A series of murky black and white images at the Freedom Arts/Arte de Libertad event Jan. 7 resembled a war-torn scene on old developed film.
However, they were photographs of razed properties on Archer Avenue – alongside million dollars ones – shot by retiree Janice Key on a gray day from her front deck in Nashville’s fast-changing Edgehill neighborhood. It's the place she has called home for 64 years, but now feels the fear of it being taken from her.
Artist Omari Booker with his piece titled "Prey."
Key was one of 13 exhibitors in “Our land, our homes, our culture Uprising Art Show” at Salama Urban Ministries, hosted by Freedom Arts. A nonprofit grassroots organization created by local residents Bobbi Negrón, Ndume Olatushan and Jairo Robles, it gives a platform to low-income and underrepresented artists to express their journey of survival and struggle for social justice.
They put on about three shows a year, said Robles. His multimedia piece, “Eviction,” depicts a family walking away from the Nashville skyline, now dressed as hobos. “This art is a message of my life. We figured having art shows are a great tool to express what the community is going through,” adding that no other group, nor news media, is doing that.
“Our land” conveyed the frustrations and realities longtime residents face – skyrocketing property taxes, tenant loss of housing, and the crumbling of neighborhood culture.
“They act like they are doing you a favor,” Key said of developers offering her a lump sum for her property, claiming she “could build her dream home” with the cash. “But I have not been offered an amount yet that would afford me to build, let alone move, in Nashville. For that matter, in this county, or the next county.”
“There’s a point at which people get in a situation they become preyed upon. And this is one of those points,” said Omari Booker, an oil painter. His piece “Prey” is of a pew-filled church in prayer over a man just hanged on the alter. “[Issues with] capitalism, mental illness, law enforcement, addiction – anyone on the fringe of society can be preyed upon. Something I’ve always been concerned about is how to actively represent community. Complacency, as far as what we believe and what we do about it, doesn’t always line up.”
One of more than 100 attendees of the exhibit was Councilman Freddie O’Connell of District 19, which includes Edgehill, the Gulch, all of downtown, and Jefferson Street.
D-19 Councilman Freddie O'Connell, Austin Sauerbrei of Homes4All Nashville and Bobbi Negrón of Freedom Arts/Arts de Libertad.
“It seems sort of like a higher-end district,” said O’Connell. “[But] it has more poverty per capita than any other metro council district . . . and also has five major MDHA footprints, so there’s a considerable amount of public housing.”
He said there is an opportunity to develop strategies for stresses that residents face like crime and safety, food deserts, homelessness, mobility, noise and quality of life, “and affordability – a huge part of the conversation, as gentrification is changing neighborhoods. Nashville hasn’t had to deal with 10,000 people living downtown before, and it happened fast.
“There are 17 cranes in the air right now,” he said. “People can’t sleep at night.”
Edgehill resident Janice Key with photos of her fast-changing neighborhood.
The economic stress is alarming, indicated Austin Sauerbrei, of Homes For All Nashville, who was also involved with the exhibit. “In Davidson County, over 40 percent of households bring in less than $35,000 a year. Couple that with average rent, which is $1,300 a month,” he said. Renters, whose owners decide to sell, have been powerless, but his group now hosts education workshops and helps to form tenant associations. “We know it from looking at other cities, there is power in numbers.”
An exact count of how many being displaced is difficult to calculate. “Just think of this,” Negrón said. “If nearly 100 people are moving to Nashville a day, that means 100 people have to leave. They have to take the homes, the land, of those already living here. Right?”