Nashville gets its act together after years of urban decline

Until recently, Tennessee's Music City USA was deserted after dark. But a dramatic renaissance has brought it back to life, with a thriving entertainment and residential district. Symbol of its success: a Hard Rock Cafe.

FOR decades, downtown Nashville - the heart of Music City USA - sang nothing but a mournful tune of loneliness and despair. But in the past several years, the city has picked up the beat again and started humming with activity.

When Bob Schatz and his wife moved to downtown Nashville 15 years ago, they were pioneers in a workday neighborhood left abandoned on evenings and weekends.

``At 5:30 each night it was absolutely vacant,'' says Mr. Schatz, a commercial photographer who lives and works in one of the late-19th-century brick warehouse buildings on Second Avenue.

In the past two years, a dramatic renaissance has brought downtown Nashville back to life. ``For years, neither of our parents would admit that we lived down here because they thought it was unsafe to be living in such a seedy part of town,'' Schatz says. ``Now, they brag about us.''

The building that Schatz has developed into four apartments above a mini-retail mall now sits in the middle of a thriving entertainment, restaurant, and residential district.

Today, close to 1,000 people are living in the area.

A new Hard Rock Cafe, always a favorite with tourists, recently opened just down the block, symbolizing Nashville's solid resurgence.

``It's kind of symbolic. You have come of age as a tourist destination if you have a Hard Rock Cafe,'' says Marguerite Sallee, head of the Nashville Chamber of Commerce.

The quick pace of change here has been unusual. Many Nashville-area residents never ventured downtown after dark until the past year or two. Redevelopment has brought a steady increase in nightly downtown traffic from both local residents and tourists.

Roy Powell, a Canadian tourist, sees a dramatic change since his first visit to Nashville several years ago.

``I'm so impressed with the cleanup effort,'' he says. ``This area is the historic home of country music so it was disappointing to see it had run down and deteriorated. I was forewarned that the historic part of Nashville would be a disappointment. But it was even worse than I expected.''

Like many mid-size American cities, Nashville's downtown deteriorated during the 1960s and '70s. Adult book stores and seedy night clubs dominated Broadway at night. Change for the better began in the mid-'80s, with momentum building only in the last several years.

``It's been a long process that may appear to be an overnight success. But there's really been a lot of setting the stage,'' says Ann Reynolds, executive director of the Metropolitan Historical Commission.

``There have been conscious decisions made to channel specific development efforts to the downtown area,'' Ms. Sallee says. ``You can look at the downtown of any city and tell an awful lot about where that city is going. And we knew that we had to wake up as a city and recommit to downtown to become a real player in terms of economic development.''

The new South Central Bell Building downtown has provided a boost of confidence in downtown Nashville.

As Tennessee's tallest skyscraper, the 28-story, $94-million project occupies nearly a full city block on the edge of the historic district. When it opens later this fall, the office tower will add another 2,000 employees to the 65,000 who already work downtown.

The South Central Bell Telephone Company considered 17 other sites before deciding on downtown Nashville, Sallee says. ``The commitment to locate downtown was an important statement,'' she says.

Water taxis that now operate on the Cumberland River between downtown and the Opryland theme park about 10 miles away are boosting tourist traffic in the city. ``Now we have a lot more foot traffic,'' Sallee says.

To help tourists find the historic downtown sites, Nashville introduced a new CityWalk this summer, patterned after Boston's ``Freedom Trail.''

The two-mile walk, marked by a painted aqua line on city sidewalks, guides tourists past 15 historic sites such as the black business district, the state Capitol, and the Men's Quarter, where saloons and billiard halls once lined the street and catered to an exclusively male clientele. ``No respectable Victorian lady would be seen on this block,'' warns the historic marker in the Men's Quarter.

One of the final stops on the walk is the newly restored Ryman Auditorium, which served as the home of the Grand Ole Opry radio show from 1943 to 1974. After an $8.5 million renovation, the building just reopened this summer as a live music venue.

Many local residents and merchants credit the Ryman restoration with helping fuel the downtown revitalization. Regular events are now being held at the Ryman, similar to the years when the Opry regularly drew large crowds to the historic building.

``When the Opry left downtown Nashville [in 1974], so did most of the businesses,'' says Gayle Long, general manager of Merchants restaurant. ``Business for nearly everybody down here has just about tripled since the Ryman reopened.''

Schatz remembers when Tuesday nights were ``completely dead down here.'' But now, he says, ``you have people filling the streets for the Bluegrass Show at the Ryman.''

Although Schatz is thrilled with the new popularity of his neighborhood, there is a down side. ``It's pretty tough to find a parking spot these days,'' he says.

The Metropolitan Historical Commission is concerned about losing the authentic character of the historic district. ``Five years ago, everything on Second Avenue was unique,'' Ms. Reynolds says. ``Now the rental rates are going up and the franchises are coming in. That's a serious concern.''

Sallee of the Chamber of Commerce recognizes that the balance between maintaining history and promoting progress must be negotiated carefully.

``We are trying to preserve the historic elements of the city and encourage redevelopment at the same time,'' she says. ``We're enjoying tremendous momentum right now, and we want to ensure that it continues. It would be easy to get excited and become complacent.''

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