New ballpark in North Nashville means bringing back history

Nashville’s new downtown ballpark, slated to open in time for the 2015 season, marks a return to the area where Sulphur Dell Park once stood. Sulphur Dell hosted Negro and Minor League Baseball teams from the 19th century through 1963, including a six-decade run as the home of the Southern Association’s Nashville Vols.

The new Nashville Sounds ballpark, First Tennessee Park, will be the perfect addition. North Nashville has a lot of history and has been the background for many occasions in the African American community. Almost a century before country music took over Nashville, Fisk University’s Jubilee Singers were making ‘Music City’ internationally known. It’s a place where students from the area’s numerous schools (Fisk, Meharry Medical College and what’s now known as Tennessee State University) planned sit-ins and boycotts of local businesses during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

The stadium proposal was spearheaded by mayor Karl Dean in November, and Metro council approved funding for the project on Dec. 10. The city will issue municipal bonds to cover an estimated $65 million price tag, including both construction and land acquisition costs, with the Sounds committing to a 30-year lease agreement running through the 2045 campaign.

“This was the location that the mayor wanted, and we wanted, and the stars all aligned in the right direction,” said Sounds owner Frank Ward. “Everything just worked. That’s probably the easiest way to say it.”

2012 saw the opening of the 28th/31st Avenue Connector, an $18 million project that allows easier passage between the area and Nashville’s West End. That same year, the city celebrated the opening of ‘Gateway to Heritage Plaza,’ designed to celebrate Nashville’s African American history.

But that plaza is situated under Interstate 40—the construction of which split up the area in 1968, taking much of its unique culture along with it. Nashville’s desegregation also played a significant role in the changes. Within a few years, roughly 50% of the area’s population had relocated, and more than 100 businesses had closed.

But a strong sense of community has remained, especially at local staples like Ed’s Fish House, which has served ‘Nashville’s Original Hot Fish Sandwich’ at the corner of D.B. Todd Jr. Boulevard and Buchanan Street since 1972. MetroCenter is also based in North Nashville and is home to the Tennessee Titans’ headquarters and Watkins College of Art, Design and Film.

Hopefully the First Tennessee Ball Park can continue to retain a sense of community and bring the community closer when it opens next year.