My first job as a lawyer was on Second Avenue in Nashville.
This was in 1999, and my future boss had me come to the office to interview on a Saturday morning (partly to avoid the suspicion of the lawyer I would be replacing).
At the time, I didn’t know much about downtown Nashville, since most of my trips to Nashville were either to Opryland as a kid or driving on I-40 on the way to law school in Knoxville.
I had clerked one summer in Nashville at the Tennessee Attorney General’s office, but, back then, Second Avenue didn’t have much to attract folks in their mid-20s. In 1999, the vibe was Gatlinburg-esqe, with a Hooters, Mere Bulles, Graham Central Station (three stories of bars, each with a different theme), a palm reader, The Wild Horse, and other tourist-centric places that catered more to out-of-town grandparents.
I got the job, and I spent about 8 years on Second Avenue. A lot changed during that time.
Before Fan Fair moved downtown, the big show was Dancin’ in the District, which was set up in Riverfront Park. My office window was a perfect vantage for these shows; I saw Kanye West (with a then unknown John Legend on the piano), the Strokes, and many others, from about 500 feet away. It’s strange to think about all the big-time, national acts that performed at these free concerts to such relatively small audiences. Part of that, of course, was that, back then, hardly anybody wanted to go downtown.
In fact, in the early 2000s, that lack of “busy-ness” was part of what I loved about downtown Nashville. On a Friday night, we’d hit 6-7 Broadway honky tonks (generally via the back doors in the Ryman alley) looking for any bars with a crowd, which we rarely found. Needless to say, there were no “all points” pedestrian crossings downtown in 2005.
As a lawyer, there was always a bit of unease about being in a “Second Avenue” office, especially as that part of downtown started to take shape as an entertainment district. The tallest building on Second Avenue was 4 stories high, and no white collar firms would dare move in next to a karaoke bar.
Things really got bad in 2005 when Fan Fair became CMT Fest and moved downtown. During this all-day and all-night music festival, my very serious lawyer phone calls were always at risk of interruption by country music and–definitely worse–the pre-show sound checks at the “River Stage” in Riverfront Park (generally, 5 second snippets of Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy,” played over and over and over in the days before the festival).
The CMT Fest move was a spark for downtown’s growth. Before that, people just didn’t go downtown at night. There was wasn’t much to do and not much interest in what there was. This single event showed 50,000 folks (and countless others watching on TV) how awesome the historic downtown venues were.
This process was accelerated in 2010, when the Nashville Flood hit, and the buildings on Second Avenue flooded and many were then sold and renovated for new uses. Nashville’s overall recovery from the Great Recession was far quicker than other cities, and the rebuilding (and, yes, the developer opportunities) resulting from the devastation of the flood caused a rapid growth in downtown property investment and in tourism.
And, out of nowhere, people saw downtown Nashville not just as a “night out” option, but as a vacation destination. Maybe it was the TV show, but, in 2014 or so, you couldn’t even get in the door (front or back) at the old honky tonks. And, where there’s a happy tourist, there will be no shortage of a honky tonks willing to sell them a $6.50 Coors Light. As a result, dozens of new bars took over any available spaces downtown. Tootsies even built a new Tootsies on top of the old Tootsies.
Soon, all the Second Avenue lunch places and the ground-level offices were turned into bars and gift shops, while the upstairs offices were converted into condos and, later, AirBnBs.
In fact, in 2015 or so, the new owners of my old office building converted it into a residential condo building with a tourist-centric snuff shop on the ground floor.
I moved to a different firm in 2008 on the “business” side of downtown, and, personally, got married and had kids and just stopped going downtown very much–if ever–at night. When I did go downtown, I was always amazed at the crowds. Just an oppressive amount of people that, frankly, made me wonder who all these people were and where they came from.
Locals began to avoid downtown, and local media had fun mocking the bachelorettes and references to the “It City.” It became a sort of estranged relationship, and that always made me sad to see.
The Nashville bombing on Christmas morning was a tragedy on all levels. A senseless, terrible act that risked many peoples’ lives and absolutely destroyed their homes and businesses. Some of the businesses destroyed–like Old Spaghetti Factory and The Melting Pot–had been there when I walked to that first job interview in 1999.
Both had held on through all of the ups and downs on Second Avenue and three different recessions, and then this happened.
As I watched the news coverage all day on Christmas, I’d see my old office building, with broken windows and blown open doors. It made me profoundly sad, as a human being and as a resident of Nashville. These buildings on Second Avenue are part of our city’s history, having made it through thousand-year floods, fires, and wars.
And, maybe this is just typical New Year’s Eve sentimentality talking, but I’m also sad on a personal level that the Second Avenue that I first visited 20 years ago is gone and most likely will never come back.
The entire city of Nashville has changed so much in the past 7-10 years, and it sometimes feels like, if you don’t drive down a certain street for a few months, that, when you do, you’re going to see something old gone and something new being built, whether it’s downtown, Music Row, or even far away places like Madison. There hasn’t been an end in sight, and the Nashville Post must be running out of ways to report that the old “price per square foot” real estate sale records get broken on a monthly basis.
Maybe my broader sadness for Second Avenue is a feeling of loss over the city that I first moved to, over that office I was sitting in when that jerk opposing counsel yelled at me, or the places Lena and I went when we were dating. (Cue the Dan Fogelberg music now.) Maybe it’s a bit of maudlin loss for that version of me who walked cautiously past the Lazer Tag place while rehearsing for that job interview. Maybe it’s sadness that we live in such a divisive world where somebody felt compelled to bomb a building for political reasons.
I’m hopeful that these old buildings can be saved. At the same time, I’m also a realist, and I remember all the day-to-day structural and mechanical issues that arose in that 150+ year old building that I worked in. In my old conference room, the floor was so un-level that, if you lifted your feet off the ground, your chair would roll to the side.
These buildings probably can’t be saved. (Well, my old building at 144 Second Avenue has been deemed structurally unsafe.)
If that’s the case, then, I hope this isn’t just another in a long line of disasters to hit Nashville and lead directly to investors’ property-prospecting and redevelopment. I hope our city leaders do what they can to protect the character. I’m hopeful that, instead, our state and federal governments will offer aid to the businesses and people affected.
I’m hopeful that, whatever happens on Second Avenue, that there aren’t a row of glass fronted condos and high rise offices there someday. I hope it’s never shiny or, worse, fancy.
I hope that Second Avenue comes back strong and serves as a vibrant rebuke to this despicable act. And, when it does, I hope that it preserves some of that unique charm that it’s had all these decades.
I hope it never becomes a place where big law firms want to move to.