Sunday, September 08, 2013

The ongoing nextification of Salemtown

When this Tennessean piece appeared earlier in the summer, I lashed out at it in a blog post I did not publish. Now that there is some distance, I'm ready to reflect on its merits to my neighborhood in a more critical, composed way. On with the reflections.

Sometimes I am really glad I have been blogging for so long on Nashville, and particularly, on my part of Nashville. This blog is always a reminder of my actual experience here free from the filters and spin of people who have only recently "discovered" Salemtown. The selling of Salemtown as "new and hot" has been going on for so many years that it is an old, rehearsed refrain. I wrote blog posts in 2006 on how the news media framed our neighborhood as an attractive new option. Does new ever stop being new?

Before last year the latest in a line of coming-and-going real estate reporters at the Tennessean, Bill Lewis (who also wrote an unfortunate piece about "pioneers taking over" the neighborhood) did not even know what Salemtown was. Now he is writing about the community without interviewing long-time residents (and, no, I'm not talking about myself) who have a different point of view than the newbs-in-the-hood. The ex-president of the association whom Lewis quotes wonders why Salemtown "didn't catch on a decade ago", as if she was here a decade ago (she was not) when others of us were moving here because it was a diverse neighborhood of porches already.

Lewis interviews a newly arrived, fresh, young developer to the Salemtown scene. Since I have not met her she is just another number to me because I've crossed paths with dozens of developers since moving here. But we will not be getting off to a good start, given her developers' spin of Salemtown as once a "fringe" neighborhood that has morphed in to a community of rooftop hot tubs. Did Bill Lewis actually count the number of rooftop hot tubs in Salemtown before writing his story? How many hot tubs--rooftop or not--do we actually have in Salemtown? Do hot tubs determine quality?

It is worth noting that Lewis used the same formula two years ago to market what realtors randomly started calling "Historic West Town" (a neighborhood widely known as "The Nations"), sans hot-tub branding. According to one source, The Nations may not even be "Historic". Apparently, the next, big thing is not to deviate from the "hot" potential of transitional (or is that "emerging"?) neighborhoods by using a maelstrom of floating signifiers. (The Lewis hotness coefficient was also applied to the Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood last May).

As for Salemtown, the notion of being called "fringe" by a developer sticks in the craw of my preference for diversity. When I hear developers rationalize their benign neglect (perhaps even a collective, de facto red-lining?) of certain North Nashville neighborhoods with terms like "fringe", I wonder if it is code. I ask myself whether "fringe" is just code for "Salemtown is not yet enough of a eroded, homogenized, white-washed lifestyle draw on which we might build". Money-makers shake with or without diversity.

Our family moved here from Historic Edgefield in East Nashville almost 10 years ago. At the time Edgefield had a much higher crime rate (and less diversity) than Salemtown did, and yet, it was hardly considered "fringe" by developers, who were pushing prices to unreasonable heights before it all came crashing down with housing bubble. In my book that shows just how arbitrary and capricious marketing signifiers are.

Another Nashville journo, J.R. Lind, coined the terms "nexting" and "nextification" to represent and to criticize our city's dogged obsession with the next, big thing. Outside of Lind, though, prominent voices in the news media, especially the ones who report on real estate, embrace the nextification of neighborhoods like ours without a second thought. That is the most troubling aspect of growth: not merely that developers try to rewrite who we are, but that papers like the Tennessean give the fictions implicit facticity to an audience who may not know any better. Thanks to them, Salemtown never stops emerging and nexting.

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