Nashville's Southern hospitality — and affordability — beckon Californians
The din of Tuesday Trivia Night filled the Nashville brewery, as patrons clustered at tables puzzled out answers to questions posed by a woman on stage.
“What river separates Texas and Mexico?” the dark-haired emcee asked the people scattered around the taproom. A hush fell as the groups jotted down their replies.
Across the room, Todd Hood — owner of Bold Patriot Brewing Co. and happily transplanted ex-Californian — sipped his coconut porter, his back facing the flintlock pistols that decorate the bar’s door handles and the walls painted with American Revolution-themed murals of Benjamin Franklin and the Declaration of Independence.
The bar's Patriotic Taproom was birthed in 2012 in an 800-square-foot brewery in Riverside County. But it reopened in Nashville in 2020, after Hood and his partners decided against expanding in California. The state isn't business friendly, Hood said, so the group went in search of a place that they saw as more welcoming.
"California, they get you for car registration, they get you for gas. Any way that California can screw you they will," said Hood, still sporting an Anaheim Angels cap despite switching his hometown.
The values that Hood's brewery celebrates — limited government, personal freedom — reflect the lifestyle he says he's found in Nashville.
"We wanted to go to a state where we can actually live and have a cost of living that someone young like myself could start a life," Hood, 31, said.
For years, Californians have flocked to states like Texas, Arizona and Nevada, some seeking politically redder pastures while others moving simply because they can't afford the West Coast's skyrocketing housing prices. But less recognized is the growing number of people leaving for the Southeast in general, and Middle Tennessee in particular.
The migratory shift coincides with multinational businesses once based in the Golden State relocating their U.S. headquarters to the Nashville area or opening large offices there. Nearly 12,000 people left California for Tennessee in 2019, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, up from roughly 9,600 in 2018 and about 7,900 in 2017.
The pandemic has accelerated that trend, as Californians pack up and head east to Nashville and nearby Franklin in search of opportunity in the bustling country music scene, or the city's booming healthcare, tech and other industries. Transplants from Los Angeles, San Francisco and other parts of the state say they've discovered a place that incorporates their favorite parts of big-city life on a smaller scale.
Affordability is a key motive for many on the move, but it's Nashville's amenities — a wealth of museums, a rich cultural history, prominent universities, the constant flow of live music and the sense of Southern hospitality — mixed with economic factors like lower taxes that serve as the siren call luring newcomers.
"We all love California in the sense that it's beautiful. You have the mountains, you've got the beaches," Hood said. "But there's other things that I can do here. It's hunting, fishing, hiking. All kinds of stuff. There's lakes and rivers everywhere. I mean, when you drive outside of Nashville, it takes you 15 minutes to get to the country."
It's hard to miss the signs of Nashville's reinvigoration: cranes hanging over downtown apartments and mixed-use developments; construction crews building tall, skinny homes painted in stark charcoal and deep blue next to bungalows with wood siding from the 1930s; giggling bachelorette parties hopping in and out of the neon-lit clubs along Honky Tonk Highway; the crush of families flocking to strip malls for dinner at Kurdish restaurants, while others take weeknight salsa lessons at Plaza Mariachi across the street.
Like much of the southeastern U.S., Nashville has grown more ethnically diverse. In addition to nearly 170,000 Black residents, the Nashville-Davidson County metropolitan area, population 689,447, is home to about 96,000 Latinos and 27,000 Asians, according to figures from the 2020 census.
The influx of Californians creates a tradeoff for Nashville: With newcomers' investment, progressive ideas and the infusion of cultural vitality comes gentrification and the potential for the displacement of communities in pockets around downtown that have seen the most growth — many of them home to the city's longtime Black residents.
"I feel like, great, people who are moving here are from more liberal places," said Tequila Johnson, co-founder of the Equity Alliance, a Tennessee-based nonprofit group. She hopes to see Democratic values brought to the state, she said, such as pro-union labor policies.
"But it's also hurtful, because people that make the Nashville culture what it is can no longer afford to live here," she said.
Nashville's expanding prosperity came in waves, experts say: first with the midcentury's booming country and bluegrass recording industry that transformed the town into "Music City, USA"; then in the late 1990s and 2000s, when a number of large companies shifted production, and even their North American headquarters, from California to Middle Tennessee.
Then came the final marker of its rising cosmopolitan stature: In 2013, the New York Times dubbed Nashville the new "it" city.
"Two California companies were transformative in our 'it' city theme," said David Steele Ewing, a historian and ninth-generation Nashvillian. "One was Asurion, that moved its corporate headquarters in 2003 from San Mateo. That was a huge vote of confidence in the community. And in 2005, Nissan moved. Before Nissan moved here it was hard to get meetings with companies. But after, everyone took the meetings of the economic development team."
Nashville further earned its sobriquet by luring well-known chefs who've opened now-packed restaurants and new hotels, Ewing said.
"Everyone knew there was something special going on in Nashville," he added. "But when that article came out, it got the attention of everyone in America, and it hasn't slowed down since."
Nashville has "always been a boomtown," dating back to the 1920s when the city was known as the Wall Street of the South, Ewing said. But the last decade has seen a different kind of development, characterized by outside businesses coming in rather than the previous, internally driven growth precipitated by Nashville-based companies and banks, he said.
Tennessee's population has expanded dramatically over the last decade, driven largely by growth in Middle Tennessee. The state's population grew by 8.9%, with 6.9 million residents in 2020, census data show, up from 6.3 million in 2010 — while California lost 182,083 people in 2020, marking the first population decline ever recorded in the state. Nashville-Davidson County saw a 14.2% population gain, adding about 89,200 people since 2010 and overtaking Memphis as the state's largest city.
Over the last two and a half years, the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development has recruited 25 California-based companies to either relocate to Tennessee or expand their footprint there, said Bob Rolfe, the department's commissioner. The projects represent 3,400 new jobs and an investment of $1.2 billion in the state.
On top of that, computer technology company Oracle announced plans to invest about $1.4 billion in a large campus in Tennessee's capital, a move that will expand the downtown area and bring another wave of change to East Nashville. The company left Silicon Valley for Austin, Texas, just last year.
The new offices, which will span across about 60 acres of Nashville riverfront property, are expected to bring 8,500 jobs over the next eight to 10 years, Rolfe said.
"We are just a very pro-business state. We offer the right to work with low union participation, low business taxes," Rolfe said. "People are at least coming to see what we offer in Tennessee, as opposed to years ago there was just a bias of, 'My gosh, who would want to move to a state called Tennessee?'"
On a recent weekday, Johnson, the activist, stood in front of her North Nashville home, a brisk wind whipping at her back. She gestured to the changes around her. The freshly built black and white Craftsman across the street. An empty lot where workers had laid a new foundation, awaiting development of a new home.
"This looks completely different from what it looked like three years ago," said Johnson, 35. "This was a Black family neighborhood. There would be children outside. People sitting out on their porch. There were a lot more affordable houses on the street, and now nothing on the street is less than $300,000."
Johnson, a fourth-generation Chattanoogan who moved to Nashville in 2004, considers herself "lucky" to afford her home. She doesn't believe that all newcomers moving here intend to disrupt "the current ecosystem," but she does think transplants could do more to integrate into the community and culture, and to uplift locals who are being priced out.
"Meet people who are from Nashville, support our small, locally owned Nashville businesses, get to understand the culture and be an active participant in the culture. When you see an elderly person walking by, wave. That's a part of the Southern culture that we have," she said. "You're participating in gentrification — and rapid gentrification. And if you want to do something, plug into the work ... help us hold people accountable so that the last little bits of Black Nashville, of Nashville culture that's left, don't get disrupted."
Nashville's growth is "very top-down," she said, arguing that much of the city's expansion has happened without considering its current residents.
"It's a two-edged sword. How do you maintain the culture?" she said. "And how do you hold government accountable to the people to make sure that as they are going out recruiting companies, and they are trying to build an economic infrastructure for Nashville to become a bigger city, that they're also making sure to include the people who already live here?"
Walking along a residential road in 12 South, a trendy neighborhood near Belmont University lined with modern two-story homes and newly built "tall and skinnies," William Wilson quipped that Nashville's best Realtor is California's governor.
A real estate broker, Wilson said that many of his clients are Californians who move into gentrifying areas and pay well over the appraisal price of a home — at times in cash. It's good for agents, he said, but the average Nashville local can't afford to spend what transplants are paying for homes in and around downtown.
"People come from Cali and it's cheap to them," Wilson said. "The guy I am showing around tomorrow, his house in Cali is worth $900,000 and we are looking at $500,000 to $600,000."
But that process of gentrification isn't new, he added. The first wave arrived nearly a decade ago, was exacerbated by natural disasters such as floods and tornadoes that forced people out of their homes, then was "enhanced dramatically" over the course of the pandemic.
Wilson chuckled, bemused if not slightly frustrated, as he thought of the changes sweeping through the neighborhood where he was raised. The Black-owned funeral home that served families when he was a kid is being turned into apartments, he said.
"This was the hood. White people used to be scared to come here," said Wilson, 37. "Now it is the opposite. When I come around here sometimes and walk, I mean, I get looked at like I'm not supposed to be here."
Still, he sees opportunity for college-educated Nashvillians who can step into higher-paying roles brought in by big businesses, as well as a chance for local small businesses to "grow with the city alongside it, instead of waiting for people to do something for us."
Some Californians drawn to Nashville are lured by its mélange of small-city atmosphere and vibrant arts and cultural scene. In few places is that mixture as evident as in Wedgewood-Houston, a pocket just south of downtown where artists and musicians have found a home amid old warehouses, factories and garages.
Among them is watchmaker Cameron Weiss, who passes much of his day working in the russet workshop he purchased after spending years producing the only mechanical timepiece with “Los Angeles” on its dial. Weiss and his family moved from Highland Park last year, when the lease on his Torrance warehouse came to an end.
"We could have operated the business the same way we had been. But I just didn't want to. I had a 1-year-old daughter," Weiss, 34, said, surrounded by his watchmaking machinery. "I'd wake up and leave super early. And then hopefully, if there's no Dodgers game, and I can make it home before she goes to bed. But if not, then it's just like, you get home and it's depressing."
Weiss and his wife, Whitney, had driven to Nashville before as part of a work tour across the country in 2017. They felt beguiled by the sense of community, the way it seemed that locals at the coffee shop knew one another.
After looking into other states, including Texas, they decided to move to Tennessee. The classic Land Rover they towed on a trailer as part of their cross-country business trip sits in front of his studio, which once housed a printing company that made labels for vinyl records.
The vestiges of the old printing business linger in Weiss' workshop — scraps of the special type of paper used for labels that Weiss saved when the former owner moved out, and the holes in the wall where the old label maker used to operate a press.
"To be able to come to Nashville and get a building like this, with that history, that we could just move into and start making watches. That was really cool," he said as a train screeched through the neighborhood, blasting its horn.
Here, Weiss said, it's easy to find a work-life balance. He can drive his vintage truck all over town now that he doesn't have to sit in gridlock on the 110 Freeway. The city is small enough that he can take a break from working, meet his wife and kids at the farmers market in East Nashville for a meal and drive back to the warehouse to continue to tinker with timepieces.
To top it off, he and his wife purchased their 2,700-square-foot neo-Victorian-style home in East Nashville for about $500,000 — relatively affordable, by LA standards.
"Everything has been much easier here," he said. "In L.A., I never really had neighbors that you could call friends. Usually we wouldn't even know their names. Here, the first day I moved into my house the neighbors came and introduced themselves."
Not every California transplant settles within Nashville's limits. Some opt instead for a semi-rural lifestyle with easy access to the city.
About 30 miles south of Nashville, down a stretch of road that wends through bucolic hills dotted with farmhouses and barns, Alfredo Malatesta sipped a mug of coffee on the steps of his sun-dappled porch. Since leaving Santa Clarita in 2017, he and his wife, Erin, have taken a shine to country life in Thompson's Station.
"If we were to bring a bottle of wine and sit here, everyone who drives by is just going to wave hello at us," Malatesta, 43, said.
Like Weiss, the watchmaker, Malatesta felt that he could have continued living in California. But after sitting down and mapping out the future with Erin, the couple decided they wanted some distance from the "fatigue" they felt in L.A. — and a new adventure.
"In many parts of California, it doesn't feel like it's getting any better. It feels like everyone's in this sort of like, 'OK, we just got to make it through' kind of mindset," said Malatesta, a self-identified conservative. "The streets aren't getting cleaned up, more homeless people are piling up. ... The work truck that we had for our business? The gas was getting stolen out of it."
In the countryside, he said, he doesn't worry about those things. He likes listening to podcasts while he rides the lawnmower across his five acres of land, and enjoys feeding the chickens who bolt across the yard when Erin shouts, "Come on girls, let's go!"
And then there are their "lawn ornaments" — a miniature donkey named Annabelle and a miniature mule named Bluegrass.
"It's quite a change from Manhattan Beach, or the Palisades," Malatesta joked.
It's been easy to find a sense of community, he added. The first Easter that the couple moved, their neighbors invited them over to celebrate the holiday, knowing that they didn't have family nearby. Erin has leaned into country life and picked up horse riding lessons.
"People think it's a bunch of people burning crosses on their front lawns, but they have never been here and they have these preconceived notions," said Malatesta, who immigrated to L.A. from Peru as a child.
One day, he was working on a fence along his property when his neighbor Ricky stopped by to say hello. The pair started talking. Unprompted, Ricky decided to jump in. They spent six hours together working on the project.
At first, Malatesta was shocked. Then he chalked it up to the Southern hospitality that came with his new home.
This is the third in an occasional series about Californians on the move, both to other states and within the Golden State.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.