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Edgehill wary of revitalization, renewal

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“It squeezes out the person. You end up having to move outside the city.”

Ronnie Little
Edgehill resident, activist

Ronnie Miller used to walk to the drugstore to get ice cream. As a kid, he didn’t have to leave the neighborhood to shop for clothes and shoes or to get a haircut like he does now. The stores were right around the corner.

Miller, now 50, grew up in Edgehill, a Nashville residential area now bordered by Belmont University, Music Row, the Gulch, Interstates 40 and 65, and home to E. S. Rose Park.

In the 1950s, black-owned businesses lined 12th Avenue and South Street: hardware stores, bakeries, butchers and grocery stores.

But things have changed — few of those businesses remain. “I guess the oldest business that’s around here where blacks go would be the Patton’s Funeral Home,” Miller said.

Another change is on the way at the hands of one of Edgehill’s neighbors: Belmont University. In August, after more than a year of deliberation, the Metro Council approved Belmont’s proposal to spend nearly $7 million to build an athletics complex at Rose Park.

The complex will help the land-locked university expand, and Belmont and the Metro Council say it will also benefit the community. But Edgehill has been through many revitalization plans; there’s widespread distrust of Belmont on the neighborhood, and its history shows why.

In recent years, wealthy individuals and builders have redeveloped other portions of the community. The Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency’s policy is to try and “de-densify” public housing, said longtime resident King Hollands. “We had urban renewal and now we have Negro removal.”

While terms like “de-densify” may be new, the residents and even some urban planners see the policy as one that has been repeated to their detriment. The end to Edgehill’s self-sufficiency began with the 1960s federal urban renewal program, according to a study by the Nashville Civic Design Center. Since then, words like gentrification, encroachment and eminent domain cause painful memories.

Eminent domain was one of the first words of that period. The government would give individuals what was called fair market value for their property and convert it for public use.

“It was ‘here’s your money and you got to go,’” Miller said. “I got some family folks just got a letter in the mail saying ‘we own your property.’ There wasn’t any sitting down and talking. It was their way or no way.”

The urban renewal program relocated more than two thousand people to make room for public housing, according to the civic design center’s study.

The entire program wasn’t bad. Public housing helped a lot of the people, said Hollands, who also grew up in the neighborhood and is now president of the board of Organized Neighbors of Edgehill.

“Living conditions were pretty terrible in Nashville, the term shacks would be appropriate,” he said. Many of the homes did not have indoor plumbing. “Public housing was really the best thing that happened.”

Urban development also removed homes as part of the creation of Rose Park. The park was once home to civil war forts and later had a rock quarry. “We used to throw rocks into a big open hole on the way home from school,” Miller said.

In 1964 they built the park, located on Edgehill Avenue between Carter Lawrence Elementary School and Rose Park Middle School, and it became a part of people’s lives. Miller remembers being in plays at Rose Park.

But the development did not stop there. The neighborhood also lost most of its commercial area including all but one of its 15 grocery stores. “We haven’t been able to maintain a store here on a month-to-month basis in a long time,” Miller said.

Many recording companies succeeded in getting parts of Edgehill rezoned and constructed what is now known as Music Row. All of Edgehill from 8th to 12th avenues was wiped out, Hollands said.

“Music Row pretty much came in and looked at this community as their growth area,” he said. “They came in and took a big bite out of it.”

In opposition to urban renewal, the Rev. Bill Barnes, founding pastor of Edgehill United Methodist Church, helped form ONE in 1967. It is now one of the oldest neighborhood organizations in the city.

ONE fought Music Row’s encroachment and worked to ensure humane construction of public housing, according to the civic design center’s study.

Development is not a thing of the past for Edgehill. “This neighborhood today is starting to change again because of that G-word: gentrification,” Hollands said.

Gentrification means affluent people move into a rundown neighborhood increasing development and, in turn, property value.

As values increase, taxes rise, and many residents sell their property because they cannot afford the higher taxes.

“It squeezes out the person. You end up having to move outside the city,” Miller said.

Eminent domain is no longer a problem, but psychological pressure is driving the residents out, said Arlene Lane, a resident of Edgehill who has worked as a social worker in the neighborhood since 1969.

“People are being misled as to the value of their property and pressured into selling,” Lane said. “It’s an indirect way of having people forced out.”

Other houses are changing because the older residents, who have owned the houses since the 1940s, are dying, and the houses cost more than traditional residents can afford.

“On the block I live, we’ve had three sell out, and all three were because it had gotten down to people dying,” Miller said.

Encroachment remains a problem. “The fear of the residents is that more developers are going to want to come into this area,” Lane said.

Belmont University, although it is a nonprofit institution, is one of those developers as far as the community is concerned. Recently the university reached out to the university and provided some 200 free flu shots to the Edgehill community, although the university ran out of flu shot vaccine for the campus. In Belmont President Bob Fisher’s “state of the university” address in September, he urged faculty, staff and students to think more about Edgehill as a place to provide service learning and other volunteer efforts.

Only time will tell if the divide can be crossed and the Belmont and Edgehill communities can put aside differences. The new athletics complex will include baseball and softball fields, a track, a multi-purpose field for soccer and football, additional parking, locker rooms, restrooms and concessions, and all will be available to schedule school and community events.

The development, however, will occupy most of the park’s usable green space. “Parks are supposed to have space for spontaneous use,” Lane said as children played in the background at Rose Park.

Standing in the center of the park makes this fear a reality. Nearly all directions have a view of commercial expansion into Edgehill, and soon that center will be developed too.

November 29, 2007

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