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.
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
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.
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?
A Sad (but Still Hopeful) 12Souther
Related post: When Food Is Artistry, Not Just Business
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