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Nashville Scene Word From The Hood

Nashville's neighborhood movement is 30 and still trying to get calls returned

By Liz Murray Garrigan

APRIL 17, 2000:  When a vocal, liberal-thinking "neighborhood activist" named Betty Nixon was elected to the Metro Council in 1975, the local legislative body was a sort of dumping ground for retired police officers and Metro firefighters and a warm, welcoming den for influential business and development interests. The people who had always had the power still did.

The belly-scratching, good-ol'-boy crowd on the Council wasn't used to the young, well-educated, articulate intelligentsia Nixon embodied. She was a duck out of water. She was the first person ever to run on a neighborhood improvement platform, but that didn't necessarily give her any power.

For the fledgling politician, it was painstaking work to get the simplest neighborhood problem solved. At one point, five Metro departments gave her the runaround for two months about her proposal to put a traffic circle in front of Eakin Elementary School so that, as she puts it now, "people getting off the school buses would not be, you know, killed."

The department heads continued to balk, so Nixon filed legislation saying the project was necessary to comply with federal mandates. "They all came back and they said, 'Oh, we don't want to comply with all that federal stuff,' and so we all got in a room, and in about 20 minutes, we worked it out."

Back then, such was a day in the life of a "neighborhood activist"--at that time, mostly new urbanites or midtown citizens, easy to spot with their long hair and comfy shoes, who felt a moral obligation to take care of their communities.

Today, neighborhood groups still have to kick and scream from time to time, but 30 years after the first Nashville neighbors began systematic, citizen-driven complaints directed at city government, more than 300 such groups have developed in Nashville.

And perhaps most importantly, voters have elected a mayor who went so far as to put a desk in his front yard to symbolize his commitment to neighborhood interests. Bill Purcell is the first Nashville mayor to create a "Mayor's Office of Neighborhoods." And as the city searches for a new planning director, neighborhood interests--also for the first time in the city's history--have a seat at the selection table.

But while there have been great strides for the Nashville neighborhood movement during the past three decades, that doesn't mean Metro isn't still a maze of hard-to-reach bureaucrats, many of whom still view neighborhood activists as nuisances who interrupt their lunch hours. There must be a reason, after all, that the mayor is institutionalizing a government focus on neighborhoods.

When the grandfather of Nashville's neighborhood movement--Belmont-Hillsboro's Gene TeSelle--organized his then-deteriorating piece of the city in 1970, Metro's planning director at that time breathed a sigh of relief.

"It made my job easier," recalls the now-retired Farris Deep. "I only had to deal with Gene instead of dealing with 20 or 30 people."

But as the movement grew, so did the number of people some Metro government officials characterized as the "BMWs"--bitchers, moaners, and whiners. The bureaucrats who were used to running things on their own soon became inundated with something called the "neighborhood activist." They were hell-bent on reversing some of the destructive effects of urban renewal, discriminatory lending policies in their neighborhoods, and other government-driven policies or negligent practices that had sent their communities on a fast track to becoming graveyards.

A Yale-educated divinity student who moved to Nashville in 1969, TeSelle would have fit the mold of neighborhood activist in Nashville--if there had really been one. Their type was hard to pin down, but many were liberal university academic types, as worried about the Sandinistas in Central America as the sewage runoff down the next block.

TeSelle's Belmont-Hillsboro group was born out of threats to the area ranging from rezoning to the effects of desegregation. A group of young Democrats who had worked for Albert Gore Sr.'s 1970 Senate campaign got their heads together to fight off, among other things, an effort by white property owners on Belmont Boulevard to rezone the street from residential to commercial.

Blacks were moving in, and the white owners thought that would cause home values to fall. So they sought the rezoning in hopes of windfalls from commercial buyers.

"Our approach was to say, 'We've got an interracial neighborhood. Let's make the most of it,' " says TeSelle, whose group started meeting at Christ the King School and eventually fought off the Belmont Boulevard rezoning.

When Dick Fulton was elected mayor five years later, groups like that were still something of a novelty. But Fulton, who grew up in East Nashville, was considered about as sympathetic to the plight of neighborhoods as any public official at that time. He supported Nixon in her Metro Council runoff election in 1975, when she won in the Hillsboro-West End district by just 10 votes. Nixon says she couldn't have won the race without him.

"He was a pretty good neighborhood kind of mayor," Nixon recalls of Fulton, "but I think there wasn't that much structure there for him. So one of the things that I and others did early on was go out and talk with people who were interested in organizing and basically tell them how the government worked and just have people sort of understand in a practical way that they were not helpless."

Nixon's campaign was the first in Metro history to really delineate the sides. "Our approach was activist and, I would say, confrontational," Nixon says.

The establishment didn't always appreciate the counseling she and others offered to fledgling neighborhood groups. "It was interesting, because that was criticized back then," she says. "They sort of said that we were ruining the city because we were transferring, you know, power from those who really knew what should be happening to the people."

In the mid-1970s, Fulton did something that was considered pivotal to the political interests of neighborhoods when he appointed Jan Bushing to the Metro Planning Commission, the powerful body that determines land use and other property decisions in the city.

"That was a milestone," says Ann Roberts, director of the Metro Historical Commission. "It was a real recognition of listening to a voice that hadn't been listened to before."

Bushing, like Nixon, had begun fighting to save neighborhoods from some of the unintended destructive effects of urban renewal. But the development-controlled Metro Council nearly rejected her, with her opponents casting her as a sort of rebel unfit to serve on one of the city's most prestigious boards.

"That was a big deal," Bushing says now. "The Council nearly didn't appoint me. It was a big fight, and I think I won by one vote."

The Tennessean may deserve at least part of the credit. Frank Sutherland, the paper's current editor who was then a young, eager reporter, wrote a thoughtful article about the need for neighborhood representation on the Planning Commission, and Bushing attributes the Council's approval of her appointment in part to that story.

But nothing was easy. Bushing served just two years before her fellow Planning Commission members selected her to chair the board--a move that, on the surface, seemed like progress for neighborhoods. But some within the neighborhood movement saw the elevation of Bushing as an effort to silence her point of view. That's because the chair could debate an issue only if the other board members were deadlocked and there was a tie vote.

But if there was still only a small core of people doing the work, things started looking up for neighborhoods in the late '70s and early '80s. It couldn't happen fast enough for the activists.

"We really had been sort of going to hell in a handbasket," Nixon says. "People were out of codes compliance, there were tremendous numbers of violations, poor infrastructure, and we just sort of organized block by block and pursued the city government and banks and others."

Nearly single-handedly, Bushing brought representatives from Fannie Mae to Nashville to persuade the federal housing lender to start granting loans on homes that weren't newly constructed.

"Once they started backing mortgages that included the cost of renovations, the neighborhoods started turning around," Bushing says. "We had to show that we were wanting to work to improve the communities. At that time, they had to see visibly that we were going to the [Metro Codes Adminstration] and urging, if not demanding, that they enforce the codes of the area. And there were many, many times at that point that they actually did house-to-house inspections."

In 1984, after the Metro Historical Commission had been working intensely for about a decade to help whole neighborhoods--not just individual buildings--become recognized for their historic status, the agency encouraged the city's already formed neighborhood groups to come together to create an alliance. The Nashville Neighborhood Alliance was formally organized to "preserve and conserve neighborhoods and to assist these areas in managing change," as then-chairman Ann Butterworth put it at the time.

By the late '80s, the movement was strong enough that Nixon, one of its most influential leaders, ran for mayor. She lost to Bill Boner, who, like Fulton 12 years before him, had come home from Congress to run for the city's top job.

"Actually, the first time I knew that things had begun to change was in 1987 when I ran for mayor and Eddie Jones, who was the Chamber of Commerce candidate, came out in favor of neighborhoods," Nixon recalls with amusement. "I thought, 'Oh my God, you know, what is this?' So, I think, gradually, as people did their work well, they gained credibility and institutionalized relationships."

Unlike Betty Nixon's days in the Metro Council, when only a handful of her colleagues were neighborhood loyalists, the current Council is considered the most neighborhood-friendly of any local legislative body since the city and county governments were consolidated into Metro in 1963.

Also, more than ever, citizen neighborhood groups are arming themselves with real ammunition--exchanging information among themselves and demanding that candidates for political office respond to questionnaires about issues important to specific areas of Nashville.

In fact, more than 30 of the current Metro Council members responded to a candidate survey created last year by a Nashville Neighborhood Alliance government relations committee. It was the group's first effort at comprehensive voter education for all Metro Council districts, and the candidate responses were mailed to neighborhood groups all over the city.

The Neighborhood Alliance--now considered the city's clearinghouse for countywide neighborhood issues--grew in sophistication when, a few years ago, two of its most active members founded a sister organization, the Neighborhood Resource Center. The center operates independently, but it trains neighborhood leaders and offers communities detailed information about crime, home-buying trends, and other data related to their neighborhoods.

"The purpose of the alliance and the center is to help citizens not look just like obstreporous children but to give them some information so that, initially, office holders will learn that conversation with them is a constructive thing and leads to a better result," says TeSelle, who serves on the executive board of directors for the alliance.

It would probably be fair to say that the alliance is the most persistent neighborhood lobby at the Metro Council, although representatives from specific neighborhood groups do show up at the Metro Courthouse when threats of landfills, mega superstores, or other such unfriendly developments threaten their quality of life. In fact, Council members say those individual neighborhood groups are the most influential.

"I think the individual neighborhood associations are more powerful than the alliance as a whole in part because the different neighborhood associations within the alliance don't always have the same agenda," at-large Metro Council member Chris Ferrell says.

Ferrell says the alliance is most effective when it's helping neighborhood groups organize rather than trying to speak on their behalf.

But Janice Daniels, an alliance executive board member who lives near Brick Church Pike close to the newest addition of Briley Parkway where encroaching industrial development is an issue, says she's surprised by just how frequently the various neighborhoods agree. The organization's membership, in fact, recently has asked the city's leadership to take five actions, ranging from creating more affordable housing to developing a comprehensive solid-waste plan to strengthing the code of ethics for all appointed and elected officials.

"If the Nashville Neighborhood Alliance has any real power," Daniels says, "it's in giving people like myself just the idea that the government is supposed to be working for us."

For most Council members, the face of the alliance is John Stern's, the group's sometimes arrogant but passionate president four years running. Stern, a small-business owner, isn't compensated for his work with the alliance, but he is paid as the part-time executive director of the Neighborhood Resource Center.

On the one hand, Stern is regarded well enough within his own organization to earn annual reelection to the group's top job four times now. The significance of such consensus probably can't be overstated for an organization that acts as den mother for at least 100 community groups.

But Stern's critics--and friends too--are quick to point out that there are some important government officials with whom he lacks credibility, perhaps because he doesn't choose his battles carefully enough and because his persistent squawking has grown stale. Moreover, some of them say, they have their doubts that the alliance accurately represents neighborhood interests.

"It's another layer of bureaucracy, and the leaders of the alliance are further away from the neighborhood groups than what most of us would like to see," at-large Metro Council member Leo Waters says. "The alliance does more lobbying than anybody else in the form of John Stern, but whether that represents that diversity of opinion throughout the neighborhood groups, sometimes I have my doubts. I'm a member of a neighborhood group, and I've never voted for him."

It probably didn't help matters that, in 1995, Stern ran unsuccessfully for an at-large Metro Council seat, perhaps alienating candidates who went on to win election.

Vice Mayor Ronnie Steine says the alliance might benefit from more frequent changes in leadership. "John Stern is well-known from his ardent advocacy for neighborhoods, but he is equally well-known for his lack of economy in communication," Steine says, choosing his words carefully.

"The force of John's personality and the amount of time he's willing to spend on the movement may have been detrimental to the Neighborhood Alliance growing more members. He's always the focal point, which is a tribute to his tenacity, but very clearly for the health of the Neighborhood Alliance there ought to be other very strong voices out there."

Stern's colleagues defend the level of his visibility and suggest that maybe the constant focus on him as the alliance spokesman is more media-driven than anything else. "I have been at the Council standing next to three other alliance people and the reporter will turn around and talk to John," says Berdelle Campbell, a longtime Germantown resident and neighborhood activist who serves on the alliance's executive board. "That's not John's fault."

Whatever the alliance's real or perceived shortcomings, its torchbearers tend to get more response from the Council now than the early neighborhood advocates did. "I think you can get more done now without being quite as obnoxious as I was," Nixon says.

Purcell is not the first Nashville mayor to be, as he calls himself, "a neighborhood mayor." While much of Fulton's time in office preceded the kind of neighborhood organization Nashville has today, he was nonetheless considered a neighborhood guy. So was Boner, who was a hard-working micromanager who would sometimes call staff into his office in the middle of the night to discuss his latest epiphanies. In fact, it was during Boner's tenure as mayor that the neighborhoods won a great victory. In the late 1980s, Boner, along with some Metro Council members, supported the creation of citizen's advisory committees to help develop sub-area plans for the Metro Planning Commission. The plans are used to guide growth and development in Nashville communities.

As for Phil Bredesen, his most loyal allies would argue that he was friendly to neighborhoods. The stadium construction, for example, brought new traffic--and money--to East Nashville, and the arena revitalized downtown and helped make it more ripe for urban dwelling than in the days when Second Avenue was just a row of unrenovated warehouse buildings.

Others are more skeptical about Bredesen's tenure, recalling that his second-term promise to concentrate on neighborhoods was abandoned shortly thereafter, when the Houston Oilers came calling. "We never felt like we got anything from Bredesen," TeSelle says.

His eight-year tenure, the skeptics say, was a time for broad vision, concrete landscapes, and economic growth.

If that's true, then perhaps now the pendulum is swinging back to the "smaller" interests of neighborhoods and quality of life, which Purcell the candidate identified as priorities as far back as two years before the mayor's race, when he announced his candidacy in 1997.

Purcell is the first mayor to institutionalize his neighborhood priority by dedicating an entire division of his office to the cause, as mayors in other cities have done.

As it is, the goal of that "Office of Neighborhoods," which replaced what was known more generally as "constituent services," is very simple and, at least at this point, not too overreaching. In fact, Purcell's critics roll their eyes at the whole notion and suggest that renaming the constituent services office is little more than a display of the kind of symbolism for which Purcell is becoming increasingly known.

But what Purcell's office is trying to give is precisely what the neighborhood groups all seem to agree they want--response and access.

Most neighborhood groups spring up in response to some issue specific to their communities, making it difficult then to define the "neighborhood movement" generally. What does it really stand for? What is it against? Those are difficult questions to answer because different groups have different, sometimes conflicting, priorities. If the movement can be defined at all, it represents more a way of looking at the citizen's relationship to government than any concrete plan of action. The bottom line is that neighborhood activists all want their government to listen to them. Purcell's office seems to recognize that.

The Mayor's Office of Neighborhoods director, Brenda Wynn, says the constituent services system in place under previous mayors wasn't sufficient. "That's not us determining that it wasn't sufficient," she says. "That's based on what we've heard from constituents."

TeSelle says it certainly can't hurt to have the city's top-ranking elected official going to bat for concerned citizens. "We do have this built-in difference of power," he says. "It's always slightly rude to raise questions when a developer proposes a rezoning or a government official takes some action."

But now, neighborhoods have a sort of bureaucratic ombudsman, an ally on the public payroll whose job it is to make city leaders pay attention to neighborhood needs. Right now, in fact, Wynn says that's what she and her three-person staff spend most of their time doing.

"At this juncture, it really is," she says. "I think that what we're trying to do is to raise the consciousness level of departments throughout city government. It's important to respond, whether you say yes or no or whether you can clear up the problem. It's just important you respond and do it in a timely manner."

Stern and representatives from his group remain somewhat circumspect for now, but there are some early victories already. There seems to be an agreement that Purcell will meet with alliance representatives quarterly. That would be a first. And there's an indication that there may be citizen-friendly changes within the Metro Codes Administration, one of the most difficult departments for citizens to navigate.

"If one thing has happened over the last 10 years," Stern says, "it's that kicking and yelling and screaming to get into the doors is not as needed as it once was."

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