Open Letter to a Developer: What Is “Local”?

If you live far from Nashville, here’s a recap:

Developers bought my favorite wine bar and tore it down. Now they’re building a four-story apartment complex with $30/sq. ft. retail on the ground floor. When asked at last night’s farcical community meeting (see video here) whether they planned to lease to chain restaurants and retailers, a Great Hedging Maneuver ensued. And that’s when I realized that my neighborhood, as I knew it, was gone.

To their credit, the Powers That Be at Hill Realty and Southeast Ventures willingly presented themselves to a hostile room last night. They didn’t have to ask our permission to erect a massive new retail-residential complex a few blocks from the old church where we met and perused generic-y architectural renderings. They’re adhering strictly to building codes. So to be clear: the meeting was a courtesy.

I think we all appreciated that. Most of us even felt sympathy for the bekhakied fellows at the front of the room, weathering a torrent of grievances. But then the equivocations began, and sympathy evaporated.

Mr. Jimmy Granbery, CEO of H.G. Hill Realty, was eager for us to understand that he was “sensitive” to our desire for local businesses to occupy the new retail space. It all went south for him when he pointed to the Hill Center development in Green Hills as an example of this sensitivity.

The Hill Center and its many “local” franchises.

Writer and local food champion Kay West, who’d been silent up to this point, could not let that one stand. “You’re calling Pei Wei and Zoe’s Kitchen local?” she said, eyebrows rising.

“They’re locally-owned franchises,” said Mr. Granbery. His face betrayed no irony.

At this point, the sail pretty much tore away from the mast. Cries of wild disbelief swirled like gales. The boat listed wildly as Ms. West attempted to explain the difference between a local restaurant and a locally-owned franchise. And here was Mr. Granbery’s response (to paraphrase): “Well by that definition, Burger Up isn’t local. It’s a franchise.”

The mast snapped.

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”  -Inigo Montoya

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lo·cal/ˈlōkəl/ – 1 Belonging or relating to a particular area or neighborhood, typically exclusively so; 2  of, relating to, or characteristic of a particular place : not general or widespread; 3 primarily serving the needs of a particular limited district.

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For want of more restrictive zoning, the boat was lost. That ship has sailed. And any other nautical idioms you can think of; i.e., we cannot prevent construction. We certainly cannot save our Rumours Wine Bar. But maybe, maybe we can appeal to reason, and stave off Starbucks on 12th. And with that, I offer this (I hope) respectful (but also disappointed and rather frustrated) letter to Mr. Jimmy Granbery, Maker of Rain.

Dear Mr. Granbery:

When I got wind of this project, I grieved; then I fretted. I ruminated. I worried about your plans for a neighborhood I call home. I don’t prefer to approach life with cynicism, but I’ll admit: I harbored a few dark thoughts about your motives and values. It’s a big responsibility to radically alter someone else’s beloved place; and I feared that you might take that responsibility lightly, attending more to your own economic interests.

I get it. Businesses exist to make money. But my question to you is this: How much money is enough? And what’s worth sacrificing for it? Is making the world a little bit worse for some people a worthy exchange for making a profit? 

Sir, the more I learned about this proposed development, the more I wondered, Does Mr. Granbery share my values? And with so much power to affect my day-to-day life, will the vision he implements affect it for the better or worse? 

Your words last night, I’m afraid, confirmed my fears. What concerned me most was the feeling I got that you honestly believe that you do share my “lifestyle” values—namely, a love of cities and the socialness of cities; of sharing outdoor spaces and sidewalks and parks with neighbors; of porch-sitting and dog-walking and bike-riding; of sidewalk cafes and friendly little watering holes where people know my name; of old houses with old bones, and trees planted a century ago.

With respect, sir, I’m familiar with your neighborhood. I know what you meant when you said “West Nashville.” You don’t have to be embarrassed to tell us that you live in a tony zip code—there’s no shame in that. But it does reveal something about what you value, as our addresses usually do. Culturally speaking, your address differs from mine pretty radically. And that gulf makes it just a little bit harder for us to understand each other’s priorities. I think that’s the point folks tried to make last night, and we apologize if that made you feel cornered or accused.

Your zip code also, to some degree, helps me to comprehend why you might confuse the concept of local restaurants with locally-owned franchises, assuming you did so in good faith. (I mean, let’s be frank: your ‘hood isn’t very local restaurant-y.) Your thinking, I presume, is that local ownership alone denotes “localness.” That’s a businessman’s mindset; I grasp that.

But, my dear sir, I define local quite differently. “Local” is The Catbird Seat, in which gifted chefs raise dining to high art in a wholly unique fashion, grab the attention of national media, and make a whole city proud. Local is Rumours, a cozy little place conceived and created right here, a place we celebrate birthdays, mourn lost friends, bring out-of-town guests, and throw girl-bachelor parties. “Local” is Burger Up, Pharmacy Burger and Mas Tacos, Marché and Margot, City House and Germantown Café, Bongo Java and Las Paletas. 

What do those places have in common? They’re each the expression of an artist’s vision, a food-artist who actually enjoys feeding people delicious things and creating an environment that’s warm and lovely and true. They each help to define their home neighborhoods. And they provide a gathering place for people who may not know each other yet, but want to. They create community. And they could not exist anywhere else. (note: I focus on restaurants here, but the same goes for local shops and boutiques.)

“Local” can’t always be defined by strict numerical parameters. But like art, you know it when you see (or taste) it.

Mr. Granbery, I fully understand that you’re within your legal rights to fulfill the plan you presented to us last night. I can’t say I’m delighted with the scale, architecture, and vision of the plan. But if it matters to you at all, there’s still hope to win me over and still my outcries. If (and I will begin with the negative) you erect another chain-littered Hill Center on 12th Avenue South, I will not darken those doors.

But (and let’s end on a positive note) if your building provides a canvas for the next Josh Habiger, Tandy Wilson, or Margot McCormack, if you can supply an affordable, well-designed space for some up-and-coming chef to successfully realize his/her artistic vision (and make a living), I will tip my hat to you, without hesitation.

As suggested by one of the commenters below (who is an architect), wouldn’t it be amazing if your group became known for developing neighborhoods in ways that made them significantly more livable, walkable, beautiful, and economically viable, so that neighborhoods clamored for your innovations and investment? What a win-win that would be. Is it too much to hope that our interests and your bottom line could stroll hand-in-hand?

Best,

A Sad (but Still Hopeful) 12Souther

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Related post: When Food Is Artistry, Not Just Business

Related post: Beloved Watering Holes, and Why We Love Them

 

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21 thoughts on “Open Letter to a Developer: What Is “Local”?

  1. Nice piece, Kim! I support your ideas and efforts, but after reading this I found myself hoping for more detail. Could or would you extrapolate more on what you think “local” might mean in contexts like this? Specifically, I’m wondering what makes it more appealing for neighborhood diners to throw a birthday party or mourn lost friends at Rumors than, say, at a Pei Wei. I know you’re on to something here, but I don’t think the “I know it when I see it” caveat helps me as much as some of the other details you point to. Can you specify a couple of your concepts? For instance, outside of your reference to hiring artistic-local chefs, your focus seems largely consumer and aesthetics oriented. These foci are important, but what other foci should a concern for the “local” employ? And why? In this vein, I’d like to ask about what the term “local” here relies on beyond itself, especially historically: If we note that caring about the “local” often implies that the one who *can* care has been enabled to care via delimited access to specific cultural, educational, and class means — here I agree that aesthetics are crucial, for instance — what are your thoughts on the recent “gentrification” of the 12 south area? Should the conversation extend that far?

    Anyway, good luck warding off the “developers”! My sense is that while the middle class is right to defend its artistic, self-renewing, neighborhoody “local”, it is the interests of the “developers” and their ilk, NOT your interests, that generally prevent those displaced by gentrification from participating in the conversation.

    Cheers.

    • Zeman! What has your lunatic, doublespeakin’ @$$ been up to?! And why on earth are you wasting time reading such bourgeois, philistine, pig-ignorant gimcrackery as this?

      Long time no see. -K

      • Doublespeakin? Maybe. Lunatic? I think not. Ha. Anyway, I saw the post via Hal on facebook and it simply got me thinking. Good luck with the resistance. It’s not philistine, pig-ignorant gimcrackery!

      • Scottie Z, you totally put the “Z” in “Fran-zee-AH! Fran-zee-AH!” Besides, I just like the word “gimcrackery.”

        Seriously though, Z, gentrification and the upper-middle-classification of our ‘hood is a problem for lots of people. It’s been horrible to see older residents we love move away, although I’m glad they had the opportunity to get nice checks for their houses. But I’d rather have seen them stay here, where they raised their kids, and have continued to spend time with them on porches. And you’re right: plenty of people don’t have the luxury to complain about what exact type of restaurant or business goes in on the street because they mostly can’t afford to patronize them anyway. It’s bizarre to watch the culture (and median income) of a place change so precipitously before your eyes, even for me; but for longtime residents of the area, the changes are far starker.

        Did I address your questions at all? I generally feel pretty ill-equipped to enter discourse with philosophy PhDs. :)

        K

      • Hi Kim,

        Sorry if this ends up being posted above your last comment, but I can’t seem to get a ‘reply’ button to appear there.

        Anyway, yeah, you’re definitely addressing my concern. I like the 12 south area precisely because of its cultural and class mixing and neighborliness. And it’s great to see that that neighborliness includes recognition of differences of class and power, among other recognitions. In this regard I wonder if the folks who move away know what they’re missing, or would miss, when they move. I suspect they often don’t, just as the developers don’t know what they’re covering over when they “develop”. So again, cheers to you for your efforts. Ps: I say just say no to Franzia. -S

  2. Kim,

    I applaud your passion and devotion to community. I wish more people had “the greater good” in their vocabulary much less in their interests. In my experience with developers (and that has been considerable in the last quarter century) that their values and perspective are nearly 180 degrees from those of consumers. Often, with few exceptions, their vantage point is like that of a predator: They must maintain absolute focus, they must exercise every bit of their strength, cunning, and power in order to take down their prey. They must not be distracted by easy little prey if their sights are on big game. Also like predators, they can be lured into a pattern of laziness by an abundance of food just handed them.
    Likewise, consumers are often like prey: they too often follow the herd, even if it is over a cliff. They are slow to set out on their own. They are always in a state looking over their shoulders, and the grass is always greener over their.
    I am certain that your community is misunderstood by the developers. If they could spend a great evening with you guys talking, drinking, laughing, walking to the various restaurants etc. perhaps they may get a taste of what it is you value so much.
    I urge you to lead a campaign to appeal to their humanity in order to help them understand. If you manage to do that you will no doubt make your own life better, but you will have made their lives better. Perhaps you can spark within them a niche where they can develop neighborhoods in ways that no one else n the country are doing. Instead of being met by a room full of angry people, people like yourself will be begging them to come into their neighborhood and do for them.
    If done right, this is a saving grace for you, and a huge opportunity for them. I think they call that a win win?
    Your blog and letter, while very fun to read and oozing with passion and compassion, it lacks the one thing that developers look for in any situation, the ability to make money and increase their investment. Show them how to do that, and they will listen with hopeful eyes and bated breath.
    – Kristifer

    • Kris, what a great point you made. What if neighbors and developers had *really* talked to each other instead of fighting? What if that conversation led them to begin to (in your words) “develop neighborhoods in ways that no one else in the country are doing. Instead of being met by a room full of angry people, people like yourself will be begging them to come into their neighborhood and do for them”? And what if this actually improved their bottom line?

      In fact, you’ll see that I edited the letter per your comments.

      • Thanks Kim,, and you did it so much more eloquent than I. While I appreciate your ability to craft a beautiful sentence, I admire your strength of character so much more.

        Awesome!

  3. Well said, Kim. I happen to think if Jimmy Granberry had spent even one night with you and Hal at Rumour’s, sharing a bottle of wine, his vision of what type of development is best for the neighborhood would be drastically different.

  4. Thank you for writing such a well-written letter. I love that rather than simply complaining, you offered solution that would benefit both parties. I hope he gives the idea some serious consideration.

    …and kudos for the Inigo Montoya quote. >.<

  5. 7000 miles away and still this makes me so mad I could spit nails.
    Words do not flow for me as they do for some of you and I have given up trying. Seems that when I try to type it out, the only characters I need are @%#^$* and *&%^@#^%%$.

  6. Amazing letter. I tip MY hat to your ability to remain calm and rational while still maintaining the strong emotional current that runs through your entire letter. Surely Mr. Granberry can appreciate that if nothing else.

    I completely understand your feelings about your neighborhood. I live in Austin, TX and there have been quite a few uprisings lately because of similar situations. My childhood neighborhood is now home to a giant chain grocery store, a movie megaplex and TWO corporate coffee places (A Starbucks directly across the street from a CBTL).

    While some people are attracted to it, I really just miss my neighborhood. I don’t want it to be something you can just find anywhere. I want it to look like MY neighborhood

    I hope Mr. Granberry and many others listen to what you have to say. It’ll go such a long way.

    • Thanks for your kind note! I’ve always admired Austin’s “Keep It Weird” aesthetic, and I’m sad to hear that you have the same struggles there that we have here. It’s always funny to me that many people are drawn to a place for that very funkiness, and then they immediately set about eradicating it. Kind of feels like slaying the golden-egg-laying goose to me.

  7. Dear Kim,
    While I love your piece, with all its consideration and well-chosen ideas, I deeply fear that you’re explaining colors to a color blind man, in a color blind business, from a color blind zip code and a color blind subculture. And hey, I would just so love, love, love to be wrong. But it’s hard to hope, and I like hope. So, I think about the pragmatics: is there a way to change laws moving forward? 12th South may lose this time, but can the process be changed for the future? Shouldn’t a neighborhood have a right to say “We don’t want you.”? Shouldn’t all neighborhoods be thinking about this, in case they become so beautiful that even the colorblind souls notice that beauty and seek to misuse it for profit? Local activism needs to mean more than trying to love profiteers into a conversion experience while they distractedly eye the money pile. And yes, I believe in love. But I also see a lot of indifference and a lack of comprehension that seems impenetrable. I wish I had the skill, the time, and the connections to change this situation. Mostly, though, I’d love to see a citywide response that stops this kind of business cancer from blackening and consuming 12th South and all our other cool, lovable, local developing hoods.

    Here’s hoping, and more power to you and yours,

    Doug

    • Thanks for your note, Doug. Good point: hope needs to be bolstered by pragmatism. A citywide response that’s measured and smart, that asks for specific things and defines its values very carefully and with one voice could make a big difference—because a cityful of voices in agreement can vote with their many thousands of wallets. And that’s a powerful thing.

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