Know Your Neighbor
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From our July/Aug 2018 edition
Jack Davis arrived in Nashville 14 years ago with a job wrangling large-scale live events for Vanderbilt University, and a keen interest in the community. The combination of the two planted a seed.
He saw transformative potential in large, community-focused events, and an opportunity to become a driving force behind those kinds of events here in Nashville. Davis also noticed that, in Nashville, something was missing.
“If you look back in Nashville’s history, the only festivals that were happening were tourist-driven festivals,” he says. Other cities similar in size to Nashville boast (community-focused) fests with 50-, 60-, or even 70-year histories. That wasn’t the case here. “The oldest festivals were 15 years, and there weren’t many of them.”
Davis recognized a window of opportunity while working with founders Meg and Bret MacFadyen on the Tomato Art Festival (which he’s been doing for eight years now). The skills he’d developed organizing large events, pre- and during his Vanderbilt stint, gave him the resources and abilities to help coordinate a new breed of festival in Nashville — one focused on communities, and bringing people together.
Davis founded JD Events in 2014, organizing a crop of outdoor festivals and concerts, and building the groundwork for a citywide network of community-engaging events. In 2017, the company rebranded as Good Neighbor Festivals, and together with a staff of four, Davis now manages some of the area’s most popular community happenings, including East Nashville’s Cornelia Fort Pickin’ Party.
“We’ve been able to come in and help create some uniquely Nashville, community-oriented events,” Davis says. “I want to make sure we help those grow and thrive.”
Davis believes events and festivals like these not only bring neighbors together, but also serve an important role in opening up a community and its culture to wider audiences. A well-executed festival becomes part of the fabric of the community that hosts it.
He sees the Tomato Art Festival as a key specimen. With that event, East Nashville rallied around a simple idea — the humble tomato — and created an annual celebration that’s nearly become synonymous with the neighborhood. Local businesses embraced the festival, people threw time and energy into the costume contests, and hopeful gardeners entered fruit after fruit — misshapen to splotchy — to compete for the coveted Ugliest Tomato prize.
“The Tomato Art Festival is a great example of what I love about what we do,” Davis says. “People latched on to something that was fun and wacky, where they could pull their creative juices together. It becomes a weekend for them to celebrate the tomato, and also to come together and celebrate what makes East Nashville.”
An East Nashvillian for all 14 of his Nashville years, Davis has a special affection for his community. It’s home, he says, but the sense of identity and camaraderie found in East Nashville is hardly exclusive. Other parts of town have similar energy — like The Nations, where the Light the Nations street festival goes down each October, or 12South, host to the Sevier Park Fest each spring — even if they express themselves a little differently.
For each of the Good Neighbor events, Davis and his team work to get to know the communities and organizations they’re working with as they create and implement plans. They manage branding, marketing, and vendor relations. They coordinate stages and schedules, arrange for each event’s logistical needs. They even help recruit staff and volunteers for the festivals.
Vendor manager Brittany Carlberg coordinates hundreds of local, regional, and national vendors, bringing to each community festival a unique amalgam of products and crafts for festivalgoers to peruse. Sean Pritchard relies on his relationships with local musicians and Nashville’s live music community to coordinate live performances on numerous stages, specialized for each individual event and community. And Kristyn Corder gets the word out on social media and with local media outlets.
Beyond, Davis and the Good Neighbor team work to develop the kinds of partnerships between festivals and other organizations that add a charitable mission to each celebration. Light the Nations supports the work of Thistle Farms, an organization that empowers survivors of human trafficking and supports them on their path to recovery.
And like the festivals Good Neighbor helps build, the team also supports its community through direct engagement and involvement in the issues that are important to them. They’re active members of the Nashville LGBT Chamber of Commerce, and an integral part of the annual, two-day Nashville Pride festival, which Davis and Co. were busy organizing during the lead-up to this year’s Tomato Art Fest.
The company also supports animal advocacy organization Crossroads Campus, Friends of Shelby Parks and Bottoms, and numerous other local nonprofits and charities. Davis sees a connection between building community festivals and supporting the community organizations people rely on — they go hand-in-hand with encouraging the thriving communities he wants to see in his adopted home.
Davis hails from “all over the place” — born in Wisconsin, with stops in Utah, upstate New York, and Missouri — but Nashville, with its tapestry of fun, funky, and sometimes offbeat communities, is his idea of home. If he can give back to it, he’s going to.
This year alone, Good Neighbor Festivals is supporting half a dozen organizations with their services, money, and volunteer hours. They’re also managing 15 large-scale events, from neighborhood music festivals to Nashville Pride and December’s Winterfest at Centennial Park. Managing that many moving pieces requires dedication and devotion, and Davis and Good Neighbor aim to bring both to each of their events.
“For me, it’s about creating something that people can let go of their daily lives with for a couple of hours,” Davis says. “Tomato Art Festival is probably the best example of that. People can come there, be someone else, be creative, and have an outlet to have a lot of fun.”