Open Streets Nashville – Cornelia Overton, Landscape Architecture MLA, 2020
A major focus of my time here at Walk Bike Nashville this summer has been an event called Open Streets Nashville. It’s an annual block party for which the city closes down 1-2 miles of roadway to cars for an afternoon, allowing people and organizations to take over the street with art, performance, and other programming.
I’ve helped update Walk Bike’s graphics for the event and come up with new designs for posters, palm cards, bingo cards, informational mailers, and signs that will go along the route. This has been a really fun exercise in graphic design. I’ve learned a lot about the graphics needed for an event like this, and how to have fun but also give people the information they need.
One of the challenges I was given at the beginning of the summer was to come up with a super cheap but effective way to help people recognize different locations along the route and get a sense of place and celebration. They wanted something that would be visible enough to attract people from afar to the next stop on the itinerary. With little to no extra money in the budget, this was a bit of a tall order. I spent some time looking at precedents: Gay Village in Montreal, Spanish street festivals, tactical place-making, and other approaches towards colorfully turning a stretch of road into a festive, liminal space. Cost being prohibitive, I kept it pretty simple.
After some deliberation and sketching, my proposal was fairly straightforward: to “build the diagram” (as they often say not to do in the landscape architecture department), creating tall signs featuring a colored shape at each location that would correspond to the colored shape on the maps on everyone’s event literature. To me, this solution seemed like the right combination of simplicity, cost, and visual impact. My only concern was that they might look smaller out on the street than they did in my garage while I was building them.
6— 8 foot long 2x4s
2— paint buckets
2— bags of Quikcrete
1— 4×8 piece of 1.5-in. insulation foam
Open Streets is being held in North Nashville this summer for the very first time. The route is 1.5 miles long and stretches from Germantown to the Buchanan Arts District.
Germantown has been gentrified for some time. It is known as a longstanding home to some of Nashville’s gay community, with a handful of super nice restaurants and nicely renovated historic houses. Moving West along the route (map below), Buchanan Street is on the cusp of gentrification in North Nashville. This is one of the few neighborhoods in a few miles’ radius of downtown where housing is still relatively cheap, but it’s changing fast, with the typical host of issues that accompany gentrification. This neighborhood is and was historically majority black, home to a rich and vital piece of Nashville’s history, including renowned HBCUs like Fisk University, Tennessee State University, and Meharry Medical College. The neighborhood thrived as much as was possible in the early part of the last century, home to vibrant black businesses and an energetic music scene. With the era of urban renewal, however, the neighborhood was hit hard with the construction of I-440 that cut off the heart of the historically African American neighborhood from the rest of the city, and left only a few awkward ways to pass back and forth under the interstate highway. Car infrastructure was used as a weapon for de facto segregation. This structural blow, along with racist housing and loan policies, and a multitude of other structural, cultural, and political aggressions of the last century towards people of color, left the neighborhood to struggle economically for the past 50 years.
Now, as gentrification creeps over from Germantown, real estate developers are tearing down old houses left and right, replacing them with “tall skinny” houses, sometimes two-to-four to a lot, and selling homes as cheap investments close to the city center. Right now is a good time for the city to think about how to make sure we aren’t sacrificing people and places that make Nashville special to greedy (and usually architecturally unimaginative) real estate developers. This is the case in many neighborhoods around the city but feels especially important in a neighborhood that has experienced the mal-effects of predatory real-estate practices as well as neglect from the city in the past.
There have been handfuls of stories lately about renters in this area getting pushed out of their homes. Conversely, other homeowners from the gentrifying area have enjoyed this sudden increase in their property values. Businesses like black-owned- and-operated Slim and Husky’s are prospering from the attention it’s helped bring to the neighborhood.
So, getting back to Open Streets, I wondered how the event fit into this neighborhood’s current dynamic reality. Infrastructure elements like parks, greenways, and bikeways, after all, often contribute to rising property values and gentrification, and this is something we haven’t shied away from talking about in the landscape architecture department at RISD. Since I’ve just come back to Nashville for the summer and am not from this community, I’m not really qualified to say for sure how this event will have impacted people positively or negatively, and how everyone felt about it, but I heard a lot of support for the event when I went out flyering on the route and from our community partners. After getting to know our planning process, I was reassured that Walk Bike went about organizing the event the right way and that the context of the event was something everyone was keenly conscious of.
Partners from the community have talked a lot about a desire to shift the narrative around their neighborhood. In this way, my blog post’s focus on some of the negative history/context may not be helping. What’s most important to know is that people in North Nash are rightly proud of their community and are taking time to celebrate it. That’s what this event was about!
Walk Bike partnered from the beginning with North Nashville community groups, North Nashville artists, and community advocates to plan the event. Members of the (City Council) District 21 Neighbors wanted the event in their community. They helped decide the route, sought out neighborhood involvement in programming, and got the word out. I was in direct contact with one of our community partners for graphic design questions and requests. We went around the community putting out flyers and road signs and told everyone the day was for them to do whatever they wanted in the street. Our goal was to make sure that this event felt like it was for the community and not an imposition into it or a showcase of a ‘hot real estate market.’ WBN hoped, rather, that the event would bring together several adjacent communities that may not have had many reasons to come together in the past. We wanted Open Streets to get people outside, enjoying their own community, seeing the potential of the street as public space, meeting their neighbors, and feeling comfortable to walk, bike, and play out in the street without fear of cars.
As the pictures suggest, the event was a success! There were art installations by about a dozen local artists along the route, as well as performances, good food, fitness classes, biking, walking, and more! Mayor David Briley came out to our kick-off parade to speak alongside speakers from the community group that helped organize the event. Lots of people from the different neighborhoods involved came out and made the day their own. Everyone involved seems really excited to plan Open Streets here again next year and improve upon this year’s event as much as possible.
Our local News Channel 5 station even covered the event: https://www.newschannel5.com/news/roads-closed-for-open-streets-nashville