We now know the boom that shook Nashville that morning was a bomb, planted in an RV, detonated in the heart of the tourist area, less than two miles from where my wife and I live. It’s the latest blow in what has been a rough stretch for this city.
I moved to Nashville on a whim in 2010 after living in Washington for 10 years. I arrived a day after the city was hit with a 1,000-year flood. Not long after, Nashville was “It City,” profiled in national media as the next big thing.
And the city certainly thrived. As you drive toward Nashville from the airport, there’s a dramatic moment when the city first comes into view. As I’ve come home from trips over the years, I’ve come to take a mental note of how that view has changed. When the behemoth Music City Center convention space opened in 2013, its curves fit the skyline with all the grace of a hippo in a treehouse. Today, it playfully undulates beneath a crop of shiny new skyscrapers.
Nashville hasn’t escaped the pains of a bustling metro in transition. There’s a glut of fancy Airbnbs but a shortage of affordable housing. Old neighborhoods struggle with identity, race and demography as waves of new residents in search of authenticity drive up rents and price out longtime residents, thus stripping those same neighborhoods of that authenticity.
Those problems seem quaint now. The March tornado closed streets and destroyed dozens of restaurants and music venues, as well as a major restaurant supply store. As a result, many of the city’s restaurants were already reeling when the pandemic hit. And the pandemic and economic collapse prevented many restaurants and homeowners from rebuilding. So parts of this booming city are frozen in March 2020: Homes remain without roofs. Near our home, a neighbor’s bathroom stands exposed to passersby, while a wrecked church’s rafters, pews and stained-glass remain bare to the world.
Every city has endured overloaded hospitals, crippled economies and mass loss of life over the past year. Yet Nashville is especially reliant on tourism and entertainment, not just for its economy, but its identity. This has been compounded by the same covid-19 response rift that divided the rest of the country. Resistance from state officials to shutting down bars and restaurants has been a source of embarrassment for much of the city. We’ve cringed at photos of Kid Rock’s bar packed with maskless tourists. We’ve fumed at cars with out-of-state plates parked outside the Airbnbs in our neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the obituary pages grow longer. Tennessee is a national leader in per-capita covid-19 infections.
Second Avenue, the site of the explosion, is a nexus for the city’s complicated relationship with tourism. Lined with trees, Victorian facades and old riverfront warehouses, and capped at one end by the art deco municipal courthouse, it was one of the prettier streets in the downtown area. Those old beautiful buildings house some uniquely Nashville spots, but also tourist traps such as Hooters, Dick’s Last Resort and Coyote Ugly. As many of us watched the bomb coverage while opening presents with relatives over Zoom, we saw tourists express disappointment that their vacations had been ruined. And we couldn’t help but wonder: Why are you here? And why aren’t you wearing a mask?
About six months into the pandemic, my wife got me a gift. In yet another sign of a city bursting through its moorings, Nashville’s airport is in the midst of an expansion and remodel, so the airport authority sold off sections of BNA’s notoriously hideous but instantly recognizable carpeting. It’s our welcome mat now.
Over the past few months, the sight of that little patch of carpet stirred something in me that I couldn’t quite articulate. I missed traveling, but wanderlust didn’t quite capture it. It was the bombing that helped me realize: It isn’t leaving Nashville that I’ve missed. It’s coming home. It’s the wave of comfort upon stepping off a plane and seeing that ugly, unmistakable carpeting. It’s the smell of warm food and live music wafting through airport corridors. It’s watching my city coming into view.
The pandemic had destroyed our physical sense of community, that feeling of belonging to a city. We don’t pack into a stadium to cheer for the Predators anymore. We don’t gather for street festivals. And particularly painful for Nashville, we don’t go out for live music. We need community most after shared trauma. But because of covid-19, shared community just isn’t safe right now.
The pandemic has kept me in Nashville for the longest uninterrupted stretch of time since I moved here. And I’ve never missed the city more.
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