Revival of The Roxy: Here at last?

THE ROXY THEATRE IN EAST NASHVILLE was once the anchor of a bustling commercial district. It’s hard for our modern tech-crazed, high-mobility society to comprehend, but the Roxy district and many neighborhood centers like it once played a vital role in shaping our nation’s cultural identity and cultivating social life. This heritage is evident in the narrative of those that lived it. Stories are still told of first kisses in the Roxy balcony, courtships at the neighboring soda fountain and requests to Santa fulfilled at the nearby Morris Jacobs department store.
The closing of the theater in 1959 reflected a precipitous decline in population and economic activity in urban neighborhoods around the country. Although the theater was repurposed several times in the following years, by 1990 the building was sealed up and the surrounding neighborhood was plagued with high crime, unemployment and blight.
McFerrin Park and Cleveland Park are in the midst of resurgence, following a trend other nearby East Nashville neighborhoods patterned in the early 2000s. Renewed optimism accompanying this resurgence has focused on the Roxy, and people moving to the area anticipate the theater’s return to prominence. Following the death of the building’s longtime owner in 2009, a new owner generated buzz with announcements of restoring the theater and allowing volunteers to participate. That plan eventually languished amid lawsuits and property liens, and the Roxy remains empty and deteriorating.
With real estate speculation and deferred maintenance threatening the future of the landmark, one grass-roots group is taking action into their own hands. After learning about a daring and unorthodox citizen-led economic redevelopment strategy called tactical urbanism, Save the Roxy is shining the spotlight on the theater in a bold way. In addition to showing regular outdoor movies on the lawn beside the Roxy, the group has draped the theater with banners to mimic the old marquee, projected historic photos on the building at night to show original architectural features long covered up, and worked with nearby property owners to paint “Save the Roxy” murals on vacant buildings.
Collectively, Save the Roxy events have drawn nearly 500 people — from those that worked in the theater 60 years ago to those who discovered the neighborhood this year. But the most elaborate undertaking to-date is planned for Nov. 9. In an effort to demonstrate the hopes for the Roxy’s future, the entire district will be transformed into a vibrant shopping and entertainment destination for one day.
The idea for the “Roxy Revival” started in February during a McFerrin Park Neighborhood Association meeting. In a brainstorming session that followed in June, neighborhood residents considered a host of ideas, from painting overgrown vegetation fluorescent colors to wearing “Save the Roxy” sandwich boards at busy intersections. But the idea that stuck was also the most ambitious: Bring a tired and forgotten 1930s-era former neighborhood center back to life for at least one day, using all volunteers and $50 in startup money.
East Nashvillians with a variety of skills have put blood, sweat and tears into preparing for the Roxy Revival, and on Nov. 9, visitors to the Roxy District will experience a neighborhood as it was 80 years ago and see a preview of what the area will hopefully become. Food trucks will occupy vacant lots, artisan boutiques will replace overgrown vegetation, and the Roxy stage will be alive with music and film. As people see the true potential of this little district, perhaps the Roxy can be the subject of stories told by East Nashvillians for generations to come. — DF

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