15 Years Later
At around 3:30 p.m. on Thursday , April 16, 1998, an F3 tornado , with maximum sustained winds nearing 200 MPH, swept through Nashville . The twister , which formed near Charlotte Pike and 46th Avenue, took a near direct path through the downtown area. It then hopped the Cumberland River and continued its path of destruction in East Nashville; it moved steadily eastward before finally lifting near Hartsville, TN. Hundreds of homes were damaged in East Nashville alone, and estimates place the total cost of the damage at over $100 million. That the tornado was a transformative event for the communities on the East Side is now an accepted fact. A lesser-known aspect of this transformation is what took place behind the scenes in the wake of the tornado. How did the actions of government officials, community leaders and everyday citizens help shape the East Nashville of today? What is it about the spirit of our community that allowed it to prevail? For our cover feature we’ve invited three East Nashvillians to share their perspectives in the hopes of answering these questions.
What makes us stronger:
By Bill Purcell
From Philadelphia, my father called my office at Vanderbilt to tell me CNN had reported a tornado alert for Nashville. My staff told him I was in a meeting and could not be disturbed. In the meeting we watched the trees outside bend in ways we had never seen. As we stood increasingly closer to the window, we saw a limb fly off and land on a colleague’s car. Someone remarked how unusual this was. On the other side of West End a student was killed when the tree under which he sought cover fell over. Minutes later, the tornado struck our neighborhood. We did not know about the loss of life or what lay ahead for East Nashville; we just stood at the window and wondered.
At the same time, my wife and daughter were driving away from our home on Holly Street for ballet class. They noticed the wind, but took no notice of the tornado. As the full extent of the storm became known, they started back home, but only made it as far as the H.G. Hill on Gallatin Road. The roads were blocked, night was falling, and it became apparent that the lights were all out. They decided to walk the mile to our home. That was the last cell phone contact I had as the communication system collapsed.
For the next hour I had no information about my family, my neighbors or my neighborhood. For all of us, it was a dark and increasingly frightening night. By the time I made it home I knew at least that my loved ones were safe but in the dark, and we still had no clear sense of what had happened. As the neighborhood gathered in the street we were cheered by our own presence — and scared nearly senseless by the unknown.
In the days that followed, we learned not only the full extent of the damage and loss, but how lucky and blessed we were. We also came to appreciate our neighbors and neighborhood in new and very personal ways. Everyone pitched in, chain saws appeared, as did people from all over Tennessee who just wanted to help — and they did.
We discovered all over again what our neighborhood meant to us. And the city understood, many for the first time, how special the people and the place were. Every report reinforced the basic importance of community. The assault on the built environment was the lead in every story. But always close behind was the way the people of the neighborhood came together to support one another, to celebrate survival of what was most dear, and to cry about what was lost.
In the days ahead, much of the rest of Nashville went back to business and life as usual. There were moments during the year that followed when the pain returned, the things lost again front of mind, and our memories no longer shared in the balance of the city where nothing had much changed. But in the years that have followed it has been apparent that the rest of our city had, through those days, understood why East Nashville had survived and prevailed through any and all natural and human disasters during the 20th century. Two tornadoes, a massive fire, urban neglect, school decline and the rise of crime had not overcome the intrinsic value of the place and the people who had lived there all along and the people who had joined them.
The neighborhood movement that had started and flourished here was a result of no assault or threat and did not arise from disaster. It came from a shared desire nearly a generation before to protect what was and is so good and so special about the place and the people East Nashville nurtured through two centuries. Historic zoning and conservation zoning, neighborhood crime suppression and more constant attention to codes had affirmed the belief that neighborhoods could protect themselves and improve quality of life.
The assault of the tornado focused Nashville’s attention for a time on us all. The memory it created was of a place more special, more vital and more attractive than most of the city remembered or perhaps ever knew. That memory has been indelible and continues to this day.
East Nashville was neither destroyed nor saved by the tornado. We were, in some ways, reaffirmed in our commitment to what we were doing and would need to keep doing to make our neighborhoods what we had dreamed they could be: safe on every corner, served by good schools, graced by inspiring churches and rich with green spaces, connected by sidewalks, greenways and bike lanes. And protected by a city that now understood that we knew what we had and we would always protect it and everyone here. No natural disaster had ever changed that, and no tornado could either. East Nashville was and is too old and too young and too committed to what we are and dream to be. An enduring and very personal commitment of which a day in April 1998 is simply a reminder.
The next year there was a mayoral election. We soon installed tornado sirens in public spaces across the city. An office of neighborhoods was created, and a new commitment was made to parks and sidewalks and schools and housing and infrastructure and the built environment. The sirens were a direct result of the tornado. The rest came about because the neighborhoods of East Nashville had long before understood — and then shared — what was most important to the success of the city and the lives of the people for whom it was created.
If you build it...
How a tornado sparked East Nashville’s economic resurrection
By Dan Heller
In the days following the 1998 tornado, few in Nashville — especially those in the devastated neighborhoods of East Nashville — would have felt anything but a profound sense of bewilderment, sadness and loss. I was not there when it hit, but I saw the aftermath. Thousands of trees uprooted, 1,200 homes, businesses and churches damaged or destroyed.
Before the tornado, I had crossed the river only a handful of times. Like so many others living in other parts of town, I didn’t exactly see the East Side as a desirable destination, let alone a place to start a business or call home. Ignored for decades by many new homebuyers and most investors other than slumlords, the east bank of the Cumberland suffered from an abundance of ramshackle properties, drugs and crime. And even though prior to the storm a few new businesses had opened and many important community improvement projects were underway, economic progress remained slow.
The tornado changed all that.
In the 15 years since the storm, that profound sense of bewilderment, sadness and loss has faded; it’s been washed away by hard work, new memories and time. Abandoned land and the damaged and dilapidated buildings have been replaced with trendy shops and dining destinations in places called Walden, 5 Points and Riverside Village. Nashville overall has become the “it” city, lauded by a national press invariably spotlighting the artsy and eclectic East Side as the new hotspot to enjoy historic architecture, music, art galleries, nationally known restaurants and cool bars.
For all its fury in tearing things apart, the tornado — for the first time in many decades — built a bridge across the Cumberland and brought our entire city together.
The specifics of how and why the tornado spurred these changes involve interrelated social, financial, governmental and market- driven factors, plus the applied leadership and vision of a handful of community activists, decision-makers and risk-takers. However, East Nashville’s resurrection from its economic rubble after the tornado resulted from the rapid, focused and sustained infusion of capital into the marketplace.
It happened like this: The tornado damaged or destroyed many homes and businesses in East Nashville, large numbers of which were slumlord-owned and decades overdue for repairs. Some property owners took their insurance payouts and reinvested in patch-ups and improvements. Others pocketed the money and sold to new owners. This first major flow of new money into so many East Side properties, many of which would have otherwise remained stagnant, visibly improved the area, inspired optimism and catalyzed additional investment.
Greer Carr, a Farmer’s Insurance agent active in the area then and now, put it this way: “The tornado set off a chain reaction that resulted in one of the largest urban renewal projects in our city’s history. The insurance claims had a huge impact.”
Terry Cobb, Davidson County Codes Administrator, agrees. “Suddenly millions of dollars in insurance money was paid and turned a negative into a positive.” Indeed, according to the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance, a citywide total of $175 million in insurance payouts flooded into Nashville, a substantial but undetermined portion of which flowed to the East Side.
Additionally, the dot-com crash soon after the tornado caused many investors to shift their investments from securities to more tangible assets like gold and real estate. This trend, combined with record low interest rates and loose borrowing terms from banks brought more homebuyers, rehabbers and still more capital.
Unfortunately, all this economic activity didn’t have positive results for everyone. The inevitable consequence of a relatively rapid and strengthening economic transformation meant that while property changed hands and new people moved in, many longtime residents moved out. As home values and taxes increased, the benchmark for “affordable” housing increased as well, pricing many out of the market.
While the increasing flow of capital pushed property improvements and increased confidence that more long-desired progress lay ahead, intentional decisions by commercial developers to attract new kinds of businesses — rather than simply leasing to status quotype businesses — had a big impact on East Nashville’s retail services, quality of life and overall neighborhood culture.
March Egerton, unquestionably the most prolific and visionary developer in East Nashville, understood the storm would change the dynamics of the local real estate market and saw a silver lining in a bad situation. “The tornado was ugly but it also created a unique business opportunity,” Egerton says. “Large amounts of property were changing hands quickly. East Nashville already had huge potential, but the tornado sped that up.” Egerton soon set his sights on pairing specific properties with specific businesses to meet what he saw as a growing demand for more upscale retail, drinking and dining services. He says that while his decisions were deliberate, success still required good timing and a bit of luck.
The result of Egerton’s efforts in 5 Points: An abandoned TV repair shop became Bongo Java. A 1930s gas station became Margot Cafe. An old clapboard home eventually became The Red Door. A vacant storefront shop became Marché. A ramshackle metal garage became Chop Shop. An old office building became PizzeReal.
Simultaneously, or in response to the strengthening market, other investors snapped up property in the area, adding still more optimism, capital and momentum to the process. In the ensuing few years, Rosepepper, The Family Wash, Sasso (now Lipstick lounge) The Turnip Truck, Slow Bar (now 3 Crow), Beyond The Edge, Chapel Bistro (now Eastland Cafe), Batter’d & Fried and Alley Cat (now Drifters) sprung to life. These new neighborhood gathering spots, as well as the wildly popular Tomato Festival founded by Art & Invention owners Meg and Bret MacFadyen, began attracting large numbers of people from across the river, helping to reshape East Nashville’s image as a not-so-scary, hip, artsy, food-anddrink destination.
Billy Fields, director of disaster relief after the tornado, observed that many Nashvillians who came to help with cleanup were amazed at how charming and “normal” the East Side was and not quite as dangerous as once perceived.
Ellen Einstein, East Nashville resident since 1993 and co-owner of Sweet 16th Bakery, says, “It brought out the best in us from both sides of the river. Seeing neighbors helping neighbors — block by block — was inspiring. Strangers showing up with chainsaws, trucks, sandwiches … that feeling of support and community is really what kept us here after the storm.”
Immediate news coverage of the tornado’s destruction and the months-long news stories of the subsequent cleanup caught the attention of many west-side homebuyers as well. They noted all the beautiful, historic homes with sale prices sometimes half that of similar homes in Sylvan Park, Richland or Cherokee Park.
Ernie Chaires, owner of Rosepepper Cantina on Eastland Avenue, says, “The tornado brought new money, new people and the idea of a future.” Chaires should know. He came to East Nashville in 2001 to hunt for a new restaurant location, an idea first suggested to him by — surprise! — March Egerton. Chaires says that when Rosepepper first opened, it quickly became the unofficial meeting place for realtors to meet clients. “Just having this kind of place centrally located between the Lockeland Springs and Inglewood neighborhoods, where people could meet and gather was important”, he says. “It sent a signal that the area actually was a great place to do live and do business.”
Margot McCormack, owner of nationally acclaimed Margot Cafe and Marché, agrees. “The tornado was a pivotal event for East Nashville. It brought money and attention to the area that was not here before … . Any time you take an old building and turn it into something special, it’s like breathing life into the neighborhood.”
Financial and market-driven factors aside, the tornado galvanized citywide attention and community action that led to deeper, more organized collaboration between Metro and neighborhood leaders — a crucial ingredient of the overall recovery.
Then-mayor Phil Bredesen’s Tornado Recovery Board, the Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team led by architect Hunter Gee, and the formation of Rediscover East! all provided vital mechanisms for assessing community needs and developing long term plans for future growth.
Bold and effective community leaders like Carol Norton, Anne Roberts, Bob Borzak, Eileen Beehan, Earl Campbell, Pastor Lannie Lawler, Christine Kreyling, Diane Neighbors, and Carol and Charlie Williams, led many effective campaigns to enforce building codes, beautify streets, improve Eastside schools and help reduce crime, long before the tornado.
Hindsight paints the clearest picture of how the 1998 tornado influenced the revival of East Nashville. So many important stories, leaders and anonymous heroes are yet to be known. But we realize the storm’s legacy is not about what it destroyed but what it created: A bustling local economy, more prosperity, more choice and a better quality of life for most. Ultimately, the tornado sparked the creation of new neighborhood organizations, strengthened our sense of community, and finally opened eyes throughout Nashville to the fullest potential of what our city and citizens could be.
Urban Planning Helped Make East Nashville What It Is Today
By Terri Dorsey
The summer after the tornado, a team descended upon East Nashville that wasn’t the normal group of clean-up volunteers. They didn’t perform any manual labor; the goal for this team was setting up a game plan for the future look of East Nashville.
Some of the nation’s best urban designers, planners, architects and engineers were sent by the American Institute of Architects to offer unique recovery assistance known as the Regional Urban Design Assistance Team (R/UDAT). With this team of R/UDAT experts, Nashville gained a privilege seldom available to many disaster sites — the chance to design a better community than the one destroyed.
Now, 15 years later, some of their work has materialized in the thriving, energetic and hip hamlet of East Nashville. Their ideas have encouraged more business districts; connected neighborhood groups; strengthened the campaign for better schools; and improved the looks and traffic flow on Shelby Avenue and Main Street. At least as important has been the long-term follow-up of the East Nashville community. Rediscover East! was organized to continue the work R/UDAT began. These disparate elements came together with focus and purpose … all because of the tornado.
It wasn’t just luck that lured the R/UDAT team to come here. Early neighborhood organizers and city leaders worked hard to get their help. “It was no accident, because we had already been organized. So we could capitalize were concerned about helping East Nashville,” explains Christine Kreyling, an early neighborhood activist. “I felt we could use the tornado for long-term planning rather than just getting blue tarps off the roofs.”
Kreyling had been meeting with two other East Side advocates, Steve Neighbors and Ann Roberts, plotting how to unite the scattered blocks of current, smaller neighborhood associations. They never expected a tornado would be the boost to kick-start an East Side movement. “So many people were coming over to help, and we knew we’d get the spotlight. So we wanted to use that,” she says “not just to make short-time fixes but long-term strategy.”
The immediate recovery help from other parts of Nashville, and the quick work of neighborhood leaders, led to a Tornado Recovery Board. It coordinated an effective group of Metro officials from every agency, neighborhood residents and business leaders.
The Recovery Board didn’t simply pick up the pieces in East Nashville — they wanted a master plan for future improvements. So they sought help from R/UDAT experts. The whole process took several months before a final report was issued.
With their outside perspective, these professionals had some interesting observations. They recognized some of the characteristics that made East Nashville seem so home-like, such as walkable neighborhood streets with nearby stores, churches, schools and parks just around the corner. They also said — as noted in the report — that such a community is rare.
“Given the strength and quality of these neighborhood characteristics, the area has survived the post-WWII forces that devastated traditional neighborhoods throughout the United States.” The report goes on to say, “It managed an amazing resilience through changes in population, transportation and employment.”
Some of the key recommendations in the report included:
•Keep corner stores
•Improve the looks of the neighborhood “entrances”
•Develop financial incentives to attract investors
•Create a civic square
•Define guidelines for business districts
Protecting the village-like nature of commercial areas while encouraging new stores to open meant setting up guidelines for the design of urban development. Rich McCoy, an architect and East Nashvillian, serves as the chairman of The Urban Design Committee, which was set up 14 years ago within Rediscover East! to implement these guidelines.
A number of other committees were also created at the time, however some of them were able to phase out as work launched by the R/UDAT plan was completed. As McCoy explains, “Everything got put on autopilot, which is good. That means the agencies are doing good, MDHA is doing good, the historic commission is doing good, and the monitoring of the design guidelines are being followed.”
Some of planning concepts turned into reality. For example, East Side residents no longer need to go across the river for a wide choice of restaurants. Carol Norton, one of the original neighborhood advocates, used to say many years ago, “The homeless have more dining choices in East Nashville than the residents.”
As the chairwoman of the traffic committee, Norton is also happy to lose the problem of the “Shelby 500,” the name she dubbed Shelby Avenue before the four-lane road was slowed with fewer lanes.
One of the main ideas the community hoped for is still sitting on a shelf: A civic center, or “The Oval” as it was called, was planned for the area in front of East Library. Some hope this dream will come true, along with a future East- West transit line.
Not the First
By Robbie D. Jones
The 1998 tornado may have been one of the most destructive to hit East Nashville, but it wasn’t the first. Nor was it the last. According to the National Weather Service, since 1833 about 500 tornadoes have occurred in Middle Tennessee. Between 1993 and 2003 alone, our region experienced 16 tornadoes, leading the Midstate to be dubbed Tennessee’s Tornado Alley. From 1833-2012, Davidson County experienced 37 tornadoes, second only to Rutherford County with 38. And on Jan. 30, 2013, another two tornadoes struck the county, including one in East Nashville.
Here is a look at some of the more significant tornadoes to strike East Nashville, based on National Weather Service records and research gathered by Mark A. Rose, a local meteorologist.
March 14, 1933
On March 14, 1933, an F3 tornado left a 45-mile-long swath of damage through Davidson, Wilson and Smith Counties, killing 15 and injuring 45 in East Nashville alone. One of the deadliest tornadoes in Tennessee history, this storm’s point of origin was Charlotte Pike and 51st Avenue. As it passed over the State Capitol and Public Square, the tornado gathered intensity as it crossed the Cumberland River above the Woodland Street Bridge and struck East Nashville with a vengeance, lifting near Tulip Grove in Hermitage. Its path was nearly identical to the F3 tornado that struck East Nashville 65 years later.
In 1933, there was no weather radar and the Weather Service did not issue tornado warnings. Striking after sunset around 7:30 p.m., the terrifying storm hit when many people were already in bed. The temperature had hit 80 degrees earlier in the day before a fast-moving cold front brought torrential rain, large hail and deadly squall lines. Striking quickly, the tornado left behind a three-mile trail of destruction varying from 400 to 800 yards in width, damaging or destroying some 1,400 homes, 16 churches, 36 stores, five factories, four schools, one library and a lodge hall. The same storm created additional tornadoes in the East Tennessee counties of Campbell, Claiborne, Hancock and Sullivan. In total, this tornado outbreak killed 52, injured 556 and left 552 homeless.
In East Nashville, first responders included police officers, the National Guard, legionnaires, Red Cross workers, Boy Scouts and Salvation Army workers. Some worked for 36 hours straight in order to maintain control, restore order and prevent panic. Within two days, streets had been cleared and the city’s relief agencies were providing shelter, food and clothing to the thousands of storm victims. The destruction was so extreme that many people could not find their own homes in order to determine if they still stood or not. Although Riverside Drive was impassable for more than 24 hours due to fallen trees, Robert Lanier kept his grocery store open all night in order to feed storm victims in Inglewood. The Dixie Tabernacle at 210 Woodland Street and churches were used as emergency shelters.
April 7, 1972
Nearly 40 years passed before the next major tornado hit East Nashville. On April 7, 1972, an F2 tornado injured 15 people. With its point of origin in Ashland City, this tornado followed a southeasterly track for 18.5 miles through North Nashville before passing through Cleveland Park, Greenwood, Eastwood, Rosebank and Shelby Bottoms. It lifted along Lebanon Pike in Donelson.
April 3, 1974
Just two years later, on April 3, 1974, a deadly F2 tornado swept through Nashville, resulting in a dozen injuries and one fatality. Part of the Super Outbreak of 1974 — in which 24 tornadoes touched down in the region, leaving hundreds injured and over two dozen fatalities — this tornado hit the ground in Belle Meade, wreaking havoc as it crossed the Cumberland River just south of the Gateway Bridge into East Nashville. The deadly storm followed a northeasterly 4.7-mile long path through Shelby Hills, Lockeland Springs, Shelby Bottoms and South Inglewood before lifting near McGavock Pike and Two Rivers.