This article appeared in the Summer issue of Urban Land on page 84.

ULI Spring meeting attendees tour the Little Kurdistan neighborhood of Nashville with local artist Tony Sobota of The Arts Company.

Community input and partnerships can help preserve multicultural diversity in a fast-growing city.

Amid the honky-tonks, country music history, and bachelorette parties enlivening Nashville, it can be easy to overlook another increasingly important aspect of the city’s appeal—its notable ethnic diversity. For just one example, the city is home to 15,000 Kurdish residents—the largest population of this ethnic group in the United States—with their neighborhood dubbed “Little Kurdistan” by locals.

South of downtown along Nolensville Pike—one of the most diverse corridors in Music City—a former Kroger grocery store was transformed into Plaza Mariachi, a 60,000-square-foot (5,600 sq m) marketplace for Nashville’s Hispanic community. A former strip mall has been turned into a 29,000-square-foot (2,700 sq m) community gathering place that has become the gateway to the city’s International District, Casa Azafrán. And nearby, a former warehouse has become home to the Salahadeen Center of Nashville, the first Kurdish mosque and Islamic center in North America providing religious, educational, social, community, and cultural services.

During the 2019 ULI Spring Meeting, ULI members toured these new American communities and studied the impacts that inclusive development and creative placemaking have had on immigrant populations.

However, as the booming city continues to draw new residents at a rate of about 100 per day, the demand for housing and retail space in Nashville has increased, leading to some displacement. Community involvement and public/private partnerships are being relied upon to offset such pressure.

 

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“Envision Nolensville Pike” is a project that reflects the demographic changes that have been taking place in Nashville, and it maps out aspirations for the corridor as expressed by residents, business owners, and students. Funded by ArtPlace America, the project is led by Conexión Américas and the Salahadeen Center of Nashville and is in partnerships with various city government and nonprofit organizations, including the Metro Nashville Arts Commission, the Nashville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, Transportation for America, the Nashville Civic Design Center, and independent local artists. The project’s main goal is piloting collaborative and multimodal transportation solutions to improve pedestrian safety and increase the sense of place. Efforts will include midblock crossings, art crosswalks, pedestrian bridges, streetscaping, and sidewalk and bus shelter improvements.

Securing approval from the Metro Public Works and Metro Planning Department staff, the Nashville Civic Design Center is helping reclaim public space along the pike through “tactical urbanism”—using temporary, low-cost projects to improve and beautify streets. “Our group, through this method, can act as an intermediary or extension of the Public Works Department,” says Mike Thompson, project and evaluation manager at the Nashville Civic Design Center. “We can go in quick and dirty, test this out, and inform permanent installations that could go in here. . . . We can go in and spend $2,000 and save the city tens, hundreds, and thousands of dollars.”

Placemaking efforts also are underway along Nolensville Pike. Chosen as one of five Nashville artists to design artistic and placemaking streetscapes along Nolensville Pike, local painter and caricature artist Tony Sobota was then contacted by the Salahadeen Center to design a 108-foot (33 m) mural of a scene in Erbil, Kurdistan’s capital, on the side of the Mazi Market building.

“One of the most exciting parts of this project is the community nature of the work itself,” Sobota says. “That’s a huge challenge for me as an artist. Not to just work individually out of my studio, doing a painting, but having a conversation . . . with the people at the market and people walking by. It’s been really neat to be a part of that collaborative process.”

Leaders of the Envision Nolensville Pike Collaborative and 16 Metro Nashville high school students plan to collect data to demonstrate the impact of these improvements. With the support of the Greater Nashville Regional Council, these data will inform recommendations to local government about permanent infrastructure changes.