On the northwest side of Nashville, something extraordinary has happened. Or maybe it’s that, on the northwest side of Nashville, not much has happened; and, after three decades or more of widespread,mindless development, that is extraordinary. When you cross the Bourdeaux bridge, the close-packed urban ghetto feeling drops away, and you are suddenly in a small town. Clarksville Pike is wide, but you can tell that the neighborhoods along it are not densely developed. There is no traffic light where the Ashland City Highway forks away from it, because there just isn’t that much traffic out in this quarter of Nashville, and Ashland City Highway seems to work just fine as a two-lane road, rolling past suburban homes and then rising to meet Briley Parkway, a limited-access ring road, where a steel supply company and a liquor warehouse take advantage of the interchange. On the other side of Briley Parkway, the Ashland City Highway opens up into a four-lane road, but one remarkably unscarred by commercial or residential development, or traffic, for that matter. Perhaps the proximity of Nashville’s Bourdeaux landfill is one reason why there is so little activity out here; but, if that’s the case, the city dump has been a blessing in disuguise for the natural world. Here, scarcely twenty minutes from downtown, you could be fifty miles from the city.
It’s only a few more minutes’ drive to Ashland City Highway’s intersection with Old Hickory Boulevard, where a gas station/country store is “downtown” for the community known as Scottsboro. It doesn’t look like the center of a successful populist uprising, but it is. More on this in a little while.
Proceeding south down the deceptively named Old Hickory Boulevard, which on this stretch is not a boulevard but a winding two-lane road with narrow shoulders, we find after a few miles that the terrain has levelled out and we are in the midst of open, relatively flat pasture and farmland, Cumbeland River bottomland, some of the most fertile soil in this part of the state. Old Hickory Boulevard comes to a halt at a boat ramp on the Cumberland, where until about twenty years ago there was a ferry crossing. That ferry moved a sizeable portion of Nashville’s food supply, which the inhabitants of Bell’s Bend grew and took to the Nashville Farmer’s Market, where wholesale produce companies snapped it up and sent it out to grocery stores, and thus to the tables and pantries of Nashville.
But that, as they say, was then, and this is now. Now most of Nashville’s food supply comes from California and Florida, at the closest. Supermarket chains buy produce in bulk from big growers on the west and south coasts, and disdain dealing with small, inconsistent local farmers, who, over the last several decades, have been caught in the three-way crossfire of stagnant food prices, rising expenses (including land taxes) and balooning real estate values. Why slave in the hot sun for pennies when you can cash in your farmland and never have to lift a finger again? Under the relentless press of economic fundamentalism, the diversity of Tennessee’s farm production has shrunk over the last century. A hundred years ago, Tennessee was among the top ten fruit and vegetable producing states in the country; now it ranks near the bottom of the list. They have a strawberrry festival in Humboldt, Tennessee, which used to be the strawberrry capital of the south; now they import strawberries from California in order to have some for the festival.
Have you ever picked strawberries—not for fun, for money? I have, and for a tall gringo like me it’s not fun. You have to squat down and pick a lot of berries really fast to even make minimum wage. It probably wasn’t much fun for the Mexican migrants (legal, I presume!) who were out there in the field with me, but they had five or six family members going at it, which multiplied their earnings considerably. I think it’s true that the Mexicans do things we won’t do for the wages that are offered; but if the wages offered were enough to make the work enticing to us spoiled, individualistic gringos, strawberries would be a lot pricier than they are already. But, I digress…..
The first major assault on Bell’s Bend came in the early nineties, when the city bought over eight hundred acres on the river and proposed using it as a landfill. Talk about mindless development! The site contains dozens of Native American archeological sites, and, duh, it drains into the Cumberland River, so a dump there would further pollute that already insulted stream. Metro figured out a better landfill site and decided to call its pied a terre on Bell’s Bend a city park. Projections were that this park would generate a thousand visitors a day, but on the numerous occasions when I have been there, I have had the place to myself.
So….fast forward a decade, and all that land so close to downtown (you can see the skyline from a lot of places) attracted the attention of developer Jeff Zeitlin, who bought land and proposed putting an additional 1200 or so households out there on that narrow, winding two-lane road, where there are currently only about 150 homes, and no city sewer system. Mr. Zeitlin’s little exercise in free enterprise would have required government subsidies in the form of major infrastructure improvements—like new water and sewer lines, and a wider road, all of which would open the door for more development, and the end of a quiet, rural way of life for the area’s residents, some of whom are bald eagles and whooping cranes. Yes, whooping cranes. According to local resident Minda Lazarov, Nashville’s one-time dump site, the apple of many a developer’s eye, has been home to a pair of these truly rare birds for the last several months. I hope they stay.
Peace and quiet are worth a lot to people these days, worth enough to inspire the people of Bell’s Bend and neighboring Scottsboro to organize, fight the proposed development, and beat it by creating a city-backed neighborhood plan that excludes that kind of foolishness. We’re running out of fuel and money, folks. It’s not the time to stick unsustainable suburbs out in the middle of nowhere.
Yep, those changes, which have really just become glaringly obvious in the last few months, are the best allies the people of Bell’s Bend could have in the struggle to keep their area rural. And, just as the escalating scarcity of fuel has made long commutes financially dicey, it has also chased the price of California vegetables up to record highs, aided and abetted by the western water shortage. Whether the supermarkets will admit it or not, the idea of producing more of our food closer to home is looking better and better to more and more people.
As I mentioned in a recent story, there is growing concern in Nashville about the city’s long supply lines, and there is going to be a conference next weekend (Feb. 16) about local food security. It’s free, but attendance is limited; you may still be able to register for it. The organizers of this conference have their eyes on Bell’s Bend. It’s big, it’s flat, it’s fertile, there’s plenty of water, it’s close to Nashville, and farming is a form of “development” that will preserve the precious rural character of the area. Just as Burlington Vermont has its Intervale, a stretch of bottomland that provides about 10% of the city’s food and also serves as a training institute for beginning farmers, Nashville may soon have a Bell’s Bend agricultural district that does the same thing. Stay tuned!
music: Rumors of the Big Wave, “(We Could Be) Dancing in the Only Green World”