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Facing dire poverty statistics and a series of civic slights, North Nashville demands attention

Look North in Anger

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At a North Nashville community meeting last weekend, Ronnie Mitchell asked a question with enough force to send it circling around the 440 loop until someone cares to listen.

"Where's the outrage?" Mitchell demanded. "Why isn't anyone pissed off?"

An observer told Mitchell that was a good question, but the pastor wasn't soothed. If the statistics facing his East Nashville congregation applied to another demographic, in another part of town, he said, he doubted he'd even have had to ask it.

Mitchell, who's presided for 30 years at New Livingstone Baptist Church near McFerrin Park in East Nashville, was speaking to approximately 40 community leaders, activists and residents gathered at the Manna From Heaven Dinner House in Bordeaux. But he was actually addressing the rest of the city, voicing the frustration of areas that perpetually get the short end of the municipal stick.

What angered Mitchell, and neighborhood residents on hand, was a set of statistics presented by the meeting's organizers. Citing the most recent U.S. Census data, they showed that in five of Metro's 40 council districts — 17, 5, 2, 21 and 19 — the unemployment rate is above 13 percent. That's more than five points higher than the city as a whole.

Worse, in all five districts, the data shows the poverty rate skyrockets up between 30 and 44 percent. And three of those districts lie north of the West End/Broadway corridor.

That provides a troubling backdrop for recent events in North Nashville, where residents have long felt their low-income, high-minority area is being neglected. That suspicion is rising — and so is a pile of evidence that supports it.

Last weekend's meeting was led mostly by community activist Tonya Sherrell and Metro Council member Erica Gilmore, whose District 19 (which extends north from downtown) bears the worst numbers of the five districts. The ostensible aim was to discuss The Amp, Mayor Karl Dean's $175 million proposed bus rapid transit project. To North Nashvillians, it's just the latest major civic investment that will scarcely benefit the city's marginalized communities — if it does at all.

The Amp will run from affluent West Nashville to the ascendant Five Points area in East Nashville. It will travel 7.1 miles along the West End corridor — branded as Nashville's "Main Street" by project boosters — where, as Sherrell told the group, "most of us don't live, work, or play."

Gilmore and other activists are proposing a Community Benefit Agreement that they say would spread the benefits of The Amp and other taxpayer-funded projects in the future. The agreement — forms of which have been used in cities across the country — would require, among other things, that certain percentages of Amp-related job opportunities be reserved for individuals from low-income zip codes. Also included would be people with barriers to employment, such as homelessness or past criminal offenses.

In the short term, Gilmore hopes to get a CBA attached to The Amp project. After that, the group plans to push legislation that would require every "taxpayer-based development/investment project over $2.5 million" to include such an agreement.

Gilmore says the mayor has been receptive in early discussions about the idea, and indeed, Courtney Wheeler, who heads up the Mayor's Office of Neighborhoods, was on hand to answer questions and correct the record on a few specifics about the BRT project. She offered to arrange a meeting between the group and Metro Transit Authority officials.

But the show of good faith on Wheeler's part may be a bit late for some in the group. They feel North Nashville residents were cut out of more meaningful discussions about the project early on — and not for the first time. Take another item of recent debate: the city's dubious plan to bury remains of an old incinerator facility where it lies, on Second Avenue North — also in Gilmore's District 19.

As reported by WSMV-Channel 4, the debris Metro Water Services plans to bury on the site — once used to burn human waste — includes building materials containing cancer-causing PCBs and arsenic, and soil laced with petroleum chemicals. Attempting to allay concerns about the seemingly worrisome materials, Metro officials said the chemicals are not present in dangerous amounts.

But the city couldn't have raised residents' skepticism more if they'd delivered the message in hazmat suits. First, officials tried to placate residents by comparing the site to just a regular old landfill — something neighbors probably would have chased from the area with pitchforks. The mayor's office tells the Scene it has "been assured" by Water Services "that they are following all necessary protocols set forth by the environmental protection agencies."

That may strike Germantown neighbors as cold comfort, though, since the city keeps citing as a positive that the incinerator-burial plan has been approved by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation — an agency whose questionable regulation has come under fire from all corners of the state. (See "Something Stinks," March 7, 2013.) Most recently, in April, Davidson County Chancery Court Judge Carol McCoy ruled that TDEC Commissioner Robert Martineau approved permits for a landfill near a residential neighborhood in Camden, Tenn., without sufficient evidence local authorities had followed laws requiring public notice and local approval. To North Nashvillians, that might sound discomfortingly familiar.

Add to that the fact that the plan was not announced in a release explaining the rationale (or in a notice to residents who live less than two blocks from the site) but via the nightly news. By deciding not to inform the nearby public of their plans — a decision Metro officials say was made because there's nothing to worry about — they bring to mind a history of toxic sites cropping up behind the backs of underprivileged citizens, from Chester, Pa., to Middle Tennessee's own Dickson County.

Perhaps most disturbing is the precedent the plan might set. Metro officials have cited a one-time approval to ignore the city's own codes prohibiting the disposal of demolition waste on the site. Spokesmen from TDEC and Metro Water Services told WSMV that they'll simply "flag the property deed" so future owners or developers know what's underground.

What happens, though, if someone in the future sees it as a green flag instead of a red one, and asks for permission to dispose some toxic pile of their own on the property? Cases dot the state in which TDEC allowed a small drop-off facility to balloon into something larger and less benign to its neighbors. The message that came through loud and clear at the Bordeaux meeting is that North Nashville has problems that need more than a quick fix — or a swift secret burial.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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