Carol Williams relaxes in her beloved Shelby Park. Photograph by Chuck Allen

How Carol Williams Helped East Nashville Get Its Groove Back

Carol Williams didn’t want to live in a trashy neighborhood. Then her attorney husband suggested their family move to a dilapidated fixer-upper near a murder scene he had recently investigated.

“This was one of those zones that was so high crime, you didn’t come to it,” she says. “But Charlie saw this house, and he wanted it.” That was 1975. The neighborhood was never the same, and neither was Carol Williams.

It was nearly a year before the home was livable. The Williams family purchased their 1888 home on Russell Street for $9,000 — far below the median home price of $35,000 — and they began to erase the damage brought on by generations of neglect. A dozen layers of wallpaper came down and decades of grime were scrubbed, lifting the lingering stench from a recent squatter. It’s hard to imagine Williams as a pregnant mom with a full-time job willing to take on such a big challenge.

East Nashville was not always a bustling zip code of hipster bars, distinctive restaurants, and young families willing to invest money and time spent watching HGTV into an up-and-coming urban neighborhood. Back then, there were no festivals, running clubs, or 37206 bumper stickers.

Carol remembers the couple had to invite doubting bankers into their home to personally go over renovation plans to secure financing. “We had to fight every inch to get anybody to loan us any money to put in the house, because [the banks] said anybody that had money enough to fix up this house would not live in this neighborhood.”

Even those not well-versed in East Nashville history may know the most exclusive neighborhood in the city was nearly destroyed in the Great Fire of 1916, but they may not know the rest. An extravagant mansion, encompassed by a sprawling wooded estate and one-time home to a women’s college, was leveled to make way for Nashville’s largest public housing project in the 1940s and 50s. While the James A. Cayce Homes offered stable housing to an under-served population walking the poverty line, unfortunately, it also brought the threat of increased crime.

The construction of a noisy interstate along the East Bank in the 1960s served as a physical barrier that further isolated the neighborhood. Problem properties and absentee landlords were the norm when the Williams family arrived in the 1970s, and they were one of the few young homeowners in Edgefield. A few doors down, a family of 14 rented a home without electricity.

What started as a home-improvement project soon became a block-improvement project. No stranger to hard work, Williams logged extra shifts in a local cafeteria to pay for her teaching degree at Peabody College (now a part of Vanderbilt University). The Williams set their sights on the biggest issue facing their home — literally, one they dealt with every time they looked out the front window: cleaning up East Park.

Today, visitors headed to Five Points pass by a park with a tidy playground, well-groomed softball fields and wide-open green space. Still home to a few transients, East Park isn’t perfect, but it is the perfect spot for a Hot Chicken Festival, and a nice alternative to battling the firework-gazing masses downtown on the Fourth of July.

The park’s current image has more in common with its 1920s heyday than the rough-and-tumble eyesore that bordered the Williams’ property. The original cut stone bandstand was razed in 1956, and the park deteriorated into a makeshift homeless shelter and dumping ground. A prefabricated steel hut served as a donation site for old clothing and mattresses. Not surprisingly, by the time the Williams family braved the run-down tennis courts, the area’s most booming businesses were drugs and prostitution.

Once we organized, we became a social force, a political force — and with the two together, we were recognized.

Carol Williams, 2011

She and her husband sought the help of the few other homeowners on their street. As word spread that someone was finally taking charge, neighborhood meetings eventually drew crowds of 80 people. Almost by accident, Williams had become an activist, and she was good at it.

In 1978, Edgefield became a Historic Zoning Overlay district, and the Metro Historical and Zoning Commission gained oversight on any demolitions or renovations. East Park eventually got its makeover — the city added sidewalks, lighting, trashcans, landscaping — and more recently, a new community center.

“Once we organized, we became a social force, a political force — and with the two together, we were recognized,” Williams says. “Historic zoning was the first step, the initial step to saving East Nashville. It gave us the voice we needed and from there on, we fought hard. It was not easy, but it was worth it.”

Edgefield continued to improve, but life for the Williams family was still far from the white picket fences of idyllic American suburbia — the neighborhood would have made most Belle Meade housewives — even most Bellevue housewives — squirm. Petite, pretty, and married to a prominent attorney, Williams was not the typical young mom.

“My kids have been exposed to life, on every level,” she says. Occasionally, homeless people slept on their porch. Instead of calling the cops, she set her fears aside and got to know them. “They were our friends, we knew their names.” A portrait her son sketched of a homeless man the family knew well hangs in her kitchen still today.

While such experiences may have scarred some people for life, it had the opposite effect on her three children. Each moved out of state as a young adult — each eventually returned to East Nashville to settle down and raise their own families.

A story about Williams’ life, and the evolution of East Nashville, could not be told without the events of April 16, 1998. For Williams, the tornado that tore through town with 150-mile-per-hour winds was a near-death experience that marked a turning point in her life.

“That day the tornadoes were bouncing all around Nashville,” she recalls. “I had been to the Y in Brentwood to work out, we had taken shelter in the locker room there. But then when I came out, the warnings had been lifted. So I ran another errand and was on my way back from the Germantown area, and here it came.,” Williams was at the corner of 1st Street and Woodland when she spotted the tornado and pulled over. “My car was being lifted, so I jumped out of the car and hit the ground and hung on to a chain-link fence. At that time, the stadium was being built, and the insulation was flying off the stadium, and I wrapped my head in insulation. So I was on the ground until it passed.”

When the storm cleared, thousands of East Nashville structures — homes, businesses, churches stretching from Edgefield to Eastland Avenue and beyond — needed repair. Roofs were blown off; debris and downed trees littered the streets. When things were cleaned up, a different place emerged — one with condos, new restaurants, and long-needed improvements fueled by the influx of insurance money. An army of volunteers helped put East Nashville back together, arguably stronger than it was before the storm.

Williams would draw from her survival of the tornado to find strength in the years to come. “In some ways, it became symbolic of lying in the middle of darkness,” she says. “It was the beginning of one change after another.”

After 25 years in East Nashville without a violent incident, Williams was robbed and assaulted in broad daylight outside her Edgefield home in 2001. Soon after, her brother, a close friend, died suddenly. In 2005, her daughter survived a liver transplant. Six months later, Charlie, her husband of 40 years, committed suicide. He had long struggled with depression, stemming from childhood abuse and a daunting diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.

“He tried for years to do everything he could, and the fact that he was willing to get help [for his depression] was comforting to me,” Williams says. “I find great peace in the fact that he did go for help.” She hopes that by being open about his death, more people will seek
help themselves.

The loss of her husband has compelled her to keep fighting for causes close to her heart, and close to her home. “We all grew from the experience of his life and of his death. So anything that benefits East Nashville, or East Nashvillians of any income — from the poorest of the poor to the professional — I want to be a part of making it better,” she says. “If anybody calls and there is a need, that’s where I want to be, no matter how big or how small.”

Right now, she sees a need in Shelby Park. Despite decades of urban improvement under her belt, Williams has lofty, long-term goals for the park she’s known since she was a little girl. As the president of the nonprofit Friends of Shelby Park and Bottoms, Williams says part of her motivation is wanting to restore the park to the well-manicured hills she rolled down as a child and maintaining one of her husband’s favorite spots.

The group worked with Metro Nashville to create a 20-year, $27-million master plan for the park. It includes taking advantage of Shelby Park’s proximity to downtown and prime riverfront location. “To have an urban space of over 1,000 acres including the Bottoms, this close to downtown is a gift that many cities don’t have,” she says. “If you travel in other cities, they utilize the river — you can walk and bicycle along the river. We in Nashville are a little behind that.”

Thanks to a $1 million allowance in Mayor Karl Dean’s budget, work will begin in the fall on safety improvements to traffic flow and
parking. Williams would also like to see more playgrounds but says bigger changes will require bigger donations. Friends of Shelby is working with Metro to apply for grant money, and the group holds their annual fundraiser, the Hot Chicken Festival, in East Park on the Fourth of July. Still, there’s a long way to go. “We need $26 million more,” she says.

Undeterred by the financial hurdle, Williams hopes the 20-year master plan is realized in half that time. She knows it doesn’t take a miracle to make things happen — it takes a group of people who care. For a neighborhood built on a tradition of transformation, much of it on her watch, more change ahead seems entirely possible.