What You're Missing on Nashville's 12th Avenue South
Of all the communities that have been transformed by Nashville’s population boom, none is more emblematic of the city’s change than the strip 12th Avenue South, the main commercial drag of the 12 South neighborhood. Encompassing three smaller neighborhoods—Belmont-Hillsboro, Waverly-Belmont, and Sunnyside—this historic corridor dates back to the late 19th century. The neighborhood has ebbed and flowed over the last 100 years, but its special place in the heart of Music City has never faded.
12 South has become home to some of Nashville’s most recognizable tourist traps, but fame is a relatively new development in the area’s long narrative arc. While many view the neighborhood as a commercial hub, many residents are well aware of its history and cultural significance in the city. 12 South is more than just a place for photo opportunities and expensive ice cream–what this neighborhood has to offer can’t be measured in dollars or likes, but rather in the weight of history and progress.
A Streetcar Neighborhood
The residential areas of 12 South are characterized by historic, Victorian homes on narrow plots of land and uncharacteristically gridded streets. The road itself is fairly narrow, and the prominence of sidewalks has made the area ripe for commercial development. While this confluence of factors is uncommon in the city, it can be explained by the simple fact the the adjacent Belmont Boulevard was home to a robust streetcar line in the early 20th century. As the area developed from farmland to neighborhood, homes, groceries, taverns, and pharmacies grew to adapt to this environment.
Islamic Center of Nashville
In the heart of the 12 South neighborhood, there is a building with no flashy murals or streams of eager shoppers lining up outside. There is, however, a sign bearing neighborly messages, promoting diversity brunches, and supporting local sports teams.
Next door to the exceedingly popular Frothy Monkey, this structure is ignored by tourists but beloved by many of the city’s residents. In 1979, leaders in Nashville’s Muslim community organized a fundraising campaign and, with the help of Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens), they purchased a small house on the corner of Sweetbriar Avenue and 12th Avenue South. The house was razed in 1989 and the Islamic Center of Nashville was built. The mosque has come to be known as a hub for interfaith cooperation, service, and education in the community, and is an indispensable element of the neighborhood’s character.
While Sevier Park is now regarded as a place to enjoy artisanal popsicles from Las Paletas while lounging in the sun, once upon a time, the land was designated as a gift to a Revolutionary War veteran in recognition of his service. The 640 acres was sliced, diced, and exchanged many hands before eventually ending up with Granville Sevier, who officially christened the mansion atop the hill. The park opened in 1948 and has been continually restored and updated in the decades since. A state-of-the-art community center was erected in 2014. The mansion now — appropriately — houses the Metropolitan Historical Commission and Metropolitan Historic Zoning Commission, but its beautiful, antebellum architecture, and bright yellow facade can be enjoyed from the outside, of course, by everyone.
Emma B. Clemons Public School
Just past the official sign indicating the beginning of 12th Avenue’s southern stretch, there is a small, engraved stone embedded in the grass near the sidewalk. No structure stands on this spot, and a modest knoll announces nothing to anybody as rideshares zip past and cowboy boots clomp down the road. The small, flat stone bears the words “Emma B. Clemmons Public School.” Serving grades one through six, this modest institution was among the first Nashville public schools to be integrated on Sept. 9, 1957. A few hours later that day, dynamite would detonate in East Nashville at the Hattie Mae Cotton School causing substantial structural damage, but failing to stop the rising tide of integration. The journal Southern Spaces masterfully details accounts of these turbulent times and the people who lived through them on their blog.