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The Changing Culture of 12th Avenue South


Photo courtesy of Georgina America

12th Avenue South is known today as a must-visit place for tourists looking for a chic Nashville shopping experience. Its inviting atmosphere of carefully-curated boutiques and diverse restaurant selections brings a consistently-growing wave of foot traffic. 


Tourists flood the sidewalks as they hurriedly check every shop off their to-do list for the day. 


The locals seem to blend in, keeping up with the speed of traffic moving down their neighborhood street. 


But if anyone were to pay close attention, those locals would stick out like sore thumbs. They walk alongside everyone else, but their worn, scuffed boots are a poor comparison to the stiff, smooth ones of the people around them. 


12th Avenue South in Nashville has been a home for change just as much as it has been to its people and businesses.  


Over the last few years, small business owners who established their roots along 12th Avenue South decades ago have watched the street transform in a way that is almost unrecognizable to what it used to be. 


To tourists and out-of-towners, it may seem like the typical place to visit on a trip, lined with brand-new restaurants and charming boutiques.  


They don’t know 12th Avenue South wasn’t always a place to check off on a trip itinerary. 


Tom George is a third-generation Nashville native and the owner of Grendel’s Choice, a mobile record store that calls the parking lot of 12th South Taproom home on the weekends.  


The 12th Avenue South he knew in the early 2000s is far different than what it is now. 


“20 years ago, this was a bad area of town. I hate to use this term, but it was a cracktown,” said George. 


With the amount of foot traffic and the construction of new buildings, it’s hard to believe that the street used to be considered a place worth avoiding.  


Corporate businesses from as far as California are taking the reins of locally-owned businesses, renovating their buildings to the point that a facelift becomes a face change, altering the original look of the street.  


Halcyon Bike Shop was opened in 2008 and was one of the longer-standing, locally-owned businesses on 12th Avenue South.  


After 15 years of operation, it was bought out in 2023 by Buck Mason, a menswear retailer from Los Angeles, California. 


 Buck Mason is now located right next to the now empty Halcyon Bike building, where the name is still painted on what used to be one of the front windows.  


The now rusty exterior of the building houses signs that read “Buck Mason Employee Parking Only”. 


Construction and renovation have also shot up property value in the neighborhood, causing some businesses to close. 


“Property value has gone up. Rent has gone up. To me, it’s sad to see a lot of the older businesses close or have to move because of rent. A lot of the new businesses are chains, and I would rather see small businesses,” said Jesse Minor Jr., founder of Minor’s Jewelry, which has been in operation at 12th Avenue South for 38 years. 


Karen VanGuilder-Little, who owned Josephine, an American food restaurant on 12th Avenue South, fell victim to this trend.  


Vanguilder-Little’s restaurant opened in 2013 next to Jenni’s Ice Cream but closed in Dec. 2023 because of raised rent after her lease was up.  


“People came out of the woodwork when we announced we were closing, and it was like getting to see your own funeral. Like when you die and people give all those lovely speeches about you, you don’t hear them because you’re already dead,” she said. 


As businesses close and open on 12th Avenue South, they clash rigidly, fighting for their place.  


For 22 years, owner Uma Chowning has witnessed this clash in a cluttered corner of Savant Vintage, which sits in perfect contract to its neighboring businesses on the opposite side of the street. 


Careful shoppers will notice her right away, and if they let her, she will tell them everything she’s seen from her private nook with a perfect view of the passers-by on the sidewalk. 


“It’s concerning because I don’t think anybody’s aware of the upheaval and the displacement of the history,” said Chowning, “It feels like Beverly Hills is coming to Nashville and 12th South.” 


While tourism and new people moving into the neighborhood is good for business, owners are now wondering if the extra business is worth the change in culture.  


“It’s a different way of doing business. Before it was a local who owned it and had pride in the neighborhood and in Nashville and was helping it grow. Now it’s just some faceless company somewhere else and they don’t have any connection to the town,” said Little. 

 

And if something isn’t done soon, the old 12th Avenue South won’t exist, Chowning said.  


“It’s a slow burn, but no one’s aware because everybody’s busy with their lives. But if no one pays attention to it, it’s going to be gone,” she said. 


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This article was written by Georgina America

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