Nashville Finds Opportunity in the Hole a Bomber Left in the Heart of the City

Since the explosion last Christmas, the city has grappled with how rebuilding will fit into its larger ambitions of transforming downtown. The hope is to draw more than just tourists.

Since the explosion last Christmas, the city has grappled with how rebuilding will fit into its larger ambitions of transforming downtown. The hope is to draw more than just tourists.

NASHVILLE — Lower Broadway is a never-ending party, the teeming heart of the Nashville that tourists come looking for: bright lights and bars overflowing with music and crowds that can rival those in Times Square. But just around the corner, some in the city see an urgent need — and an unexpected opportunity — to create something different.

A year ago, on Christmas morning, a man enmeshed in a web of bizarre conspiracy theories detonated a recreational vehicle packed with explosives. No one other than the perpetrator was killed, but a stretch of Second Avenue — a tree-lined row of restaurants, bars, shops and lofts in some of the city’s oldest buildings — was wiped out. A gaping void suddenly emerged in the center of Nashville.

It was a painful addition to the roster of recent setbacks the city has endured, including a devastating tornado in 2020 and deadly flooding in March. But the challenge of rebuilding Second Avenue has also led civic leaders to confront the side effects of years of extraordinary growth.

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Second Avenue days after the explosion last year.Credit…Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

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The site of the bombing earlier this month.Credit…William DeShazer for The New York Times

“Seize the moment to make something happen,” John Cooper, Nashville’s mayor, said in an interview, describing an expanded vision for downtown, more focused on improving the quality of life for city residents. He noted that there had been talk for years about overhauling Second Avenue, yet it had never materialized before the bombing.

Nashville has, in many ways, enjoyed the fruits of its ascendance. Major companies, including automakers and technology firms, have been lured by an accommodating business climate. Shiny glass office towers have popped up all over the city, as have massive upscale apartment complexes promising amenities like quartz countertops, resort-style pools and — this being Nashville — community recording studios.

Still, as in Austin, Texas, and other midsize cities that have seen similar influxes, that expansion has also brought snarled traffic, staggering housing prices and deep concerns about who has paid the price for Nashville’s prosperity.

City officials and developers have ambitions of turning downtown into more of a neighborhood, a hub of commerce but also a place where a community can flourish. Yet that vision has sometimes been stymied by a more complicated reality: The raucous hordes of revelers and daily parade of party vehicles might be a sign of one way downtown is thriving. But they are also a source of exasperation for people who live and work in the city.

Second Avenue, they hope, could be a solution.

“Something that is more family friendly, more Nashvillian friendly,” said Ron Gobbell, the project manager for the revitalization effort, describing plans for a gathering place for people looking to dine or socialize in a setting that is “a little less intense.”

The rebuilt Second Avenue, according to plans rolled out in recent weeks, will be friendlier to pedestrians, with a lush canopy of trees, sidewalk dining and a spacious walkway that opens the avenue up to the Cumberland River a block away.

It fits into a broader effort to transform the river and make sure that downtown is powered by more than tourism, with plans for mixed-use retail and residential developments and for Oracle, the giant software company, to construct a sprawling new campus.

Nashville is grappling with challenges familiar to cities that have been remolded by growth: Economic disparities widen. The limits of infrastructure are tested. The character at the root of its appeal becomes strained by the demands of development, a tension evident in persisting worries over the condition of Nashville’s soul.

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Developers hope Second Avenue can be quieter and more approachable than Broadway, which is often bustling with tourists. Credit…William DeShazer for The New York Times

“I think every city that is growing at the pace that we are has to struggle with making sure it keeps its identity,” said Bert Mathews, a developer who once owned a building on Second Avenue that he sold years before the blast. “We are really struggling to hold on to what is critical and what’s important.”

For years, downtown has been one of the clearest signs of Nashville’s upward trajectory. Decades ago, music venues shared blighted streets with dingy pool halls and sex shops. But as the number of tourists multiplied — rising to more than 15 million a year just before the pandemic, compared to two million in 1998 — Lower Broadway was transformed.

Alongside old honky tonks, country music stars opened bars where patrons spread out over three stories or more, and downtown is filled with new restaurants and luxury hotels.

A prevailing concern has been an unevenness in reaping the benefits of growth. The Nashville Scene, the city’s alternative newspaper, started selling a T-shirt declaring “RIP Old Nashville” with a lengthy lineup of music venues and beloved haunts that have not survived.

Second Avenue has not been immune: One fixture, B.B. King’s Blues Club, is not returning. Old Spaghetti Factory, a restaurant that opened there in 1979, had its lease terminated by its landlord. “I’m not totally sure we can afford to be downtown,” said Dean Griffith, the president of the company. “It’s really expensive right now.”

Mayor Cooper said that affordable housing has been a priority. Tens of millions of dollars have been allocated to build or improve affordable housing developments, much of it located in the city’s core.

Activists have been advocating for more, as rampant gentrification and a soaring cost of living has had a disproportionate impact on working class and minority communities. Even as Nashville’s population has climbed, surpassing Memphis as Tennessee’s most populous city as it reached about 700,000 residents, the African American population has spiraled downward by 20 percentage points or more in some historically Black neighborhoods.

“Black people are not sharing in the prosperity,” said Jessica Williams, the communications director for the Equity Alliance, an organization advocating for more opportunity and a better quality of life.

In North Nashville, her neighborhood and a cultural hub for Black life in the city, she has seen new houses cropping up that are too expensive for most residents already in the neighborhood. Many of the newcomers she sees are white.

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The Nashville City Council recently took steps to rein in party vehicles, which have become a nuisance in downtown. Credit…William DeShazer for The New York Times

Nashville has undoubtedly become more diverse. In the southeastern corner of the city, Nolensville Pike has become a delectable corridor where fast-food chains and one of Nashville’s original purveyors of hot chicken are wedged into shopping centers with Peruvian chicken spots, Salvadoran pupuserias and markets serving Kurdish and Indian communities.

But downtown, Ms. Williams said, can feel homogeneous. “When you go there, it’s white,” she said. “These are white spaces.”

Officials and developers have been laying the groundwork to broaden the appeal of downtown and to make it the sort of urban environment where residents could live and work. The plan is meant to reduce the load on area roadways and bring even more vigor to the city’s core.

One of the most ambitious development projects — a $450 million complex with major brands and outposts of popular local restaurants, office space, housing and a museum of African American music — opened this year. (Monthly rent for the apartments range from just over $2,000 for a studio to more than $14,000 for a three-bedroom penthouse.)

There are plans to add thousands of apartments and condominiums. The City Council has also adopted measures to rein in the proliferation of party vehicles, which have been popular with tourists but annoying to many residents.

Revamping Second Avenue had not figured into their designs. But then the bombing forced officials to recalibrate.

Around dawn on Christmas morning last year, police officers were called to the area and found a recreational vehicle parked outside of an AT&T communications hub. A speaker blared the Petula Clark song “Downtown” interspersed with a countdown and warning that the vehicle would soon explode. The officers rushed to roust nearby residents out of their homes and clear the avenue.

The concussion unleashed a wave of destruction through downtown. Telecommunications were disrupted across the region for days. Dozens of buildings were destroyed or damaged, including warehouses and storefronts from the Victorian-era built in the years after the Civil War, dealing an agonizing blow to historic preservationists.

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Investigators assessing the scene of the bombing last year. Credit…Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

“It felt like almost a continuation of the nightmare of Covid, tornado — all those different sort of things,” Mr. Mathews said of the litany of hardship Nashville had weathered in the months before the bombing. “How many unnatural things can happen to our community? And how do we recover?”

Amanda Topping, one of the police officers who was there when the bomb went off, is eager to see the area rebuilt.

I live here, I have family here, nieces and nephews,” she said. “I want to be able to bring them downtown to a new park, restaurants, the outdoor dining.”

There is a fear that something gets lost when an area becomes dominated by crowds who are there for a good time but are ultimately just passing through, with little interest in sustaining a community.

“You end up with just Bourbon Street or Times Square,” said Ray Hensler, a developer. “I just don’t think most Nashvillians want to see that happen.”

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