Greetings from Berry Hill, Metro’s quirkiest, tiniest town

Monday, January 28, 2013 at 3:48am
012813 BerryHill sign topper.jpg

When the night falls on Berry Hill, the flower-named streets like Azalea Place and Iris Drive are mostly desolate. At one point in the satellite city’s 63-year history, the small 1940s cottages that line the roadways were probably humming with energy after dark — the glow of an early television or families gathered around the dinner table.

But today, when the now-converted office spaces clear out, there are more people at rest permanently — in Woodlawn Memorial Park Cemetery — than there are catching their z’s in the city’s few residential areas. 

And that transformation is what makes Berry Hill stand out from its satellite-city brethren. Unlike Metro Nashville’s other “cities within a city,” Berry Hill is largely commercial. Everything from doctor’s
offices to music studios to a do-it-yourself dog wash is packed into the city’s nine-tenths of a square mile. And still, Nashville’s only scuba diving shop manages to fit in.

The U.S. Census unveiled a special study in 2000 about cities with daytime populations that far exceeded the residential population. Berry Hill ranked No. 20 out of every incorporated municipality in the country, with its estimated daytime population blossoming to about 10 times the number of residents. (The leader of the list? Lake Buena Vista, Fla., the city of just 10 residents that is also home to Walt Disney World.)

When the stats are limited to cities with more than 600 residents, Berry Hill ranked No. 5. 

In 2000, 676 people were counted in Berry Hill, while the daytime population was around 6,500. The 2010 Census only counted 537 Berry Hill residents, putting the city squarely between Petersburg, Tenn., (pop. 544) and Pittman Center, Tenn., (pop. 502). 

But beyond the oddity and quirkiness of Metro’s commercial-heavy independent city, a question remains: What is the case for the continued existence of a city like Berry Hill in 2013? 

The other satellite cities likely kept a watchful eye in 2010 as the residents of Lakewood, a former satellite city, voted to dissolve the municipality. Citizens petitioned to become a part of Metro due to a decaying infrastructure and limited income stream. The measure passed by a mere 11 votes. 

But Berry Hill’s unique place in Metro hasn’t fostered those problems, according to City Manager Joe Baker. The city operates on a budget that hasn’t topped $3 million. 

Most of the money comes from a half-share of the local sales tax — which is overall just 1.125 percent of business sales in the city.

“Financially, [businesses] do play a bigger role [than residents],” Baker said. “Most of our income comes through our businesses, and we try to let them know that we appreciate that. That’s why we don’t have a lot of resistance to businesses of all types operating in what were traditionally residential neighborhoods.” 

And a cool $2.5 million provides a bevy of services. Residents get weekly trash pickup and recycling. The city has two police officers on duty 24 hours a day. A two-man public works department salts and plows the seven miles of city streets on the rare occasion that it snows. The city’s administrative staff is only three employees, including Baker. A city judge hears minor cases involving traffic violations and littering once per month. 

The other half of the local option sales tax goes to Metro. Originally, that money was meant to be allocated to Metro schools, but the most recent Berry Hill census count shows only 21 residents between the ages of 5 and 17.

“We don’t have a school in Berry Hill,” Mayor Harold Spray jokes, “but we do have the Board of Education.” The Metro Nashville Public Schools office building on Bransford Avenue used to function as Julia Andrews School, a K-8 school for kids from Berry Hill and other surrounding areas. 

Metro still provides the city other services like fire protection and use of utilities services.

The history of Berry Hill could arguably be as funky — or “pfunky,” based on the spelling of the town’s make-your-own pancake joint — as the presence of “Barry,” the 10-foot-tall wooden bear sculpture that overlooks the city from town hall. 

The neighborhoods that eventually came to comprise Berry Hill were built with federal funds for housing defense workers during World War II. Two hundred cottages were constructed in 1941 for Vultee war aircraft builders, and they rented for $38.50 to $42.50 per month, according to research done by former resident Jan Brach. 

After the war, veterans were given the first option to buy the homes. If veterans declined the purchase, the house was made available to the public. Brach’s family, six people strong, lived in a small two-bedroom house in 1951.

“It was the best of times, it was the best of times,” Brach wrote in her book Tales from Berry Hill which was published in 2010. 

Her book recounts stories of schoolchildren playing in the nearby woodland where 100 Oaks Mall is now. 

When chatting with The City Paper about the Berry Hill of yore, Brach recalled when country music star Porter Wagoner moved to town. She and other neighborhood kids waited for hours to see Wagoner’s legendary pink Cadillac arrive. 

“Finally, this old beat-up pink Cadillac drives up to the house they were going to move into,” Brach said, recounting the underwhelming event. “They got out of the car and they were all in shorts or underwear. ... We always laughed about it.” (Wagoner, of course, would go on to star on the Grand Ole Opry for decades until his death in 2007. He is buried at Woodlawn Memorial Park Cemetery, which lies partially within Berry Hill’s city limits.) 

According to archives of the Nashville Banner, the city of Berry Hill attempted to incorporate twice. At the time, Davidson County and Nashville still operated as separate governments. 

The first attempt at incorporation was in 1948, when an attorney named Ewing Clouse attempted to stir up support to make the area the city of “Westwood.” That attempt failed. 

But the groundswell of support for incorporation of Berry Hill, referred to as “Berryhills” and “Berryhill” in the Banner, grew in 1950. The proposed area for incorporation was home to 1,100 residents — about double the number who reside in the city today. 

Vigorous campaigning took place on both sides of the issue. Some residents were worried that the move would up the tax burden and give local politicians too much power. 

“There is no justification for superimposing this city government on our section,” an anti-incorporation pamphlet said, according to the Banner. “A few politicians might benefit but the rest of us will suffer.” 

The other side argued that the county government wasn’t looking out for Berry Hill’s interests. 

“Boy, it was really controversial. The thing was that the county wouldn’t pave the roads. Bransford was just potholes like you wouldn’t believe,” Brach said. “I just remember my dad talking about ‘[The county is] going to raise our taxes, but they aren’t going to fix Bransford.’ ”

On Election Day, both sides offered free babysitting and rides to the polls located at the state fairgrounds and Kay’s Ice Cream Shop. Still, less than 300 residents cast ballots. 

Incorporation passed by a narrow 148-145 vote. Even after the election, there was some confusion about whether the city needed a two-thirds vote to incorporate. The Davidson County Election Commission confirmed that the half-plus-one rule was in effect, and Berry Hill was a city. 

Following incorporation, the first big wave of change came in 1967 when 100 Oaks — on what was previously the site of a two-story log home owned by the Dickerson family — opened as the first enclosed shopping center in Nashville. 

Nashville’s first mall spurned commercial development in the area along Thompson Lane. But growth also had its downside. 

The construction of Interstate 440 forced Berry Hill residents — including Brach’s father — to sell their homes to the government. Several opportunistic residents hung on to former residential properties, sensing that development was on its way.

“A lot of people over here [in the Bransford District] were happy it went commercial because it made the property more valuable,” Spray said. “Properties were selling for $8,000 to $12,000 back then, and they are bringing big bucks now.” 

Spray moved to Berry Hill in 1965. He started a pest control business, Spray’s Exterminating Co., in the 1970s.  

He ran for commissioner for the first time in 1986 at the persuasion of a friend. 

“He wouldn’t let up, so I finally gave in to it,” said Spray, who has served in all three available positions in the city government: mayor, vice mayor and commissioner. (All office-seekers run for commissioner, then the three commissioners appoint the other positions among themselves.) 

While population in Berry Hill has continued to decline over the past several decades, the city is far from writing its last chapter. In fact, over the next few years, the number of people living in Berry Hill could double due to two large apartment projects on Franklin Pike. 

Co-developers unveiled a plan for a 226-unit apartment complex called 23Hundred at Berry Hill last year. A long-planned development just a few blocks down — at the former location of the Melrose Theatre — is expected to bring 220 luxury apartments with a mixed-use component. The luxury auto dealership that sits in between the two planned complexes is moving to Williamson County, which opens another plot for development. 

“We’ve been kind of lucky in that some larger parcels have come on the market recently, and we’re probably benefiting from 12South having developed over the past few years,” Baker said. “I think people are looking at adjacent areas now.” 

And while big business may be moving in, Baker said the small-town setup is a selling point for development. 

“We have one building official who reviews all the plans and inspections. They know who they are going to get. We don’t have voicemail boxes, or when they call they get another person,” Baker said. 

“Somebody picks up the phone 24/7. After hours, the police dispatch will answer. ... I think people like that personal contact. They can drop in and take care of whatever business they have.” 

Due to the bigger developments, Baker said the city may even explore conducting a special census once the new complexes are complete, in order to receive a larger share of state-appropriated population funding.

The city is also looking at making the district more walkable, with paved sidewalks around Franklin Pike. 

Spray said he hopes the new residents will embrace civic engagement with the city.

“It would help to get more people interested in running for office over here,” Spray said. “Until these apartments came in, most of our residents were getting up in years. It was an elderly population, and I’ve got up into that class now.” 

And despite the prospects of population influx and continued growth, Baker said he doesn’t foresee the end of Berry Hill anytime soon. 

“Berry Hill is an identifiable area, whether anybody knows we’re a city or not. ... It’s certainly not uniform in any way, it’s pretty eclectic,” Baker said. 

“But I think everybody likes it that way.”