(NOTE: See my 2020 update to this post here.)
Business Week magazine just included Murfreesboro, Tennessee as one of the best places to raise your children. Well, if they’d just asked me I could have told them that a long time ago.
For years now, I’ve been using a little vignette about growing up in Murfreesboro as a part of a talk I give about the livability of towns and cities. While Business Week focuses on Murfreesboro as a recession-proof college town, I believe there’s a lot more to it.
When I think of home, I remember 407 East Main Street in Murfreesboro. I grew up in Murfreesboro when it was a city of 35,000 people. My parents bought a simple 1880s-era home on Main Street because it had an apartment where my grandmother could live with us. Over the course of twenty years, four generations of our family lived under this roof.
Murfreesboro has a history that was very real and very present to me as a child. I could walk four blocks to the town square, where the 1850s courthouse (see photo above) served as a reminder of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s 1862 raid on the city. In a time before Murfreesboro’s streets were given over completely to cars, I often bicycled out to the Stones River National Battlefield on the edge of town, because I was fascinated by the story of that terrible battle around New Year’s Day in 1863. As I grew older I could walk to my job at Martin’s Drug Store on the square, or stop in for lunch at the City Café – both located in buildings that had a history.
My high school was two blocks away in the opposite direction. This 1960s building was located on the site of the Tennessee School for Women, an early educational institution in a town where education was important.
The core of Murfreesboro – what today has been identified as its “historic district” – was very livable. We were one block from our neighborhood grocery store, where the bag boys like my younger brother Joe could often be seen carrying groceries home for the older residents in our neighborhood. Mr. Clardy, who ran that grocery store, also managed what was then called a “guest home” three doors down from our house on Main Street. This fabulous Queen Anne style mansion was a home-away-from-home for businessmen traveling to the city.
I was three blocks away from the Baptist Church and its early 20th century building, where I spent a good deal of time, but I could have been just about any denomination and still walked from my house to the local congregation’s home. The public library, where my mother was the children’s librarian for many years, was five blocks away in a renovated post office building. Today we call this adaptive reuse.
“Main Street” sounds like the fashionable residential location for most communities, and it was true that we had our share of large Victorian mansions as neighbors. But next door to our house was an apartment building – which was not the only one on the street. We lived one block from what today would be called “affordable or workforce housing” and our neighborhood was mixed both racially and economically. Until I stopped growing, I was a baseball and basketball junkie, and spare hours were spent on the school fields and courts with kids of all races and economic groups. Our banker lived in our neighborhood. But so did college fraternity boys, shopkeepers, housekeepers, and the wide range of people who made up Murfreesboro at that time.
We all went to school together, and the public schools in Murfreesboro were the pride of the state. The community cared about its children, from providing good schools to providing an environment where my grandmother – and others of her generation like Mrs. Roberts and Mrs. Todd – could nurture us, help us feel safe, and receive care and love in return.
You may think that I am painting an idealistic picture of my childhood in Murfreesboro. I will admit that we had our share of problems to address. However, Murfreesboro at that time was designed in such a way that we had to work out our problems and we had built-in support structures that made such communication possible.
And the Murfreesboro that I knew was not so much different from other communities in America built prior to World War II.
My father grew up on Second Avenue in Franklin, Tennessee, in a wonderful Victorian-era cottage. I remember the house fondly from visits I made to my grandparents. Like me, my father could walk to school, church, the grocery store, and the town square. As a college student at Vanderbilt, he caught the Inter-urban bus from Franklin to Nashville daily – a transportation system that had evolved from an earlier streetcar line where my grandfather served a stint as a conductor. As a young boy I would walk to the store one block from my grandmother’s house and pick up her groceries, which were kept on a tab until she stopped in to pay it later in the week. That grocery store was in a converted church building, for once a building had moved beyond its original use it didn’t necessarily have to be torn down to remain productive. My older brother Steve and I would be visiting my grandparents and hear the train whistle at the depot, which was at the end of the block. We would both tear out the front door and make it down in time to look at the long trains moving through the town. If we were lucky, the train stopped and we would talk with the engineers and conductors and hear about life on the railroad. As a young boy, I loved exploring Franklin as much as I enjoyed exploring Murfreesboro.
Why is all of this important? Because we have now raised an entire generation of citizens who have no idea what a wonderful and enriching place a city or town can be, especially for a child. We are not building “communities” that connect our past and future anymore and many citizens no longer feel they have a “home.”
The way of life lived in my father’s generation – and I was lucky enough to get much of the same type of life – was inexpensive and fostered a sense of community. Elderly people like my grandmother served as neighborhood watchdogs. Children like me could be independent – riding our bikes or walking throughout the neighborhood – while still being observed by adults who knew our parents. The middle class, poor, working class, and upper class patronized the same schools, stores, and public places. We knew each other and everyone had a stake in maintaining public order. And though my father no longer owns 407 East Main Street, it is still the house that I think of when I hear the word “home.”
So Business Week got it right…but they don’t know the half of it. Children need community – places like Murfreesboro and Franklin and Staunton, Virginia – all places I’ve lived and loved. But there are great communities in cities, like in Silver Spring, Maryland where we currently live, where great neighborhoods are within walking distance of a revitalizing downtown and beautiful Sligo Creek and a short metro ride away from downtown Washington (which has its own share of great neighborhoods). So even if you don’t have children, look for real communities. They’re the best places to live!
More to come…