If you've picked up a magazine this year (or last year, or even the year before) — or clicked on a blog, or listened to a podcast — you've probably heard or read a feature about East Nashville. From media monoliths like The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Guardian and Bon Appetit to a slew of smaller outlets, there have been myriad mentions of The Eastside, almost all of them overwhelmingly positive in tone.
If you happen to live in another part of Nashville, you may have responded to yet another East-piece by rolling your eyes, and railing like Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino against the bearded and braces-bedecked denizens you imagine live here.
If you live in another part of the country — or, indeed, the world — you may have simply forgotten the article, the way we forget most of what we read in a given day if it doesn't accrete importance by being brought up/read about again later on. Or maybe you thought, "Now that sounds like an interesting place to live. Let me check it out, maybe light out for the territories. It's sure gotta beat living in Dubuque (Los Angeles, New Delhi, Murfreesboro, et. al.). Lord knows thousands of people have.
However, if you live in East Nashville, the general consensus is that there is no general consensus. We're unsure about how to feel, about whether we're ready for our closeup. We're not even sure if we want our damned closeup.
Most of the those articles focusing on East Nashville mention three things — the music and food scenes, and a coupla loveable weirdos. They mention Todd Snider, and Mas Tacos, and I Dream of Weenie and sometimes make time for 3 Crow Bar and The 5 Spot. Occasionally the preponderance of Hair Worlds is mentioned. They make fun of the hipsters. (We all make fun of the hipsters. Even the hipsters make fun of the hipsters.)
Mind you, East Nashville doesn't have the market cornered on the Toms-shod and the nubile lasses with Harry Carey glasses, and we certainly have our share of them. But what we also have is our share of mothers and fathers and soccer coaches and hairdressers and garbagemen and tax attorneys and Aldi clerks and short order cooks and all the other people who you meet wherever and whenever people gather together in the spirit of community.
This fact does not necessarily make for sexy copy. What makes a place great to live is not always what makes for a great story. You never hear mentions of our schools, or the crime rate (whether positive or negative), or the livability in these hosannas. You hear about some/the same musicians, restaurants, designers and artisans.
What makes a place great to live, for better or worse, are the concerns mentioned above. The tangible things that make any place desirable as a place to set down roots. What makes a scene, on the other hand, are the intangibles, which are super hard to list, being as they are, by definition, not tangible.
But we are mostly photogenic, which helps.
There's an old saw in the newspaper trade that for every person you have doing or saying something — writing a letter to the editor, let's say, or speaking up at a town council meeting — there are ten people who are thinking about it.
We contacted over 25 people to get their takes on East Nashville (and the media attention garnered upon) for this story.
Now, most of the people we contacted are busy. Some of them are chefs, and musicians, and business owners. Some are longtime residents. Some are artists and lawyers. One delivers pizza. A few are moms. These are people who are busy adding to the fabric of East Nashville in their own particular way, every day. We get it. We encourage it. We love them for it.
Still, one can't forget the countless times the topic of media attention comes up in conversation, whether at a bar or a coffee shop, or at work, or any of the vast and varied places people gather. These conversations about East Nashville that always seem to, at some point, circle around to the our ever-growing media moment. The times when someone says "somebody should write a story about this … and talk to me."
What it comes down to is that maybe East Nashville is a little afraid to say something, to kill the Golden Goose. We don't want to wave a magic wand and make it go away, but we would like to forget it, if that's okay with you. We kind of like the attention (who wouldn't want to be told they're cool and desirable and hip?) that we've received over the last year or two. We also kind of want these new people here, or at least those with businesses do, and marvel at their drawing power to bring cool new restaurants and bars, etc. to the neighborhood. More people means more money to spend means more money back into our local economy.
But — if we start believing our press clippings, as newly-minted celebrities are wont to do — are we losing something along the way?
"I recently saw that The Ettes wrote that 'five years ago no one would admit to living in Inglewood,'" says Sam Steelman, a local restaurant worker and musician. "That really rubbed me the wrong way. I've never in my life known anyone to be embarrassed to live over here. It's nice having cool places to eat, and more record stores, but Inglewood has been a great place to live far before they came.
"I've lived in Inglewood my whole life," he continues. "It's got more young people living here, for sure. But I still feel like it's always had a good mix of everyone: rich and poor with a wide middle class. (The) media focus doesn't bother me. I just don't want it to get to where all the families over here end up selling their homes to then get bulldozed down so they can build four houses, side by side with no yard, for richer families to move into."
The quote Steelman alludes to was published in the UK newspaper The Guardian on March of this year — a story by Rosie Birkett entitled "Inglewood, Nashville: The Cool Neighbourhood Where the Ettes Live."
"Five years ago you wouldn't admit you lived in Inglewood," says Lindsay "Coco" Hames, frontwoman of the Ettes, an American garage band that has made the wide, leafy streets of this Nashville area their base. "It was far too north. We moved here because it was cheaper, but now there's a vibrant, creative community and lots of good things happening."
A few hours before this issue was to go to press, we got in touch with Hames, who cheerfully set the record straight.
"Well, I don't know about other people, but I don't write my own press," she says. "A nice journalist lady from London came to town and asked Jem (Cohen, partner in Fond Object and member of The Ettes) to show her around, so he took her to his favorite places. [The article was not] to exclude any businesses not mentioned in the neighborhood, or to claim we invented it — it was just showing some interested visitor around. We have been here for six or seven years, but I can see how people who have been here longer would take umbrage with not being explicitly mentioned. I can't really do anything about that, and I'm more interested in building our neighborhood to be its best, with local businesses, artists, and residents contributing. Tim Kerr painted a portrait of Joe Meek on our wall. Greg Cartwright, Daniel Pujol, Puddles the Clown, and many others play free live sets. Friends and neighbors contribute to our vintage store. And we sell records. We work hard to bring great things we love to the neighborhood we love.
"I don't think it's the press that's making East Nashville blow up in a bad way," Hames continues. "That's a cheap scapegoat. This is just what always happens, everywhere. Old, great neighborhoods exist, and then they [get] develop[ed] again. What sucks most is the real estate developers from out of town who buy it up — real estate is a monetary investment, after all — and make it harder on those of us who live here and want to give to our neighborhood, be that music, food, art, or services. Or buying houses."
Regardless of Hames' intent, Steelman's not the only one who mentioned The Guardian piece to me, although he was the only one to go on record. Our we experiencing our first taste of East Nashville media backlash? Are people simply looking for a scapegoat? Perhaps we do want the attention, but on our own terms. Or perhaps, as Hames suggests, we're not as unique as we think we are — or, at the very least, as others think we are.
East Nashville's Matthew Teague, a furniture designer and builder and and co-proprietor of Spring House Press, says that to read between the lines of our press clippings is to find something closer to the truth.
"[East Nashville's] not nearly as dangerous as the local media thinks, nor nearly as hip as the national media thinks," says East Nashville's Matthew Teague, a furniture designer and co-proprietor of Spring House Press. "But, yes, the food and drink is damn good. The people are friendly and Shelby Bottoms is a gift. You just have to excuse all the silly hats.
"When we moved here ten years ago I hoped that the sketchy corner at McGavock and Riverside would one day have a little bar where I could enjoy a bottle of beer. Now I wish the bar would clear out so I can enjoy my bottle of beer. But by no means would I trade the bar for the peace. We can all be friends."
When asked whether he feels the mountain of media attention focuses too much on the sizzle and too little on the steak — and if so, why the newer, flashier places get all the pub, while the infrastructure, both in a commercial and in a cultural sense, gets short shrift, Teague replies:
"I have long told everyone that Nashville is a better place to live than it is to visit. I really hope that remains true. We've been here a little over ten years now. When we got here we figured we'd sell a year or so later. But we liked it and stayed. Then we thought if we had kids and it came time for them to start school we'd either have to sell or send them to private school. But now the schools have improved so much that I can't imagine moving to a different school zone. I feel really lucky to see my daughter get a solid education in a neighborhood school. School should teach you as much about being a part of the community and world as it does painting or math. Living here, that part is built-in."
Singer/songwriter Tim Easton made his his first record here in 1997, and the musician made East Nashville — Inglewood, to be specific — his home almost three years ago.
"I've made five albums in Nashville, and now have my own studio shack in East Nashville, like many of my neighbors. [The area is] changing right in front of my eyes — Riverside Village especially. There's the new Mitchell Deli, and of course my wife's art gallery, The Red Arrow. I heard that the building that Fond Object is in was just sold for over a million [The East Nashvillian was unable to verify this. —the editor], so I guess some condos are on the way. I'm not exactly thrilled about that [if true], but Wall Street will go where the money is being made. Across from my house, they tore down one old house and built three huge ones on the lot. That's a pretty serious turn around on the money side of things."
Easton says he's not worried about the area's popularity and continued growth, however. In fact, he welcomes it.
"I literally lived in the desert before moving here, so it's nice to be at the epicenter of creativity and culture for a change. It's inspiring to me. It keeps me on my toes, creatively speaking. And [being a parent], all the kids . . . I dig that especially. I think of my neighborhood as one of the greatest in the world, and it's only going to get better as these kids grow up. It seems that every time I turn around there's a new house being built. But you won't hear me complaining about it. Owning a house here is the first great investment I've made. As for the attention, if you've lived here for a while you are probably sick of it, but I love it. What's been lost? I guess we lost a few older, snobby hipsters to Madison. Oh well! But the whole city benefits from people taking care of their neighborhoods, making them safe and fun."
What Easton implies here is that when people move to a place, and the move was their choice (which is much different than moving when you have no choice), they're likely to take care of that new place, to try and improve it, or at least keep it up to the best of their ability. Does this mean some growing pains? Of course. But growing pains mean that you're growing. "If you're not busy livin', you're busy dyin'," a famous man once said.
Musician Joshua Hedley would like it known that he loves this city and always has, since he first visited as a 12-year-old in 1996 and moved here for good in 2006. Now a resident of the Far, Far East of Madison, he speaks lovingly of East Nashville, but isn't afraid to pull it aside, like you would a good friend, and say what's on his mind.
"It wasn't too long into my stay here that I found where I needed to be, a magical place just across the Cumberland River from my shitty downtown apartment, a place filled with artists, and writers, and like-minded musicians. It was cheap, It had cool bars, it had two Krogers . . . it had just about everything a broke kid in his mid-20s could possibly want. I loved it. It was great. Then it started to grow.
"Look, I'm not going to sit here and pretend that gentrification wasn't already well in place when I moved there," says Hedley. "But what East Nashville was to me was a hip neighborhood wherein people from all walks of life could afford to come together and enjoy living in a decent affordable neighborhood where they could have their dogs, and play their music, and not worry about apartment living with a neighbor on the other side of the wall yelling at you to keep it down. East Nashville seemed like a place where a young person could come and start a life. And thats exactly what I intended to do."
And which he did, at least until this past year.
"I'm happy the city is growing," he continues. "There are so many great things I want people to get a chance to experience. But with growth comes change, and some of those great things are taking a backseat to some not so great things. The little mom and pop organizations that made the area special are fading away. The chicken fried steaks and mashed potatoes are turing into gluten free braised tofu salads and pan-fried, raspberry-infused kale chips. So whats wrong with that? Well, nothing is wrong with that, so long as you can afford it. And the influx of people moving to town are more than happy and more than able to drop that cash on such things. But what about the people who can't? What about the people who moved to East Nashville because that's where they could afford to live? With every news story praising the area's progressive growth, the buzz gets bigger and the cost of living gets higher. But who says that's progress? I don't. My little hole-in-the-wall taco spots now have 45-minute lunch waits, and I hardly recognize anyone in my local watering hole anymore. Who are you people? Where did you come from? And what is it about quinoa that you like so much? But it's not all bad. Property values are up, crime is down, and Prince's is still open. I still have some of my favorite spots, but now they've become close-guarded secrets."
Bob Weir, singer/guitarist for The Grateful Dead — and, it should be noted, an inveterate, proto-hipster wearer of cutoff jean shorts, funky moustaches and old P.E. shirts — told Rolling Stone magazine a few years back that the Haight-Ashbury scene really ended when people moved there because it had become a scene; better put, was publicized as a scene by the media. The people that lived in the "scene," said Weir, the people that made it what it was, all had something to add, whether it was in a creative, spiritual, or civic sense. Maybe someone was an organic farming expert. Great. Maybe someone liked to look after the kids, or clean houses. That was useful too. But the scene died, said Weir, when people moved in merely to be in proximity to the scene, to the big hang-out. They were there to have a good time, and didn't necessarily add their own unique bit of fabric to the patchwork quilt that had been stitched together. The death knell, said Weir, was when the people who moved to San Francisco to be part of the scene priced out those creatives and otherwise standup cool people who helped birth it to begin with. (Weir has now lived long enough to see this happen to the City By The Bay for a second time, it should be noted.)
Some of this backlash, of course, is probably media handwringing about other media. But it also speaks to the idea of a saturation point. Sure, record stores and ramen bars are cool. But do we really need nine different vintage clothing shops any more than we need a dozen Hair Worlds or Discount Tobacco Outlets? Is another record store any more or less intrinsically valuable than, say, another car wash or carnicería? Capitalism is what causes the building (and media) explosion we're currently experiencing, and capitalism, if not blind, at least looks the other way a lot when making its daily rounds to collect protection money.
"If you build it, he will come," a mysterious voice famously counseled Ray Kinsella (as played by Kevin Costner in "Field of Dreams"). It's a great piece of advice. We shouldn't stop doing cool things, or being cool to each other, just because there are more people here now. Where we get into trouble is when we lose sight of that chestnut, and turn it backwards: "If you come, we will build it."
However you feel about the issue, there's hope for either side in this comforting fact, bolstered by centuries of inadvertent test studies in cities the world over: There's a not a single thing any of us can do to stop it. We're no different from anywhere else people gather (or have ever gathered), which is perhaps our biggest hope and biggest fear, depending on the day.
The sooner we come to realize it, the better off we'll all be.