The 12South Story: How to revitalize a community without losing friends and alienating groups
“We should call it 12South,” I said, musing about how we could revitalize and rebrand the community.
I’ll always remember this moment. It was nothing huge, but pivotal in the most literal sense of that word. I relate the whole story in chapter five of my book, One-Mile Radius: Building Community from the Core, but I’ll share some of it in this post.
Today, Nashville’s 12South neighborhood is a vibrant urban center with a thriving commercial district.
Not so long ago, it was the opposite of “vibrant” or “thriving.” In 1994, when we first got involved with 12South, the district—Twelfth Avenue South—had a vacancy rate of 50 percent. Crime rates were high. Drug dealers and prostitutes were frequent presences.
For developers in cities across America, these extremes would be easy disqualifiers for any potential revitalization project. My business partner Joel and I had other ideas. Ideas that would transform Twelfth Avenue South into one of the most sought after neighborhoods in Nashville, into 12South.
It wasn’t easy. Some of our earliest tenants couldn’t endure and had to move on. But, eventually, our approach worked. How did we do it?
Find the right people
To get started, we knew we’d need the support of groups with political clout. This project never would have gotten off the ground without the influence of Judy Steele, who was working for the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency (MDHA) during this formative time in 1994 and who took our ideas to Phil Ryan, then executive director of the MDHA.. The neighborhood had too many impediments to revitalization, but Joel and I got Phil Ryan to share our vision. With that we had the makings of a working group—the MDHA, the neighborhood, and 1221 Partners (the group Joel and I started to focus on this project), and we were well on our way to the change we envisioned.
Identify the fundamental problems
Before you can fix anything, you need to know what your challenges are . There were some problems that we weren’t going to fix right away. We didn’t assemble a citizen’s arrest group to drop crime rates—could you imagine? We focused instead on more practical improvements that could improve the lives of the well-meaning merchants in the neighborhood, who if given a real opportunity, could truly turn things around for 12South. So, we called them all together and held meetings to get their feedback about what was really needed to improve Twelfth Avenue South. The meetings were well-attended from a diverse cross-section of business owners. We learned that the most important issues facing the neighborhood were safety, sidewalks, lights, and traffic calming. We got our directives, straight from community stakeholders.
Put renovation first
If you aren’t showing you’re invested, how can you expect the community to respond positively? When we started on the 12South project there were 51 commercial properties in the neighborhood. Our approach was that if we could influence renovation on enough properties, it would start to influence social change community-wide. We ended up buying 11 of them. We spruced up some and fully renovated others. We found business owners or other stable users for almost all of them. We contracted one building to Whitney Ferre for $1—she started the Creative Fitness Center. Another was sold to Monica Holmes to start the Clean Plate Club. Over the years, our properties would be sold to or occupied by nonprofits, restaurants, salons, and art studios. Not all of them thrived initially, but this was a start to changing perceptions of 12South.
You’ve got to sell it. Twelfth Avenue South needed more than a facelift. Cleaning up the sidewalks and making buildings useful for commerce wasn’t ever going to be the end of our big project. It was just the start. That’s when 12South came to me. The community needed a rebranding, and a new name had the power to create renewed interest and bury the old preconception of a neighborhood that had fallen on hard times. Joel and I took over the full spectrum of the neighborhood’s marketing efforts, creating the 12South Neighborhood Commercial District, working with burgeoning merchants to promote their businesses. We created a streetscape committee to renovate public spaces with new sidewalks, artistic lighting, and benches created by local artists. Traffic was calmed by parallel parking options and brick paver crosswalks. All the while, we kept spreading the word and creating energy on the street for what was now the up-and-coming 12South neighborhood. Our renovations started to make a difference and word eventually reached more and more influential people. Our funding began to grow. Today, there are no vacancies in 12South and merchants are enjoying robust profits.
12South merchants are organized and host a full slate of mutually beneficial promotional events each year. The 12South Concert Series and the 12South Winter Warmer always attract big crowds. Property values have increased on both sides of the street. It’s more than a commercial district. It’s a culturally vibrant neighborhood that brings people together.
A street that was once more recognizable for crime and vacant buildings has left that history in the past. It’s become one of Nashville’s most highly sought places to live and a popular shopping and dining destination neighborhood. 12South wouldn’t have happened without the right ideas, the right people, and the right approach.
Projects like 12South and others that I’ve worked on around Nashville helped me realize a concept that I call the one-mile radius effect. It’s the philosophy that makes my book, One-Mile Radius: Building Community from the Core come to life. When neighborhoods are allowed to evolve from strong urban cores, that energy and growth reverberates outward to benefit everyone, not just an elite few. I’ve dedicated my 30-year career to this kind of revitalization work and I want to invite Change Agents across the country to join in my mission to build community from the core.
You can shape your journey of becoming a Change Agent in your community by learning from mine. Get your copy of my book, One-Mile Radius: Building Community from the Core to get started.