I most often make my way to Nolensville Pike following an appetite for huevos con chorizo or a craving for authentic kebabs or to buy ingredients for my world famous chicken vindaloo. Nolensville Pike offers some of the best dining in the city partly because it's also home to the most diverse neighborhoods in Nashville.
There's a world of flavors to be found on the pike, but it's also a feast for the eyes: hand-painted signs create a cacophony of languages and alphabets, and brightly colored storefronts and unique murals decorate the dense, long trip from the fairgrounds to the pony ride and beyond.
Nolensville Pike is one of the only places in the city where you might forget you're even in Nashville, but that would be a mistake. Nolensville Pike's flavors and sights are among the city's most vibrant, and the diverse stories that the street reflects are a vital part of Nashville's becoming a dynamic world class city.
Here are 20 glimpses at those countless stories on Nolensville Pike.
When you're driving down Nashville's most diverse pike you notice that the most popular color scheme – along storefronts that are noted for their vibrant spectra – is red, white and blue. The street is filled with flags and banners and bunting, and all those stars and stripes can be a felt reminder of what the American dream means to our fellow citizens, our neighbors, who weren't born here, but who dreamed themselves here to create real lives that we hope are better than the ones they left behind. It's an example of an odd dichotomy that defines our republic: If you want to know what "America" means, ask an immigrant.
Casa Azafran serves as the gateway to Nashville's most diverse neighborhoods. It's an event space as well as a collective of nonprofits which offer education, legal, health care and arts workshops to the immigrants and refugees that call Nolensville Pike home. Casa Azafran reflects the spectrum of faces that visit its classes and benefits from its services. In doing so it helps to tell their stories to the rest of Nashville, overcoming barriers of language and culture to connect us all on the common ground of neighborliness and goodwill.
Sam's Furniture and Used Appliances on Nolensville Pike is the home to a gorgeous mural depicting gleaming stoves, refrigerators, washers, dryers and furnishings in sharp white renderings against black backgrounds on a slate blue wall. The mural is signed and dated by "Mark E. Witte. 4. 25. 09." I love the modern, stripped-down design here – the mural recalls magazine illustration from an earlier era and the exposed brick in one section fits right in like a collage element that speaks to the planned obsolescence of consumer goods and the beauty-eating entropy that no work of art can escape.
When I first came to Nashville in the early 1990's, the La Hacienda restaurant just south of 440, next to Phonoluxe, was one of the few authentic Mexican restaurants and markets in the city. For me and many others it was our first taste of Nolensville Pike. While the mural that decorates the front of the building makes it easy to spot, I love these colors on the back of the space which will be familiar to diners who've had to make use of La Hacienda's additional parking when arriving too close to the dinner rush in the late winter as the sun is setting.
Phonoluxe has been one of Nashville's friendliest and best music stops since it opened in 1987. I came to Nashville in 1992 and – if memory serves – I discovered the place after my first visit to the La Hacienda restaurant next door. On my first trip to take pictures for this project, I drove straight to this spot as if I was subconsciously recreating my first-ever experience of the pike. The Phonoluxe building has always been recognizable for its rusty orange exterior and gorgeous painted signage. Now, someone has taken the opportunity to make use of a boarded-up sign next door to introduce their own visuals. I've been calling this one "The Fifth Beetle."
The original Finer Things gallery on Nolensville Road was wiped out by Nashville's historic 2010 flood. When the nearby Browns Creek overflowed its banks, it took vehicles, a studio, a workshop, and a sculpture garden. As the water receded Nashville's art scene responded with a benefit to help the gallery get back on its feet, and Finer Things reopened its doors just last fall. Viewed from the railroad behind the space, Doug Schatz's untitled sculpture slithers above a wooden fence like the tentacles of an unspeakable sea creature, rising from the deep.
In The Great Gatsby two giant, bespectacled eyes loom over the valley of the ashes – they are staring from a billboard advertising the services of eye doctor T. J. Eckleburg. At Green Auto Sales, another pair of looming eyes stares from one of the most arresting hand-painted signs you'll find anywhere in Nashville. In Gatsby, Eckleburg's eyes are said to symbolize the eyes of God, looking down in judgment on American greed. These eyes at Green are more seductive than judgmental, urging ambivalent customers to BUY HERE and PAY HERE with hypnotic intensity.
I did my first photo essay for WPLN about Gallatin Pike. Nolensville Pike is similar in that it's not a place that presents itself as particularly beautiful to the casual viewer: the plethora of signage can equal visual pollution to unattuned eyes and Nolensville pike is dense and long at a scale that leaves Gallatin Pike envious. The South Nashville neighborhoods that fall along the drag are many and mixed-up like no other Nashville community, and along the way there are decorations to be found among the discarded and beauty amidst the banal.
You're not likely to pass Gorilla's Muffler Center without noticing this guy. His wild counterpart might be powerful and menacing, but this beast is more of the creepy/disturbing type: cinched at the waist with a rope that secures him to some little kid's drivable plastic car; a 1000 banana stare focused intently on nothing particular in the middle-distance. He could be a runaway from the zoo, but if he is, he looks like he's having second thoughts at life in the concrete jungle.
The pony ride at the corner of Nolensville and Harding is one of the oddest — and most charming — attractions on the street. I love the red, white and blue bunting here along with the novelty of a living carousel. When I visited the spot on a sunny late winter afternoon there wasn't a pony or a kid in sight, but it still smelled like a barn and one of the help had left their lunch behind.
Palm trees are a popular motif in the murals on Nolensville Pike , but I especially like the ones in this scene on the side of the Newroz Market just off of Nolensville Pike on Elysian Fields Court in the heart of Nashville's Little Kurdistan marketplaces. The mural re-imagines our city as a tropical paradise where the Parthenon looks likes it's set somewhere closer to its original home and the state flag and the Star Spangled Banner both share the sky with these tall, waving trees. Complete with a hilal butcher and an amazing flatbread bakery, this market is a meeting-place for Nashville's Kurdish community and one of the best international markets in the city for home chefs of any background looking for authentic Middle Eastern ingredients and products.
For examples of go-go entrepreneurialism on Nolensville Pike, just look to the multitude of tire shops fighting everyday for their tiny track of pike to tread. My favorite eye-catching gimmick involves painting piles of tires in various bold colors, but this scene at one shop proved the most poetic pile of potential movement.
Dream in the Doorway
Along certain parts of Nolensville Pike, the otherness of the place becomes so complete that a single, out of context image can look like a photo taken in some place a long way from Music City. I love the beautiful dried flowers here and the flourish of the white script on this green door. Like many passersby, I don't know a thing about the story this scene presents, but it's surely one that makes the pike and this city a much more vibrant and interesting place to live.
You can take an online tour of the Noor International Market via a 15 minute YouTube video that highlights the plethora of goods they've packed into the place. The shelves at Noor are jammed with bulk nuts, packaged coffee, huge jugs of olive oil, fresh grapes, dates and other produce, kitchenware and a halal butcher counter. If you see the video, you'll be starving by the time it ends and you'll want to take an actual tour of your own right away. Keep your eyes peeled for one of the most colorful murals off Nolensville Pike and you won't be able to miss it. '
Grease and Graffiti
The K&T Auto Parts location on Nolensville Pike is decorated with official Car Quest logos and signage, but I prefer their homemade, spray- painted additions. I love the car care for dummies "Enter" arrow above the door and the wrench-and-nuts theme here is super tight.
Orange White Wall
Graffiti is a controversial issue: some see it as defacing private property; some see it as the creative voice of the disenfranchised. Disregarding either side of that argument, the tête-à-tête going down on this wall at the corner of Nolensville and Whitsett road has resulted in one of the most gorgeous abstract expressions on the pike. I think all the parties involved should shake hands, contact a gallery and start a sensation selling this arresting anti-aesthetic.
In this one view of three signs, Nolensville Pike's food culture comes into view: halal and latin butchers and grocers pepper the pike, and this Captain D's location stands-in for all of the fast food chains that share the road with taquerias, kebab restaurants, kurdish bakeries, and El Salvadoran pupuserias along the way.
I first found my way to Workers' Dignity (Dignidad Obrera) covering the Pilgrimage March in 2013 for The Contributor. The event found activists and community organizers marching through Nashville's most economically challenged communities in a call for "jobs, equity and fairness." I've also participated in the organization's Labor Day parade, marching from Harding Pike to Thompson Lane. Workers' Dignity is a worker-led center organizing for economic justice and dignity through relationships with fellow low-wage laborers and other allies.
His and Hers
These barbershop/hairdresser next door neighbors offer what might be the most charming storefront on all of Nolensville Pike. From the comb-and-scissors motifs, the barber poles, the ubiquitous red-white-and-blue color scheme, to the pretty flowers and the corrugated roof, I'd think its safe to trust that these folks probably know a thing or two about making their customers look just as good.
Muralist Michael Cooper is a Memphis native educated as an interior designer. Nashvillians whose ears don't prick up at Cooper's name will surely recognize his murals around town which include the giant taps on the outside of the Yazoo Brewery's tanks and his masterpiece, the Nashville Zoo mural beneath the railroad overpass just north of the zoo on Nolensville Pike. Rendered in the artist's signature trompe l'oeil style, the mural sets the scene of a mass zoo escape with any number of exotic, cuddly and dangerous creatures gathering under the structure. Cooper adds depth to his scene by painting the pillars themselves with a stone block pattern complete with an "engraved" shout-out to the Flatrock community. This ring-tailed lemur has met his fashion match in this caution sign. Is there anything more embarrassing than escaping from a cage only to find that you're dressed just like somebody else? Outrageous!