The world meets South Nashville

Nolensville Road is an international hub the city could tout to tourists

During the great wave of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th century, new Americans — mostly European but, on the West Coast especially, also Chinese — banded together.

They settled into close-knit neighborhoods alongside other people from the old country.

It gave rise in U.S. cities to Chinatowns and Little Italys, Polish enclaves and tough Irish neighborhoods.

Nashville, though not to the degree of larger coastal cities, was not immune to this. German immigrants established their butcher shops and breweries just north of downtown in a neighborhood we still call Germantown.

A wave of Italian immigrants pushed even farther north, into Joelton, where the Catholic parish is named for Italy's patron, Saint Lawrence, and there are streets named for Bianco, Alessio and Cantarutti.

In the South, though, where cities were not particularly dense and the economy was largely agricultural, the great ethnic neighborhoods of the North and East were rarely replicated. Southern cities were more likely to be divided by color than by country, a dynamic that remained in place almost 150 years. But then, in the 20th century and into the 21st, immigration patterns changed. More immigrants from Asia, Africa and the Americas hit the shores of the United States and places like Nashville became destinations.

So varied and disparate were these new arrivals, they settled where they could, alongside other immigrants, perhaps not necessarily from their own countries. In Nashville, Nolensville Road became the destination of the 21st-century immigrant.

According to a 2010 paper by Louisiana State University's James Chaney, the local lore is that the South Nashville thoroughfare began to draw immigrants in the early 1990s because an entrepreneur opened a tortilla factory — and so the new arrivals came, from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and Panama.

A robust Kurdish population, first relocated here by Catholic Charities, drew other Kurds and Persians, Iraqis and Turks. Refugees from Vietnam drew Laotians, Burmese and Nepalese.

In 20 years, a blink of an eye in demography, Nolensville Road became Nashville's Lane of Nations. Chaney found that between 1985 and 2005, a three-block stretch of Nolensville with 42 storefronts went from no businesses owned by immigrants to 22.

A drive on Nolensville is like a drive around the world. There are taco trucks and kebab restaurants, Kurdish bakeries, Thai groceries and a store specializing in all things Nepalese.

Indeed, South Nashville has an immigrant enclave, clustered along its key road, that offers a tour of the world. To locals — and especially foodies — it's a welcome addition, another indicator of Nashville's emerging vibrancy. And yet, to visitors, it's largely unknown.

“Nolensville Road has so many great places,” says Yuri Cunza, Nashville Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce president. “Thirteen years ago, our organization started from a small group of business owners operating mostly there.”

Mayor Karl Dean has made transforming the city's "gateways" — those great spoke roads that converge downtown — to maximize their impact. 12South got revamped as did Eighth, closer to the city's core.

The attention paid to Nolensville from the courthouse has largely focused on redevelopment of the Tennessee State Fairgrounds, though a Metro-wide referendum has made advancing that effort more than a little dicey.

The city has done yeoman's work branding on various streets — think of Fifth as "Avenue of the Arts" and 12th as “12South” — which makes sense as the entire city's marketing identity is built around the construct of 16th and 17th Avenues as "Music Row."

Heretofore, though, Nashville has been unable — or unwilling — to leverage its bustling, diverse international beltway — with literally hundreds of businesses owned by immigrants or the children of immigrants — as a tourist destination.

It's unusual for a city so dedicated to its tourism industry. What's called "ethno-cultural travel" is one of the fastest growing sectors of the travel market. In Boston — a city, like Nashville, that underwent a large second-wave of migration and whose immigrant population is large, but not dominated by a single ethnic group — visitors are increasingly telling the city's CVB they are coming to the Yankee metropolis to see Little Armenia or the Caribbean neighborhoods around Central Square.

In Philadelphia, a kiosk at the downtown visitors bureau offers walking tours of the city's numerous ethnic enclaves: type a country-of-origin and a printout directs you where to go, what to eat and where to shop. In Nashville, one must simply know where the Nepalese store can be found. (It's located at Nolensville and Haywood Lane).

While a healthy dose of marketing would certainly boost visibility — and this could be something as simple as the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau taking an interest and, perhaps, someone adorning street lights with visual markers, such as flags, proclaiming Nolensville "The Avenue Of The World" — there are challenges that must be tackled. If anything, many visitors to Nashville are unaware the city has an international district of sorts.

“We don't get a lot of inquiries [about Nolensville Road],” says Butch Spyridon, CVB president and CEO. “We do tend to promote the various neighborhoods as they have developed — 12South, The Gulch, Germantown, East Nashville, Hillsboro Village, Music Valley — and I would think [Nolensville Road] is on its way up but still has a ways to go as a destination point. Right now it is more of an isolated offering but certainly gaining ground.”

Nashville is a linear city — a function of the animals traveling to the salt lick in a time before man, leaving their trails, which became hunting paths, which became stagecoach roads, which became highways. The entire city comprises spokes and a hub. That makes driving the city an out-and-back prospect. And Nolensville isn't designed for rubber-necking. Part of its appeal is that it is a working street. The restaurants — which should be the big draw — serve the mechanics and lawyers and insurance agents and shopkeepers whose commerce keeps the street alive.

That makes for a notoriously slow commute — appealing if someone wants to really take in the atmosphere, but devastating if someone has somewhere far-flung to travel.

The sidewalks on Nolensville are, rather oddly for Nashville, quite wide and shaded in spots, perfect for walking — if only someone would encourage tourists to do so.

There is, however, a risk of turning an ethnic enclave into an EPCOT. As on Star Trek, non-interference is the prime directive — let the enclaves develop organically without intrusion from the existing power structure. The realness of the area is its appeal, and too much whitewashing turns it into a museum at best and a theme park at worst.

A via media is the smart approach. A survey of the whats and wheres of the immigrant businesses on the corridor could be conducted quickly and inexpensively — and borrowing Philadelphia's idea, walking tours developed.

The Hispanic Chamber is actually working on a “Hispanic Guide to Nashville tourism oriented piece,” Cunza says, adding he would like to have it distributed via the CVB. Perhaps eventually a smartphone app replaces the old-fashioned printout. Some signage branding the area and directing visitors could be erected by the city, again at a relatively low cost.

Then? Get out of the way. While building large civic structures — convention centers, sports venues and the like — is often seen as the easy path to tourism riches, tourism (paradoxically, perhaps) is also a way for smaller entrepreneurs to benefit. The entry cost is low (and for established businesses, those costs are paid already) and the benefits are massive, to both business and the city at large.

Of course, this perpetuates the great cycle of American immigration. Will an elevation to the middle-class encourage the grandchildren of this wave of immigrants to stay on Nolensville or will they decamp to the suburbs? Even if it’s the latter, a well-established, carefully maintained International Avenue will draw another wave of immigrant business owners, starting the cycle again and drawing another generation of visitors.