'It' city vs. 'our city': Cherry blossoms highlight underlying conflict in Nashville development

Posted at 10:32 PM, Apr 01, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-17 11:42:20-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — A brisk breeze is in the air during a peaceful early-Spring day. It’s hard to miss the cherry blossoms along 1st Avenue North that are in full bloom at the foot of lower Broadway. But after just a moment’s notice, attention shifts instead to the several battery-powered scooters suddenly whizzing past.

Metro council members say it was just such a clash between elements of the “old” and “new” Nashville that fueled this weekend’s outrage over Metro’s original decision to mulch the cherry blossoms to make way for a temporary NFL Draft stage later this month.

“I think this situation was very much emblematic of where we are as a city,” said councilwoman Angie Henderson.

“There's a tension between the destination city -- the "it" city -- on one side, and how that's squaring off against the vision that people have of Nashville as a great hometown,” said councilman Freddie O’Connell, in whose district the cherry blossoms reside.

The trees themselves have not always been a part of Nashville’s past; they were planted “a number of years ago” according to Mayor David Briley’s office. But in a town transforming as rapidly as Nashville, that might as well be ancient history.

The original decision to mulch the trees came to light during the week when the blossoms were nearly in full-bloom, with Nashville’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival scheduled just two weeks away.

“You know, it really was tone deaf,” Henderson said. “In a city that's been going through so much development as we have, lots of neighbors and neighborhoods are having a palpable loss when that big tree comes down or a new development moves in.”

The mayor’s office originally justified the decision to remove the trees by citing the anticipated economic impact in Nashville from the NFL Draft of more than $125 million. More than 100,000 people are expected to attend the event later this month.

Nashville is no stranger to major gatherings bringing tens of thousands of visitors to Music City – up to 200,000 people attended Nashville’s New Year’s Eve celebration Music City Midnight last year -- but with more big-ticket and big-name events likely to continue to call Nashville home in the future, metro council members and other city leaders are tasked with the increasingly delicate balance of trying to preserve what Nashville’s own citizens hold dear.

“I don’t see a problem with that,” O’Connell said. “I think then, how do you square that huge big, ‘we're going after this,’ with these concerns. I think it's possible, we just have to be really intentional about it.”

“Let’s make sure early on we're having a conversation,” Henderson said. “It’s still baffling to me that anybody around any table said, ‘Sure, just take those trees out.’”

“It puts pressure on this question of ‘Who is the Nashville we are currently building, for?’ And also, ‘Is there nothing sacred?’,” said O’Connell. “We maybe have been more attentive to the ambition of increasing the magnitude and stature of where we are, and maybe less attentive to how our own folks are feeling about that.”

Council members say they were caught as off guard as most of the public, learning about the proposed cherry blossom removal late Friday night or Saturday morning. They were slated to be cut down on Monday morning.

Council members' inboxes became flooded.

O’Connell said while several community issues have filled his inbox lately – like short term rental units and those electric scooters – no issue has struck with such sudden intensity as the cherry blossoms.

Metro councilmembers vow to ask questions of Metro government about how the cherry blossom agreement came to be, and they say they’ll be asking more questions earlier on of those who organize major events in Nashville.

“I don’t know that we solve it on paper, I think this is a people issue,” O’Connell said. “Let's have this conversation [with organizers], a negotiation about what we'd like to do, how we think we can have a great event, then we say ‘that's great, your overall template for the event looks fantastic, here are some Nashville things we need you to do.”

...a list of “Nashville things” in a constant battle between the “It” city and “our city,” that city leaders now know includes cherry blossoms.

“I think this is a lesson,” O’Connell said. “Our choice going forward is, do we apply that lesson to future decisions?”