Nashville’s HatWRKS, located in its bustling Eighth Avenue South neighborhood, is hard to miss. Its giant sign displays the name in rusty-colored, lit-up metal lettering—the epitome of the Americana aesthetic the city is so known for now. The hat shop has been operating popularly for a decade, thanks to the fact that it’s a tourist’s rite of passage to buy a hat and boots before they leave town, but locals shopped there too. As beloved local performer Josh Hedley told me, “Basically if you’re looking for a hat that isn’t a gift shop Bret Michaels hat, a big ass cowboy hat, or a $600 custom—HatWRKS was it. Period.” Hedley used the past tense intentionally—on May 29, the shop’s owner, Gigi Gaskins posted a now-deleted picture of herself wearing a yellow Star of David that said “Not Vaccinated.”
Gaskins’ stunt managed to trivialize the Holocaust while also painting herself as a warrior of anti-vax culture, so it’s no surprise that it quickly spread beyond Nashville. As national news outlets began to cover the story, the Nashville community responded to Gaskins’ antisemitism with a boycott of the store. Despite deleting her post after only a few hours, Gaskins continued to stoke anger by posting argumentative nonapologies alleging that she is “fighting the totalitarian march and power grab” and suggesting that she “pay[s] much more respect to history by standing up with the fallen than offering silence and compliance.” The Tennessee Holocaust Commission responded in a statement calling Gaskins’ actions “reprehensible” and “horrific.” The HatWRKS Yelp page has since been disabled and is under a “public attention alert,” and small protests erupted outside the storefront. Along with dozens of other prominent hat-makers, Stetson has formally cut ties with Gaskins.
While many were shocked by the magnitude of Gaskins’ most recent blunder, she had been pretty straightforward for a while about her Trump-fueled values: Her Instagram page, where the photo was posted, has been full of conspiracy theories and QAnon-style memes for more than a year, and she responded to last summer’s historic civil rights protests in the wake of George Floyd’s police murder by making a hat model called “All Hats Matter.” In April, she put up a billboard that read, “Cancel Cancel Culture Before It Cancels Us All,” and in March, she’d done another that said, “Warriors of justice, we ask you to please stop trying to cancel the air that we breath for we live in America the land of the free one thing for certain you will not cancel me!” Since before the presidential election, many Nashvillians were commenting on her Instagram posts and trying to spread awareness of her values by sharing her posts widely and encouraging people to stop frequenting the store. But Gaskins hasn’t stopped pushing the limits and is also known for fervently blocking people who argue with or mock her.
I don’t know if anything would have stopped this specific firestorm, but as I’ve thought back on it, I’ve been struck by the fact that a decade ago, this would have been extremely unusual here, and now it is almost unsurprising. I was raised in Nashville by two parents in the music industry, and it always felt like an anomalous wonderland to me: On top of the country music industry the city is famous for, the city always had rock legends coming to town, and a thriving young rock, punk, and dance party scene of its own. Its close community ties made it feel more like a large town than a small city, and then on top of that, we were an “island of blue in a sea of red.” Add the wide array of beauty and outdoor activity the Cumberland River Valley provides, and Nashville felt a bit like a well-kept secret.
But over the past decade or so, the secret has undeniably been let out. Nashville has become less reliant on its identity as a country music destination as it has transformed into a much bigger city that is now equally known as a bachelorette party theme park. As developers have courted transplants and businesses have catered to tourists, the aesthetic fabric of the city has been altered. There has also been an enormous influx of cold, hard cash. With the increase in wealthier residents—who tend to vote more conservatively—the choice to uphold progressive values seems less of a unanimous one. There’s now plenty of space for characters like Gaskin—who, sure, is enabled by the Republican Party’s actions more broadly—but I think there’s something specific to this place and the changes it’s endured that ought to be part of this story.
Politically, Nashville has always leaned left. The city has never elected a Republican mayor, and metro council is typically Democratic as well. In Nashville’s 2019 Mayoral runoff election, Our Revolution Nashville and Middle Tennessee, a progressive advocacy organization, reported that “the more progressive candidates received 169,251 votes to 92,737 votes to non-progressive candidates.” That progressive favor saw the election of at-large council member Zulfat Suara, the first Muslim to be elected to that position, as well as Sandra Sepulveda as the first Latina council member and increased the number of openly LGBTQ council members from two to five. Nashville has also historically been an agent for pushback against the state’s conservative legislative body—with multiple past mayors fighting against Tennessee bans on sanctuary cities and abortion restrictions.
Recently though, that progressive fight is shifting. In the past year, the Tennessee Legislature has passed a six-week abortion ban (done during a midnight vote, without having been disclosed on the docket) and alarming anti-trans bills targeting bathroom usage and trans youth, and recently attempted to pass a bill granting immunity to drivers who hit protesters with their cars. Where Nashville used to feel like a line of defense against these kinds of hyperconservative laws and deliberations, in the aforementioned 2019 mayoral runoff, John Cooper, brother of Rep. Jim Cooper, was elected with a landslide 70 percent of the vote. Cooper, while a Democrat, has more of a fiscal agenda than a social one. When he decried the recent anti-trans legislation, his reasoning was that it could deter business from coming to Nashville. He also came out as fundamentally against Nashville being a sanctuary city, because it could cost the city state money. During the pandemic, he was widely criticized for prioritizing the health of businesses over citizens and for not being able to keep businesses flouting pandemic restrictions under control. Still, he’s maintained high approval ratings (80 percent in the annual Vanderbilt University poll in the spring of 2020, though its most recent poll, in April, saw Cooper’s approval drop to 57 percent.)
These political changes are happening alongside broader demographic changes. Outside of the entertainment industry, Nashville used to be an attractive option for business people coming for the thriving health care industry and academics coming to teach and study at Vanderbilt. Now tech giants like Amazon and Oracle are making plans to build campuses in town. A wave of wealthy new residents is happy to pay what seem like exponentially increasing real estate prices. Conservative media presences like Ben Shapiro and his Daily Wire network, Tomi Lahren, and Candace Owens have moved in. Owens and Lahren did not waste time inserting their conservative firebrands into the community with anti–cancel culture billboards and fervent anti-masking campaigns throughout the pandemic—with Lahren promoting a line of shirts for a local anti-masking bar that said “talk shit get hit.”
The tourism has alarmingly changed shape as well. In the ’90s and early aughts, Nashville provided a party atmosphere to tourists, especially at the honky-tonks on Lower Broadway, but there were also families coming to go to Opryland and older folks who wanted to nerd out on country music. Now the city is known as the top bachelorette destination in the country (even post-pandemic, bachelorette party planning site the Bach ranked it No. 1 again). A few weeks ago, there was a giant golden penis with a saddle parked on Lower Broadway for partiers to ride like a mechanical bull. The streets are plagued with “transportainment” vehicles, which include among them both giant tractors and mobile hot tub party buses—all of which are bemoaned by locals, but the city refuses to regulate them (it had trouble controlling them even during the height of the pandemic). There are whole Instagram accounts dedicated to parodying New Nashville and to documenting the labyrinth of puking, crying bachelorettes on Broadway. And big radio country stars are opening bars trying to cash in on the Nashville craze: Miranda Lambert, Jason Aldean, Alan Jackson, Florida Georgia Line, Dierks Bentley, Blake Shelton, John Rich, and Kid Rock now each own loud, neon hubs for drunk tourists.
Economically, many Nashvillians are being priced out of the city. Adjacent towns have to decide if they want to restrict Airbnb access to keep housing prices reasonable, which is sad because part of what has made Nashville attractive to young, aspiring musicians for decades was its affordability.
The city government has not kept up with the changes. Local alt-weekly the Nashville Scene put out an in-depth report last spring that detailed a decade of financial mismanagement and refusal to incrementally increase taxes in a way that would have kept the city from having to live off its rainy day fund for the past 18 months. The central question is why, during a decade of economic boom, the city’s government was barely financially solvent. Last summer, after having not raised property taxes since 2005 despite rising property values, a 34 percent property tax increase was put in place.
Nashville has no public transit outside of an unreliable bus system, which has become increasingly frustrating as the population increases, and roads become more congested. The two times in 2016 and 2018 when officials have come close to passing a public transit plan, wealthy Nashvillians have lobbied against the proposals, citing safety concerns that many thought veiled classist and bigoted fears of poorer Nashvillians and people of color having access to their richer, predominantly white neighborhoods. While those neighborhoods succeeded in restricting public transportation, gentrification has run rampant in the parts of Nashville that provided community for those in lower income brackets. Displacement is only getting worse as the economic prosperity of the Nashville boom hasn’t seemed to uplift all residents. “Nashville’s poverty levels remain higher than pre-Great Recession, even amid high levels of overall economic growth,” Metro Social Services executive director Renee Pratt noted in a letter accompanying the city’s 2019 Community Needs Evaluation.
An unexpected but increasing factor for both gentrification and rapid development has been the rise in climate change. The boom decade was kicked off by Nashville’s 2010 biblical-seeming flood that decimated major areas of the city. This created ample opportunity for developers to swoop in and buy up destroyed property from overwhelmed and traumatized Nashvillians. As tornadoes have become even more common and destructive, with 2020’s massive storm that leveled swaths of already gentrifying east and north Nashville, the opportunities for predatory buying continue. Underregulated development is now causing flooding for longtime Nashvillians, as developers build insufficient water deviation methods that are supposed to compensate for increased runoff from new structures.
Nashville is still an entertainment hub in the southeast, and it still holds on to its progressive ideals and deeply ingrained sense of community. But as the city enters its second decade of what seems like unending growth, there is no hiding the emerging class divide and lack of protection for and investment in long-standing residents. And with the burgeoning conservative community beginning to populate Nashville, there’s no telling what will pressure the city government to step up—or if Nashville will become another city that ultimately puts progress over progressiveness.