Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Urbanophile not feeling the love for Germantown

In a February post generally high on Nashville, urban analyst Aaron M. Renn seemed less than impressed with Historic Germantown:

North of downtown is a small historic district called Germantown. This was rather unimpressive if you ask me. I didn’t see much that was German about it. It sure isn’t Columbus’ German Village, that’s for sure. There were some restaurants there. I had lunch at one of them which, fortunately for them, I can’t remember the name of because it was terrible. This area is mostly older single family homes.

The amazing thing about this area is that almost every vacant or industrial parcel was being redeveloped as condos. This really brought home to me the difference between Nashville and the Midwest. Were this, say, the Cottage Home area in Indianapolis, the local neighborhood association would use their historic district status to keep developments like these out. In Nashville, they are seen as a positive.

I do not entirely disagree with Renn on the point that the Germantown area (including Salemtown) is becoming overbuilt with condos. Attached townhouses and family un-friendly "multi-family" homes seem to predominate with little continuity to the history of the place. It seems that the emphasis tends to be on short-term gain without reference to long-term well-being that comes with diversity. Growth here could be smarter, more sustainable and evenly balanced.

Nevertheless, Urbanophile's ambivalence about Historic Germantown seems to contradict his explanations for why Nashville itself is so full of promise. On the one hand, he asserts that what sets Nashville's potential apart from the Midwest is that we are so pro-growth, that we lack the Midwest's NIMBY, and that any kind of development sails through the approval process in our city. On the other hand, he claims that we proudly embrace our heritage.

I would suggest that being unabashedly pro-growth is what makes for the problems that Renn sees the history-erasing trends in the Germantown area in the first place. And if we really did embrace our heritage, wouldn't we be doing more to protect or enhance neighborhood character rather than being so tear-down-and-wipe-clean in order to make room for more growth?

In the final analysis I am not sure it is fair for Renn to criticize Germantown for the very reasons he sees Nashville as more promising than places in the Midwest.


  1. I agree with Renn on a certain and perhaps real level. To begin with, the name Germantown is a bit of a misnomer as far as I beleive. For one, I grew up in St. Louis (tho I've lived in Nashville since 1981. Also, my mother was born and raised in Keil, Germany and I have been to Germany and speak a bit of the language).
    St. Louis has some 'German' in it. Like the butcher shop my mom took me to as a kid. The owner spoke German. He was from Germany. Of course there is the beer. St. Louis has Italian neighborhoods too. They still stretch for blocks and have their own churches. Ever been to The Hill for Italian food? You still hear Italian being spoken Nuff said.
    Nashville's Germantown may have had some Germans at one point. The Werthan bag plant, was/is owned by a prominent Jewish family. Mr. Werthan started the company in the 1800s. Good chance he was from Germany. He started the company by recycling. I have met Werthan descendants and they are great folk. BTW, the movie Driving Ms. Daisy was written by a woman who went to college with a Nashville Werthan. She used their name because the flick was based in the South. And maybe because the story was somehow based on the Werthan family.
    That all said:
    Germantown is a geographic reference. I love that we celebrate whatever thread of ethnic history that is there. It's working. Mad Platter started it all. And the log dance by the bald headed guy from the Gerst Haus who danced there ten years ago during the Germantown Octoberfest. I like what is happening there. Yeah, condos and all. Cityhouse restaurant too. No mayor made it happen. It all happened organically. It may not be 'German,' but it's like 12 South or East Nashville. Trust the people who make it happen.

  2. The guy who danced was named Mongo. At the original Gerst Haus, he would dress in lederhosen and entertain the diners with his 'log dance' before getting the entire room to join him in the chicken dance.