I had the week between Christmas and New Year’s off, so on a bit of a whim I went on a solo trip to Nashville. I associated little else with it than a cousin’s brief country music stint there, a couple murals I’d seen on Instagram, and stray news articles about it undergoing a lot of new development. I enjoy traveling, but I also overthink the break with regular routine and responsibility, what the experience of a tourist is, and how you can’t really get to know a place in a couple short days. Going to Nashville confirmed for me that it is budding, with a strong country music legacy and real estate values rising as new hotels, offices, and attractions pop up as well. I’m down for a touristy bucket list, a museum day, or a honky tonk bar, but in the midst of all the attractions and development, the most interesting places felt quiet, frozen, and deeply layered. Here’s my stitching together of stumbling upon these places.
Woolworth on 5th:
Civil Rights-era black college students endured jibes and coffee, syrup, and milkshakes poured on their heads for staging sit-ins at the Nashville Woolworth’s lunch counter on 5th Ave. The store closed in the 1970s and the space cycled through various businesses and periods of vacancy until in 2018 a restaurant group purchased it (historical significance). Now, bougie twists on diner classics populate the menu, original mosaics decorate the floor, and cheery signs insist “You’re welcome at our table!” but it’s four p.m. so the dining room is mostly empty. I read the historical blurb on the back of the menu, don’t order what the man behind the counter recommends, and watch a video of the Jackson 5 projected on the wall while I sip a very boozy milkshake.
Nashville City Cemetery:
On the edge of downtown, amidst warehouses, empty buildings, and auto body shops, the final resting place of early white settlers. Educational signs, web of paths, weather-worn names carved in stone. The sun shines warmly but everything still feels grey. Cemeteries are shorthand for death and endings, but as long as there’s space for more dead people there will be yet another chapter, new tombstones and fresh flowers. A walk through an old, old cemetery feels like skipping to the epilogue—the geography is set, nothing more to add. I jump the wall at the southeast corner because I don’t feel like backtracking to the sole entrance.
After Union troops wrested Nashville from the Confederacy in 1862, they pressed slaves and free blacks into building this stronghold for them on a hill. Some died and most were never compensated for their labor. After the Civil War, the fort was briefly a meeting site for the Ku Klux Klan. WPA workers rebuilt the foundations of the fort during the Great Depression. Today it is a public park bordered by the cemetery. A small visitors center sits at the base of the hill and a path winds up and around to the star-shaped footprint of Fort Negley at the top of the hill, a high point from which you look out at the city, its stretch and sprawl.
Tucked behind the cemetery and the fort, a short-lived minor league baseball stadium beyond a chain-linked fence. Built in 1978 for the Nashville Sounds, abandoned in 2014. Guitar-shaped scoreboard looms in eery silence, parched grass grows high in the outfield, walls welcome graffiti, shattered glass lies underfoot. The layout will change, the stadium is set to be demolished any day now. Proposals included new athletic fields or a music center but the mayor now wants to leave it as open land, restore it to Fort Negley Park. At the current boundary of the park and stadium, those who died building Fort Negley are buried. Final resting place, known but unmarked.
India Daniels graduated in 2017 with majors in history and English literature. Her first year out of Calvin, she moved home to Chicago to serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA at Turning the Page, a nonprofit promoting parent engagement and literacy in North Lawndale schools. She now assists Turning the Page’s used bookstores and coordinates a citizen-reporter program for City Bureau, a civic journalism lab on the South Side.