A Tornado Decimated North Nashville. The Rebuilding May Destroy Its Soul. (2024)

A few hours later, in the morning light, the damage was clear: Much of their neighborhood — a traditional and important African-American community that has been rapidly gentrifying — had been decimated. Now, Victoria, an African-American musician and songwriter, assumed that the gentrification pressure would only get worse, that working people would struggle to rebuild, flirt with the idea of selling to developers or simply move away.

“My mom and I woke up, and with this dark-humor laugh were like, ‘Well, there goes the rest of the neighborhood,’” she said.

As this city cleans up from nightmare storms that cut a swath across the central part of the state on Tuesday, killing at least two dozen people across four counties, some residents of North Nashville also worried that the tornado’s destruction would exacerbate the forces that have been diluting their neighborhood’s character and culture.

“There has been a gentrification tornado spinning through North Nashville for the last 10 years,” said the Rev. Jeff Obafemi Carr, an activist and former mayoral candidate. “You hope that a physical tornado doesn’t become the catalyst for more.”

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The neighborhood’s post-storm anxiety echoes broader concerns about whether this fast-growing metropolitan area, rife with cool cachet and rising housing prices, is doing enough to accommodate its African-American community as the city is transformed by construction cranes and new residents.

Unverified rumors about forces that Victoria described as “greater than the tornado itself” spun through the neighborhood Wednesday.

“I heard people in Land Rovers were going around yesterday basically trying to scout property — but I can’t validate that,” said Freddie O’Connell, a white member of the unified City-County Council whose district includes a badly damaged portion of North Nashville.

With a diversified economy and its sheen of countrypolitan chic, Nashville continues to grow. It recently passed Memphis as the state’s most populous city, with about 700,000 residents, and demographers predict it will grow by more than another 100,000 people over the next 20 years.

Along with that, however, has come a growing — and well-founded — fear of black displacement. In late 2017, the city’s daily newspaper, The Tennessean, analyzed census data and found that the African-American population had plummeted in some historically black neighborhoods, in some cases by 20 percentage points or more. Many black residents also had left the city’s urban core, the newspaper found, “while white buyers and renters are spreading throughout the core.”

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Though Nashville’s global calling card, country music, is usually associated with America’s white working class, the city is nearly 28% black, with a storied civil rights legacy and a number of historically black colleges and universities. Yet many African-American residents said they have felt slighted in recent years as Nashville’s cool-town reputation took off.

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An ambitious $9 billion public transit plan was shot down by voters after opponents argued that working-class black people would bear an undue tax burden and see relatively few benefits. Some black leaders saw a recent effort to scale back services at Nashville General Hospital, which is city-funded and on the city’s north side, as an affront. So was a short-lived plan to develop homes, retail and office space at Fort Negley, where enslaved African-Americans are buried.

And there is controversy over Nashville’s signature dish, hot chicken, an African-American creation that many feel has been misappropriated and widely marketed by white people.

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Tuesday’s deadly tornado was not the first to play a role in the city’s gentrification drama. After the East Nashville neighborhood was hit hard by a destructive storm in 1998, it enjoyed a hip renaissance, fueled in part by insurance money. The cool bars and pricey restaurants that emerged after the storm helped boost property values and a gentrifying circle that continues today.

This week’s storms were indiscriminate in their wrath, and once again, East Nashville was battered. The Basem*nt East, a popular indie-rock club founded in 2015, was badly damaged. Nearby, a couple was killed after leaving Attaboy Lounge, a craft co*cktail lounge. Scores of homes were rendered unlivable.

On Wednesday, gentrification concerns were not a top priority for many Nashville residents who were simply trying to clean up their neighborhoods. Professional cleanup crews, joined by volunteers of all races and backgrounds, worked to clear the streets of tangled wires and branches and help their neighbors as power outages continued to plague some areas.

As rescue efforts continued, the number of people missing fluctuated, a sign of how difficult it could be to search for people across a wide area of power outages and sometimes dangerous road conditions. More than 80 people were unaccounted for Tuesday night, then 22 Wednesday morning and then 17 by midday.

Deaths were reported in Wilson and Benton counties, but officials there said there were no reports of missing people.

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In Putnam County, in the rolling countryside east of Nashville, 18 people were killed, including 13 adults and five children under the age of 13. Late Wednesday, three people remained unaccounted for.

“Most of the folks that I have talked with, black and white, all of our heads are pretty much in the same place,” said the Rev. Frank Gordon, pastor of North Nashville’s Fourteenth Avenue Missionary Baptist Church. “We have been through these things before with tornadoes and floods in Nashville. Each time that I recall it has happened, the major thrust in the community has been everybody pulling together.”

Still, beneath the sounds of the buzzing of chain saws, many worried about how the tornado would transform North Nashville.

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In September, Victoria wrote a searing essay in The Nashville Scene decrying the expensive makeover that had begun transforming North Nashville. Victoria described the new construction, and the new flavors that came with new neighbors, including “the appearance of a natural-foods section at the Kroger on Rosa Parks Boulevard where years ago I purchased my first chitterlings.”

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“There is a rapaciousness in the air, bordering on the obscene, as the city contorts, bends, shucks and jives to become whatever version of itself will bring about the largest turn of profit,” she wrote. “Those positioned to make money do so, while all those standing outside the circle of profit are left on their front porch wondering when their lives will be razed and paved over.”

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The dramatic changes were on full display in the Buena Vista area of North Nashville.

There, Shirley Brooks has lived on Monroe Street for a decade in a one-story wood house. Before the tornado, she watched as new brick townhomes rose all around her. They were barely affected by the storm. But the tornado tore off the front of her little green house and wrecked its roof, displacing her and the 15 other residents.

“We got to the middle of the house and the roof caved in,” Brooks said. “I had the baby and the roof fell in on my back. We were trapped in the back and couldn’t get out. I was screaming and hollering to the people next door, saying, ‘Please help us! We can’t get out! We can’t get out.’”

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The next day, Brooks and her grandchildren returned to their ruined home, gathered what they could and prepared to go elsewhere. She said her landlord told her that he did not plan to rebuild it.

“They told me they didn’t have no more rental property,” she said, “and I don’t have nowhere to go.”

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Nearby, the Rev. Lisa Hammonds stood outside of St. John AME Church, the oldest AME sanctuary in Tennessee. The tornado had cratered the roof and caused other structural damage. On Wednesday, it was surrounded by police tape.

Hammonds talked about feeling slighted when the initial news coverage of the tornado seemed to focus more on fully gentrified places like the nearby Germantown neighborhood. She spoke of the new housing sprouting up in North Nashville, including the buildings that residents call “tall and skinnies,” built to maximize space and profits on small lots.

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“What we have to understand is that it’s happening already,” Hammonds said. “We just have to figure out what that means for our community.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times .

A Tornado Decimated North Nashville. The Rebuilding May Destroy Its Soul. (2024)
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