The Ballad of Alienation: Gentrification in Nashville

The Ballad of Alienation: Gentrification in Nashville

by Jamusa

Appearance of Gentrification

On a warm October afternoon I come to a stoplight next to the Edgehill Homes, one of Nashville’s public housing complexes. Outside of these older brick row houses a group of young African American girls plays and performs dance routines. In front of me two drivers—one a middle-aged white woman, the other an older white man—stare at the children. They gaze like they’re attending the 1897 Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition, one of many racist and imperialist Victorian-era fairs. Held in Nashville, the fair had a replica “working plantation” complete with Black folks laboring. Chinese people were also “on display.” Fortunately one of the girls gave these creeps the middle finger. The working poor living in the inner core neighborhoods of Nashville like Edgehill, a large number of whom are Black, have become a “curiosity” for white people, capitalist developers, and local officials alike.

The Edgehill Homes are three blocks from Music Row, a major center of the capitalist expression of music. A few blocks further are major private universities Belmont and Vanderbilt and the 12South neighborhood. Once a predominantly Black working class neighborhood, it experienced a 269% increase in average home costs from 2000 to 2012, forcing 58% of its Black residents to move elsewhere.(1)White, Abby. “Everybody Knows Nashville is Hurting for Affordable Housing. What Are We Gonna Do About It?” Nashville Scene 5 March 2015.http://www.nashvillescene.com/nashville/everybody-knows-nashville-is-hurting-for-affordable-housing-what-are-we-gonna-do-about-it/Content?oid=4952842 12South is now a hipster destination with restaurants, bars, and a boutique that sells $300 handmade jeans. Many modest houses in the neighborhood have been torn down as developers cram in McMansions, a.k.a “tall-and-skinnies,” or as a recent government report labels them, “non-context sensitive infill housing.” As these sell for over $500,000 in many urban core neighborhoods like 12South, the likelihood that folks in Edgewood Homes will remain long-term is dim.

Essence of Nashville’s Gentrification

Nashville is currently experiencing intense speculation from capitalist developers and investors.  As with other medium-sized Southern cities, land is relatively cheap in the downtown and urban core of Nashville. Developers in Atlanta, New York City, San Francisco and other cities are buying commercial lands in bulk. These developers seek to maximize rent profits by financing construction of high-rise office buildings, condos and apartments. This primitive accumulation of land seeks to fuel debt-financed construction, speculating that office spaces will be filled, commercial spaces leased, and apartments, condos and houses rented or purchased.  This consumption of capital and labor surpluses is a key factor in urban development schemes. This debt, or fictitious capital, finances construction upfront but cannot sustain long-term viability.  

It is on the backs of working folks, alienated from the means of production and themselves through the wage, that developers, corporations, and government entities work in concert to “revitalize” downtown Nashville and its neighborhoods.

Nashville is also a source of relatively cheap labor.  Fueled by state and local government tax breaks and the absence of a state income tax, corporations and developers are moving to Nashville.  Tennessee is also a “right to work” state, so organized labor is largely absent. The auto industry plays its familiar major role; Nissan and Bridgestone Tires have corporate headquarters and assembly plants around the city.  These companies pay workers less than half than unionized states or European countries. For capitalists, free and cheap labor is the foremost commodity in the South. Historically this labor has taken the form of chattel slave labor, sharecropping, and low wages under “right-to-work” laws.  The influx of immigrants from Central America, South/Southeast Asia and the Middle East—mostly Kurdish—has provided additional cheap labor in recent decades. This has pushed some Black folks further into the informal economy while immigrants face poor working conditions and outright wage theft.

nashville1It is on the backs of working folks, alienated from the means of production and themselves through the wage, that developers, corporations, and government entities work in concert to “revitalize” downtown Nashville and its neighborhoods. These same working folks are then forced to move further from these areas. The wage is unable to socially reproduce themselves, their families, and what once were their neighbors and communities. The crisis of capitalism is not doled out in periodic downturns like the 2008 financial crisis; it is a permanent crisis of working life.(2)“Misery and Debt: On the Logic and History of Surplus Populations and Surplus Capital.” Endnotes 2.http://endnotes.org.uk/en/endnotes-misery-and-debt

Nashville-Davidson County is a city-county government that includes a few small communities: a couple affluent and white, and others working class with large populations of immigrants and people of color.  While Nashville has a population of 630,000, the city-county total is nearly 660,000, and nearly one million live in the surrounding counties.  As demand for housing grows in the city core of Nashville and its surrounding neighborhoods, working folks are increasingly moving out of the city to places like Antioch and Madison within Davidson County or to Smyrna, home of the Nissan factory. While industries like auto, higher education, healthcare, local and state government (Nashville is Tennessee’s capitol), music, agricultural processing, light industry, and the tourism-related service economy attract people to move from other states or other cities in Tennessee, low wages and increasing lack of affordable housing pushes folks into the suburbs.  Like in most Southern cities, public transportation is weak and largely non-existent in suburban areas.  This “suburbanization of poverty” is a growing reality in the United States and has been the norm in major cities throughout the world as access to the city continues to shrink.  

NashvilleNext, a major Nashville-Davidson County government initiative and report adopted in June 2015, admits the soaring costs of housing in the urban core is creating “suburbanization of poverty and minority suburban migration.”(3)“NashvilleNext: A General Plan for Nashville and Davidson County.” 22 June 2015.http://www.nashville.gov/Government/NashvilleNext.aspx  This report also notes shifting demographics in Nashville and the Middle Tennessee region, where by 2040 Latin@s will surpass whites.  While the report is filled with statistics that clearly show dwindling housing access in the urban core for working folks and many people of color, it suggests new job opportunities and increased public transportation be created in areas of suburban poverty.  NashvilleNext, a conglomerate of government and corporate officials, academics, and non-profits, fronts as liberal city planning “concerned” with the gentrification of Nashville. However their economic plan is neoliberal capitalism, one that suggests keeping poor, immigrant, and people of color out of the city core almost completely.

Communities Confronting Gentrification

Issues of affordable housing and land development are acute in East Nashville.

East Nashville: East Nashville has been in the frontline of gentrification since at least the 1990s.  Situated just across the river from downtown, the neighborhoods here include early 20th century craftsmen homes, walkable neighborhoods, bars, nightlife, and a growing number of high-end shops and restaurants.  The neighborhood has long been a center of queer community and culture.  It is also home to much of Nashville’s creative class, as musicians and artists reside, record, and perform throughout East Nashville. In 2014, a blitz of national media reports named Nashville the “it city” with East Nashville the cultural heart of the city’s new-found “it” status.  Media suggested the neighborhood was home to a peaking creative class who were helping make the neighborhood desirable and profitable to wealthy locals and transplants. Simultaneously this was making it unsustainable for longtime residents, many of whom  are non-white working people.(4)Powers, Ann. “East Nashville Rocks.” The Record: NPR. 29 July 2014.http://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2014/07/29/336133410/east-nashville-rocks The idea of “symbolic or cultural capital” is at play here: whose culture and identity is commodified and given greater value than others. This commodification of culture is often mediated in social relations through race, gender and sexual identity. One example would be the media celebrating the woman-owned guitar shop as a cultural pillar of the neighborhood since opening in 2008 (Taylor Swift reps it often) while (white) people complain about graffiti (not perceived as street art) by presumably neighborhood (Black) kids. They also report the local arts commission rarely funds local artists of color.  These are just some of the dynamics of the appearance of gentrification longtime Black and working class East Nashvillians face.

Issues of affordable housing and land development are acute in East Nashville.  As transplants from across the county move to buy or rent housing, working and “middle class” folks can’t get in the neighborhood or are pushed out.  A key site in this struggle is access to low-income and public housing such as the James A. Cayce Homes, Nashville’s largest public housing development.  Situated right at the gateway of East Nashville, this housing sits on valuable land in the eyes of developers.  In August 2015 Nashville’s housing authority announced that Cayce Homes would be renovated and replaced one-for-one with public housing as well as new affordable and market-rate apartments.  Envisioned as a mixed-use, mixed-income community, this would be the first new public housing built in Nashville in nearly twenty years.(5)Meyer, Holly. “Cayce Place Apartments First Public Housing in 18 Years.” Tennessean 21 August 2015.http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/2015/08/21/cayce-place-apartments-first-public-housing-18-years/32111117/ While cities like Atlanta and New Orleans have torn down much of their public housing, the “mixed-income” development is another method to reduce the costs of social reproduction by local government as they give deals to developers and rely on the few federal grants available. This transformation of Cayce Homes is another method to potentially drive residents, overwhelmingly Black, out of the city.  Even NashvilleNext’s housing report lists the closed wait-list for public housing is over 3,000 people, while section 8 has a 10,000-person closed waiting list.  In the report’s next paragraph it also notes at least 3,000 to 4,000 individuals and families are homeless on any given night in Nashville.(6)“NashvilleNext: A General Plan for Nashville and Davidson County.” 22 June 2015.http://www.nashville.gov/Government/NashvilleNext.aspx This lack of reproduction of working people is a mainstay of neoliberalism whether it is housing, jobs, education, healthcare, or transportation.  As the case with residents in Edgehill and 12South, the future for many Black and working class residents of East Nashville will include living outside city limits, further from jobs and with reduced public services.

North NashvilleNorth Nashville is the historic and cultural center of African American Nashville dating back to the Civil War. Over 8,000 free Blacks lived in this area during the union occupation of Nashville.  Segregated north of current Charlotte Avenue, blocks from the state capitol, North Nashville built up businesses and churches along this street, later shifting to Jefferson Avenue.  The area also has three Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Fisk, Meharry Medical College, and Tennessee State University.  Since at least the 1970s, residents have moved away from the neighborhood as suburbs like Antioch and Madison have become centers of Black life and culture.  Like many Black urban areas in the U.S., the 1960s saw the neighborhood and Jefferson Street commercial district divided as an interstate highway was built right through the middle leaving the neighborhood to decay.

Justice-for-Jefferson-StNorth Nashville and its depressed housing is now renewing interest among developers and city officials in part to its location.  The eastern section of the neighborhood borders the recently “redeveloped” Germantown with industrial lofts, fancy restaurants, new professional baseball stadium, and state Farmers Market.  To the south are Midtown and Vanderbilt with much commercial and healthcare-related development.  And to the southwest along Charlotte Avenue are hip restaurants and  high-end mixed-used developments catering to “healthy sustainable lifestyles.” Blocks of former working class housing in the Nations neighborhood off Charlotte Avenue have been replaced by “tall-and-skinnies” touted as healthy homes meant to improve the dweller’s overall psychological well-being.(7)White, Abby. “Everybody Knows Nashville is Hurting for Affordable Housing. What Are We Gonna Do About It?” Nashville Scene 5 March 2015.http://www.nashvillescene.com/nashville/everybody-knows-nashville-is-hurting-for-affordable-housing-what-are-we-gonna-do-about-it/Content?oid=4952842 A source of cheap land, North Nashville is boxed in by these developments—which are clearly not aimed at the social reproduction or psychological well-being of its working class Black residents.

Another strategy of gentrification is the location of police stations and patterns of policing.  In 2014, Nashville opened up a large new police station just south of Edgehill Homes, near the border of the rapidly gentrifying 12South neighborhood.  A similar strategy was proposed by recent former mayor Karl Dean to move the police headquarters from downtown to the heart of North Nashville on Jefferson Street.  This proposal was defeated in June 2015 by an umbrella of community groups, including Black Lives Matter Nashville, under the Justice for Jefferson Street Coalition.  The coalition pointed to already heavy policing in the neighborhood and asked for the federal investigation into police targeting of communities of color under the “Operation Safer Streets” program.(8)Meyer, Holly. “Jefferson Street Group Files Complaint to Stop Police HQ Move.” Tennessean 1 June 2015.http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/local/2015/06/01/jefferson-street-group-files-complaint-stop-police-hq-move/28332231/

Again, government eliminates programs for social reproduction and continues to fund further oppression of people of color and working folks, all in the name of revitalization.  While the battle against a new police HQ in North Nashville was won for now, the war against gentrification in North Nashville and use of police control to discipline and disperse its mostly Black residents continues.

Immigrants and Nashville

Many African Americans, already relegated to precarious work before immigrants arrived, have been pushed further out into the informal economy.  Bosses use the undocumented status of some immigrants to keep their wages low and pit them against Blacks and whites seeking better work conditions and wages.

Since the 1990s, as large numbers of immigrants moved to Nashville from Central America, social relations have shifted in the city. Kurdish (Nashville has the largest Kurdish community in the U.S.), Karen (Myanmar), Nepalese,  Sudanese, Somalis, and Ethiopians have immigrated too. For many whites, whether they are business and government elites or working folks, new immigrants have altered but not overturned the Black/white dichotomy of race relations under white supremacy.  You hear some longtime white Nashvillians long for “the good ole days,” before most immigrants arrived in the 1990s.  Presumably, whites felt they only had Blacks to discipline. Individually this is evidenced by racist comments, non-recognition at schools and stores, or “last hired, first fired” at workplaces. On a larger social scale, policing concentrated on targeting Black folks, limited social services, and muted voice in local government comprised the norm. While few of these dynamics have changed fundamentally, we see that cops, landlords and bosses do not hesitate to put immigrants, mostly Latin@, under the thumb of white supremacy. This looks like harassment and beatings in Southeast Nashville apartment complexes, or wage theft and poor working conditions.(9)Stern, Willy. “Above the Law: How Rogue Guards at a Nashville Security Firm Terrorized Hispanics They were Paid to Protect.” Nashville Scene 21 October 1999.http://www.nashvillescene.com/nashville/part-i/Content?oid=1183620

Now things are complicated further as social services such as English language training in public schools are needed, while officials threaten reduced public school budgets and closure. Meanwhile, charter and private schools are growing.  But what little social reproduction new immigrants receive comes at the price of their value to capitalists as a source of cheap labor used also to depress the wages of others.  Many African Americans, already relegated to precarious work before immigrants arrived, have been pushed further out into the informal economy.  Bosses use the undocumented status of some immigrants to keep their wages low and pit them against Blacks and whites seeking better work conditions and wages.  Outright wage theft occurs frequently, especially in the service industry.  In 2014, Workers’ Dignity/Dignidad Obrera, a local workers’ center, campaigned and won unpaid wages for mostly Latin@ cleaning staff at hotels in the downtown tourist area.(10)Workers’ Dignity Annual Report.” Workers’ Dignity 24 February 2015. http://www.workersdignity.org/ Although concrete victories like these build solidarity among workers from different ethnic backgrounds, the boom in building and demand for cheap labor in the construction and service industry in Nashville will test this bond.  This is especially the case when Latin@ construction workers are hired to flip homes in historically Black and working class communities like North Nashville.

Nashville is rapidly changing, and new immigrants bring their own lived experiences, cultures and social relations. Their arrival here can be tied, in part, to direct wars of U.S. imperialism in the Middle East or proxy and economic wars in Central America. Within the U.S., harsh state laws against the undocumented, like in Georgia, have forced people to leave for relatively less restrictive Tennessee.  As mentioned earlier, local officials admit the demographic shift in Nashville and Middle Tennessee is well underway.  By 2040, Latin@ will be the small majority in  Davidson County, and over 60% of the total population will be people of color.  However economic, political, and social power will still be dominated by whites.  And as current patterns of gentrification throughout the urban core of Nashville suggest, Blacks, Latin@ and working people of all backgrounds will largely reside in the suburbs and edges of Nashville.  While they may build housing for mostly local white elites and transplants from Southern California and Chicago and work at restaurants and hotels downtown catering to tourists, they will likely not live anywhere near where they labor.  Instead, the future holds long commutes with limited public transportation, underfunded and understaffed public schools, and substandard housing taking up an increasing share of one’s paycheck. These realities of gentrification, here in Nashville, the South, and worldwide, are just many of the alienations we endure presently under capitalism.  As developers “revitalize” neighborhoods into generic, placeless places and push out people of color and working folks whose creative labor once made neighborhoods vibrant, capitalist accumulation as the money-form suggests the mirage of social relations between things is valued more than social relations between people.

 

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. White, Abby. “Everybody Knows Nashville is Hurting for Affordable Housing. What Are We Gonna Do About It?” Nashville Scene 5 March 2015.http://www.nashvillescene.com/nashville/everybody-knows-nashville-is-hurting-for-affordable-housing-what-are-we-gonna-do-about-it/Content?oid=4952842
2. “Misery and Debt: On the Logic and History of Surplus Populations and Surplus Capital.” Endnotes 2.http://endnotes.org.uk/en/endnotes-misery-and-debt
3. “NashvilleNext: A General Plan for Nashville and Davidson County.” 22 June 2015.http://www.nashville.gov/Government/NashvilleNext.aspx
4. Powers, Ann. “East Nashville Rocks.” The Record: NPR. 29 July 2014.http://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2014/07/29/336133410/east-nashville-rocks
5. Meyer, Holly. “Cayce Place Apartments First Public Housing in 18 Years.” Tennessean 21 August 2015.http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/2015/08/21/cayce-place-apartments-first-public-housing-18-years/32111117/
6. “NashvilleNext: A General Plan for Nashville and Davidson County.” 22 June 2015.http://www.nashville.gov/Government/NashvilleNext.aspx
7. White, Abby. “Everybody Knows Nashville is Hurting for Affordable Housing. What Are We Gonna Do About It?” Nashville Scene 5 March 2015.http://www.nashvillescene.com/nashville/everybody-knows-nashville-is-hurting-for-affordable-housing-what-are-we-gonna-do-about-it/Content?oid=4952842
8. Meyer, Holly. “Jefferson Street Group Files Complaint to Stop Police HQ Move.” Tennessean 1 June 2015.http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/local/2015/06/01/jefferson-street-group-files-complaint-stop-police-hq-move/28332231/
9. Stern, Willy. “Above the Law: How Rogue Guards at a Nashville Security Firm Terrorized Hispanics They were Paid to Protect.” Nashville Scene 21 October 1999.http://www.nashvillescene.com/nashville/part-i/Content?oid=1183620
10. Workers’ Dignity Annual Report.” Workers’ Dignity 24 February 2015. http://www.workersdignity.org/