Nashville resists change in Southern way of life

Fifteen years ago, the blue-blooded hostesses of elite Belle Meade first invited Johnny Cash, juke box basso, to sing at the annual Swan Ball. By now some of the rhinestone celebrities and entrepreneurs of the Music City side of Nashville are Swan Ball regulars, not just on stage, but as guests.

Genteel Nashville has learned to welcome successive waves of newcomers in a city where many people still feel they ``know everybody.''

But the Nashville way of life is changing all over this city as it continues to rack up a remarkable string of major new industries - bringing new people, new money, new condominium clusters, and traffic jams. With many more jobs and people already on the way, the mood here is drifting in a very un-Southern direction - toward limiting growth. The refrain: ``We don't want to be another Atlanta.''

Explains Steve Neighbors, coordinator of the annual Summer Lights festival: ``Nashville still has that small-town feel. I think that everybody is concerned that Nashville will lose that feeling. That's what Atlanta represents.''

And Mr. Neighbors adds: ``The local gas station owner and the barber can still be elected to City Council.''

Nashville is not exactly a boomtown. The local economy is diverse enough to nearly mirror the national economy, but most industries here have regularly outperformed the national averages in productivity for over a decade.

The entertainment industry isn't thriving lately, but the auto industry is. Publishing - much of it religious - is strong here, the universities are major employers, and the city is the financial capital of Tennessee and surrounding states.

Faster growth in the near future is already assured. Construction is just beginning on General Motors' huge Saturn plant 30 miles south. And when the new airport opens this fall, twice the size of the current one, it becomes a hub for American Airlines.

``The private sector is going like a steam engine,'' says John Costonis, dean of Vanderbilt Law School, ``and we need for government to keep up.''

Mayor Richard Fulton, completing his second and final term this summer, points with the most pride to the laying of over 700 miles of sewer lines, over 350 miles of water lines, and over 200 miles of new sidewalk in his term.

But city services have not caught up with the condominiums and office parks spreading out toward the county line. And traffic has become such a ``major'' public issue in town that at least one mayoral candidate, Eddie Jones, has taken his campaign to the streets, working the traffic jams.

Among city professionals, the talk is of a regional plan with the clout to stop development or exact concessions from developers.

Such talk runs counter to Southern tradition. The Southern strategy has been to lure industry with low wages and low taxes and avoid zoning or public costs that might scare them off.

Many are not convinced yet that Nashvillians are ready to pay the price for managing growth. Historic conservation districts, for example, have been welcomed in blighted neighborhoods. But in neighborhoods where property values are rising, homeowners reject them as a limit on their potential profits.

Neighboring counties have also not yet been willing to manage the growth of bedroom communities to suit Nashville traffic patterns.

Already neighborhood groups are becoming a force in Nashville politics. Homeowners around the new airport, for example, have become a powerful lobby against the jet noise that is expected to cut property values.

Another neighborhood held up construction of Nashville's new beltway for months. Others pack City Council meetings to keep bingo halls off streets zoned for restaurants.

``Neighborhoods,'' says Dean Costonis, ``could become a no-growth movement.''

Historical preservationists are growing increasingly activist as well. When a historic former hospital was burned down on Second Avenue, a historic preservation district that has so far failed to prosper, a developer immediately submitted plans for a 21-story office building - provoking a torch-light parade on City Hall this spring by preservationists.

``I have a feeling that what older citizens are talking about when they join a movement like that, or when they complain about the neighborhood changing,'' observes Vanderbilt historian Don Doyle, ``is changing values.''

In many ways, Nashville is adjusting well. Just as executives with the new companies in town have become mainstays supporting the Swan Ball - possibly the largest all-volunteer charity event in the country - and other high-brow cultural causes, so the rhinestone cowboys of Music City provide a rich talent base for jazz bands and string quartets. In working class East Nashville, growth means better incomes.

But nearly everyone is concerned about what Nashville might become. As Mrs. Quinn says: ``We want to be more than a traffic hazard.''

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