“I’ve been in East Nashville 30 years. Same house on Woodland — we bought it condemned. My mother used to give me a hard time because everybody else in the family bought houses, and she kept bugging me: ‘When are you gonna have kids and buy a house?’ So I bought one. She comes to see it and breaks down in tears. Says, ‘you wait all this time to buy a house and this is the best you got?’ I tried to explain to her, I’m a designer, so to me this is a clean slate! I redesigned that house and built a business around it after that. So yeah, this fall is 30 years. November ’85.” —Bob Borzak
The East Side has certainly been fertile loam for fixer-uppers, and many residents gamely refurbish their homes. Some enjoy it, and once in a while someone finds their calling. Since wrestling his own decrepit domicile into shape, Bob Borzak has been redesigning other people’s kitchens and home theaters, among other things, for three decades, and his ambitions haven’t been limited to simple dwelling houses. In the past few years, he’s set his sights on what may be the ultimate challenge: Cayce Place Homes. All
Called an island of poverty surrounded by renewal, Cayce Place — and any redevelopment thereof — had long been considered a dead issue. But Borzak was one of a small cadre of believers who saw possibilities. He is the vice president and cofounder of the Cayce Place Revitalization Foundation, a group that spearheaded a strategy: moving the residents out into temporary housing, razing and rebuilding their houses, and moving the residents back into a far more attractive environment that would include schools and amenities, and a whole new sense of possibilities for all who live there.
A gentle, white-haired man with glasses and a spray of whiskers, Borzak is a Cleveland native who studied industrial design at Auburn University before settling in Nashville. “I’ve lived here now longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere else,” he says, “so I consider myself somewhat of a native.”
Always active in the community, he once mounted a campaign for city council. “In the middle of running for council, I decided to have a brain aneurysm, which didn’t bode well, so needless to say it (the campaign) didn’t happen,” he says. “But one of my campaign promises was to do something about Cayce.
Continuing, he adds, “People said it can’t be done, it won’t be done, others have already tried, and I wouldn’t be doing myself any favors by trying further.”
But after his health scare and his scuttled campaign, he says, “I didn’t have to worry about it anymore, since I wasn’t going to be elected to city council, so now it was going to be an independent effort.”
He was sent home from the hospital on election day, and ran fortuitously into Randall Gilberd, an investment banker with a sympathetic ear. The two of them founded the Cayce Place Revitalization Foundation. The mission statement was “to break the cycle of multigenerational poverty through the holistic revitalization of Cayce Place, including mixed-income housing, world-class schools, and a broad network of social support programs.” That was 2012, and things moved quickly
Taking their cue from Purpose Built Communities, a foundation which spearheaded successful neighborhood revitalization programs in Atlanta and New Orleans, they set sights on a holistic ground-up reinvention of the neighborhood. “There is a provision for another school to be built on the property,” Borzak says. “Purpose Built Communities feels the important thing is that all the schools are neighborhood schools, so the kids don’t have to take buses.”
Borzak’s and Gilberd’s efforts got them both nominated for 2013 East Nashvillian of the Year. Since then, Metro Development and Housing Agency (MDHA) has approved the Cayce project, and what was once judged impossible is now in the pipeline.
So what does he like to do when not reinventing the neighborhood? “I love to cook,” he says. “I love to go camping. My whole family are tent campers and backpackers when we have the energy to do that. And I’ve been involved with the neighborhood here for years. We set up a neighborhood watch group, which I’ve been a part of since the tornado happened. We’ve got one of the lowest crime rates in the city now. And a lot of it has to do with the neighborhood