By Maria Bonvissuto
As a child, I loved big cities. They represented the epitome of everything good in life, and I dreamed of the day when I'd live in one.
My family moved from Chicago when I was eleven and headed down to Tennessee, settling in Kingston Springs — population 3,000. Sitting on the banks of the quiet Harpeth River, it's barely a blip on the map. If you pull off Interstate 40, you’re immediately greeted by a row of gas stations, a Post Office, Sonic, Dollar General, and not much else.
Despite the natural beauty all around, it felt like the middle of no-man's land. I hated being in a rural location and resented the fact that Nashville was no Chicago or New York.
Twelve-year-old me (I thought I was so sophisticated) felt dismayed by our town library — a one-story log cabin with no book I hadn't already read. I disdained The Cheatham County Advocate, a local paper with all the county news fit to print. One day, perusing through the Advocate, I read a story about a Christmas tree lighting at the library.
“That tree is pathetic,” I muttered, scowling at the picture, “just like this town.”
My mom rebuked me for being such an ungrateful snob, although at the time I didn't understand why. Who, I thought, would want to spend the rest of her life here? Who wouldn't leave as soon as she got the chance?
I moved far away for college and eventually ended up in DC. In the meantime, the big city 25 miles east of Kingston Springs, Nashville, magically became an "it" city. People raved about what a fun place it was and demanded to know what I thought of the hot chicken (which, by the way, I've never once eaten). It began to transform into the cultural and social hub I'd always wished it was in my childhood and teenage years.
The thing was, as more people told me their favorite things about Nashville, the more I scratched my head and wondered if we were thinking of the same place. One summer vacation, out of curiosity, I visited The Gulch — a popular, high-end apartment community downtown custom-made for millennials — which practically swallows Nashville’s historic Station Inn. I came away feeling utterly dismayed. My home was beginning to look and sound more like Washington, D.C. and less like the small, scrappy, unique Southern city I knew from childhood.
The more I reflected on what made Nashville lovable, the more I realized how much I appreciated my old home's unpretentious existence. Nashville didn't need a million hipster coffee shops or pop-up bars to make it wonderful. It didn't need to wrap its identity around how much it could imitate New York. It was a small town just trying to make a little music. “Small town,” I began to see, was not a phrase that necessarily merited scorn.
Now when I return for a visit, I’m drawn to the mostly untouched outskirts of the city instead of its pulsating center. I see it as a chance to take a break from the cliches of millennial city life. There isn’t a Trader Joe’s on every corner, and I find that refreshing. I value some of the very things out here that I’d once looked down on.
I used to see Kingston Springs as a run-down pitstop on the highway where the only exciting things that happened were catfights amongst school board officials. But with each homecoming, as Nashville becomes more and more like the big city I’m taking a vacation from, my eyes open to my little town’s gems.
The Harpeth River wending its serene, serpentine way past my neighborhood. The five or so shops that make up "downtown" Kingston Springs, always fiercely clinging to life. The beauty of Burns Park, where my parents would take us as a family on Christmas Day after opening presents — sandstone bluffs lined with age and crowned with green overlooking the river, the tiny pond where we'd fish for bluegills, the community center where my sister has always dreamed of having her wedding reception. Neighbors who — whether they know you or not — give you a wave as they drive past you on your run. The Fillin' Station, a tiny garage-turned-restaurant that serves unremarkable burgers and decent music, a place you cram yourself into during the cold months or lounge in front of during sultry August evenings. The cows that stand sentry in the field overlooking our neighborhood and that broke loose and wandered around yards during the flood of 2010. The Narrows of the Harpeth, where you can stand on a cliff’s edge hundreds of feet above the earth and feel like a queen surveying her kingdom. The Fiddle and Pick, where anyone with an instrument can stop in for a weeknight jam session. The Community Bank and Trust, where the tellers, no matter how long it’s been since you were last there, instantly recognize you and ask you about your life.
It's a place utterly lacking in "coolness," and I'm grateful for that. Certainly, the same broken human nature exists here as anywhere else and manifests itself in ways unique to small towns. I wouldn't call life here "simple" or "quaint." But it holds a beauty, quiet, and rootedness that is not only good but necessary. This place doesn't pretend to be something it's not, and I can't pretend to be who I'm not here either. It's a world where you have more space and silence to marinate in your thoughts, your imagination.
There’s more than one way to be happy and content in this world, and growth can happen just as much in the quiet of wooded hills as the brightness of the city. Here, I'm reminded that I don’t know everything and that the good life doesn't have to look like a coastal city. It's a reminder Nashville needs, one I hope it holds onto as it keeps growing.
Millennials are supposed to be the ones who despise small towns and the strictures of rural life. I don't think it has to be that way. Freedom can be found in stability, beauty in the order and rhythm of a life deeply rooted in community. Places like Kingston Springs teach us humility and remind us that we aren’t the center of the world, and that’s perfectly all right.
I'm happy to see others appreciate a city that was hidden in the wings for so long. It's exciting to see Nashville thrive and grow. But I hope it never loses its ordinariness. I hope it always makes room for tiny places like Kingston Springs. As much as we don't want to admit it, often the unremarkable people, places and things are what matter most and keep us from disintegrating, warping into unrecognizable shapes and identities. I hope Nashville holds onto small, quiet things. I did not appreciate them for the longest time, and it's only now that I'm starting to come around.