Community divided over initial plans for cap over I-40 in North Nashville

Community meeting on Jefferson Street Cap
Posted at 5:36 PM, Oct 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-11 13:01:53-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — At times, tempers flared at a community meeting Saturday afternoon, held at a lot owned by Lee Chapel AME in North Nashville. The meeting was over a proposal to spend millions of mostly federal dollars to reconnect portions of North Nashville, divided decades ago by the construction of Interstate 40.

"You hear that?" said Metro Councilwoman Sharon Hurt, as neighbors listened to the roar of cars. "It’s the interstate."

The hum of traffic seemed to be a constant at the meeting, hosted by the newly renamed Nashville Department of Transportation. A reminder of how we got here. "It brought us to ruin. It took from us the ability to hand down generational wealth," said Rev. Ronnie Mitchell of New Livingstone Church in East Nashville.

Back in the 1960s, the construction of I-40 forced the removal of 1,400 mostly African American landowners from 100 blocks of North Nashville — killing off businesses and diving a thriving community.

Decades later, the scars remain. "The noise is too high, the approach to Fisk isn’t right, we’ve damaged our HBCUs by letting I-40 be designed and built in a way that is just awkward, and quite frankly, has been suffocating the business community here," said Mayor John Cooper, in an interview with NewsChannel 5.

So to help right this historic wrong, the city is considering applying for a federal grant to create what's called a cap over acres of the interstate. Think of it as a massive green space on a bridge over the road surface.

NDOT put up signs around the meeting to showcase what the new space could be used for — like an amphitheater, garden or public park. In turn, Mayor Cooper hopes it attracts more commerce to the neighborhood. "The cap may lead a black entrepreneur to build a good court on Jefferson Street because you’ve created an environment where that business is going to prosper," said Cooper.

But much like the constant roar of the interstate, concerns from neighbors about this proposal seemed to only grow louder.

"How does this help us in terms of black businesses and ownership and that kind of thing?" asked one speaker.

"And what I’ll say Mayor, I’m not going to fight against it, I say we rethink and re-imagine it," said Rev. Mitchell.

"I do not agree with the way that the Mayor’s office has gone about this process," said Council Member Hurt.

Hurt went on to argue that the city started on this proposal last year, without input from the neighborhood. "If we’re not at the table, we’re on the menu," she told the crowd, to applause.

Hurt is also worried that the project could have unintended consequences. "When the cap comes and it makes it beautiful here and it’s absolutely wonderful and the value goes up, then people are going to be displaced because they won’t be able to afford it," she said.

We took those concerns to Mayor Cooper. He argues, first and foremost, that this meeting is a chance for the community to come to the table and it's just now getting started. "I guess I respectfully don’t agree because -- we just said grace at the table and we’re just now starting," said the Mayor.

As for the threat of gentrification. "It is of course a concern, and we need a plan for that, but the current situation isn’t very good either," said Cooper.

So much like the noise from the nearby freeway, rumblings about this project aren't going away anytime soon. "But it’s going to be the community’s decision about what it looks like and whether to go forward with the application," said Cooper.

A majority of the interstate cap project would be paid through federal transportation grant money. This meeting was the first of several community meetings about the proposal. If Cooper's administration decides to proceed, the application is due to the federal DOT by next March.