NOTE: This story is told in part through raw journal entries. By granting you access to these journals you discover the people and neighborhoods of Nashville along side the photojournalist in real time. You get to witness the city wash over him as he is softened by Nashville. After years serving in conflict zones the photojournalist finds himself in an iconic American city. He brings you along side him for the journey.
Journal entry: 7 September 2017
Where do I look to see what is worth saying about the city of Nashville?
Rachel Belt asked me from Geneva, Switzerland —“Do you like Nashville?”
Sitting in a shopping center parking lot on a video call in the late afternoon–Tennessee time, approaching the witching hour in Europe–sitting in my vehicle and feeling a deep sense of the places where I am not—like in her quiet European city… I paused. “Not particularly,” I said. Then a long silence, the kind allowed between friends.
It isn’t that I don’t like this place, I said. It’s just that I don’t particularly like it. Not yet. But then I have only been here two weeks.
"Nashville appears at first glance like an architectural accident..."
Nashville appears at first glance like an architectural accident, I said. It has the ugliness of the temporary. It feels built for rebuilding. Or built for moving on. Like one continuous strip mall. The kind an Ethiopian restaurant one day pops up in with neon paper “daily special” signs pasted on plate glass windows—which I actually saw yesterday on Lafayette, that carotid artery entering the city from southeast.
I had to see a mechanic. Kermit, ex husband of Prince’s Hot Chicken owner Miss Andre’, put me in touch with a friend of his with a shop in that neighborhood—a mechanic named Larry Claybaker.
I drove early to locate the place because when I looked up the shop’s address online it came up “Ideal Liquors.” It turns out some enterprising person added a “B” and “C” to this address by offering two storage areas for rent underneath the building, accessed through two large garage doors in the back and down a paved hill. I had to see the place in person to be certain the address was correct. So I was cruising to make sure I could locate the right garage door. Finding it an hour early and seeing it closed I just kept on driving. I sensed the street was an important thoroughfare due to its width so I wanted to get a feel for the area as I begin to look at the city.
The whole street feels like my first impression of Nashville neighborhoods: Almost derelict but with tiny explosions of gleaming development. On one corner a massive building is under construction in a flurry of exposed steel and colorful construction materials under a massive crane (a city building). Though the surrounding neighborhood spreading out around the new construction is undisturbed poverty.
Driving the few miles between Interstate interchanges downtown and east of downtown, Lafayette Street and surrounding neighborhoods are mostly derelict. Trevecca Nazarene University shares this street with a massive public housing development–J.C. Napier. Taking a detour through the housing projects parallel to Lafayette I was stuck in a traffic jam of conversing guys who stopped their vehicles in the middle of the street for a conversation driver’s window to driver’s window long enough to back up two small lines of neighborhood traffic that did not dare to honk in protest. We all just waited quietly until their business was done.
There is a motel advertising itself as the place where “the stars” stay and a place where “many movies” have been filmed. There is a stripper club—“The Platinum.” There is an Ethiopian restaurant, Mexican, Greek. Mostly there are used car lots. “We finance.” “Buy here, pay here.” That sort of thing. And auto repair shops. A sea of pitiful services and escapes.
I think it would be a good street to walk the length of, though it is probably unsafe at times. The amount of curb-dwelling people literally wandering the street and side eddies was a bit shocking. Women and men. At one point two people were simply standing in the road trying to cross where there was no light—like crossing a combat zone of concrete and steel. In the projects I saw two different places —entire courtyards—with yellow caution tape surrounding them (I didn’t stop to check to see if the tape read “Police”).
You may have “The Gulch” with so much planned and gleaming glass, but even there the thin bones of the “Nashville design” show through. Which is a sort of nondesign. Explosions of high-dollar development rising up against overgrown and working railroad tracks and empty lots of grass and gravel. But the places like Lafayette Street dominate, the “made to tear down” places. For all its flash and obviously rapid building, Nashville appears like a disposable city—architecturally. Even the main streets in the notoriously wealthy Belle Meade area are streets of poorly paved strip malls.
When Rachel asked me, “Do you like the city?” I was thinking of all that. Sitting in a strip mall parking lot at the edge of Belle Meade neighborhood I thought, “the Nashville brand isn’t as real as this. This is Nashville: Lafayette Street, Delaware Avenue in the Preston Taylor housing area, Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack restaurant.”
Of course not everyone lives in the disposable city. There are other Nashvilles. Condos, quiet suburbs, sprawling estates. And yet the truth is most of a city is not the affluent city.
Tonight I will photograph the fundraiser for The Dream Center. Ryan is holding the fundraiser at a local restaurant/bar—Fat Bottom—in The Nations neighborhood literally just across the railroad tracks from his Preston Taylor neighborhood mission. It is like the street is putting on a shirt and tie to try to grab a bit of that cash flowing through the new Nashville, which is necessary I suppose. But wouldn’t it be better if the cash visited the dirty street instead of the dirty street going to them? Maybe photographing war has forced me to be an idealist.
I guess this is what my work can do—capture the city’s heart in a way that will allow people to see the bones people may miss in their privilege. Because we the privileged are privileged to be able to avoid the street. I just don’t want to fall into the trap of working for sympathy. Nor for cynicism.
First impressions are never final. I know this much, Nashville will expand as I discover the city. Already I sense a kindness here. I suspect this will expand as I meet people. People are always more delightful than their front yards and carports portend.