After the Civil War, African Americans settled near Fort Negley on land that became the Edgehill District. It stretched from 8th Ave to 18th Ave S. bordering Belmont University and Vanderbilt University to the west. What would become Music Row was to the north and Wedgwood Avenue to the south.
The area is roughly 1½ square mile in size and for a century African Americans lived there in wood frame houses. A thriving business district developed along South St. and 12th Avenue South.
There were hardware stores, bakeries, barbershops, and restaurants. African Americans who lived in the neighborhood owned Hick’s Grocery Store, Clemons’ Drug Store, and Patton’s Funeral Home. Only Patton’s Funeral Home survived the Urban Renewal that James Baldwin famously dubbed “Negro Removal”.
Beginning in the 1950s, Nashville’s Urban Renewal program destroyed hundreds of rental homes in the Edgehill district and “commercial property on 12th Avenue was virtually eliminated when the street was expanded to five lanes”, according to a report by the Nashville Civic Design Center. (A history of Edgehill can be found here: http://www.sitemason.com/files/gXp5Ty/edgehill2_web.pdf)
Seventy years later, the corner of 12th and Edgehill Avenue still has a “bridge to nowhere” feeling about it. There are schools, homes, a community center and apartments but the whole is less than the parts. There is no Edgehill there anymore.
“This area became one of the largest public housing concentrations in the city but historically what has happened they have found new ways to enrich those who have and take from those that don’t have, “ said King Hollands. He lives on 14th Avenue South between Fremont and South St. He grew up there.
The Nashville Public Housing Authority, later renamed Metropolitan Development and Housing Authority (MDHA), made plans to get rid of the slums and build better houses with indoor plumbing and electricity. To its credit, the authority saved 800 Edgehill homes by providing federal money to repair them.
But an estimated 2300 people were removed from Edgehill. Hundreds of properties were condemned and the slums were torn down. The ambitious plan promised new schools, parks, community center, and public housing for the poor. Two hundred Edgehill apartments for Negroes were completed in 1954.
By 1974 MDHA was operating more than 6,100 units of low-rent housing in 19 locations in Nashville.
Ronnie Miller, a lifetime Edgehill resident, said that the area has been squeezed from every side. It started when music companies started buying homes along 16th Avenue and got zoning changes to turn them into recording studios for the country music boom. It became Music Row.
The old Edgehill District is hardly recognizable today. About 120 Turnkey III homes were constructed between 1975-1977, mostly on the northside of Rose Hill. They were built after residents organized in opposition to a big new housing development proposed for the South Street area. Organized Neighbors of Edgehill (ONE) got rid of the mega-project idea and came up with a better plan. “ONE was the first neighborhood organization founded in the city,” Hollands said.
Turnkey III houses were rent-to-buy single-family homes. Low-income residents paid rent to the Nashville Housing Authority and then took over a mortgage when their “rent equity” was converted into a down payment. But most of them are gone now, sold to developers who pay big money for anything close to the Gulch.
“I wish we could do Turnkey III again because it’s home ownership that really does make a difference. That’s how you build generational wealth,” said NOAH’s Mike Hodge. Hodge noted that after World War II, the FHA wouldn’t make home loans to African Americans.
What remains of the original 1000-acre Edgehill District is a smattering of homes where the Miller, Hollands, and Moore families still live—and 33 acres owned by MDHA—which is planning to build a mixed income development to house the 380 residents of Edgehill Apartments. Across the street MDHA’s Gernert Studio Apartments have 176 units, and Elmington Capital has 290 mixed-income apartments at 500 Hillside Ct. called Hillside Flats.
With a few exceptions, the old Edgehill has been gentrified and walking along 12th or South St. you would never know it used to be the center of a Black neighborhood with 15 grocery stores, pharmacies, hardware, clothing stores, and several churches.
Urban Renewal was supposed to revitalize the core of America’s inner cities. But redevelopment schemes in the Edgehill District destroyed it. Ronnie Miller’s family owned Hick’s Grocery Store on South St. “We couldn’t stay. We had to sell because of eminent domain,” he said.
The land passed into the hands of developers who built on the cleared slum land or bought out families who owned their homes and later sold them. Hollands said that happened “by design”.
“If you go out 12th Avenue– what they call the new 12th South–you can actually see them trying to tie it in over the years and just making it a large upscale residential area through there with commercial mixed use,” Miller said.
The loss of affordable single-family homes in Nashville is the result of a pro-growth City Hall, projects rubber stamped by a pliant Planning Commission, and then approved by Metro Council. Like a perfect storm, gentrification has swept away affordability for half of Nashville’s residents.