Nashville: Revisiting the 2020 Christmas Day Explosion on Second Avenue

Commentary: City living for city dwellers

The brown and yellow smoke billowed in the distance, but I couldn’t tell how far away its origin was located. It looked like it was coming from the same place as the 4th of July fireworks we enjoy each summer, so I checked Twitter to see if anyone had posted about it.

I had awakened merely 15 minutes earlier, able to see through a slightly opened curtain the thin layer of snowflakes that rested on the rooftop outside my bedroom window. Normally on Christmas morning, I’d pop out of bed early to see if the children were quietly sifting through Santa’s haul. I’d secretly video them snooping around before coming to wake us up with anticipation of opening presents. But this day was different. The kids being teens and 20-somethings were still slumbering, as they do when they get older.

Then the entire building rumbled. The white snow jumped across the black roof like an ocean wave moving towards the shore. I was nearly tossed out of our bed. 

That wasn’t thunder.

Within seconds, I was filming the smoke rising, then one-by-one the rest of my family of 5 were in the living room together wiping the sleep out of their eyes.


Moving a family of five (5) downtown

We moved downtown almost 13 years ago, pioneering into the unknown of city-living for such a large family in Nashville. At the time, there were not a lot of things to do, except venture to a concert or Predators game at the arena or cross the river to the Titans stadium. The honky-tonks weren’t the friendliest option for families, so we spent our time using the courthouse lawn and the Bicentennial Mall park as our playground and frisbee spot.

After attending The Future of 2nd Avenue event last week at the Wildhorse Saloon on December 8 with Mayor John Cooper, we learned that a long-awaited option for city dwellers is sprouting from the literal ashes of the Christmas day bombing of 2020.

We have watched our residential section of the downtown core go from a small, art community to a bustling tourist area that has crept up the hill from Broadway towards the Capitol with new buildings, parking garages, restaurants, and multi-use high rises. The National Museum of African American Music nestled between shops and eateries at 5th & Broadway plus beautiful hotels, like the Bobby and the Noelle, are all amazing places to visit but with tourists in mind.

Even with all the growth, we recently considered moving away from the area, to cash in our chips, as many of our neighbors have these last few years. Those of us who spend most of our time and hard-earned property tax dollars have grown tired of being ignored for so long by the city in favor of tourism. 

Our alleyway is disgusting with grease containers for restaurants and residential garbage bins being used for commercial operations. Recycling services are not included in our property taxes like the rest of the city. There’s no special permit for residential parking to be had, and the few spaces we do have on the street have been given up to valets and other commercial interests without getting input from those of us who call downtown home.

Harvey’s Alley in downtown Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Fortunately, part of the plans for Second Avenue include handling some of these previously ignored issues. “Recycling and composting, consolidate waste, get the food waste out of the waste stream, get the smell out, remove the grease on the ground,” said Tiffany Wilmot, president of Wilmot, Inc., a Nashville-based sustainability consulting firm. “All that got rolled into one thing,” as quoted in Tennessee Lookout by Holly McCall.

Turning tragedy into adventure

Looking back to last year, I recall having a ton of nervous energy in the week after the Christmas explosion, with a need to step beyond the fears that had settled into my bones from such a disaster. Social media was abuzz with conspiracy theories and untruths that bothered me so much that I chose to investigate the happenings with my friend, John Partipilo.

John is Tennessee Lookout’s staff photographer and was more than willing to go on a hunt for good angles to take photos of ground zero with me. I documented our footsteps.


Scouting angles for pix ##nashvilleexplosion ##spymission ##pulitzerprize ##journalism

♬ original sound - Sally with a Why


We set out on an adventure together to see up close what the police and FBI were keeping from the public as they conducted their investigations. With a bus blocking one end of Second Avenue and police cruisers blocking every garage, street, and alleyway near the AT&T building, John and I dipped and ducked from one area to another, careful not to cross any crime scene tape to avoid getting into some good trouble.


Not today. Onto Plan B.

♬ Mission Impossible Theme (Movie Trailer Mix) - Dominik Hauser


With a winning photograph at stake, we knew we had to take a chance. It’s a good thing he got this raw footage on this particular day because after John’s photo was published, the area was sealed up even tighter by Nashville police and the feds. Subsequently, the street was cleared of much of the debris as the media was finally allowed in on December 31, but the scene didn’t hold the same effect as when it was practically untouched.

Nashville’s Second Avenue, Dec. 26, 2021. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Photographers from all the major news sources went wild calling John ‘Spider Man’, not knowing how in the world he managed to get this angle. All the while, I documented our pathway on TikTok.

A more detailed explanation of our sleuthing is discussed here.



Today’s scouting outing #nashvilleexplosion #journalism #pulitzerprize #photojournalist #shoutyourcause

♬ original sound – Sally with a Why


The story in the media continued to unfold, identifying the bomber, details about his life leading up to the tragedy, but then news of the January 6 insurrection soon took over the airwaves, leaving Nashville behind to clean up its own mess.

Giving residents some favor over tourists for a change

Now that the fences are starting to come down to open up the street to the public again, the plans are to reinvigorate the area with a focus on the approximate 15,000 residents that inhabit downtown Nashville today.

“Cooper said Second Avenue should set the standard for new development in Nashville,” per Holly McCall, Editor of Tennessee Lookout.

Second Avenue in Nashville, Dec. 8, 2021. (Photo: John Partipilo)

To see that residents are being considered in the aftermath of this devastating and traumatic event that left most of us with a feeling of despair is an unexpected bright light and hope for our urban community.

Now that we’ve decided to stay in our condo and do a few renovations to accommodate our aging family, we’re ready to dig out the Christmas tree that we had packed away for the potential move. It’s time to celebrate a quiet and uneventful Christmas Day with anticipation for a proper, city dweller’s delight in what has been promised to us when Second Avenue is reborn.

Tennessee Lookout is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Tennessee Lookout maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Holly McCall for questions: [email protected]. Follow Tennessee Lookout on Facebook and Twitter.


What you don't know about Jim Crow

by Sally Hendrick

Two little girls in rural West Tennessee are best friends but only in secret. Separated by a cotton field, their lives couldn't be any more different. Sudie's and Mabie's friendship, beautiful yet tragic, leaves a mark for generations to come.

Sally takes you on a journey back in time to the early 1900's Jim Crow South, as she imagines what life was like for her grandmother, Sudie, weaving together memories from her own childhood and stories from her family, even the black women who raised her.

Coming someday soon. Please enjoy this chapter for now.

Read a chapter for free