NASHVILLE’S AGENDA

8 04 2007

I was recently reading the latest issue of one of Nashville’s minor newspapers, The Nashville Pride, which comes to my residence weekly, bearing the name of a woman who has not lived at our address for at least twenty-five years, since my wife and her first husband bought the place. I don’t know what Helen Hickenlooper did to deserve a lifetime-and-then-some subscription to this paper, but I am grateful to her (or to the paper’s subscription department) for a window into black Nashville. Yes, the Nashville Pride is a newspaper for the ethnic black community in this town—I bet you thought it was for gays, right? Nope, “Say it loud I’m black and I’m proud” predates Stonewall, folks.

The paper also serves as a window into black Nashville’s view of the city as a whole, and sometimes it features stories that don’t get a whole lot of traction in other papers in the city. Such is the case with a story about an organization called “Nashville’s Agenda” which is currently seeking input about…Nashville’s civic agenda for the next ten years or so. The newspaper story directed me to a website, “Nashvillesagenda.org,”which gave me a little background on the organization and invited me to take a survey that asked me to rate certain predetermined priorities, invited me to short essay-type answers, and occasionally asked me to fill in the blanks or make multiple choices. After taking the test, I thought it would be a good subject for a story, and I was delighted to find my answers still displayed on the website when I revisited it, because that made it much easier for me to write this story.

A little history first—the original “Nashville’s Agenda” group formed in the early nineties, and its surveys of Nashville showed a strong desire for affordable housing, a performing arts center, and more professional sports teams. Well, two out of three ain’t bad—either the two out of three of asking for affordable housing and a performing arts center, both of which are good things, or the two out of three of actually getting a performing arts center and several professional sports teams, the latter of which we need in this town like we needed the thermal plant downtown or coal heat. Well, coal heat and the thermal plant are history, so maybe we can get rid of the professional sports teams and go back to entertaining ourselves and spreading the wealth around enough to have more affordable housing. But, I digress…..

The steering committee of the current Nashville’s Agenda reads like a who’s who of this town, with representation from the Frist Center, TSU, Vanderbilt, The Urban League, Metro government, big business, one “psychologist,” and a host of other moving and shaking agencies in town. Actually, the Frist Center came into existence partially because of the influence of the first Nashville’s Agenda group, and partially because the Frist health care empire had sucked so much blood, I mean money, out of the people of Tennessee that they didn’t know what to do with it all and figured they could get a tax break by creating a foundation and a museum. My main beef about that is, that as ill-gotten as the Frists’ gains are, they should pay us to visit their museum, instead of the other way ’round. But, I digress again…..

The survey opens with the question, “What do you think have been the biggest changes in Nashville in the last 6-8 years? List the three most important.” I wrote down, 1)more diverse ethnic population;
2)more corporate; 3)more gentrified. The first of those is a good thing. I think it is good for us to have many different cultures co-existing in this town. I like occasionally going into a grocery store with really different produce, a grocery store where not only can I not read the labels on the food containers, I can’t even recognize the letters in the alphabets they’re using, and the music on the loudspeakers is in a language I don’t understand. And, I’m the only Caucasian in the joint. We Americans are a very small minority in this world, but we have been isolated over here on our own continent for far too long. I am in no hurry for these people to adopt our language and customs.

But—more corporate, and more gentrified. These go hand in hand, in many ways. My own experience of this came from having lived in the last hippie house in what used to be a downscale, countercultural neighborhood, and from having worked in the corporate successor to Nashville’s premier locally owned health food store, the late and much lamented Sunshine Grocery. There aren’t any decent low-rent locations any more, whether for folks living on the cheap or for someone trying to start up a business, and it’s hard to find a business niche that doesn’t have several corporate bodies vying for supremacy already, with more resources and deeper pockets than a local guy can muster. When I look at the future of Nashville, I think I see the transnational corporate web falling apart, or at least becoming sporadic and unreliable, and I think there will be a rise in local people providing for their neighborhoods—as repairfolk, permanent yard/garage sales, garden- and prepared-food providers, you name it. The local economy is going to have to come back bigtime, and those who have built large, expensive, energy-demanding retail spaces are going to be struggling to make their payments. Today the subprime lenders, tomorrow the whole economy, folks.

The next question was,  What do you think are going to be the biggest problems or challenges facing Nashville over the next 5-10 years? Not surprisingly, I answered, “decreasing fuel supplies, more tenuous food supplies, scarcity of affordable consumer goods and services, decreasing employment opportunities, lower tax revenues coupled with increased needs and demand for services“ I will be curious to find out if I am the only one thinking this way—I will also be curious to find out if I’m right. I’d kinda rather not be, y’know?

The obvious mate to this was, “If you could pick one thing for the city’s government, business, and other leadership to work on, to make Nashville the best it can be, what would it be?” To which I replied, “local self-sufficiency.”

The next thing the survey asked me to do was to “rate the city’s progress” on a number of issues. This got interesting. How was “progress” being defined? What did some of the short phrases describing the “issues” really mean? It’s hard to nuance rating these things numerically, know what I mean? How are you going to rate the city schools? Is it really a failure if they’re not coming up to the “No Child Left Behind” standards, when “No Child Left Behind” is a completely wrongheaded way to structure and measure educational quality?

What am I to make of a one-word phrase like, “Seniors”? Is it good if there are more distractions for older Nashvilleans, especially if there aren’t more real things for them to involve themselves in? There were a couple dozen of these phrases, and I’m not going to give a line-by-line commentary on all of them, but let me hit a couple of highlights:

Youth (programs, help, employment, drugs)” is one category. The economy is changing so fast that it’s hard to teach kids specific employment skills anymore. They’re even outsourcing legal research to India these days. What’s gonna be left? Kids need to be taught how to think for themselves, how to solve problems, and how to get along with each other. There are a few programs in town that do that, but by and large our educational/youth services system is oriented towards teaching kids to be good sheep—or is it good lemmings? Well, that’s easier for administrators to deal with. Who wants a bunch of kids thinking for themselves?

And as far as the drug issue goes, I think the current boom in meth, crack, and prescription drug problems is due to the fact that Metro, state, and federal authorities have been entirely too successful in breaking up local marijuana growing operations. I know adults who are having a hard time finding good weed, and it must be even worse for kids who can’t afford two hundred dollar quarters. More marijuana in this town would help everybody relax, light a lot of inspirational lamps in people’s heads, and help us envision a brighter future for Nashville. Oh dear, I’m digressing again….

Another issue that rang a lot of bells for me was “Transportation (traffic, congestion, public transportation, alternative transportation)” I am fortunate in that I rarely have to drive in rush hour traffic in this town, but I often listen to the radio during rush hour, and I often wonder why we accept the fact that, nearly every day, there is at least one major traffic tieup in this town, all too often due to accidents which all too often involve injuries or fatalities. I think about a friend of mine who lives near a spot on I65 that is a frequent traffic jam site. My friend has asthma, and he frequently has attacks at rush hour, when thousands of cars are sitting there, idling on the freeway just a few yards from his home. People, what is wrong with this picture?

My own commute involves crossing from one side of town to another very early in the morning, when the buses run hourly, if at all. If I could get to work on time by bus, it might take me an hour rather than the twenty minute drive I currently navigate. Clearly, we need to not only beef up public transportation, but create incentives for people to use it, and maybe even incentives for people to switch jobs or homes so they don’t have to commute so far. If the chain grocery just a couple of miles from my home sold enough organic produce so that I didn’t feel like I was shilling for chemical agriculture by working there, I could switch jobs and bicycle to work. We’ve gotta start looking at these things.

After “rating progress” I was asked to “prioritize” pretty much the same list of issues. One important addition to this list was “waste management,” to which I gave a very high priority. “Reduce, re-use, recycle,” has got to become everyone’s mantra. Nashville currently recycles an embarrassingly small percentage of its waste, as if all this plastic, metal and glass grew on trees every year instead of being a one-shot deal, dug out of the ground and refined at great expense.

Then came another essay question:”What else would you like Nashville’s leaders to think about as they work to set Nashville’s agenda for the next 5-10 years?” I replied, “peak oil, global warming, community participation, Nashville’s ability to feed and otherwise provide for itself in a global economy and ecology that will be breaking down with increasingly devastating consequences.” I hope they really get the part about community participation. We need to empower people to figure out their own solutions, because imposed solutions, no matter how intelligent, will just be perceived as a set of rules to be broken if they are not created with the enthusiastic participation of everyone involved.

Then another essay question: What action would you suggest to community leaders on any of the issues which interest you? I suggested: “quit allowing housing developments that will depend on private automobiles to be viable, ramp up public transportation, encourage local agriculture (including allowing people to keep chickens in their backyards), encourage local manufacturing, preserve open space, encourage solar and wind energy production, don’t fall into the ethanol/biodiesel trap—it’s not a viable fuel source.” One recent example of local governments unnecessarily getting in the way of alternate energy generation is Belle Meade’s initial refusal to allow Al Gore to put solar panels on his house, and their subsequent restriction of those panels to roof areas that will not be visible from the ground. Hey! Wake up over there! As for ethanol and biodiesel, I’ve said plenty already—but I would have to add to the evidence a recent report that Indonesia’s rain forests will, at current rates, be completely gone to palm oil plantations in another fifteen years, to the great detriment of the planet and our CO2 balance.

That’s pretty much it for the survey. I encourage those of you who live in Nashville to contribute to it, and to attend the public meetings that will be held this month to promote discussion of the near future in Nashville. You can find their times and locations, and the survey, at
www.nashvillesagenda.org. They’re asking our opinions—how often does that happen? Let ’em know what you think, friends.

music: Laurie McClain, “This Old Town

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