Belmont-Hillsboro Neighbors, Inc. was organized informally in the summer of 1970. Several community meetings were held that fall at Christ the King School. We organized and got attention because of the conjuncture of several factors, all at the same time: racial diversity in the neighborhood, the school desegregation lawsuit, the threat that urban renewal (which came as far as Portland and Ashwood) would spread farther, and the attempt of many property owners to rezone to commercial all of Belmont Boulevard.
In 1971 we incorporated and became tax-exempt on the basis of our educational and advocacy activities, “reducing neighborhood tensions,” and “easing the tasks of government.”Our model in Nashville was Organized Neighbors of Edgehill. We were (and are) a very mixed neighborhood, with diversity in race, age, income, education, religion, and otherwise, and we made the most of it. Many people stayed or moved into our neighborhood because of its diversity; they included people in the helping professions, Legal Services attorneys, United Methodist Board personnel, and Vanderbilt assistant professors.
We couldn’t have kept the diversity of the neighborhood without the 1968 Fair Housing Act and the Supreme Court’s 1971 Charlotte- Mecklenburg decision on school desegregation. In turn, we put a human face on those federal actions, proving that an interracial neighborhood was viable even in Nashville. We got plenty of attention on talk shows for several years. Eakin School parents intervened in the Metro Nashville school lawsuit to make sure that desegregation was carried out on a comprehensive basis.
Codes enforcement was one of our major tasks during the 1970s. Many houses had more than the legal number of dwelling units and we often appeared before the Board of Zoning Appeals to be sure that Zoning Ordinances were enforced. When the Board ruled against us, we were able to appeal to Chancery Court because a number of attorneys living in the neighborhood represented us without charge. We still owe them a big debt of gratitude!
In the early Seventies it was hard to get a loan from any of the local banks or S&Ls. Fidelity Federal was the only one with a commitment to urban neighborhoods. (Vanderbilt University also had the wisdom to give a 1% break on interest rates to faculty members who moved into the area south of the campus.) About that time, a Chicago policeman’s wife, Gale Cincotta, started National People’s Action. Enlisting Senator William Proxmire and others, she secured passage of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), which required all federally insured lenders to meet the credit needs of all segments of their communities, and the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, which required reporting of all mortgages by ZIP code. Since the late Seventies neighborhoods and their national counterparts have continued to be in dialogue with lenders, especially in this era of interstate and now national mergers.
In 1975, with the aid of a matching grant from the Tennessee Committee for the Humanities, we compiled a neighborhood history and sponsored a number of public meetings to discuss policies affecting the future of the neighborhood; because of this project we were the first neighborhood organization recognized by the Metropolitan Historical Commission. In 1991, with the aid of a small grant from the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation, we did a study of the Belmont Boulevard commercial area, where the variety of people and land uses is especially intense, and outlined alternatives for the area.
In 1993 a similar study of Hillsboro Village was carried out and published jointly by BHN and Vanderbilt University. This study helped change perceptions of the Village and its future and prepared the way for a number of initiatives such as 1999’s Urban Design Overlay and the inclusive approach to commercial construction taken by the H.G. Hill Realty Company.
The number of neighborhood organizations in Nashville has steadily increased, often with our help and on our model. People throughout Metro are faced with issues such as rezoning proposals from developers and find the need to work together. Even the suburbs, which initially thought they had escaped urban problems, are now being “urbanized” with shopping centers and apartments. The way city, midtown, and suburban neighborhood organizations have worked together is encouraging. Umbrella groups such as the Nashville Neighborhood Alliance very rarely find their members at cross purposes.
Belmont-Hillsboro Neighbors, Inc. has always monitored and spoken out on a wide range of issues. With other neighborhoods we fought I-440, and lost — but we did get it depressed below ground level, making it one of the best interstate segments in the state. We opposed the many variances that made it possible to build Kinnard’s Corner at 21st and Blair, and lost — but it will not have any successors. We worked closely with Harris-Teeter on the development of their new store at 21st and Blair.
In 2003, Belmont-Hillsboro Neighbors began an investigation into a conservation zoning overlay for the neighborhood – an effort that had been unsuccessful in 1986. After over a year and a half of concerted work by the association and many interested neighbors, the Belmont-Hillsboro Neighborhood Conservation Zoning Overlay was passed by Metro Council and went into effect in April of 2005.
Neighbors can be sure that we will continue to be active and speak out, whether we win or lose. But we are glad to see that what we started over 35 years ago is catching on and gaining recognition throughout the Nashville area.
– Gene TesSelle, 2005