A Music City for my Alternate History

I’ve already done a short story in the urban fabric of my alternate-historical science-fiction setting, namely in “Last Light”, but that just covered one romantic date in what even in my timeline is a small city: Utqiagvik, Alaska (a.k.a. Barrow). Now I’m brainstorming a story in a better-established city: Nashville, Tennessee.

Known as Music City, it established that reputation in the 20th century, but country music emerges in my timeline much like it did in real life. In real life its only serious challenge came from Bakersfield, but California already has so much, and in my timeline the eastern interior of the United States has so little, as it largely depopulates after the mid 20th century in the face of mass migration toward mountains, beaches, and scenic terrain. So I’ve decided to be merciful to the one city in the region that would still have a big draw if people became financially independent en masse and had fast and cheap enough transportation to live wherever they wanted.

Nashville: newer than You think

My fictional universe diverges from real life in 1900, so I’ve got a lot of time to work with in terms of changing things. In the case of Nashville I have much more to work with than I thought. While today suburban sprawl stretches 40 miles or so, from Franklin clear to Gallatin, back in 1900 it only stretched 4 miles or so, from Centennial Park to what’s now a couple exits up from where Ellington Parkway begins.

Streetcar map from 1913 showing Nashville. Yes, that’s it; that’s the whole city. For perspective, that outskirt marked “West End Park” now shows up on maps as “Midtown”.

Vanderbilt University, which now seems so centrally located, was on the edge of town back then, as was Centennial Park. Belle Meade, a suburb close to town and the most affluent enclave in the region, is so leafy and so old it seems like it was always there, but no! The whole city was only built up in the 1930s; before then it was all a working farm as part of Belle Meade Plantation (owned by the Harding family, hence the roads Harding Pike and Harding Place, which both go to Belle Meade). Even the venerable Belle Meade Country Club was only established in 1901. Warner Parks, directly south of Belle Meade, were created between 1927 and 1941 from donations of land owned by the Warner family.

Warner Parks is intersected by Old Hickory Boulevard, a loop around the city so old sections of it are submerged under artificial lakes created as part of 20th century flood control efforts, but even that road only appears on maps published after the 1920s. The U.S. Numbered Highway System and the Interstate Highway System of course date to the 1920s and the 1950s, respectively.

Most of suburban Davidson County was built up in the 20th century; large parts of Forest Hills only date to the 1970s. Brentwood was a sleepy downscale town until the 1930s, when there was an influx from Nashville of people wanting to buy the planter lifestyle, beginning Williamson County’s transformation into a purpose-built haunt of regional elites. Today it’s the most conservative county in the whole country (yes, really). Cool Springs, the closest thing Nashville has to an edge city, is located there, and dates to the 1990s.

Green Hills, the oldest mall still around, started as a shopping center in the 1950s, though Harding Mall beat it to being the first enclosed shopping mall in the 1960s (Green Hills converted to be enclosed a few years later). During the shopping mall build-out, they were all anchored by two department stores that hitherto only operated downtown: Cain-Sloan, and Castner Knott, founded in 1903 and 1898, respectively. The former is now part of Dillard’s, the latter Macy’s.

A different Suburban Build-Out

In my universe there is far more affluence, which means even without the “retail glut” there would be at least ten times as much retail space total, and in a setting more upscale than the big-box store, which means a lot more big shopping malls. It’s also entirely possible that department stores would largely stay independent rather than consolidate into a few national chains, a what-if I’ll take and run with in my alternate history. Thus Cain-Sloan and Castner Knott will still be around, perhaps joined by other local department stores of later vintage.

Where will these vast shopping complexes be located, though? Downtown would no doubt harbor a great many of them, but the most prime locations are near freeway junctions. The great freeway buildout in my universe starts in the 1930s, and standard practice in that timeline, unlike real life, is to build beltways around the urban cores and send in feeder freeways for access, rather than plow intercity freeways straight through downtowns. Roughly the route Old Hickory Boulevard takes now, roughly a 9 mile radius from downtown, would be good for a beltway. It’s not terribly built up even now; back then it would be wide-open for construction.

Even in the 1930s the freeways are built for 90 mph speeds; subsequent upgrades to 250 mph by the late 20th century (up to 400 mph by the early 21st century) facilitate rapid incorporation of surrounding towns into the metropolitan area; I could see what’s now Interstate 840, which together with its yet-to-be-built northern section, connecting Franklin, Murfreesboro, Lebanon, Gallatin, White House, Springfield, Clarksville, and Dickson, be built as an outer beltway within a few decades. This is a 25 mile radius from downtown.

The intercity freeways will be similar to today; beelines to Knoxville, Atlanta, Memphis, Birmingham, St. Louis, and Louisville will be constructed. This implies junctions with the inner beltway will be near Brentwood, Antioch, Hermitage, Madison, Whites Creek, and Bellevue. These would be the prime spots to become edge cities.

Aviation becomes far more important in this universe than in real life very quickly, but in our history Berry Field (now known as BNA) wasn’t constructed until the 1930s! Earlier airports operated near Murfreesboro, and a location closer to town was desired. Roughly where BNA is now is the logical place to put an airport. Since airports are wont to become areotropolises, edge cities unto themselves, in this universe, this to me suggests a greatly enlarged BNA will catalyze Antioch’s and Hermitage’s development into the region’s premier edge city, pre-empting Cool Springs.

With the suburban buildout cut short in this universe, with those seeking more land instead fleeing into the countryside proper by the 1960s (the Highland Rim and the Cumberland Plateau might become popular), it’s entirely possible Williamson County remains much less developed, with instead a truly urban cluster consisting of downtown and the edge cities almost directly transitioning to a vast expanse of true countryside, the only buffer between the two a relatively thin strip of sprawling suburban “kudzu houses” that lie almost abandoned. This development pattern is typical of American cities in my universe.

A futuristic Urban Fabric

Streetcars fall by the wayside in Nashville, but instead of public transit disappearing it’s upgraded to subways as nuclear technology and greater societal wealth makes tunneling far more affordable. Subway lines extend out to the edge cities and to places like Murfreesboro. By the late 20th century the freeways closer to town are also put underground, with tunnels at last connecting them together right under the city. Similar to the Underways plan for London, these underground freeways connect to vast parking garages directly under downtown buildings, which makes the entire city driveable while obviating car traffic on city streets. By the year 2000 the sight of a vehicle heavier than a bicycle is rare on the urban grid (well, unless you count the tiltrotor aircraft high above flitting to and fro all those buildings), all paved over with cobblestone for traffic calming and given over to pedestrians.

Above them loom ever-taller buildings. As business and tourism needs and wants mount, skyscrapers rise into the sky. Even Utqiagvik has a tower stretching two miles tall, and a whole bunch stretching one mile up. Nashville’s skyline will be even bigger in terms of its footprint, though it’s possible the very tallest buildings won’t be much higher than Utqiagvik’s. Keep in mind that a typical building might have 10,000 square foot hotel suites with 20 foot ceilings occupied at maybe 20%, so even with mile-high towers the population density at most will be a few tens of thousands per square mile.

The Gulch and the Cumberland Riverfront may well be revitalized at some point, with Union Station functioning as a gateway to an underground transit hub, perhaps connecting the parking garage complexes to transit stations, both subways and high-speed intercity railways. Passenger rail has a much easier time of it than in real life, with a high-speed rail buildout continuing apace with the freeway buildout. In the early 21st century maglev trains of Breitspurbahn gauge (triple standard gauge, permitting far larger and more luxurious trains!) zip along at a cruising speed of 600 mph, as fast as one can go without the travails of supersonic travel at ground level. Every major city in North America is connected, with a railway (along with freeway) tunnel even connecting to Eurasia through the Bering Strait.

Orphans of Opry Tower

To illustrate the possibilities of such an arrangement, I’ve brainstormed a story about fraternal triplets, originally from Slovenia but moved to Nashville as kids, perhaps with parents who were part of the music scene there. Orphaned in the recent past, their trust fund provides for the financial upkeep of their luxury hotel penthouse they lived in with the parents, and being around 10 years of age they live more or less independently with the hotel staff they know well providing all the help they need. This is a universe where children’s and youth’s rights expanded rather than contracted over the past century, so nobody even questions it much, let alone criminalizes it.

I’m thinking they might live in the tallest tower in town, 2 or 3 miles up, perhaps built for the Grand Ole Opry, much like the Opryland project was in real life (indeed, it might function as a combined amusement park, hotel, and performance venue) but vertical and located right across the street from the Ryman Auditorium (preserved as a historical site). Call it Opry Tower. Just a quarter mile from the riverbank, they often perform in venues on lower Broadway (they live on the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Broadway) but otherwise have no career or formal education (this is normal even for non-orphans in this universe), leaving them free to take trips to different places in the world, preferring to take the train everywhere they go.

I’m thinking these darlings will rather spontaneously decide to take a trip to the other side of the Bering Strait, Siberia, for the first time; one of the triplets is a big fan of the trains and that tunnel, and has always wanted to see it, and the other two are so sick of the summer heat they decide to go this time, seeing the sights along the way. Top cruising speed might be 600 mph but it’s not a direct train ride from Nashville to Nome, so it takes them a couple days to get there. I’m thinking when they get there they make a spa day of it and check themselves in to a day resort on the Pacific Coast of Kamchatka, getting massaged under the mountains, before heading back to Nashville over the next couple of days, taking about a week total.

Sure, the whole premise is a bit silly, but it’s a cute little story idea, and I could weave in the fate of the interior South cities, a visit to one of these huge shopping-mall edge cities, luxury hotel living, and a performing-arts element, maybe even a visit to one of those ever-so-creepy kudzu-house subdivisions. I think there’s a lot of potential there…

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