Nashville: The Biggest Small Town in the World

Bill Freeman

By Bill Freeman

Nashville’s seen a remarkable amount of change in recent years, with parts changing for the better and aspects still warranting improvement.  Some things have stayed reassuringly the same. 

The first issue that’s improved dramatically, all things considered, is how we all get along.  I remember clearly tanks in the streets of downtown Nashville.  The strife Nashville experienced from the civil rights birthing process was nothing short of traumatic. I remember reporters attacked for their coverage of the civil rights challenges we lived through. It still boggles my mind that Nashville endured multiple bombings, particularly Hattie Cotton School during school integration in 1957.  It’s a shameful reminder of damage done by the worst of human nature, but on the flip side, the school’s continued success and thriving student body today is a bold example of the endurance of the human spirit.  

Nashville has a checkered past when it comes to how we’ve treated our minority communities. The construction of our interstate system, particularly I-40, split one of our city’s proudest and oldest African-American communities. North Nashville has struggled with maintaining its identity and security ever since.  It’s now threatened by gentrification’s own unique but equally damaging method of pushing out generations-long residents.  

We have the opportunity and capability to fix this problem before the damage is irreversible. Private industry and governmental agencies are working to stem the tide as best we can and sufficiently address our affordable housing crisis.  We have a real chance to avoid growth’s unintended consequences that we’ve not avoided in the past.  A real chance, but we cannot tarry. 

At the other end of the spectrum from housing needs and our communities’ social fabric is our collective enjoyment of professional sports. Nashville has worked very hard over the past three decades to bring professional sports to town. It’s paid off in spades.  Metro’s windfall from our NFL and NHL franchises has put the city in good stead for decades.  We have the same opportunity with the Fairgrounds Speedway, which sits in the unique position to be both one of the oldest and newest professional sports facilities in Nashville.  The track saw its first automobile race over a century ago in 1904, after operating for years as a horse track. Working carefully and thoughtfully with the Fairgrounds and the new MLS stadium, we can welcome NASCAR back—one of the oldest sports Nashville has experienced—right alongside professional soccer, one of the sports just taking hold here. Racing fans and drivers both are clamoring for a return to the more thrilling, more engaging style of driving that only a short track provides. It is rare to have this opportunity to put one foot forward into Nashville’s future, with one foot anchored in our past. 

Another aspect of Nashville that makes us the biggest small town is our unique but rarely-noticed form of government.  Our metropolitan government consolidated city and county governments into one.  This unprecedented decision through our 1963 residential vote reduced duplication of services and made governmental programs more efficient.  It improved services to minority and disadvantaged communities and converted our public educational system into one of the largest in the country. It was Mayor Briley—our first Mayor Briley, that is—who was first elected mayor of the new Metro Nashville in 1963.  Fast forward 55 years, and Nashville put another Mayor Briley in office. The more things change, the more they stay the same!

Our Metro Council was intentionally kept large at 40 members in order to keep from reducing the impact of voices from minority communities.  It was done very much on purpose, to encourage thorough debate and to ensure a more accessible and fairer representation for all Nashvillians.  Many people were influential during the process of the Metro decision, and that commitment to public service has stayed in the blood of many Nashville families.  The Briley family is one of many who’ve made a generational impact on Nashville, both then and now.  

Surely these names ring a bell, even to our newest residents.  Briley. Seigenthaler.  West. Love. Ingram. Frist. Ezell. Napier. Ellington. Looby. Acklen. Church. Harding. Lentz. Donelson. Not all of these are names of Nashville’s roads, buildings and bridges, but they’re all important families who have impacted Nashville, many of whom still do today.  

While Nashville may be changing, many things still remain the same.  We must collectively make sure that today’s actions don’t cause unintended consequences tomorrow.  If our past is any indication, Nashville will thrive despite challenges and continue our tradition of hospitality, history and cooperation.

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