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Nashville Resilience Tested As City Rebuilds After Bombing

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

As you will recall, a suicide bombing on Christmas Day devastated downtown Nashville. It damaged buildings housing more than 45 businesses, with the worst on the verge of collapse. Now, property owners are in limbo as they wait for the go-ahead to start rebuilding. Damon Mitchell of member station WPLN reports on how the work will test the resilience of the city's downtown community.

DAMON MITCHELL, BYLINE: The call came in just before sunrise.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh, my gosh.

UNIDENTIFIED EMERGENCY DISPATCHER: 911, what is the address of your emergency?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh, my God. There - my entire building just fell down, and it's collapsing.

MITCHELL: An explosion went off, leaving buildings with their front facades crumbled in the street.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED EMERGENCY DISPATCHER: You said the entire building just collapsed?

MITCHELL: That 911 call came from one of the hardest hit lofts in Nashville's historic Second Avenue. This area is home to restaurants, apartments and tourist attractions. Next door, Betsy Williams had also called before rushing to evacuate.

BETSY WILLIAMS: And we got out with our pajamas on. It was a hectic thing. It was terrifying and nothing I ever want to go through ever again.

MITCHELL: Williams co-owns the reddish brick residential and commercial building where she also lives. She's been at a hotel since the explosion, but that isn't stopping her from diving headfirst into the rebuild.

WILLIAMS: Unfortunately, when you get to the bottom line, it's going to be a matter of what insurance is going to be willing to cover and building ownership is going to have the means to be able to cover.

MITCHELL: Specifically, she's wondering if it will be classified as an act of terrorism. It matters because of insurance. There are more questions than answers, but Williams knows the process will be long and expensive. She's personally willing to stick it out. Although, for preservationists like Phil Thomason, thinking about the whole block isn't easy.

PHIL THOMASON: I can show you on my computer here. I mean, these things are just extremely well-built. That's the other thing. I mean, you know, this is all old-growth lumber in there in terms of the joist and the flooring. And, you know, you've got the cast iron on the storefronts.

MITCHELL: Thompson runs a decades-old Nashville consulting firm. He says there will be multiple layers to restore the avenue. It was protected by the Metro Nashville City Council several decades ago. Most of the buildings are from the late 1800s. Many are listed as historic places. Some buildings have legal protections so the facades can be kept as authentic as possible. That may not be enough to protect the neighborhood from outside development, says Elizabeth Elkins. She's the president of nonprofit Historic Nashville. She says it's not unheard of for the rules to be overturned by local officials.

ELIZABETH ELKINS: There's a legacy of things changing on the zoning side when they need to.

MITCHELL: Still, there's a general feeling that many of Second Avenue's shareholders - like Betsy Williams - are excited to build back. But so far, she says, it's been slow.

WILLIAMS: Sitting around here, twiddling our thumbs, waiting on people to make decisions about stuff - I mean (clapping), let's get on with it.

MITCHELL: Whenever that happens, Williams is optimistic that the neighborhood will be back and be better than ever. For NPR News, I'm Damon Mitchell in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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