Creating Places: A Citizen Observer's Look at Nashville's Built Environment

Writer's Note: William Williams' interest in the manmade environment dates to 1970, at which point the then-young Williams started a collection of postcards of city skylines. The collection now numbers 1,000-plus cards. Among the writer's specific interests are exterior building design, city district planning, demographics, signage, mixed-use development, mass transit and green/sustainable construction and living. Williams began his Creating Places column with The City Paper in February 2005. The column in its original form was discontinued in September 2008 and reinvented via this blog in November 2008. Creating Places can be found on the home page of the website of The City Paper, at which Williams has worked in various capacities since October 2000.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Creating Places: Name That Street

A recent street name change in downtown Nashville has caught my attention — and represents a noteworthy example of how Metro Government occasionally complicates citizen efforts to make this city as urban as possible.

In a move that I will soon explain as less than ideal, city officials have moniker-modified McLemore Avenue with the appellation “YMCA Way.”

At first thought, the name change makes sense. YMCA officials made a commendable commitment to downtown by pumping millions into what is the non-profit’s anchor facility of the Midstate. The building is both attractive and functional, and the Metro Council likely wanted to show some appreciation for a venerable Central Business District institution.

The name even has a nice ring to it, rhyming the “A” and “Way.”

Well intentioned though the move may be, it is nonetheless questionable. Here’s why.

First, the street type designation “way” — although in a general sense appropriate for geographically modest segments of asphalt such as this — is almost overwhelmingly used nationwide for roads in suburban residential areas. It suggests a calm lane in a pastoral setting, free of both urban grit and a mixture of building types and uses. “Way” is what developers of generic subdivisions name a street to appeal to home-buyers who hear the word “street” and conjure images of crime, building density and, gasp, pedestrians.

In short, there is a reason vibrant cities populated by true urbanites don’t feature central business district streets with “way” in their names.

Second, cities must be deliberate, even strict, when considering central business district street name changes involving specific recognized entities. Obviously, “Capitol Boulevard,” which runs from Commerce to Church and visually connects the State Capitol and Main Library, makes sense for Nashville.

But is the YMCA — though a wonderful operation — truly an iconic landmark deserving of a street named in its honor? With Tennessee State University’s Avon Williams Campus fronting a portion of YMCA Way, why not “TSU Street,” as TSU offers arguably a greater variety of local history (involving education, civil rights, research and sports) than does the fitness-focused Y.

But lets hypothetically say that both the Y and TSU deserve to have streets named for them. If so, why not change the segment of Fifth Avenue between Commerce Street and Broadway to “Ryman Auditorium Street”? Or the stretch of Church Street between Fourth and Fifth avenues to “Downtown Presbyterian Church Avenue”?

At what point do we draw the line? At “Tootsie’s Boulevard”?

The point is simple: Street names must meld multiple functions, including conveying geographic accuracy and ease of understanding; paying homage to the most significant historical figures and special places; and/or “making sense” within their context, whether urban, suburban or rural. To treat the topic without full consideration, as seems to have been the case here, is unacceptable.

Third — and related to the second point — north-south downtown Nashville streets, ideally, would all be numbered streets so as to minimize logistical confusion. This is particularly important for tourists, business travelers and those locals who rarely venture downtown. When in the heart of our downtown, these folks need to feel as comfortably oriented as possible. For this reason, I am opposed to the Central Business District segment of Rosa L. Parks Boulevard being called such. Using the RLP designation for the street’s stretches north of Charlotte and south of Broadway would have been one thing. But “Rosa L. Parks” in the CBD simply creates logistical confusion.

Last, the YMCA recently opted to use, simply, “the Y”for branding and marketing purposes, thus rendering “YMCA Way” almost awkwardly and instantly outdated.

So what would be better?

Ninth and Tenth avenues sandwich the street, so what about a “numbers clever” designation? Perhaps “9/10ths Avenue”?

If the city is so compelled to recognize the YMCA, how about “Y Street”? It sounds kind of cool, and “street” better suggests urban asphalt than “way.”

For a less edgy and more inclusive option, how about “Education Avenue” to recognize how both the Y and TSU admirably stress the importance of keeping a fit body and mind, respectively?

In short, “YMCA Way” was a poor choice of names, the fumble made all the more glaring considering what a stellar design and function of the retrofitted Y building itself.

Of course — and disturbing to consider — the street name change could have been worse. We were lucky Metro avoided the hyper-suburban “YMCA Trail” or “YMCA Cove.”


  1. Mr. Williams,

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. However, it seems to me that "Way" is actually one of the oldest forms of designating major thoroughfares. Broadway in New York, Nashville, or many major cities has a long history of informing the public of importance.

    While "way" may have been co-opted by todays suburban developers, it also has a long been used by municipalities to honor both living and deceased members of their communities as well as events or institutions.

    In this manner, it would seem befitting of the name change to YMCA Way. Should the YMCA have their own road name or is it as cool as "Y Street", I don't know. But wouldn't a visitor or map maker then be confused by not finding "A Street", "M Street" or a host of other alphabet streets as part of our local maps?

  2. Anonymous,

    Thanks for taking the time to post.

    Two points:

    1. I make a distinction between "Broadway" and "XXXX Way." For example, can you imagine (and we'll use Nashville as an example) a "Commerce Way" or a "Deaderick Way"?

    2. I agree that some cosmopolitan cities have urban streets with the "way" designation. But those streets are not located within those cities' central business districts.

    Nashville's urban areas (if you can call them that) have been so suburbanized with synthetic stucco buildings and surface parking (Midtown is a prime example) that to see "an element of suburbia" creep into our central business district is disturbing.

    I respect the Y (in fact, I once was a member of the Downtown Y) and would not argue the Y clearly does not deserve a street named in its honor. But, at what point do we say "Wait a minute..."

    I feel this is that point.

    Again, I appreciate your comments.

    William Williams