Bridge over I-440 named for Vanderbilt professor, community activist

Family and friends of the late Gene Teselle attend dedication ceremony for naming of bridge over I-440 in memory of Teselle.
(L to r) front row: State Sen. Jeff Yarbro, Elizabeth TeSelle, Penny TeSelle, State Rep. John Ray Clemmons, CJ Hicks and Tom Cash; second row: Maria TeSelle, John TeSelle and Ed Cole (Susan Urmy/Vanderbilt University)

The Eugene TeSelle Memorial Bridge over Interstate 440 on 21st Avenue South was dedicated Saturday, with family and friends of the late Vanderbilt Divinity School professor celebrating this ironic recognition for TeSelle. As a committed neighborhood activist, TeSelle had been a decades-long opponent of I-440, an urban loop 7.6 miles long that was eventually built during the 1980s.

The resolution passed by the Tennessee General Assembly to name the bridge in memory of TeSelle was co-sponsored by State Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, and State Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, who both praised TeSelle’s ability to put his theological beliefs into action.

“I remember walking into my first meeting with Belmont-Hillsboro Neighbors and the first person who shook my hand was Gene TeSelle,” Clemmons said at the morning dedication ceremony in a parking lot near the bridge. “I gained a deep appreciation for the importance of neighborhoods and communities, and Gene has had a lasting impact on me and my public service.”

TeSelle, who was the Oberlin Professor of Church History and Theology, helped form and lead the Belmont-Hillsboro Neighbors, which was only the second neighborhood group to be organized in Nashville at the time. The opposition of TeSelle and others led to several design changes with I-440 by the Tennessee Department of Transportation, including constructing the interstate below city roads and adding sound barrier walls alongside impacted neighborhoods.

Yarbro noted that he recently reread some of the emails that TeSelle had sent him through the years. “Gene was the kind of advocate who didn’t just push for things to get better, but he actually pushed us to think differently,” Yarbro said. “He changed the way that many of us who do this work in advocacy and policy-making approach issues, and his legacy will continue to impact this city.”

Also speaking at the ceremony were Ed Cole, former executive director of the Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee and a Green Hills neighborhood activist; and Elizabeth R. TeSelle, Gene’s daughter.