Only about half of Nashville’s roads currently have sidewalks, and no one knows where to find the money to cover the rest of them. The sidewalk situation even became a point of contention in last year’s mayoral campaign. “We’re just chipping away at a huge deficit and huge need,” says Mary Beth Ikard, Nashville’s Transportation & Sustainability Manager.
Sidewalks make pedestrians safer, which is especially important for commuters who rely on mass transit. In 2015, 18* pedestrians died in Nashville. According to a 2009 study, people living in neighborhoods with sidewalks walk anywhere from 35 to 49 more minutes every week than people without sidewalks do.
Build Your Own Sidewalk
Nashville’s fight for more sidewalks started in the mid-19th century. At the time, most residents worked, shopped, and worshipped in the neighborhoods where they lived. While they always expected to get where they needed to be by foot, the city still refused to pay for sidewalks. Instead, the city council made property owners responsible for constructing and maintaining their own walkways. Each month, the Committee of Sidewalk Law Enforcement would send out inspectors who would then make their way around town, listing owners in violation. If the property owner failed to build or repair the sidewalks within 30 days of notification, the committee would contract out the work and put a lien against the property.
Before the Second World War, this system of infrastructure construction was common across the United States, despite wide resentment. In 1917, the town of Minden, Louisiana, sued residents who failed to build their required sidewalks. The residents filed a countersuit, but they lost their case. Meanwhile, Nashville’s committee continued their work. Then, in 1931, they handed the task off to the newly formed Nashville City Planning Commission.
Not all neighborhoods received equal attention. African-American communities in particular lacked both the paved roads and the enforcement needed to make this system work well for them. Some parts of Trimble Bottom, Nashville’s oldest black neighborhood, did not have sidewalks until the 1970s. And then there were the conflicts over who had the right to use the walkways. During the Civil War, former slaves who moved to Nashville often found themselves jostled off the sidewalk by white residents, historian Bobby Lovett reported in The African-American History of Nashville, TN. He added: “courageous blacks returned the insult.”
In 1943, Nashville officials rewrote the city’s charter, omitting any mention of sidewalks or gutters. Panicked, the director of public works wrote to the city attorney, asking whether he could still charge negligent property owners for contracting out sidewalk construction. The answer was an unequivocal ‘no.’ The city amended the charter a few years later, adding in the section they forgot. Inspectors then sent out a flurry of notices, forcing residents to bring their sidewalks back up to snuff.
But these regulations only affected the areas inside city limits. The surrounding communities were exempt from the sidewalk laws. One of the first suburbs built on Nashville’s borders was Cherokee Park. Designed for the automobile, its developers set neo-traditional single family homes on large lots fronted by curving, sweeping streets and no sidewalks.
After World War II, more people in Nashville chose to live in new, sprawling suburbs instead of the old city. But the suburbs didn’t have money to build the amount of infrastructure that the city already had. New suburbanites soon discovered they did not like using septic tanks over sewage systems, nor did they want to rely on volunteer fire services rather than the city’s professional fire department. City residents, in turn, resented paying taxes to support libraries and other services county residents used freely. In 1962, voters approved an ordinance to consolidate the city and county governments into one large metropolitan administration. Nashville-Davidson County was the first community in the nation to choose a fully consolidated regional government.
Sidewalks were not included in the new charter; neither the city dwellers nor the suburbanites wanted to pay for them. In the neighborhoods built in Nashville before consolidation, sidewalks fell into disrepair, and new ones weren’t built to replace them.
Nashville’s Interstates were completed during this time, splitting many residential neighborhoods in half. Jefferson Street, a prominent black neighborhood in Nashville, was gutted by the construction of I-40, which cut the enclave in two. Half of the residents moved, and 120 businesses closed. Property values fell by 30 percent.
Suburbanization accelerated in the 1970s. In 1971, federal courts ordered the metropolitan public schools to implement a busing plan to desegregate the system. Within a year, 14 percent of students left the school system, cutting white enrollment by 24,000. Some of the students enrolled at one of the newly opened private schools. Many other white families fled just over the county lines into areas exempt from the city’s busing plan. Meanwhile, the metropolitan government encouraged development that turned downtown into a 9-to-5 district, easily accessible by commuters but lacking the vibrancy needed to keep people around before their drive home.
New Plans for New Urbanism
But a shift back to urbanism started in 1991, when the city passed new regulations governing subdivision constructions. Developers had to build sidewalks on one side of any new street. That same year, Congress passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation and Efficiency Act. For the first time, the federal government allotted funds for the construction of walking and bicycling infrastructure by allowing local governments to reassign highway funds. New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan announced it was the start of “a new, post-Interstate era.” A few years later, Nashville amended the construction regulations to mandate walkways along both sides of any new street.
In 1996, the metropolitan council created a special task force to address Nashville’s missing sidewalks. The first strategic plan for constructing sidewalks and bikeways was released in 2003. At that time, only about a third of Nashville’s roads had sidewalks, and very few of those were ADA-compliant. The city designated $20 million for sidewalk construction and rehabilitation, starting with ones around schools. After a few years, other projects gained prominence and funding for the initiative fell. It wouldn’t reach 2003 numbers again until 2015 when a new attempt to build a mass transit system in Nashville brought attention back to the state of the city’s infrastructure.
In 2012, then-mayor Karl Dean proposed creating a seven-mile dedicated bus line running from East Nashville through downtown and into West End. Historically working class and nearly 40 percent African American, East Nashville is now one of the city’s fastest growing and most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. West End is where much of Nashville’s old money moved when they left downtown. The average annual income in West Nashville is roughly five times that in East Nashville. According to the mayor’s calculations, 117,000 employees and 25,000 residents use that route regularly, as well as the city’s 11 million annual visitors. This was exactly the sort of infrastructure program the Obama administration hoped to support. In 2015, the federal government built $75 million of support into the proposed budget. The Metro Council approved additional money to complete the design and engineering work for the project.
Resistance organized quickly and quietly, led by a group of West End residents backed by the Koch brothers. They believed the city’s momentum was unstoppable, so they looked for other allies. Some people voiced concerns about what the new bus lanes would do to traffic. Others asked whether anyone would actually ride them. Race and class both played into the discussion. Infamously, one woman bedecked in pearls stood up at a council meeting to announce that she did not want the “riffraff of East Nashville in our neighborhood.” But long-time residents also resented newcomers who were trying to redefine what it meant to live in their city. These newcomers lined the proposed bus route. They had snapped up condos in the formerly desolate downtown and urban working-class, minority neighborhoods. They bought places in the Gulch, previously an abandoned industrial area. They moved into East Nashville, often tearing down the older, smaller homes to build “tall skinnies.” They shopped at small boutiques and eat at concept-driven local restaurants. And they expected to be able to use sidewalks and public transit to get to these establishments. A Republican state lawmaker introduced a bill that successfully killed the project.
In 2015, Megan Barry replaced Karl Dean as mayor after running a campaign that put an emphasis on public transportation. One of her first actions? A new budget that set aside $60 million for sidewalk and road construction, the largest one-time investment for sidewalk construction in Nashville’s history.
A few months after the announcement, officials from the United States Department of Transportation and representatives from the Congress for New Urbanism came to Nashville to lead a workshop for Jefferson Street residents. The group proposed a series of highway caps to reconnect the bifurcated neighborhood. The proposed structure would include green space, affordable housing and parking. But would the Jefferson Street community be able to stay when property prices (and taxes) started rising? “It's amazing to see the vision,” one resident wrote to the Congress for New Urbanism. “I really hope that residents and businesses who've been there for a long time are treated with dignity, respect and are included in these future plans.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that 110 pedestrians in Nashville died in 2015. That figure represents pedestrian fatalities across the entire state of Tennessee. Eighteen pedestrians died in Nashville in 2015.