Here I am, my last week in Nashville.
And what’s the one question I’ve been asked the most throughout my time here?
“How does Nashville compare to the other cities you’ve lived in?”
It’s an understandable question. If you’re a native Nashvillian, you have a vested interest in knowing how your hometown stacks up to the other great American cities. If you’re a transplant to the city – either for music, school, work or pure random chance – you probably just want to know how good your decision to move here really was.
But the truth is, comparing cities is not really an easy thing to do. It’s not so much apples and oranges, but more like comparing different genres of music. You have every right to enjoy a genre of music and hate another, and there’s no real way to make a fair comparison of them. It’s a purely subjective argument, and thus not one worth engaging in (as opposed to arguing about artists within a genre, which allows for a bit more of an objective base for comparison).
If I were to label Nashville as a genre (and why not), I’d call it, “Small Big City.” As opposed to “Metropolis” (New York or Chicago) or “Big Small City” (San Francisco) or “Big Town” (Kansas City).
Yet, people still want me to compare. I’ve spent a year in 6 different cities, and I have to have an opinion on which is better, right?
Sure. I’m an opinionated guy, so I have an opinion I’m willing to share. But I should be upfront and say that my favorite ‘genre’ of city is “Metropolis,” so off the bat you know my bias.
Instead of comparing Nashville to Chicago or Philadelphia, though, I’m going to discuss the major factors that define a city and grade Nashville based on them.
In no particular order:
Public Transportation – A city without a train system is always going to be at a disadvantage. True, New York and Chicago’s subway systems have their flaws, but ultimately they are the central nervous system of the cities, keeping everything moving relatively on schedule. Nashville’s public transportation is limited to a fairly reliable stable of buses that hit all the major spots, but still leaves portions of the city out of reach.
Most of the buses run straight paths in and out of downtown, like spokes on a wheel. The buses on the major spokes run pretty well like clockwork, so that’s a plus, but the few buses that trace different paths (like the 25 that runs a circle around the city) are less efficient and less common. Without a car, your main recourse is taking a bus into downtown and then connecting to another bus. But don’t expect to catch a bus late at night, especially on the weekends, as the buses run much less frequently and most stop running altogether by early evening.
The weaknesses of Nashville MTA do not include the drivers who are some of the nicest bus drivers I’ve ever dealt with. Hell, one even commented when I got a haircut.
(As an additional note: Nashville taxi service is pretty weak and I dread the nights I have to rely on them. They pretty much are only there to cater to the tourists who need a ride from the bar to their hotel five blocks up the road.)
City Planning – If there is one thing holding this city back from growing into a Metropolis, it’s the layout of this city. There are huge areas of this city with almost no activity. Empty lots pepper the city and the three major areas of interest (Downtown, West End and 5 Points) are separated by considerable stretches of emptiness. The areas that are here are pretty cool, but with its weak public transportation (especially at night), if you’re drinking out for the night you pretty much have to pick one area and stick to it (do not drink and drive in this city; or any city for that matter).
I’ve said it to people and I’ll repeat it here: Nashville seems so set on their downtown being a mecca for country music that they are missing out on a golden opportunity to diversify the points of interest. With plenty of available space in the surrounding area, Downtown Nashville could add a movie theater and a large bookstore (corporate or otherwise) to give locals a reason to come into the city even when they don’t feel like dealing with the tourist-heavy bars and honky-tonks. I understand the recession is part of the reason why construction projects in the city have stalled (especially in my neighborhood), but the city should be doing everything it can to encourage new businesses in a wider range of areas. As it is now, Nashville sometimes feels like a bunch of suburbs surrounding a city that isn’t there.
Bars/Nightlife – There is no question, this is what Nashville does right. It’s a city set up for tourists, so there are a ton of night spots that charge too much for drinks and are too crowded for their own good, but dispersed among the obvious, gimmicky bars are some pretty cool places to have a laid back drink, play pool, watch dueling pianos, sing karaoke or smoke hookah. Having a good time at a bar here in Nashville is pretty easy. The real risk is having too good of a time. Again, don’t drink and drive.
Whether it’s Downtown, 5 Points or West End, you’ll find a way to make a few memories (until you forget them in the morning).
Art Scene – Obviously, Nashville is known for its music. Country music in particular, but it’s by no means limited to that genre. Nashville really is the music version of L.A., where most of the residents of the city aren’t actually from the city but have come here to make it big. There are a lot of good acts that come through here, both new and old, big and small, so if your Art thirst is for music, you’ll be pretty well set.
If, on the other hand, your interest is in other forms of art, you’ll probably find the city lacking. When I told people I was a writer, I was usually asked one of two questions: “Do you write songs?” or “Have you applied to BMI?” Music is king here, no doubt. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other art outlets here, they just aren’t as prominent. I never heard of a poetry reading my entire time here. The Frist is a pretty cool art museum with some great exhibits (the Warhol exhibit running currently is definitely worth a look), but it’s a small building that only houses two exhibits at any given time. There is one pretty cool art house theater here, the Belcourt, where you can get your fix of small, independent films, but it’s small and can only play movies for a week or two. I’d have gone there all the time if it were more convenient to me, but, alas, the public transportation situation hampered that.
It’s not that an art scene doesn’t exist here, it’s just that the music scene is so big, everything else sort of fades into the background.
Grade (Music): A; Grade (Everything else): C
Living – If you’re in my situation, which is to say in the city without a car, you’ll find that certain aspects of Nashville life can be tough. Walmart, Target and all those major stores are on the far outskirts of the city, which wouldn’t be that big of deal if they had a larger array of smaller, local stores within the city, but pretty much all shopping (other than boutiques) has to be done out in suburbia. Luckily, a grocery store and Family Dollar are both convenient to me, as well as a liquor store, so my essential needs are taken care of here.
Finding work here wasn’t too bad, definitely easier than it had been in Chicago and San Francisco. Granted, the first job I got was total crap, but at least it kept me going until I found the server job I’ve had all the way up until now.
The people here are nice in that common, Southern way (which I always find oddly unsettling), and despite the fact that I live in the “ghetto,” I have never felt in danger walking through my neighborhood, not even late at night. Supposedly there are some dangerous areas of this city, but I find those claims kind of dubious. The “bad” neighborhoods are just black neighborhoods. All in all, I’d say Nashville is probably the safest city I’ve lived in (perhaps tied with Costa Mesa).
People – Ultimately, when I’m asked about my time in any particular city, I don’t talk about public transportation or city planning, or even the art scene all that much. What I really tell them is about the friends I made and the experiences I had with them. Luckily, I landed a job working with a wide range of people, most all of whom can be counted on for a fun night out. Some are drinkers, some are not, but we all managed to mingle well. Yes, there have been some moments of drama (as will always be the case, especially when you have a large contingent of horny twenty-somethings working and drinking together), but the good thing about moving every year is I’m able to remain at a pretty healthy remove from most of the bullshit.
I had fun here. I met some great people, got to hear their stories, learn of their ambitions, watch them fall and get back up again. And ultimately, that’s what 10 Cities/10 Years is all about.