Nashville Through the Decades, A Reflection on Vanderbilt’s Home


Celia Waldman, Contributor

What is the future of Nashville? In what ways is the future of Nashville informed by its past? In what ways is the city failing to create a humane and equitable living environment for all of its residents? The city of Nashville is currently experiencing rapid growth, with experts estimating over 50 people a day moving to Nashville. In addition, international migrants make up more than half of the Davidson county migrants in the last five years, creating an increasingly diverse city.  

On Tuesday, November 9, 2021, the Chancellor’s Lecture Series worked to tackle these questions and more. The panel, titled “Nashville Through the Decades,” delved into the connection between Nashville’s history and its future. The series started with an introduction from Vanderbilt’s current chancellor, Daniel Diermeier. Diermeier has cited wanting to connect Vanderbilt to the greater Nashville area through this lecture series, and he framed Tuesday’s event by expressing that “this panel will offer insights on what to make of this unique moment.” 

The panel for the Chancellor’s Lecture Series was moderated by Bill Purcell, who served as mayor of Nashville from 1999 to 2007, and who is currently a professor in Public Policy at Vanderbilt. The panel featured three guest speakers, all authors who wrote books centered around Nashville or the American South. Purcell introduced the three guest speakers: Margaret Renkl, the author of “Graceland, at last”; speaker Steve Haruch, the author of “Greetings from New Nashville”; and Rachel Louise, author of “Hot Hot Chicken: A Nashville Story.” The distinguished guests alternated answering questions asked by Purcell, with an initial focus on Nashville as a pinnacle of our society, representing the collision of many worldviews; from the clash between rural and urban and liberal and conservative all taking place in the city that Vanderbilt calls home. 

The speakers then concentrated on the marginalization of certain voices within the Nashville area. They touched on the underrepresentation of the Latinx presence in Nashville, and the struggles with marginalization different groups experience within the city. Renkl focused on the inequitable distribution of green space within the city, as greenspace has been shown to have immense health benefits, and is not as available in certain parts of Nashville where different demographic groups live. Renkl also reflected on her book and how the story of Elvis offers poignant insights into life in the South. Renkl noted that she hoped her book would allow Southerners to feel seen and those not from the South to develop a new understanding of this unique part of the United States. 

Martin discussed how Nashville’s recent development is based around businesses, not people, and the difficulty that creates in allowing for the interaction between different people in different neighborhoods. Haruki echoed such sentiments, reflecting on his writing process through focusing on the inflection points of the city of Nashville starting in 1998 and how it led to Nashville as we see it today. The panel allowed for an understanding of the importance of the story of Nashville and its application to so much more of the world. As Martin said, “We are building not just Nashville but the nation… the story I was telling of urban development and urban renewal and cultural appropriation of all sorts here in Nashville isn’t just a story about this town.”

Image credit: Event poster by Vanderbilt University from YouTube