Life every day offers possibilities—possibilities to serve, to be involved, to protect your neighborhood, to help a friend. If I see a need where I feel like I can make a difference, then I’ll be there. It doesn’t matter what it is, how small or how big,” declares Carol Williams.
It’s that kind of earnest, go-getter attitude that has helped Carol Williams change East Nashville in a multitude of ways for more than 35 years, and it helps explain why, at the age of 69, she’s tackling what she calls “the biggest thing to happen on this side of the river in decades.” With a seat on the board for the Cayce Place Revitalization Foundation, Williams is working to build support for a plan that would tear down the public housing community and start over—while potentially opening up the East Side’s share of the riverfront to new development.
Williams may have her hands full, but she’s no stranger to large-scale revitalization movements. When she moved to Russell Street in 1975, she didn’t just burst onto the activism scene—she helped create it. The area was then a much different place: Think less charming view of Nashville history, more crime scenes and slumlords. In fact, they got the idea to move here after her late husband, an attorney, investigated a murder scene down the street. “What my parents did . . . was crazy, but it ended up being the best kind of crazy and a decision for which I will be eternally grateful,” says William’s daughter, Annie B. Williams. “My brothers and I were exposed daily to people and lifestyles very different than ours, and as a result we learned to know, accept, learn from, and love those differences.”
“The Edgefield of the mid-‘70s was very rough, but it was also real. It was the authenticity that drove my parents to give the finger to white suburbia and move their young family to the slums,” says her son, Charlie Williams. “We might not have been able to get a pizza delivered to our house, but as a kid I always felt a sense of purpose in my parents and their decisions. They were living life deeply.” While raising their three children, they cleaned up the mess a squatter left behind and restored their home back to its former glory. They discovered other people interested in cleaning up the rest of the neighborhood, too. They organized into Historic Edgefield, fighting for, and eventually winning, a Historic Zoning Overlay, which gives Metro oversight on any demolitions or renovations to this day. Other neighborhoods followed suit, and community meetings began to crop up in every nook and cranny of East Nashville.
“Carol’s always been an inspiration to newer neighbors as they come in,” says Bob Acuff, locally known as an East Nashville crime-fighter and activist. “We need to have newer neighbors understand that East Nashville didn’t just happen this way; it’s been a lot of work.”
Williams’ daughter Annie B. admires her mom’s spunk. “Where I may get upset about something in the paper, she writes a letter to the editor. Where I may shake my head at the trash on the side of the street, she picks it up. Where I may fear the drug house in the corner, she gets it condemned. It’s mind boggling!”
Even East Park got a makeover—from unlit wasteland to urban green space and home to the annual Hot Chicken Festival. Former Nashville mayor, East Nashville resident, and festival founder Bill Purcell says, “Carol Williams is the model; a neighbor’s neighbor. She cares about all of it and all of us, and that has made the difference in her neighborhood and all the others.”
Williams is still working to protect the neighborhood she helped rebuild— because, it seems, there’s only one thing she’s scared of: that East Nashville could look like, well, everywhere else. “All of a sudden,” she said, “you realize how quickly it could change if you don’t keep working.” She describes driving through a Green Hills neighborhood recently, aghast at all the new so-called McMansions that had replaced working-class homes. “Our neighborhood has wanted to preserve the small homes built in 1950, as well as those built in 1800, as well as any other home built here, because we want to be unique,” she says. “In East Nashville, I would be so aggrieved if we took away affordable housing. That takes away the reason we moved here—to rear our kids in diversity.”
The ideal of economic diversity plays a major role in the plan Williams backs for Cayce Place. “What I’ve seen of the plan so far is great; mixed-use, nobody’s home is taken away from them,” she says. The Metro Development and Housing Agency is developing a plan that would replace each of the 716 units, then add on, to incorporate more middle-class families and businesses. “Get the vision: You have people out of work, you have single moms who need day care, and you build around Davidson Street and that area, and you build economic and commercial activity, offering the people employment they can walk to,” she says.
The Martha O’Bryan Center would continue to play an integral role as a support system for families. But the biggest game-changer could be “having a top-notch school, uplifting every child in the area, mixing them with children who already have vision of hope. A lot of the children have not been exposed to any vision of hope,” she says. “I don’t even know if a lot of East Nashvillians realize yet, how big it’s going to be. It’s going to directly affect the life of all the surrounding areas, because of the crime, the murders, the drugs, the instability that prevails in public housing.” She also admits to something a little less grandiose, but no less impressive: giving rides to women she sees carrying groceries back to Cayce Place.
“She knows so many people, in Cayce Homes, in the schools. You need people on the board who have a sort of presence, who know people, they talk to people,” Acuff, a fellow board member, says. “People in Cayce Homes were afraid of change, and I think she made a difference in moving that forward and giving people the confidence that it’s for the better.”
“For my mom, it has always been about people. All people. She is equally likely to strike up a conversation with a homeless person on the street as with a powerful politician at a fundraiser,” Charlie Williams says. “They are the same and neither gets preferential treatment from my mom.”
According to her son Anderson, “There are few people in the world who truly transform lives—whether in raising one’s own children, raising the kids wandering the streets of Edgefield during the summers and after school, or inspiring an addicted woman on the streets, with little more than a show of unconditional love and respect for her reality to get clean. My mom has transformed lives. My mom still transforms lives.” He added, “There are even fewer [people] who transform communities . . . Her positive impact is visible on every street, in every alley and on every corner of East Nashville.”
When I first interviewed Williams in 2011 for this magazine, she was engrossed in her role as the president of the non-profit Friends of Shelby Park and Bottoms. By the time her term ended in October 2012, the park celebrated its 100th anniversary, dedicated the public artwork “Reflections,” and started construction on a new baseball and activity field.
Each of her children still live in East Nashville, and Williams is excited to have a full house again. Her son Anderson and his family recently moved in, to help with the upkeep that comes with having a large home built more than a century ago. She’s also helping her daughter recover from a recent surgery for liver problems.
“What I really like to do most with my life is just respond, hourly, daily to whatever I see that might need to be done,” Williams said. “Yesterday it was a homeless man who needed conversation. I was out talking with neighbors, and he injected himself into our conversation. That was a moment that could make or break somebody’s day. You could shove him off and say, ‘Get on your way, leave me alone,’ or you could just incorporate him into your life. Who knows what that might mean to someone? So I’m busy all the time.”
She hopes more young people will step up to the plate and take on leadership roles in the community. “Whether you’re helping your neighbor, or you’re president of an organization, every single person is important in what they do,” she says. “Meet your neighbors, see who has needs. It’s not all about government issues, it’s about building a neighborhood. So if you know that someone in your neighborhood has a porch that’s falling off, see who knows how to build porches! Get other neighbors to donate two-by-fours. Whatever you can do is needed. Whatever part you can play, no part is too little.”
It’s hard not to be inspired by her conviction (I found myself wondering why I’ve never gone to a neighborhood meeting). “There are dozens of East Nashvillians who have given their heart and soul to making this a viable, livable, balanced, diverse neighborhood,” she says. “That’s why I’m humbled by being singled out [as East Nashvillian of the Year], because no one person has made ‘the’ difference. It doesn’t happen that way.”