West of downtown, three roads tell three stories of three different Nashvilles.
West End is the preferred connector of wealth and privilege, rolling past the manicured lawn of Centennial Park and the hallowed halls of Vanderbilt University before — in an oh-so-Nashville way — changing names and plunging into the monied hills of Belle Meade, passing tony private schools and well-heeled houses of worship.
Farther north, Jefferson Street makes its own way. Once heralded as a great hub of black commerce in pre-integration Nashville, it was one of the centers of the civil rights movement here. It has storied universities of its own in Fisk, Tennessee State and Meharry Medical College. The merchants will tell you that the area is on its way back to the glory days, when blues clubs and juke joints rocked at night and black-owned businesses brought Nashville’s African-American community middle-class success during the day.
Between them is Charlotte Avenue, that utilitarian boulevard. It’s a road upon which anything one might need — and that definition is left purposefully broad — can be found most any time of day. Not as charming or historic as the two more celebrated thoroughfares, it nonetheless stubbornly serves its own purpose.
The three streets can almost be treated as different cities. No doubt, each has a distinct arc in the great Nashville story. But their fates will be tied together thanks to a project some 20 years in the making. At long last, as part of the mayor’s capital budget, the city has set aside money to complete the 28th Avenue Connector.
For three roads so geographically close to grow and change in such individual ways over the last half-century seems incongruous.
Blame another road: Interstate 40 and its appendage, 440. They are the Big Evil and Little Evil of the west side — especially for Jefferson Street. When the transportation planners laid out Ike’s grand plan for transportation through Tennessee, they dropped overpasses that divided the once-bustling economic engine.
Trisected by the interstates, those three pikes developed those separate identities — deserved or not — in the ensuing decades, perhaps because they’re so difficult to cross-navigate. The most obvious way to get to Jefferson Street is to take 28th Avenue. The most obvious way to get to 28th Avenue is not so obvious.
To get from West End to 28th, for example, one would drive north on 31st Avenue past Centennial Park’s western edge, turn right onto Park Plaza, turn left on 25th, turn left on Charlotte and then right on 28th. It’s not a far drive — less than a mile from point-to-point — but not at all direct.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to cut out Park Plaza — and two traffic lights — by driving over the CSX tracks, connecting with a stub of 28th that’s on the south side of Charlotte? It cuts the distance by 80 percent and creates a direct route from Vanderbilt to Tennessee State University.
“From Centennial Park to Hadley Park,” Mayor Karl Dean says. “What it does is makes West End accessible to Jefferson Street.”
Along with simply resolving a traffic snarl, Dean touts the economic importance of the project: Both Jefferson and West End merchants benefit from a more direct thoroughfare. Easier access means more consumers. It would also make it easier to reach West End from Interstate 40 — via the 28th Avenue exit — and by taking the neighborhood streets out of the equation, traffic can move more easily.
“It will ease the traffic flow through there,” said Metro Councilwoman Edith Langster, who represents the area.
It also creates an academic thoroughfare: The logical extension of the new road would link Belmont and Lipscomb universities with Vanderbilt with Fisk with Meharry with TSU, which is of logistical importance as Nashville’s various universities have created very real partnerships — medical links between
Meharry and Vanderbilt, ROTC links between Belmont and TSU, research agreements between Fisk and Vanderbilt.
And easier access from the interstate at 28th means more consumer spending on Jefferson Street.
“What I think is going to happen is increased prosperity on Jefferson Street,” Dean said.
Business owners can’t disagree. After making his own movement west — bringing a location of his eponymous soul food restaurant to Green Hills — David Swett Sr. said the connector has wide support among north Nashville businesses.
Break from the past
That prosperity has been missing since dozens of homes and businesses gave way to the interstate in the 1960s.
That’s the point when everything changed, according to the Jefferson United Merchants Partnership. People left their homes. Many moved into housing projects, which necessarily led to larger housing projects; businesses shuttered long-time locations and never returned. But the partnership hopes that changes, too.
“We want to be sure that between Rosa Parks [Boulevard] and 28th Avenue receives some development and gives [motorists] a place to come after the connector is open and not just drive by,” Sharon Hurt, the partnership’s executive director, said. “I’d hate to have these great projects and see some of the [unsightly buildings].”
After the interstate tore the neighborhood in half, Jefferson Street, the city’s soul, became a shadow of itself. It was a complicated time, and there were no heroes, and any villains who carelessly divided Nashville’s most prosperous black district are long gone.
But Dean says the connector can right a wrong.
“I learned about the connector before I became mayor. We’ve talked about it and talked about it, and now it’s time to do it,” he said.
Indeed, the project that’s been tossed around for years was included in the mayor’s original capital spending plan in April. Like the rest of that proposal, it was put on hold after the May flood. But the estimated $20 million road project made the final cut during Dean’s weeklong roll-out of the revamped spending plan last week, although it failed to merit an on-site news conference like the Hickory Hollow Mall reimagining or the new park at the fairgrounds site.
Nonetheless, Dean understands the powerful symbol the connector could be.
“It reconnects us,” he said. “We’re one city. We need to see each other.”