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Sam McCullough has lived within the same square block of East Nashville for his entire life.
He remembers when his neighbors had to leave because the city was going to knock down their houses in the name of improvement; he remembers when the public housing at the corner of his neighborhood began to fall into disrepair, and crime spilled out and flooded the neighborhood. He remembers when the tides started to shift, and it became a safer place to live again. He knows more than most that East Nashville is constantly in transition.
For all of its history, nothing lasts forever, and everything is more complicated than it seems.
That might include East Nashville's latest phase: as one of the "hottest" neighborhoods in America. McCullough, a community organizer for Meharry Medical College's REACH 2020 initiative, is witnessing just the latest urban upheaval. Upscale businesses flourish in neighborhoods once known only for violent crime; affordable grocery stores are on the decline: For all the growth, food deserts in Nashville's urban core are becoming more, not less, common, McCullough says.
"If urban renewal didn't get you, the interstate got you," McCullough, 58, says from First Baptist Church, a church about a mile from East Nashville which his great-grandparents, former slaves, joined in 1898–just a few decades after the church started in an old Civil War barracks in 1866.
"If the interstate didn't get you, Ellington Parkway got you," he continues, referring to the parkway that connects East Nashville to the Northeastern suburbs.
"Now, if you survived those three, gentrification will get you."
The displacement caused by rising rents and hungry investors is on clear display in East Nashville. Two miles away from McCullough's church, the Howe Garden Apartments transformed from a community of elderly residents, families, and artists to half-finished luxury apartments with a gazebo, bocce court and a new, fancier name, Eastwood Greene, in a matter of weeks. Erasing its name erases its ties to one of the neighborhood's past iterations. Before the apartments, the property belonged to a wealthy family called the Howes, who moved to East Nashville from New England in the 1920s. At the time, that part of East Nashville, across Gallatin from Cleveland Park, was highly fashionable, its streets flanked by mansions.
The Howes built their English-style stone house on Greenwood Avenue and designed a garden around it so spectacular it became a tourist attraction. People from all over would drive by on Sundays to meander through the eight-acres of dogwoods, azaleas, and wildflowers after church. Mrs. Howe would sometimes give them cookies.
The Howe's 1920s bungalow remains at the center of the complex, but the playground the Howe Garden children used to play on is torn down. Many buildings are almost totally empty, their former occupants seeking refuge in the cheaper outskirts of Nashville. The complex's new residents will pay double, in many cases triple, the rent of its former residents, some of whom lived in the complexes rent-controlled Section 8 units for more than two decades.
The storyline of Nashville the city is a familiar one in the New South: The economy is booming. Construction is constant, and cranes have become a near-permanent fixture in the skyline. Tourism is at all-time highs. But with that transformation comes upheaval.
Howe Garden had about 16 Section 8 apartments when it was sold in January to Middle Farm Capital, an investment group started by Nick Ogden, who lives in a recently renovated house around the corner from the apartments. "Eastwood Greene" doesn't have any Section 8 units. Residents who lose Section 8 housing to market forces in Nashville face great odds: the waitlist for Section 8 housing is 8,000 names long. Landlords hesitate to sign on to the program and increase the number of affordable units because market rates are at historic highs. The neighborhood around Howe Garden has been hit especially hard, losing 123 of 495 affordable housing units in the past decade, not including those lost at Howe Garden.
Rent prices keep climbing, and according to the latest study from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the median percentage of their monthly-income renters in Nashville spend on rent is 33 percent. HUD considers people who pay more than 30 percent of their income on rent "cost-burdened," and indeed, about 1 in 5 Nashvillians live at or below poverty levels, higher than the national rate.
Gentrification and the accompanying affordable housing crunch is a common thread through cities across the country. But in Southern states like Tennessee, it has happened particularly quickly due to the region's fast-paced growth—and is particularly tricky. Nashville's relatively progressive city government has passed ordinances targeting affordable housing shortages only to see that the state's conservative legislature is willing to compromise its "small government" values to keep its largest, bluest—and most diverse—cities, Nashville and Memphis, in check.
In 1996, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a law prohibiting cities from controlling the price of rent. Since then, affordable housing issues have expanded, and the General Assembly has moved staunchly against measures that would address it. Its supermajority of Republicans voted this year to prevent local municipalities from adopting policies requiring developers to set aside a certain number of affordable units, or to nullify such policy if it already existed. That prevented Nashville's city government from passing an inclusionary zoning policy it was seriously considering.
"Metro council is very constrained by the state legislature," says Brett Withers, a councilman representing parts of East Nashville. "They have made it abundantly clear that we can't do anything to control the rent."
The recourse left for local governments interested in maintaining a balanced city is to incentivize builders to build or maintain affordable units. But, Withers says, it's hard to compete with the housing market. The real estate site Redfin named Eastwood, the East Nashville neighborhood where Howe Garden lies, the second "hottest" neighborhood in the country. In the past five years, there has been an explosion of construction of luxury condos and half-million dollar houses referred to as "tall and skinnies." Developers can fit two on the same lots where smaller post-World War II houses used to stand.
A brand-new condo has recently been erected next to First Baptist Main Street, blocking some of the sunlight that used to come in midday. McCullough says he's just glad they don't block the Tiffany stained glass windows. The stained glass windows of another historically Black church down the block from First Baptist are permanently dim due to new construction on either side.
"People say. 'You all will gain people with people moving into all the condos around there!'" McCullough says, and then laughs and shakes his head skeptically.
Other churches have lost membership as their residents become priced out of local rentals or are forced to sell their homes. One church deeper into Cleveland Park, the neighborhood First Baptist sits on the border of, recently sold its campus to move farther away from the city center. McCullough says First Baptist Inglewood, about half a mile from East Nashville, is also hurting as members move away.
"They wanted to stay in the inner city to minister to the people around the church," he explains. "Unfortunately, a lot of those people were renters and they're gone. If they didn't have cars, they had to leave." It isn't the first time McCullough's neighbors have been forced out. McCullough was born in 1958, and some of his earliest memories are of adults talking about urban renewal.
"The two questions were: Are you going to have to move and are you signing up for Medicare," he remembers.
McCullough's grandparents lost their house to urban renewal: a freshly renovated Victorian house painted gingerbread and white, "the picture of Southern elegance," McCullough says. Like gentrification today, urban renewal was a contentious process that touched nearly all of the nation's cities in the 1950s and 60s as they attempted to update themselves for the post-War world by eradicating "squalid" inner cities.
In Nashville, as in many cities, much more than unlivable structures were lost. Almost all the people in neighborhoods affected by urban renewal were Black. And some were funneled into large, segregated public housing complexes.
People impacted by urban renewal in McCullough's middle class Black neighborhood largely wanted to stay in the area, and they moved into other parts of East Nashville, some of which were White. McCullough remembers the neighborhood of his youth as economically and racially integrated.
But by the time he graduated from high school, Cleveland Park and the surrounding East Nashville neighborhoods became more dangerous, with crime spilling out of the public housing complexes.
At one point McCullough's parents wanted to move to the suburb of Goodlettsville, where his father became a preacher. McCullough begged them to stay. Sometimes he wondered if that was the right decision.
"This whole corridor over here was a crime-infested cesspool," he says, including the area Howe Garden is in, called Eastwood. "The neighborhood got so bad I said, 'Oh Lord, why did I say stay?'"
Around the same time McCullough's parents wanted to leave the area, Robert Keenan bought Howe Garden for $75,000 and built squat apartment buildings to rent out to low-income households.
By the time McCullough's parents died, urban renewal and the accompanying middle class flight had destroyed East Nashville. Many of the larger homes lost so much value that landowners just walked away. Throughout the next decade, many housing developments like Howe Garden would be constructed throughout the area, in the form of apartments or duplexes, often where historical homes once were. Crime rates rose as neighborhoods like Cleveland Park and Eastwood became more economically segregated. In other parts of Nashville, East Nashville was almost entirely ignored.
Bill and Kaki Friskics-Warren moved to East Nashville in the 1980s. They were graduate students at Vanderbilt, and never had occasion to cross the Cumberland River. But, they were ready to buy a house, and East Nashville was an area they could afford. They came to Nashville to pursue social justice work, but the move to East Nashville was less a statement on economic segregation than a practical move. They bought an old house in the Lockeland Springs area, adjacent to Eastwood and across Gallatin from Cleveland Park.
Though they wouldn't call themselves "urban pioneers," it was a term others used: White, educated people who moved into East Nashville despite its lack of amenities, like restaurants or grocery stores or decent public schools. Bill was from the Southside of Chicago, and sometimes he missed being able to walk places. But the couple liked the bones of the neighborhood, the big trees and sidewalks. And they loved their neighbors, many of whom lived in the same houses for decades, passing leases down through generations.
They didn't necessarily fit in — Bill remembers how his neighbors would raise their eyebrows as he jogged around the neighborhood, questioning why anyone who had done an honest day's worth of work would need to run — but they felt that they belonged.
By the time their son Marshall was born in the 1990s, their section of the neighborhood was changing. Gay and lesbian couples were moving over to East Nashville because it was a relatively welcoming neighborhood in a still-conservative city, and more young families were attracted to the area for the same reasons they were.
In 1998, a tornado tore through East Nashville, decimating nearly 300 homes and enough trees in Lockeland Springs and Eastwood to fill several football fields. Ironically, it only sped up the neighborhoods' revitalization. Historic homes were restored with insurance money, and the area became more prominent on the rest of the city's radar.
The community used the tornado as a starting point for a conversation for what East Nashville should look like once it was rebuilt.
Four-hundred residents, from the "gentrified" quarters of East Nashville, the housing projects, and the rows of working class houses and duplexes, packed the Martha O'Bryan Center at Cayce Homes, the city's largest housing project. They talked about how they wanted amenities — restaurants, bars and stores, so they didn't have to cross the Cumberland to West Nashville. And they wanted diversity, both racial and socioeconomic:
"The 25,000 or so people who make up the community include 'yuppies,' as they are called, urban pioneers, public housing residents, blue-collar workers, and retirees, all reflecting a broad mix of race, ethnicity, and geographic origin," reads the position paper that came out of these community meetings. "East Nashville must recognize that its diversity is more than an asset; it lies at the heart of its identity."
McCullough started the Cleveland Park Neighborhood Association in 2002, very much in that spirit. Most of its members were neighbors he'd known forever, but there were a few White newcomers.
"Whites moved into the neighborhood and they affiliated (with the association) and we were in lock step on everything," he says. "There was a level of camaraderie and love in that organization — there was nothing we wouldn't do for each other."
But the collective commitment to diversity wavered almost as soon as it was articulated. Lockeland Springs, the area around East Nashville's hub of bars, restaurants, and a Family Dollar, became increasingly popular and in becoming so lost most of its affordable housing, as well as a sizeable portion of its Black population. In 1998, about 18 percent of the population was Black; by 2013, only about eight percent was.
McCullough quickly felt as if he was losing grasp on the neighborhood association he had started. Members like his parents and aunts and uncles died, and newcomers became less interested in the old-timers. While McCullough had always been interested in investing in public spaces, like the community center or neighborhood parks, a faction of the neighborhood association became obsessed with fixing or else removing those things, hurting property values. Neighbors concerned about run-down houses reported problems to the Metropolitan Department of Codes & Building Safety, and older neighbors were often fined for things like backyard sheds near collapse.
"A lot of people will sell their properties just so they don't lose it because of fines," McCullough says.
The potential losses wrought by gentrification can't only be measured in affordable housing expired or churches moved, McCullough says: At stake is the heart and soul of neighborhoods.
"Residents said, 'I'm not going to go to a meeting when there are a lot of White people sitting up there telling me what to do, and I've lived here 40, 50 years.
"I said 'Come, your voice needs to be heard.'"
On Thursday, January 28, about 60 Howe Garden residents assembled at Eastwood Christian Church. The residents ranged from college-aged to the elderly. Weeks before, residents found notes stuck in their doors from the new management company, Brookside Properties: Howe Garden was under new ownership. According to the notice, residents in one of the buildings had less than a month to vacate the property.
Bill and Kaki's son, Marshall Friskics-Warren, grew up just a mile away from Howe Garden. He was one of the unlucky residents given little time to move. Marshall's wife went into her room and cried when they found the note. As a child, her family was evicted frequently. Now, once again, her home was upended, quickly and without warning.
The couple tried to renew their lease in the fall, but weren't able to because of the impending sale. Instead, they were given the option of going month-to-month. Now, they were screwed. For month-to-month tenants, rent increases happened immediately. The price of one-bedroom apartments more than doubled, to about $1,100; the price of two-bedrooms went from $850 to $1,300. Longer-term residents were paying even less than $850 for two-bedrooms, making the climb even steeper.
Because Marshall works at an East Nashville non-profit helping disabled people find affordable housing, he knew precisely how hard it would be to find comparably priced housing in East Nashville. The couple would have to move out of the neighborhood or move into his childhood home. They chose the latter, in part because, like many East Nashvillians, Scarlett doesn't drive, and often walks to work.
Brookside Properties had removed people from their homes before, in the James Robertson Apartments in downtown Nashville, also previously owned by the Keenans. Unlike Howe Garden, which was relatively mixed-income, James Robertson's residents were exclusively elderly and impoverished. Upon the sale, the Keenans stopped taking care of the place. Elevators in the high-rise broke; trash collected in the hallways. Some of the residents were recently homeless, and thought Robertson would serve as their final respite. Brookside gave them four-months notice to find new homes.
And when Brookside acquired Howe Garden, they also acquired four other Nashville properties, including two in Nashville that were home to a significant portion of Nashville's refugee community. Recently relocated from refugee camps in Africa, the Middle East and Asia the residents were told once again to pack up and leave — in English, which few could read or understand.
The parallels to urban renewal were clear: people received letters telling them to get out of their homes, and felt powerless to do anything. Marshall contacted Nashville Organized for Action and Hope (NOAH), a coalition of community members including Sam McCullough and Marshall's father Bill, which tackles Nashville's pressing inequities. NOAH helped mobilize residents interested in mitigating the impact of Howe Garden's sale.
Through Googling and property searches, the residents working with NOAH discovered that at least one of the buyers of the complex was Nick Ogden. Ogden is a long-haired real estate mogul. His high school job was cleaning yachts on the Long Island Shore in Connecticut before he attended Vanderbilt in the early 2000s. Now, he lives just two blocks from Howe Garden. His house is a stone bungalow on a still-transitioning block of McKennie Street. A sign on the porch implores passersby to "Be Awesome"; and a silver BMW is often parked in the yard.
With his childhood friend Rawleigh Pyne, Ogden formed Middle Farm Capital and Brookside Properties and then bought five properties across the country in the same day. But he signed the deed for Howe Garden by himself, purchasing the property for $7.5 million.
At first the organizing seemed to be paying off for residents. On Jan. 25, Brookside sent an apology to some of the residents who were told their leases would not be honored. "There has been some miscommunication," read the notice, also slipped under doors. "We would like to clarify that all leases would be honored. We apologize for any anxiety this might have caused you."
But by the Jan. 26 meeting, neither Ogden nor any representatives from Brookside had agreed to talk to residents about the possibility of reserving some affordable housing, or helping residents, especially the elderly or disabled, find new homes.
The meeting featured legal guidance from Legal Aid and Tennessee Fair Housing, which offered advice on reading leases and weathering the renovations at the apartments that had already started to make way for new tenants.
Marshall is typically soft-spoken, but he spoke forcefully at the meeting. "This isn't just about Howe Garden," he told the audience. "This is about Nashville."
But there didn't seem to be much else that could be done without Brookside or Middle Farm at the table.
Beverly Cotton, a 56-year-old pre-K teacher who moved into Howe Garden after her divorce, left the meeting unsatisfied. "It was a moment for us to come together," she said after the meeting. "But it really didn't give us any answers. The damage was done."
The unraveling of Howe Garden gave Cotton a sense of déjà vu. She grew up in a then- predominately Black area of South Nashville now called 12South. During her childhood, everyone knew each other. Now, Reese Witherspoon has a boutique there and you can buy cronuts for five dollars a piece.
"You feel like people are saying, 'Leave me alone; Don't even look at me,'" she said of her old neighborhood. Howe Garden wasn't like that though, she added. "This is really sad because we have a really nice community."
The Howe Garden residents that worked with NOAH sent Brookside and Middle Farm a list of requests after the meeting based on the discussion. They hoped to appeal to the developers' good nature.
A few weeks later, a representative from Brookside e-mailed back: "Written notices cannot be rescinded. Work has been scheduled based on notice to vacate days. At this point, we are not are renewing leases due to upcoming renovations…. We are offering discounted rates for renovated apartments to existing Howe Garden residents. The rates are based on the East Nashville rental market…. We are happy to answer questions that we have answers to."
The dissolution of the community at Howe Garden was swift. Most left as their leases ended. Some rushed to leave even before that, seeking low rents when an opportunity presented. Residents stopped meeting and planning. Marshall and Scarlett moved in with Marshall's parents. Brookside changed Howe Garden's name with little fanfare, perhaps in an effort to avoid Google results pointing to its clunky takeover.
In April, Nashville Mayor Megan Barry released a plan to invest $10 million for housing for households making around $30,000 a year, about 60 percent of the city's median income. In June, for the first time, Nashville's program to offset lost property taxes attracted a developer to build affordable housing. Metro Council continues to look at other options to prevent Nashvillians from being uprooted due to cost.
NOAH celebrates all of the steps to make the city more accessible, but says they're not enough. Items from their platform yet to be fulfilled include fully staffing the mayor's office of affordable housing and offering property tax relief to longtime homeowners.
Meanwhile, Nashville continues to gentrify. Without large steps from city and state government, it's unclear what can be done to dull the loss of diversity. Most recently, a Wal-Mart at the border of Cleveland Park and Eastwood closed, making the lack of grocery stores in East Nashville even worse. The building will be used for high-end retail space.
"Change is here," Sam McCullough says. "But change hasn't picked up everyone along its illustrious route."
Originally posted on March 29, 2017