Girlhood Gone: Notes from the New Nashville

After returning home to Nashville following many years away, Susannah Felts assesses the city’s changing face through the eyes of a native, and as a woman raised in the South.

Susannah Felts | Longreads | September 2016 | 18 minutes (4,439 words)

At 18, I knew only that I wanted out.

Out of Nashville, Tennessee, out of the whole Southeast. Free from region. If you’d asked, I could have told you why, but I didn’t yet know how deep a print the South had left on me, only the urge to reject its further touch.

* * *

Back then, the Nashville I knew was defined mainly by the limited spheres of a middle-class adolescence: home, school, and a 20-mile stretch of I-40 that I drove many hundreds if not thousands of times, back and forth, east and west, repeat. My family lived on one side of the city, my friends and classmates on the other, hitched together by a private school that sat roughly in between.

To a lesser degree I knew my hometown to be a place defined by country music and Christianity, home of the Grand Ole Opry and Buckle of the Bible Belt. This identity seemed distinct but remote: I did not listen to country, did not go to church. Music City? To a kid who was rock-n-roll crazy pretty much from birth, the nickname seemed almost a cruel joke. This was not my Music City.

And then there was Nashville Past. This one existed mostly in my mind, though technically you could say I was around for it. If I could, I’d show you a YouTube clip, a newsreel from the local CBS affiliate. It’s 1978—I was five then—and our setting is a section of downtown Nashville known then, as today, as Lower Broad. The camera pans over signage: ADULT, GIANT SCREEN PEEPS, PRIVATE LIVE SHOWS, GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS. A male reporter’s voice-over: “The sex trade on Lower Broad remains the biggest obstacle to other area businesses…”

As a kid I saw very little of this Lower Broad in the flesh. But every so often I went down there with my mother on her runs to Acme Feed & Seed, a massive white building with red-and-white checkered trim. It sat at the end of the strip, the last stop before the Cumberland River. Acme stood apart even then, a vestige of a more distant past, fascinating to me in its dusty, freight-elevator glory. My mother went there to buy birdseed and cracked corn scooped from large bins by old guys in overalls, and on one occasion, two ducklings for my brother and me. I think she liked the old-timeyness of the store, too.

On those trips I saw Lower Broad only as a scan of images from the backseat. But somewhere along the way I grasped that this was what “seedy” meant. (I did not mistake it having anything to do with the store we’d come to shop at.) I reckon I learned the word from Lower Broadway’s mysterious, neon-spiked example.

Years later, in 1990, when I was a junior in high school, a business opened that I think of now as the nexus of the three Nashvilles I once knew. It sat, in fact, at their literal intersection, the northeast corner of Demonbreun Street. This was where, every Monday through Friday, I exited I-40 West and hung a left, soon to pass the old Country Music Hall of Fame on the left, Ernest Tubb Record Shop on the right, and at the end of Music Row, a dreary, incongruous ranch with a red-and-white sign dubiously touting it as the Home of Hank Williams, Sr. (I always doubted the legitimacy of that designation. The house appeared to have been plunked down there by a tornado.) Then I’d take a left onto Music Row. Soon after I would reach my high school.

The new business at the northeast corner of Demonbreun made itself known. It had a low-slung rectangular body painted bright pink, and a name that left little to the imagination: Déjà Vu Showgirls. But it was the strip club’s tagline, writ large on the side of the building, that gained it instant notoriety and became a local joke: 1000 Beautiful Girls and 3 Ugly Ones.

I laughed too, I’m sure; I rolled my eyes and did not imagine then that Déjà Vu had much at all to do with me. In some ways, it didn’t. But my teenage body was then developing the silhouette it would carry for a lifetime, a shape not so different from the one on the sign. What I did not understand for a very long time was how much that body would speak for me when I did not want it to, would send messages I did not authorize, would elicit responses I had not meant to summon, but would likewise muffle my voice in all sorts of ways I could not yet see.

Which is not to say that I didn’t intuit certain base lessons about my body, likely long before my daily drive past the strip club. I would spend the next few decades wishing for small breasts because the not-small ones I had would, it seemed, bring me only the kind of attention I least wanted. My body was a thing to hide because I wanted to be respected for my mind. Clearly, being respected in the ways I wanted was at odds with drawing attention to the body I had. I would instinctively avoid low-cut clothing, or anything tight across the chest, all the while wishing I could comfortably wear any number of tops or sundresses without fear of being catcalled or leered at or judged. Was I being awfully sensitive? Maybe. But today I read an essay in The New Yorker in which Rebecca Makkai writes that, when taking the witness stand for a case of sexual molestation, she was advised to wear “a baggy dress…because I had a large chest and we didn’t want the judge to get the wrong impression of me.” And I read Jessica Valenti’s tale of being internet-shamed for standing up straight, chest out, in a form-fitting shirt when she posed for a picture with Bill Clinton and a group of other young bloggers. Then there’s the friend who says he believes a woman he knows, a successful poet, “uses her tits” to curry favor among other writers. When I hear these things, I know my early fears were founded. But it would be years, decades, before I fully grasped the way my physical self had been forced at odds with my inner self, through a culture that demanded it so.

My body was not at fault, of course. It was not the bad guy. It took me a long time to understand its agency as a thing apart from the agency foisted upon it. It took me a long time to feel that it was a thing of power and beauty, not something that seemed designed to work against me at every turn.

Meanwhile, Déjà Vu thrived. It became an institution. Unlike many Nashville establishments of my youth, it’s still there today. But somewhere along the way, the infamous tagline fell out of use, went missing from the side of the building. I don’t know when that happened. I was gone, living far away, when it did. For a long time, I had no plans to return.

* * *

It was July 2009, all of us huddling in the crater of the Great Recession, when my hometown became mine once more. I’d been living in other cities, including Chicago, for 18 years—the same number of years I’d lived, period, when I left Nashville in 1991 for a small liberal arts university in New England.

By the skin of our teeth—–I’ll spare you the gory details—–my husband and I managed to purchase a small bungalow in a gentrifying area near downtown, East Nashville, an area that had been as alien to me as the Dakota plains when I was growing up in Nashville in the 1980s. A high-school boyfriend’s best friend had grown up on this “other” side of the river, his parents urban pioneers, slowly renovating their home as they lived in it; and from a single visit to his house I knew East Nashville as a neighborhood of sagging, neglected Victorians and other old houses side by side with housing projects. This was a side of town to which kids like teenage me just flat didn’t go, didn’t really know anything about—–though I know now I must have been charmed even then by those old houses, which would stay lodged in my mind as a thing of desire. In 2009, already nearly out of my reach price-wise, East Nashville was a neighborhood that felt welcoming and familiar in its mix of shabby and arty and good-restaurant-y, one that possessed some of the energy and mix I had loved so about my life in Chicago. The bungalow was our first home to own, and the city I returned to felt equally familiar and new, which pleased me. Also pleasing: the crape myrtle ablaze in hot pink in my front yard; the new coffee shop in walking distance of our home; news of a riverfront park to be built on our side of the Cumberland; the restaurants, the restaurants!. I remember that summer as unseasonably cool, and the hydrangea bush beside the front porch flocked with moppy blue heads.

I had to pay private mortgage insurance, sure, but I also had a front porch. Of my own. That pleased me, too. Probably you get my drift: a lot of things pleased me that summer, nothing more than the sense that, after months of seizing panic about the future, I’d made a good decision.

In the years since I’d left it, Nashville had flourished under progressive mayoral leadership, its urban core retooled as a tourist playground. A football stadium, an arena, a beautiful new main library, a symphony center—all of this now defined the downtown landscape. The historic Ryman Auditorium—the original home of the Grand Ole Opry, the Mother Church—had been rescued from decline and rebirthed as a beloved venue for live music. Jack White had moved to town. While I was away, my city (my city?) had made good—which seemed to validate my determination to leave it in the first place. It had not been worthy of my staying, but things were different now.

And then, as a few years came and went, I watched Nashville amble, grinning, into its next phase, taking up the mantle of media-darling, checking out its upgraded image in the national mirror. The New York Times proclaimed us an “It City,” picking up a torch passed by Austin, Texas. There were countless music and food scene write-ups, other glossy magazine round-ups of stuff to do/see/eat/play/stay here. There came a population surge and startling growth predictions. There came a sort of crown jewel for the screen era: the eponymous television show.

First we were dazzled by ourselves. Little ol’ us! Our hairstyles, our coffee shops, our bachelorette weekenders. Our skyline on prime-time. The hotness of our hot chicken!

Inevitably, next came the push-back, the growing pains. Today we worry about the vanishing of our city, and we worry about our vanishing sense of self. There are not-so-sotto voce grumbles:

We’re losing what made this such a great place to live in the first place.

You know they say eighty people move here every day.

Welcome to Nashville—now y’all go home.

The eighty-people line is an irresistible statistic, leaked from some civic report or something and into our collective consciousness. It has become a line that every local knows, the modern day equivalent of Déja Vu’s three ugly girls, though its source is far less sexy. Traffic has gotten appreciably nastier (this is a city with a real public-transportation deficit, a crisis in the making), demolitions abound, construction fencing garlands the city. Regularly, I am shocked to visit parts of town I haven’t been to in a while and find yet another giant hole where yesterday sat…wait, what was there? I couldn’t tell you.

I’m left wondering what I won’t miss, whether they are the details I never paid much attention to in the first place, or those I never much liked. When I’ve been tempted to cast my lot with the brow-furrowers, the this place ain’t what it used to be-ers, I’ve had to stop and ask myself: Of what, exactly, are you mourning the loss?

* * *

Let me go back to high school again. In 1990, the same year that Déja Vu opened, Nashville’s mayor was a man named Bill Boner. His surname alone practically demands a smirk, but it turned out to be only the opening gag in what became, for the people of Nashville, one rather long and awkward routine.

Boner was twice divorced and on his third wife by the time he took the oath of office. In 1990, his fourth year as mayor, word got out that he was having an affair with a country music hopeful named Traci Peel. He separated from wife number three and became engaged to Peel, who boasted to a reporter of her fiancé’s sexual prowess. Her comments earned the Mayor a new nickname: “The Seven-Hour Boner.”

During my senior year, Mayor Boner was spotted on Lower Broad, which was, if not as sex-show-centric as in the late 70s, still home to honky-tonks that catered to a certain element. There, he climbed onstage to play harmonica with Peel while she sang “Rocky Top,” the state song. The two then traveled north, to appear on Donahue. Again Peel sang “Rocky Top;” again Boner tooted along on his harp.

Today, you can Google a Philadelphia Inquirer story from October 16, 1990— “Mayor Is on TV; Nashville Blushes”—which captures in colorful detail the Buckle of the Bible Belt in the agony of self-ridicule, the butt of its own joke. “Boner’s exploits have become the real-life soap opera that Nashville can’t stop watching,” the reporter wrote. “People recite his misdeeds with fervor, without lapse.”

What did 17-year-old me think about all this? I know I felt embarrassed for the city, mildly disgusted. Maybe there was another vocab lesson; perhaps I learned the word “tawdry” this way (it could have shown up on an SAT practice test around then, too). But Boner’s trespasses and flaunting of same did throw fuel on the fire in my belly. Enough of this place and its buffoonery! Its hick scandals, its twang and strum! I wanted out.

What I see now is that the blurry resentment I held toward my hometown at 18, as a girl chafing to get away, was part of a mosaic. The shame I felt for Nashville nestles against the shame I felt for my region of birth, the South, a setting shaped by vanquish, a place and a people on the wrong side of history. Then there’s the shame I have felt for my own dark turns of mind—to borrow a phrase put in my head by Gillian Welch, a Californian who found her voice in the South. And this shame snuggled up to another: that of my female body, its curves themselves an echo of the gently rolling hills of Middle Tennessee, the physical geography I know better than any other.

People talk about Southern pride. But in the South, shame is always pride’s flipside. This is at least partly what Patterson Hood of the Drive-by Truckers means when he talks about the “duality of the Southern thang.” I knew shame before I knew any sense of pride.

What did it mean to be a girl growing up in the South? The same thing it meant to be a girl growing up in other places? Yes and no. Good old boy culture trains its eye on girls in its own searing way. It sizes you up, then calls you sweetheart. It makes you feel highly appraised, but genuinely adored. “Cheesecake,” my Mississippi uncle and five boy cousins playfully called me on summer days, bathing-suit clad on the bayou pier at their house, and everyone laughed. I laughed too, without understanding what the name was even getting at. I knew it had something to do with my body. I didn’t know for years that it had anything to with grown women and sex.

Early on, I was exposed to—but did not truly understand, did not know how or why to push against—the idea that my body and everything it felt could or even should be my greatest source of shame. Same for my curious mind, which silently knew few bounds. There was more than one way to be a woman in this world; that was made quite clear by Lower Broad and Déjà Vu and countless others sources of real-world information, not to mention the books I crammed voraciously into my brain. But that didn’t make finding my way as a woman, as a girl, any easier.

What does all of this have to do with Nashville? When I try to pin down what I will genuinely miss of the old Nashville, shame is what I oddly enough keep coming back to. I don’t mean that I wish to preserve some sense of shame, just that I can’t strip it from the Nashville I knew growing up. No more than I can strip it from my deeply conflicted relationship with the South in sum.

* * *

Here’s another thing, though. I want to access a Nashville amber-trapped in my mind. I struggle to locate it, then ponder the odd sensation of mourning something I once found shameful. How is that possible? Can one mourn and simultaneously feel shame about something?

When I look back on the Lower Broad of yesteryear and Boner’s trysts and anything else iconic of a not-so-glamorous Nashville past, I don’t feel disgust, or relief that it’s so different now. No, what I feel is some twisted blend of pride and loss. Nashville existed in this scuzzy iteration, and I was there for it, but not really. Would I time-travel back to the Lower Broad of ‘70s outlaw country, or of Boner & Peel, to take a closer look? I certainly would.

Secondhand nostalgia is at work here, not unlike what certain young New Yorkers of the current day may feel for the Rotten Apple of the 1970s. (Borrowed nostalgia begat Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire, shines in the eyes of every modern-day fan of latter-day Sonic Youth.) Truth is, I spent my early “Nashville” childhood on a dead-end road with no city water, at the end of a long gravel driveway. These were the certifiable boonies: not a planned community in sight for miles. Davidson County, yep, but seemingly by a clerical error. What happened on Lower Broad or Music Row was a beat so distant as to go unheard. Even when we moved closer in by some 20 miles, my family still lived a 20-minute drive from downtown, and on the opposite side of it from where all my friends lived.

I was always on the periphery of Nashville; I have since been on the periphery of many scenes, toes over the edge, observing and sometimes assimilating what I can. When I listen to people lamenting the loss of an “old” or “real” Nashville, I can’t help but want to raise my fist in solidarity. Yeah! Damn traffic! Stupid pay parking lots! I want to lay claim to a fading sense of place. But my memory and my experience fail me, keep the curtain pulled over the city I grew up mostly on the edge of, then fled, seeking everything it wasn’t. I had access via Interstate, and I had my worn paths, but so much of the place was not known to me. And then I left it, thinking I might never return.

What I see now is that my proximity to Nashville proper—driving in and driving out, the pulse of the city beating at a distance—was one of the earliest of many experiences that have formed a pattern: a life lived on peripheries. But it wasn’t the first. That honor goes to my being born a girl—peeking into a man’s world, and being peeked at.

* * *

Last fall, Nashville elected its first woman mayor. Megan Barry first came to town for business school at Vanderbilt. Like the three mayors who preceded her, she’s not a native Tennessean. In casting my vote for her, I felt a pride of place that seemed pure, for once unburdened with any concealed hint of shame.

The morning after Barry’s decisive win, my then seven-year-old daughter thrilled to the news that we would now have a “girl Mayor” running the show. It’s not that I think she will never understand what a good old boy is. But it may take a bit longer for that concept to gel, and it’s possible she will never feel it in her bones—her body—the way I have. I think of her experience here—of so many people’s—when I read Seattle, 1974, in which Charles D’Ambrosio reflects that living in his hometown, “presents a strange dislocation now that Seattle’s become the Valhalla of so many people’s seeking.” He continues, “The idea of it as a locus of economic and scenic and cultural hope baffles me. It a little bit shocks me to realize my nephews and nieces are growing up in a place considered desirable.” But the old tarnish persists; the isolation D’Ambrosio felt in his youth, that he understood as endemic to that place, is forever mineralized in his bones. “It’s a new place, but there’s an old silence bothering me.”

I know my own old silence, living again down South in a city that at once feels more mine and less mine than ever. No one I meet anymore hails from here. Thank you for coming, for helping to change it, I want to say, even as part of me longs for the Nashville I never really knew.

While I was working on this essay, the Tennessean reported that the land Déjà Vu sits on—“a major entrance to downtown”—had been sold, the business with it, to a local real estate investor for $6.5 million. In the story, Nashville’s chief operating officer Rich Riebeling is quoted as saying that “[m]oving that establishment out of the front door just opens up a lot more development activity and sends a good message that it’s a different and new Nashville.” In Déjà Vu’s place will likely rise another luxury condo tower. For now, the club has been allowed to continue operating on that site for 18 months, after which the buyer will “assist [it] with finding a new home.” A vinyl sign now hangs on the building’s east-facing side: “YES! WE’RE OPEN.”

Closer to my home, over the river on the East side, the sights of development in overdrive are visible at every turn: great piles of rubble where “non-contributing” (in the parlance of historic zoning) homes were recently demolished; vacant lots scraped of all vegetation so that new houses, many of them the much-maligned “tall skinnies,” may rise; our days filled with the cacophony of construction—nail guns, hammers, earth-movers. The pace of change dizzies and sometimes troubles me. But I have experienced gentrification firsthand before, in Chicago—there too neither as pioneer nor Johnny-come-lately, but as one who entered right on the cusp of great flux. It bothers me that we are priced out of our own ‘hood now. It bothers me equally that others who are less fortunate are priced out too. And good luck finding affordable commercial space if you’re a small business owner. But, I ask myself, is this not what you wanted? We bought our house with the assumption that its value would swiftly rise once the economy recovered, an assumption that has so far proved accurate. No doubt I am complicit in gentrification, which is uncomfortable to think about. Just as often, I wonder, Where, exactly, do we go from here?

And the beat goes on. The elderly woman across the street from us moved to assisted living, and her tiny non-contributing cottage is torn down, a new, 2400-square-foot home going up in its place. At the end of the street, another sad bungalow with a smelly front yard was recently gut-rehabbed and bumped out in the back. It now sits perky-fresh, painted the color du jour, light gray… A scentless carpet of hay lies where new grass will grow.

I wonder who will move in to these homes, where they’ll have come from. They’ll likely join the East Nashville Facebook page where, recently, a girl who appeared to be in her 20s posted a picture of herself grinning in a Bill Boner for Mayor trucker hat. “Anyone know anything about this guy?” she wrote. She’d scored the hat at a local thrift store.

I scrolled the thread. More than one person commented that, for all the scandal around his incumbency, Boner was really not such a bad dude. Apparently he went on to teach high school in the nearby city of Franklin; apparently he has been good at the job. To that, I offer no comment. I’m not interested in judging the man’s current standing. He is relevant only to my past. Mayor Barry is the one who is relevant to my future.

And now the television network powers that be have doused the lights of Nashville, canceling the show after a four-season run; meanwhile, the first whispers of doubt about the aggressive pace of development—is the market for luxury dwellings starting to cool? and where are all the service workers supposed to live?—are getting louder. Meanwhile, too, construction surges on, and some of these giant holes in the ground aren’t going to be filled any time soon, I’m told, because cranes are on back-order.

One thing is certain: the Nashville my daughter will remember, if blurrily, will look nothing like the Nashville of my youth. And if anything is just as it should be, this is it. The nature of places is to change; it is our nature to both mourn and celebrate that change. For everything I might miss out of some sort of secondhand nostalgia; and for every doubt I have about dark side of development’s churn, I am glad to see not just my city but my region evolve, to become a place where a woman is Mayor; where a strip club no longer functions as a welcome mat; and where my daughter, with any hope, will have a very different idea about what it means to grow up female in the American South.

* * *

A writer and editor living in Nashville, Tenn., Susannah Felts is also cofounder and co-executive director of The Porch, a nonprofit literary center. Follow her on Instagram at @hannasusj

Editor: Sari Botton