History of 12th South Nashville
By Bill Friskics-Warren
Published: June 15, 2003
Two hundred years ago, the widow Granny White packed up her orphaned grandchildren and trudged some 800 miles west from North Carolina to Tennessee, over the Cumberland Plateau. She settled along the old buffalo path south of Nashville, now known as Granny White Pike, first selling ginger cakes from a roadside stand, then opening an inn for travelers making their way up and down the Natchez Trace, a few miles to the west.
Lately, much the same spirit of hospitality and entrepreneurship has returned to the thoroughfare that bears her name, or at least to the funky stretch of 12th Avenue South that empties into it. The difference, today, is that instead of the pancakes, clean sheets and applejack for which White was famous, Nashvillians and tourists frequent the street for gourmet popsicles, rodeo couture and cucumber martinis.
Until recently, this strip of 12th Avenue South had no identity, other than a reputation for being a rough part of town. Apart from the presence of a handful of tenacious merchants, 12th Avenue wasn’t so much a destination as a means of getting somewhere else. Now, lined with galleries, sweet shops and other mom and pop stores, the 10 blocks that run from Linden Avenue to Sevier Park bisect one of the hippest up-and-coming neighborhoods in Nashville.
The area isn’t completely gentrified, and, despite being rechristened ”12South,” likely won’t be any time soon. Only two miles below the downtown loop, it has a mix of working-class people and new bohemians that is a little too urban, the assortment of high-end specialty shops and blue-collar businesses too heterodox, to be ripe for colonization by adventurous suburbanites.
TwelveSouth begins as you crest 12th headed out of town and meet the brooding hills of Williamson County looming in the distance. Heralding your arrival is Serendipity, an upscale boutique, in a two-story brick edifice called the Linden, that trades in chic clothing and accessories. A block farther out is Trim Classic Barber and Legendary Beauty, a retro hair salon (one side for him, the other for her) where men can be treated to a shave with a straight razor, hot towels and all.
Anchoring this upper end of 12South is Mirror, the restaurant that initiated Nashvillians into the mysteries of tapas. The blue cheese polenta fries, served with a charred tomato dipping sauce, are amazing, as is the bruschetta. The proprietors recommend a dry sherry to go with both, but you also can’t go wrong with a cucumber martini or a Belgian Trappist ale. Or the ”Bob Deanie,” a froth of single malt and bitters served, as the menu promises, ”ice-cold like [the] heart” of the restaurant’s droll barkeep, the drink’s namesake and creator.
Across the street from Mirror on 12th is a row of refurbished bungalows inhabited by dealers of antiques and collectibles. At the Emporium, you’ll find singularities like wood sculptures made with chain saws and a light fixture fashioned from a clarinet by a pair of artists who call themselves the Twisted Sisters. One door down from Mirror to the south (unknown to most local people) is Dolly Parton’s rehearsal studio, a faux hacienda complex that could have been airlifted from the back lot of Universal Studios. Of special note is the kitschy chapel, which accommodates five people, tops. Regrettably, it’s not open to the public.
Nashville, of course, is the buckle of the Bible Belt, and there is no shortage of churches along 12South. Almost all of them are Protestant and African-American and, with one exception, modest red-brick buildings with small white steeples. The house of worship that stands out, however, is the Islamic Center, a hub for the city’s growing Muslim population. Those who congregate out front and in the parking lot after services represent one aspect of the changing face of Nashville, which is now home to tens of thousands of people from Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Far East and central Africa. It’s not unusual, on a Friday afternoon, to see a ribbon of yellow and orange taxis parked around the Islamic Center belonging to the Somali drivers inside. On Fridays passers-by may hear the numinous droning of those assembled for evening prayer drifting into the street.
Such epiphanies are more accessible now that there are sidewalks along this part of 12th Avenue. The street has yet to give way to a proliferation of strollers and joggers, though; there’s just not enough of a shoulder, and traffic tends to speed by at a nerve-racking clip. Better to park near a favorite spot and work your way a few blocks up and down in each direction, and then drive to another point and do the same.
You can’t go wrong starting at Becker’s, a family-owned bakery that’s been in business for more than 75 years. Everything is made from scratch; both the fancy wafers (pastel-colored butter cookies) and the chess tarts (with a rich Southern pie filling consisting of butter, sugar and eggs) are great with a double espresso from Portland Brew across the way. A block or so north, you can browse for vintage clothing at Katy K Ranch Dressing.
Katy K is the brainchild of Katy Kattelman, who used to have a shop in Manhattan. Besides her own handmade creations, which run a gamut of styles from rockabilly to punk, Katy sells rhinestone-studded originals by celebrated rodeo tailors like Nudie and Manuel. A canary-colored cowboy shirt stitched with wagon wheels and cactuses, once worn by a member of Porter Wagoner’s band, was on display until recently when it went for $200 on eBay.
For a different sort of wearable art, there’s Tye Dye Mary’s, above Granny’s Flower Shop at the south end of the strip, right before 12th turns into Granny White Pike. My 12-year-old son, Marshall, has at least a dozen of Mary’s T-shirts. She tie-dyes everything from panties and prom jackets to linens and doggy T-shirts, the last adorning the dogs who chase Frisbees on the sloping green of Sevier Park across the street.
Nashville, of course, is renowned as Music City, and as the Country Music Capital of the World in particular. Yet there aren’t any listening rooms along 12South, just a pair of music stores, Corner Music and Fork’s Drum Closet. Occasionally, a portable stage or band shell goes up in Sevier Park, where the likes of Uhuru, an African dance troupe, and Mystic Meditations, a local reggae band, have performed. For country music, though, you have to head back up 12th toward downtown, about a mile or so past the 12South strip, to the Station Inn. A roadhouse straight out of a mountain hollow, the Station has been a mecca for bluegrass since the 1970’s. The heady likes of Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley and Earl Scruggs as well as inheritors like Alison Krauss and Nickel Creek have graced its stage.
Five blocks north of the Station Inn on 12th as you cross Broadway is 12th and Porter Playroom, a cave of a lounge known for booking rootsy singer-songwriters like Alejandro Escovedo and Freedy Johnston. In a series of memorable acoustic dates at 12th and Porter in the mid-90’s, Lucinda Williams worried over the songs that became ”Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.”
On 12th as you head into town, at the corner of 12th and Edgehill, is a historic marker commemorating the legendary harmonica player DeFord Bailey. A favorite on the Grand Ole Opry from 1927, and the first black star in country music, Bailey was fired from the Opry under murky circumstances in 1941, after which he opened a shoeshine shop, eventually dying in obscurity. It’s a disgrace that he’s not yet a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Before venturing from 12South downtown in pursuit of music, though, stop at Las Paletas for a handmade Mexican popsicle. Made from fresh ingredients by Irma and Norma Paz, paletas are an ordinary treat in Mexico but still a novelty in Nashville. The flavors range from mango and hibiscus to chocolate-wasabi and cucumber-chili-pepper. ”Two-dollar adventures,” one customer called them.
There’s no sign out front of Las Paletas, so keep an eye out for 2907 12th Avenue South; for advertising, the Paz sisters rely on the vigorous word-of-mouth of their evangelical customers. No doubt Granny White, whose delicacies and gift for hospitality inspired similar devotion, would have been proud.
Photos: Beginning the evening at Mirror, the stylish bar and restaurant that introduced tapas to Nashville.; A cooling snack at Las Paletas; Tye Dye Mary’s, where Mary tie-dyes almost anything.; A musical jacket at Katy K, where styles run from rockabilly to punk.; An informal outdoor exchange of vinyl (yes, vinyl) records. (Mark Peterson/Corbis Saba for The New York Times) Map (Joe LeMonnier for The New York Times)