residents to live, shop, eat and recreate in a tight area. But he worries that people on fixed incomes will become the victims of rising property values.
“I’m kind of appalled about how some of these neighborhoods are changing to squeeze out people with fixed incomes,” Forrester said. “You see the gentrification, it puts the properties at too high a price point for people of certain incomes. … They just happened to end up in trendy neighborhoods that they can’t keep up with financially.”
The land developers themselves recognize that the turnover can be a lot to handle, but point out that Nashville is an exciting city to be in. Scott Travis from Buckingham made sure to note that the Aertson development is only displacing a Wendy’s and an old parking lot. Travis also, though, finds that all of this new development reflects a positive growth for Nashville.
“Nashville was attractive for a bunch of reasons, number one with job growth and stability. There’s also stability with it being the capital,” Travis said. “That’s part of what made Nashville an attractive location.”
Keeping Nashville “weird”
Yet others worry that buildings and a booming economy aren’t the only things in Nashville that are changing, anticipating that Nashville’s unique culture might also be on the line. Fratus sees similarities to the changes in her original hometown of San Antonio when she watches Nashville evolve.
“Where we were, it (San Antonio) was more small-town-like, and that was the charm of the area. Then it became a bunch of expensive bars and chain malls that are nice to have, but you don’t need them every block. … I worry that the same thing might be happening here,” Fratus explained.
Williams echoed that sentiment. “While this is good for Nashville as a burgeoning city, we’re losing the weirdness. The buildings are exciting, but it’s disappointing. I know I’ve only been here for three years now, but it still feels like a loss,” she said.
Alumnus Zach Blumenfeld describes Nashville as a city that grew around culture, making it a “place you want to live and work and that simultaneously you can experience this great idiosyncratic culture that you can’t find anywhere else in the country.” Blumenfeld said the loss of that culture could be equivalent to a loss of identity for Nashville.
“Vandy students lose a lot of what they could have learned about the different ways urban areas can look and different cultures it can have,” Blumenfeld said. If Nashville keeps rapidly changing, according to Blumenfeld, Vanderbilt students “may as well be going to school in any city.”
Fratus sees the same loss of culture as potentially damaging to Nashville.
“To close cultural and social places to create more bed space is hard for me to swallow, because I think that’s part of why Nashville is so successful. It’s a small, supportive and tight-knit community,” Fratus said. “I think that’s something that potentially could be lost down the road.”
Photos by Ziyi Liu, Vanderbilt Hustler Photo Director