Sunday, January 2, 2011

Don’t Know Nothing ‘bout History

Here in Nashville we’re in the middle of a messy battle over the future of our state fairgrounds and Nashville Speedway, which is located just south of downtown. One faction, which includes our mayor, wants to redevelop the 117-acre site. It’s crumbling and is barely used save for monthly flea markets and a few special events; the state fair, never a showpiece event, has already been shuttered.

Another faction wants to save the site and in particular, the Nashville Speedway located there. This group, which seems to be primarily racing fans, claims it’s the “finest short track in the world.” Despite the fact that speedway events have been losing money for years, this group has been making a lot of noise and brought in racing celebrities like Sterling Marlin and Darrell Waltrip to plead their case.

I really don’t care one way or the other. I do think the property could be put to better use, and it's exciting to think about what might be done with a chunk of land that size. Mr. Beale and I attend a handful events at the fairgrounds every year, but those could easily be located elsewhere. I'll say right now: We aren’t racing fans, and I do think the roar of the motor speedway (which we can hear all the way out at our house, though we live several miles away) is obnoxious. But, I figure that’s what comes with living in a city, and it’s only a few nights out of the year. So if some people are really fired up about saving it, knock yourselves out.

But here’s the thing. Nashville is not a preservationist town. Never has been, never will be. So it really annoys me that our local fishwrap has taken a side on the issue and is now referring to the speedway as “historic.” Give me a break! The racetrack was built in 1958! We’ve been tearing down buildings two, three, even four times older in the name of progress; I don't ever remember The Tennessean taking a side before. None of these folks making such a fuss about the speedway seemed to mind the loss of Nashville's history before, either. So calling what is basically a slab of concrete built in 1958 “historic” is just lame.

The site of the speedway has had races for over a hundred years. Well, fine then: slap a historic marker by the side of the road like we’ve done with every other significant piece of Nashville architecture that stood in the way of a fast food restaurant or Walgreen’s. I mean really: where were you people when they tore down Evergreen Place, built in 1785, and replaced it with a Home Depot? What about the Jacksonian, built in 1917, now a Walgreen’s? What about when developers demolished the historic church on South Douglas to make way for condos? Everyone was all like, “oh it’s the free hand of the market and all in the name of progress,” and yada yada. So don’t tell me this circle of concrete is hallowed ground when actual buildings are routinely bulldozed to stoke the engine of progress.

It's ironic that people who are using a historic preservation argument to save their racetrack seem completely unaware of this city's truly atrocious historic preservation record. This is how Nashville rolls, people! We are Nashville and we don't give a crap about our history! We’re a city that tore down our original governor’s mansion back in the ‘70s to make way for a Popeye’s chicken franchise, for crying out loud. When I moved here nearly 30 years ago West End Avenue was lined with graceful mansions. They’re almost all gone now, replaced with strip shopping centers and fast food joints. That’s how Nashville treats its historic structures.

I can appreciate that people want to save something they feel is important but I just have to say: if history is any judge, you’re wasting your time. In fact, you're better off making some kind of economic argument. Come up with a business plan, and ask Sterling Marlin and Darrell Waltrip to donate some money to upgrade the facility. Talk is cheap, fellas. Put some skin in the game! Show that the Nashville Speedway can be profitable (which may be difficult, considering the problems the Nashville Superspeedway faces).

Take it from someone who has seen the wrecking ball demolish a disheartening array of actual historic structures in this city: money talks in this town. Those of us who care about real historic buildings have been told to suck it up time and time again, so you racetrack fans might want to be prepared to kiss your 52-year-old circle of concrete goodbye.

Just a little tip.