June 24, 2022 8:00am

Lower Broad: It's a Mess

Power Poll members say CLEAN IT UP

Photo of Bruce Dobie
Nashville, TN Correspondent
 

Over 70% of Power Poll members feel to some degree that Lower Broadway is tarnishing the city's image and threatening the health of the broader downtown business and residential district. As for what to do about the decibel-shattering beer bash and bachelorette bacchanalia, just about every suggestion that was made by Power Poll for cleaning up the downtown strip received a thumbs-up. Members are ready to throw a kitchen sink of solutions at the problem.

Meanwhile, Power Poll members also recognize the importance of the strip, in terms of its attraction as a tourism destination and money generator and historical fixture of the city. Six out of 10 members indicated that, "It is good for the city, warts and all."

In another question, when asked what members would do if asked by out-of-town guests to go visit Lower Broadway, nearly 70% said they would either "refuse to go" or "try to talk them out of the idea, but be willing nonetheless to take them."

It is all rather depressing. As Mary Mancini, former chairwoman of the Tennessee Democratic Party succinctly noted in Power Poll's comments, "It's no fun to live in a city where the main reason people visit is to get wasted." Or, as local businessman and longtime downtown supporter Joe Barker put it, "Lower Broadway is out of control... To go to the symphony, hockey game, or to a music venue as a 'Nashvillian' should be a pleasure, not a problem."

Here are the specific results, in this latest Power Poll:

DISCLAIMER: Power Poll is not a scientific survey. Rather, it focuses only on surveying influential, significant individuals. These people comprise much of the leadership structure of the city and influence directly or indirectly Nashville's policy and direction. The results offer up a fascinating piece of intelligence about the city and where it is going. In addition to Nashville, Power Poll is active in 27 other cities across the country and is preparing to launch in another 43. It is distinctly nonpartisan.

A total of 1,578 Power Poll members were emailed this survey. 583 responded, for a response rate of 36.95%. The number of members responding set an all-time record high for participation.

CONTEXT

Quick downtown history: When the Grand Ole Opry shuttered the Ryman Auditorium in 1974, and nearby retail fled downtown for the suburbs and shopping malls, Lower Broadway entered a dark, seedy phase. Peep shows flourished. There was zero going on.

Fast forward to the late '80s and into the '90s, when there were glimmers of hope. Developer Bobby Mathews put considerable muscle into developing historic Second Avenue, and Mayor Richard Fulton brought forth the city's new convention center on Broadway between Fifth and Eighth Avenues. A gregarious entrepreneur named Ed Stolman restored one of the more gorgeous structures on Broadway at 4th Avenue and turned it into the Merchants restaurant. Riverfront Park took shape. Gaylord Entertainment finally got around to restoring the Ryman and making it a world-class entertainment hall. And as befitting a publication that often did risky, if not dumb, things, the Nashville Scene moved into an abandoned bank building at 3rd and Broadway. (I was its editor.)

At some point not long ago, the tipping point tipped, tourists began flooding Lower Broadway, new music clubs and restaurants and bars were born, and a distinctly raucous, heavy-drinking, loud, country-music-party-down-kind-of-ethos took a vicious hold. There was the weird arrival of thousands of bachelorettes. Transportainment vehicles of all manner and make were suddenly clogging downtown streets. Along with an ever-present mist of overpriced PBR floating in the air, it all converged to make Lower Broadway what Power Poll member Judy Smith describes as "Mardi Gras every night."

To be certain, not all of our visitors are drunk and throwing up and wearing T-shirts honoring Cindi, The Bride. As Power Poll member Ken Leiser noted, they come in different shapes and sizes and "there is only one that damages all the rest—that being 'drunk boy and drunk girl.' We do not need them and we should simply enforce existing law."

In fact, there are numerous potential solutions. And most Power Poll members say they favor trying all of them. One would be to simply enforce more strictly the laws on the books. That is, we should begin arresting people who are obviously drunk (as Leiser noted) and in violation of public drunkenness laws. We should enforce—and perhaps make more strict—the city's current noise ordinances. Many of the clubs on Lower Broadway are amplifying music at a level that makes a pedestrian's teeth rattle.

Members also support cracking down on vendors who sell various CBD products, an initiative that the Cooper administration recently announced it is advancing. And members also advocate further restrictions on the party buses and pedal taverns and tractor pulls and whatever other vehicles are hauling around the drunken throngs, not to mention the drunks in thongs.

There are broad implications for the overall vibrancy of downtown in all of this. For years, many civic and business leaders championed the necessity of getting people to live downtown, which would drive retail, attract corporate business and create a well-balanced synergy. The battle cry then was “All great cities have great downtowns.” Now some law firms, bankers and other professionals are heading for the hills of Midtown and beyond. That synergy is at risk.

CONCLUSION

Lower Broadway is never going to be Park Avenue. The people who live near it should never confuse it with Knob Hill. In this way, it is only being honest with its history.

A considerable portion of country music, lyrically anyway, is rooted in the exploits of drunks and outlaws, lost love and broken hearts. On the five-block expanse that is Lower Broadway, there has always been an authentic sense of being able to encounter this narrative, to experience what amounted to a living cultural history. When I was working at the Scene on 3rd and Broadway in the '90s, it always amazed me to be able to walk in Robert's Western World and feel the country music art form—raw, earthy, sprung from the common man, three chords and the truth—descend upon you. It wasn't fake. It was the real deal.

There was Tootsie's and Ernest Tubb's Record Store and there were other legacy hole-in-the-walls. There was the knowledge that the sidewalks along Lower Broadway had once been walked on by Kris Kristofferson, and Patsy Cline, and Willie Nelson. Hank Williams, too, like God, in search of dark brown elixir. Lower Broadway was one of those streets, like 52nd Street in New York, a place that had witnessed musical greatness, and in so doing had become part of the very making of the music. All of which speaks to Lower Broadway's—and this city's—remarkable role in one of the world's most influential art forms.

What has always amazed me most is that, until recently at least, you could still inhabit that history when you visited it. But that is mostly now gone.

Rather than protect Lower Broadway, we degrade it. Rather than embrace it as our common genetic culture, we obliterate it with one money-grubbing tourism trick after another. Rather than guard with all our might its lovely and simple 19th century storefronts, we carpet bomb it with neon. Most of us are sickened by it, as we should be, because more than we know, its sad death is like losing a very important ancestor, one who mattered.

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