Two East Tennessee “J” Towns

I currently reside in one of the newer small towns in East Tennessee.  This is a naturally beautiful and historically significant part of the state that encompasses many isolated and interesting small towns.  Many area events and points of interest relate to the geography and culture of the region, especially the Appalachian and Great Smoky Mountains.  When we first moved to the area, Husband and I took a drive to visit two of the J towns around here, both located in Washington County.

Our primary destination was Johnson City, home of East Tennessee State University (ETSU), the alma mater of my last boss, aka “Twit,” with our secondary destination of Jonesborough, hometown of the cousin of a now former friend, one of the few friends I made while living in Brentwood whose acquaintance I was actually grateful to have made.   The cousin’s family includes Josh Kear, a songwriter and Jonesborough native who has become known as one of the country genre’s most consistent hit makers.  He has written several popular and award-winning hit songs including “Need You Now” performed by Lady Antebellum and “Before He Cheats,” one of Carrie Underwood’s earliest chart toppers.

I was a country music fan long before (well, maybe for 5-10 years or so) we moved from L.A. to Nashville in 2006.  Long before then, even, I had read a novel by Catherine Marshall, who was born in Johnson City.  That book , Christy, is a work of historical fiction set in the fictional Appalachian village of Cutter Gap, Tennessee, in 1912, and explores faith and mountain traditions such as moonshining, folk beliefs and folk medicine.  While endowed with abundant natural resources, Appalachia has long struggled and been associated with poverty. In the early 20th century, large-scale logging and coal mining firms brought wage-paying jobs and modern amenities to Appalachia, but by the 1960s the region had failed to capitalize on any long-term benefits from these two industries. Beginning in the 1930s, the federal government sought to alleviate poverty in the Appalachian region with a series of New Deal initiatives, such as the construction of dams to provide cheap electricity and the implementation of better farming practices.   On March 9, 1965, the Appalachian Regional Commission was created to further alleviate poverty in the region, mainly by diversifying the region’s economy and helping to provide better health care and educational opportunities to the region’s inhabitants.

In Johnson City, ETSU has a host of programs that benefit both the region and nation, including the Quillen College of Medicine, consistently ranked as one of the top schools nationwide for rural medicine and primary care education. Unique programs at ETSU include a nationally acclaimed and accredited program in Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music, the nation’s lone master’s degree in Storytelling, and the Appalachian Studies programs, focused on the surrounding Appalachian region.  Jonesborough is the home to the International Storytelling Center, which holds the annual National Storytelling Festival on the first full weekend in October. The Festival builds on the Appalachian cultural tradition of storytelling, and has been drawing people from around the world for more than 35 years. The festival inspired the development of ETSU’s  storytelling program.

Jonesborough, the Washington County seat and “Tennessee’s oldest town” attracts heritage tourism because of its historical status and its significant historic preservation efforts.  Its annual October National Storytelling Festival, held in town since the festival was founded in 1973, has grown over the years to become a major festival both in the United States and internationally.  Husband and I whipped through what we considered to be the high points in Jonesborough, The International Storytelling Center and The Jonesborough Historic District which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969.  We went through quickly as, at least at that time, neither one of was a storyteller.  I didn’t find the history of those buildings to be that interesting, especially compared to the history of the town I now live in, and surprisingly did not indulge in any retail therapy in any of the shops currently occupying most of the historic buildings.  Other than ETSU, Johnson City did not hold many attractions for us either.  Its location, layout and structures paled in comparison to those in Chapel Hill, NC, another “college town” I have visited. The town’s downtown district, most of which was probably built in the 1930s when it was for a time, the fifth-largest city in Tennessee, really showed its age, with blocks and blocks of tarnished and empty brick buildings.

Johnson City’s biggest growth spurt seems to have occurred in the early 20th century.  During the 1920s and the Prohibition era, Johnson City’s ties to the bootlegging activity of the Appalachian Mountains earned the city the nickname of “Little Chicago”.  Stories persist that the town was one of several distribution centers for Chicago gang boss Al Capone during Prohibition. Capone had a well-organized distribution network within the southern United States for alcohol smuggling; it shipped his products from the mountain distillers to northern cities. Capone was, according to local lore, a part-time resident of Montrose Court, a luxury apartment complex now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Together with neighboring Bristol, Johnson City was noted as a hotbed for old-time music; it hosted noteworthy Columbia Records recording sessions in 1928 known as the Johnson City Sessions.

By 1990, Appalachia had largely joined the economic mainstream, but still lagged behind the rest of the nation in most economic indicators though, at least in my neck of the Appalachian woods, there are many nonprofit organizations that continue to work with people here to improve their living conditions. I am an active volunteer with one of those organizations that is headquartered in the town where I live.

Aid to Distressed Families of Appalachian Counties (ADFAC) began in the mid 1980’s as a local ecumenical effort to provide assistance to impoverished families and evolved to become an independent nonprofit agency that exists to serve the basic needs of primarily low-income residents in Anderson and surrounding Appalachian counties. ADFAC’s goal is to help families become stable and self-sufficient through a variety of direct assistance services provided through both Social Services and Affordable Housing programs.  This nonprofit group envisions and supports the development of sustainable, healthy and viable communities where families are self- sufficient, productive and free of the need for continued public assistance whenever possible by continuing to focus on addressing the needs of the most vulnerable in Appalachian society and providing the most comprehensive scope of services of any agency serving this still needy community.

I first discovered ADFAC when I was still a working woman and saw an ad in a local publication for its “Dine & Donate” program.  This is actually a monthly event through which area restaurants donate a significant portion of their sales to support ADFAC’s work in the community.  The organization promotes Dine & Donate as a fun way to raise needed funds for ADFAC and support local eateries.  I saw that it had an added benefit, especially for working women, as a way to feed a family and do some good in the community while requiring little to no manual labor.  I was “in” for that event while I was working and have delved deeper into ADFAC’s efforts to help Appalachian residents since I retired.

Brentwood, Tennessee (not California)

Brentwood is an affluent neighborhood in the Westside of Los Angeles, California.  As a member of a group of nearby neighborhoods that are affluent, it is known as one of the “Three Bs”, along with Beverly Hills and Bel Air.  This Brentwood is now most famously known as the site of the 1994 stabbing death of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, by her ex-husband, the now infamous, O.J. Simpson.  Brentwood is also a city and an affluent suburb of Nashville located in Williamson County, Tennessee.  This Brentwood is little known outside of the Nashville area, unless you’re an already wealthy local celebrity or an aspiring country music star.  I certainly didn’t know anything about the Brentwood in Tennessee, until we made the difficult decision to Relocate there in 2006.

Husband had been working for the same large company for 25 years.  We were both in our very early 50’s when husband’s employer told him they were moving from the L.A. area to the Nashville area.  At first, I didn’t want to go.   My entire family lived in California, I had a good, cushy and flexible job, and I was spoiled by the whole situation, but knew we would not be able to stay in California unless husband could find a good new job that he might like to do for the next 15 years at least.  In 2006, I had been working for a small company for almost 10 years, and for the last five years of that part-time, which gave me a lot of flexibility as a parent.  Our two daughters were of high school age; one about to enter and the other with two years to go.  We reluctantly decided that a move at that time would be the least disruptive of our looming unsavory options.  After all, Tennessee’s climate is relatively temperate.  We thought there would not be too much snow in the winter, compared to the far northern US, and not too much heat and humidity, when compared with the Deep South.   There was no state income tax and the overall cost of living in the Volunteer State was low compared to the Golden State.

We started house hunting in Brentwood in late 2005.  We’d decided to settle there since it was touted as having the best public schools in the Nashville area.  I might have known right off the bat, though, that this city would end up being not my kind of place, when the realtor made a point of emphasizing that it was only a day’s drive from the beach, by which he meant Florida.  Blind and overwhelmed fool that I was, I assured him that this fact was unimportant, since I’d lived near the beach all of my life but didn’t go there very often anymore.   More so, I should have taken a clue as to the pending uncomfortable affluence of the place when he showed us houses in a private gated golf course community and a home formerly owned by a current country music superstar, on that first visit.   It’s amazing to look back on it now, but the golf course homes were “too much” and Trisha Yearwood’s house was not enough, maybe because she didn’t have kids, I guess.

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Snowfall in February 2006, when we signed the purchase contract

On our second trip, we finally settled on the purchase of a home The Highlands of Belle Rive, the third or fourth subdevelopment in one of the town’s older subdivisions i.e. after Belle Rive I, II and III.  Passing the signs with fancy-shmancy subdivision names, like  Carondelet and Concord Hunt, Fountainbrooke and Fountainhead, The Governor’s Club, King’s Crossing and Princeton Hills, should have been my second clue that this city would end up being not my kind of place.  This was also the first time I recall ever hearing anyone use the term “subdivision” and we’d always lived in usually unnamed and untitled i.e. anonymous neighborhoods that, if anything, were identified by the closest major intersection.

The HOBR (Highlands of Belle Rive, the very fancy title of our swanky and exclusive-sounding “subdivision”) and our new house, on a quiet interior corner, and steeply pitched, lot, did have beautiful views, ready access to Brentwood High (3.5 miles down the hill) and the Deerwood Arboretum (1.5 miles up the hill).

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Photo of view taken from our patio, the only flat spot in our backyard!

When we completed the second of our two moving trips in the early summer of 2006, we made two startling new discoveries, both courtesy of my mom who had come out to help us settle in, inspect the place, and prove to herself that it wouldn’t be too hard to visit us in the future:  (1) Two of our new neighbors were also California transplants due to relocation by the same employer and (2) summers in Tennessee, even if it wasn’t Florida, could still be extremely hot and really humid.  It was so uncomfortable to be outside, even in the evening, that none of us felt like going to the park down the hill to watch the July 4th fireworks.  Mom was also the person who bestowed the title “The Beverly Hills of Tennessee” on fair Brentwood, after she found out what it would cost to finish the basement.  This ended up being nearly a third of our purchase price, mainly due to the city’s requirement to have a bedroom window for egress and where our classy and meticulous contractor found a boulder that required a few weeks between storms to remove.

School started in August and in September the HOBR HOA held a Labor Day get to know you potluck supper up the hill at the closed end of my new short cul-de-sac block.  By then, the weather was closer to comfortable and I met some of my more-established neighbors on that socially level and financially egalitarian playing field, including some young transplanted (from Seattle and New Orleans, I think) entrepreneurs who took pity on my lonely soul a few years later by employing me to write some of their press releases on contract.  Found out when I was working for them that they were also Emmy winners who kept a condo in a downtown Nashville high rise as their office space.  Still pretty fancy for this California bumpkin!

By now the reader may have an inkling that, as noted in Wikipedia, Brentwood, Tennessee, is also known for its rolling hills as well as being one of the wealthiest cities in America relative to the average cost of living, and is also Tennessee’s best educated city, proportionately, with 98.4% of adult residents (25 and older) holding a high school diploma, and 68.4% of adults possessing a bachelor’s degree or higher (2010 Census).  On top of that, Brentwood is located in  Williamson County, which is ranked among the wealthiest counties in the country. In 2006 it was the 11th wealthiest county in the country according to the U.S. Census Bureau, but the Council for Community and Economic Research ranked Williamson County as America’s wealthiest county (1st) when the local cost of living was factored into the equation with median household income.

As I set out to “find myself” in this strange new place, this atypical California girl encountered many unexpected roadblocks, which proved frustrating to my pursuit of new friends in real time, i.e. in my five year residence there, but, in the comfort of my current and comfortable 20/20 hindsight, I now find them to be oh so understandable.

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