Fifty years ago, bulldozers razed Harold Love, Jr.’s family home. The demolition allowed the city to reroute a highway through Nashville’s thriving black community. Now Love seeks to right that old wrong—and enhance and reunify Music City in the process.
New Roads, Old Neighborhoods
In the 1950s, the federal government began building the nation’s Interstate Highway System. Some old roads became part of the system, but most roads were brand new.
Building new highways often destroyed older, well-established neighborhoods, especially in city centers—most often carving up black neighborhoods.
Tragedy in Nashville
At one time, Nashville’s Jefferson Street was alive with stores, barbershops, churches, and restaurants. James Brown, Etta James, Ray Charles, and many other musicians played at jazz clubs in the vibrant neighborhood. The historically black colleges of Fisk University, Tennessee State University, and Meharry Medical College energized the area, as students from those campuses organized civil rights sit-ins in the city.
Nashville planners proposed a route for a version of Interstate 40. The plan would have wiped out some white-owned businesses, according to the Tennessee State Library and Archives. But that never happened.
Instead, I-40 plowed straight through North Nashville’s black community. It divided folks from the business and music district on Jefferson Street and the city center. It demolished 100 city blocks and displaced about 1,400 people. Almost 80% of Nashville’s black businesses were demolished or relocated, the library records.
A Lot To Lose
Love, Jr.’s father and other residents sued. They alleged racial discrimination meant to harm North Nashville’s black businesses and higher education institutions. The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But the Court declined to hear it. Love, Jr.’s family was among those who lost their homes—and their community—to I-40.
Discrimination and prejudice are sins against the God who created all people. Psalm 1:6 clearly indicates the end of the road for those who commit such acts: “The way of the wicked will perish.”
Valued Urban Oasis
In recent years, some U.S. cities have worked to mend the hurts of the Interstate Highway era of the 1950s-80s. One method has been to “cap” the highway, essentially by putting it underground.
Highway caps (also called “lids” or “decks”) are built above “cut-out” sections of a roadway. The caps can conceal traffic, provide green space, and link communities. Most often, they are park-like urban oases for grass and trees.
Love, Jr. is now a state representative and a pastor in Nashville. He is pushing to cap I-40 near his family’s former home. Building such a deck over the interstate would create space above the highway and turn the stretch below into a tunnel. Possibilities for use of the space include a park, a community center, and an amphitheater. Leaders also hope to preserve the history of the businesses that once lined Jefferson Street.
Love, Jr. laments the damage done by carving up his former neighborhood for a road. He says the chain-link fences and road noise say “You’re not valued” to area residents. “But if you could . . . re-create that value by putting this [cap] here, you may change the mindset of children growing up here.”