A tale of two cities

There’s Tourism Nashville and then there’s Nashville.

January 30, 2023 12:00 pm
Downtown Nashville on a typical night. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Downtown Nashville on a typical night. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Recent news that Music City tourism honcho Butch Spyridon will (sort of) retire this summer has me thinking about how Nashville has changed during his three decades leading what is essentially the city’s official tourism bureau, the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp.  Short answer: in just about every way. Longer answer: in some ways that matter but not so much in other ways that matter more.

Spyridon can take a lot of credit-slash-blame for building the Music City tourism brand into what it is today. For many—especially those who make their living off of it—the brand is bright and shiny, particularly when the metrics are airport passengers, convention bookings, and Spyridon’s favorite, hotel room nights. Once tawdry and tatterdemalion, Downtown Nashville is now a buzzy place to do a meeting or a vacay, with spiffy venues and way more live music to catch on a daily basis than a quarter century ago (when, I was surprised to find after moving here in the early 90s, there was really not so much live music at all in a place calling itself Music City). 

For others the brand is dull and tarnished. Spyridon recently told the Nashville Business Journal that “we don’t have any of the normal demand generators — gaming, theme parks, beaches, mountains — we’re living off our brand and the character of our community.” But the reality is we are living off a theme park: the festival of public intoxication called Lower Broadway that Spyridon helped build. NCVC board chair Kevin Lavender boasts of the “city’s momentum as a top global destination.” The destination of which he speaks is anchored by a downtown that many Nashvillians want nothing to do with unless there’s a specific reason to be there, and by the way good luck getting the hell out if you are unfortunate enough to be trying to leave the city center on a weekend night.

Bachelorettes in Nashville's downtown Broadway entertainment district. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Bachelorettes in Nashville’s downtown Broadway entertainment district. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Summing up Spyridon’s legacy, Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Ralph Schulz declared that “Butch’s vision helped build Nashville into the world-class city it is today.” For the Spyridons and Schulzes of the world, who make their living as unremitting boosters of economic development, hyperbole is part of the job description, but honestly this “world-class city” stuff is codswallop of the first order. Nashville, I regret to inform you (but let’s face it, you already know), is not a world-class city.

The way to think about this is not through the lens of a tourist booking a flight, but that of a transplant booking a move. A city’s genuine identity, it seems to me, is judged by answers to the question: What are you moving to?

Moving here is moving to a place largely run by developers for developers. Progress is defined by growth, and growth is measured in shovels and cranes. There’s nothing wrong with shovels and cranes as means to an end, but here they are the end; it often seems as though there is no larger purpose city leaders can readily articulate. Sure, when pressed they talk the talk of housing and education and poverty and transit, but there is scarcely any serious strategic long-term thinking or planning in the highest levels of city government and civic leadership about any of this. Sure, there are initiatives and expenditures – Band-Aids really (albeit expensive ones at times) – and while Band-Aids can stop the bleeding, they don’t comprise the cure. 

Moving here is moving to a place that has virtually no handle on twenty-first century urban transportation. To be fair, many mid-sized American cities have subpar transit, but Nashville lags even its peers on most dimensions. The future is not carless, but cities with an eye on the future know it will mean fewer single-occupant two-ton rolling instruments of combustion clogging public spaces, both the ribbons of asphalt they move on and the slabs of concrete they park on. World-class cities are actively contemplating this future, but here we find no substantial high-level thinking among our leaders on how we shift, even gradually, in that direction. 

Just look at the idiotic roadway design for the soon-to-be-replaced Broadway Bridge—a major gateway to downtown. Nashville’s Civic Design Center has offered up a lovely forward-thinking plan; naturally, it’s getting zero traction. You can blame it on the state because it’s a state road in TDOT’s orbit, but where is the push back from local leaders? Missing in action.

Despite what boosters of tourism say, Nashville is not a “world-class city.” To move here is to move to a place that has virtually no handle on twenty-first century urban transportation. U.S. News Best Places data shows violent crime here is not just higher, but way higher, than (to name a few) Austin, Raleigh, Portland, Pittsburgh, Charlotte, and Denver. You can’t smoke joint, but you can get any kind of gun with no permit necessary. 

And speaking of blaming it on the state, moving here is moving to a place that can’t get past grotesque discrimination. Thanks to GOP control of the state capitol, LGBTQ discrimination in housing and public accommodations remains perfectly legal, and will for the foreseeable future. Wielding its favorite weapon—preemption—the legislature has barred local municipalities from doing otherwise, which in saner places is how blue cities at least partially overcome their red state theocracies. Blue cities likewise have raised minimum wages even where their red state overlords are slow to act, but here again the magic of state preemption keeps Nashville mired in the mid-twentieth century. 

Moving here is moving to a dangerous place. Violent crime overall hasn’t jumped nationally the last few years, notwithstanding the right’s campaign season scare mongering. In Nashville, like most places, it’s a mixed picture in recent years, though the city’s overall violent crime rate in 2021 was higher than any year since 2012. And in a country where murder happens far less often than it did a quarter century ago, the murder rate in Nashville in 2021 was higher than all but two of the last twenty years. Overall rates of mayhem are higher than many peer cities. Numbers from the U.S. News Best Places data show violent crime here is not just higher, but way higher, than (to name a few) Austin, Raleigh, Portland, Pittsburgh, Charlotte, and Denver.

Moving here is moving to a culturally twisted place. You can’t smoke a joint or get an abortion — both are criminalized and neither is likely to change anytime soon. Also possibly soon to be criminalized: drag shows, for crying out loud. But you can take just about any kind of gun just about anywhere you want, no permit required, and Nashville’s BNA leads the nation by far in the rate of guns confiscated per capita at the airport. So there’s that.

One can certainly grant the retiring Butch Spyridon his victory lap for having built us a global tourism brand, but a tourism brand isn’t a city, and a mid-sized city with significant crime, inferior transit, unexceptional public education, and a stubbornly regressive cultural climate isn’t a world class city. (And by the way a world class city wouldn’t tackle these issues by elevating a costly and unnecessary new stadium at public expense to the top of its civic priorities list.) It’s frankly a bit of a mystery why anyone with even the slightest up-to-date sensibilities about what a modern city should look like would be keen to move here. 

The page one headline in last Friday’s Tennessean print edition read “Nashville tourism to see more growth in ’23.” Was this a good news story or a bad news story? As always, to borrow from a great American bureaucrat, where you stand depends on where you sit.

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Bruce Barry
Bruce Barry

Bruce Barry is a professor of management at Vanderbilt University who teaches and writes about ethics, conflict, rights, politics, policy, and other things that pop into his head.