by Andri Alexandrou
So someone bought your favorite small-time quirky bar. It’ll be torn down, or at the very least remodeled according to contemporary design trends. It will be sold back to the public at a 50% increase. After this happens about four or five times in a given neighborhood, houses double or quadruple in value. The neighborhood gets a name, and starts taking on an identity. Old people move out, new people move in. It has been gentrified.
As more establishments and neighborhoods in Nashville undergo this process, people gather in uproar. These are the members of our current “creative class,” if I may collect something scattered and give it an identity. They have patronized these places all across town and documented their own youth and development by the underground maps they’ve drawn.
Now, see, at this point I become confused. I, too, am a member of this “creative class” (hurl). I, too, have gone to these same restaurants, these bars. I’ve passed an evening talking to a bearded bartender, benefited from $2 domestics. Yet I’m not offended. Actually, I’ve been pretty ambivalent, but the recent sale-after-sale, uproar-after-uproar has me realizing that this might actually represent a trend that I don’t agree with.
In these uproars, I sense something weird: Ownership. People are acting as if what’s being taken from them truly is theirs. It may be theirs as a part of their cultural past and identity, sure. But given that there are communities upon communities being displaced by this development, how can they justify this upset?
The problem with that sense of ownership over little places of cultural idiosyncrasy (and therefore authenticity, in one sense) is that, invariably, someone else will come in, and identify with it, and take ownership over it. I felt that Santa’s Pub was mine all mine for a while and became offended when the next iteration of college kids came in and took my place of solitude from me. They started singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” on a nightly basis. How terrible! How deviant from its true nature!
I had plenty of thoughts about the place, but I never did write a devotional essay about Santa’s because I felt there was some incomplete understanding that went along with my relationship to it. Now I see that the love I gave Santa’s was really just a love for who I was becoming, that I was too low in self-esteem to grant myself. The true story, from three steps back, is that I had taken ownership over it from the people who were there before, who I overlapped with for a while, and who eventually stopped coming. The story of Santa’s is not my own, but one of cultural cycles of inferred authenticity, popularity, tourism, and regurgitation.
Gentrification, or development, or urban revival, is happening. The nauseating part is how formulaic it seems. All across the country, a city will begin its journey by being mediocre, but affordable, and end here, on January 8, 2015, in Nashville, TN.
We cannot move backward and undo the changes, nor will uproar do much to stop it. Allow me to offer a different solution:
Let that upper crust develop. Let it seal itself into the Gulch and into Hillsboro village, build its little boutiques. Let the paisley prints and business cards and acoustic guitars get their time in the spotlight so that you can continue to have the true freedom of movement you’ve enjoyed all this time. Let the members of your community grow love for what you have together, not for what The Guardian says about you, or for the hangers-on that crowd around you in dive bars. Would it be so bad to continue being underground? Isn’t that how you became who you are today?
Every experience is a dead version of yourself you can never be again. Same goes for Dino’s. You can never go back to that awesome Dino’s show in 2009, even if Dino’s stayed open ’til the end of time. You can never re-create who you were in the past.
These sales reveal the uncomfortable casualness with which you’ve engaged with your city. If you want to stay here, you can no longer stand by and then rise in outrage against change. There comes a time when you have to go outside in the daylight and start taking the risk, because it’s in that risk that you actually have the collateral against what you claim to have loved all this time. If there is something in this town you can’t live without, make it for yourself. Do something to make your own establishment that looks like what you want it to, that charges and pays what you want it to. And when market prices go up all around you, see if you don’t sell what you’ve made after fifteen years of hard work to finance your children’s education so that they can be as fun and free and punk as you once were.
This isn’t just a statement for the well off, though if you are creative and have access to funds, you have every responsibility to put your dollar toward what you believe in. If you aren’t well off, and if you have the intelligence and taste of someone who considers himself a part of this community, then you are capable of starting your own thing. Start a booking agency that runs off your laptop in between breaks at the restaurant. Have art shows in your apartment for all those excellent painters you know who can’t get any attention from galleries or collectors because they’ve never shown before. If what you want is an authentic-feeling coffee shop, then open one, or at least start working in one with the intention of committing to it and learning its business and successes.
You live in an age where not only do you have access to an almost infinite amount of information, which you’ve already used to develop your discerning taste, but you can launch yourself as whatever you want for the big big price of absolutely nothing. You were the ones granting all of these places their cultural importance, and you can do it again. If you don’t like what’s happening now, all that means is that you weren’t paying attention.
The hardest part of being talented is not in the getting there, but in the responsibility to use your talent well, and in the contribution you offer in making Nashville what it ought to be.
Andri Alexandrou has worked in the arts in Nashville since 2011. She is an artist and independent writer whose work has been published in the Nashville Scene and Native Magazine. She works currently at Seed Space, which is Nashville’s only nonprofit dedicated solely to contemporary art. She is an Nashville native.
Editors note: To our knowledge, Santa’s is not up for sale. We apologize if the article led readers to believe otherwise.