Sunday, May 18th, 2008

Louisville: An Identity Crisis

Following on from my article on Cincinnati, I’ll now take a short 100 mile trip downstream to another old river city, Louisville. Louisville came of age in a similar era and traditionally viewed itself as a sort of little brother to Cincinnati. However, while Cincinnati was once the Paris of the west, Louisville never held so lofty a position, so it lacks Cincy’s grandeur. Luckily, it also appears to be missing some of the dysfunction.

See here the river city tradition as the Belle of Louisville steamboat fires up. There were obviously no emissions standards back in the day.

Straddling the Ohio River, which serves as a border of sorts between the South and Midwest, Louisville has always had a bit of an identity problem. A recent article in Leo, a local alt weekly, highlights this.

For some reason for which modern science has no accounting, the subject of Louisville’s identity keeps coming up — in bar conversations, coffee shop summits, Chamber of Commerce meetings, at church, at shows, in this newspaper — and nobody knows really what to say about it. We are a city of naturally prideful, boasting people who are, to some degree, unsure about what we’re pitching. In some ways, we grate against our inferiority complex by offering wildly optimistic comparisons: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Austin. It’s hard to just be Louisville.

Louisville is a jumble. It’s got that genteel Southern feel at the Derby. It’s also the place that was “strike city” in the 1970’s, a bastion of hard core unionism and industry more befitting a Rust Belt burg than a southern metropolis. It retains the legacy of Kentucky and its rivertown heritage as a traditional haven for vice. Old school leading industries have included tobacco (Brown and Williamson cigarettes), booze (Brown-Forman and other distillers), gambling (Churchill Downs), and freon (DuPont). It has extremely low educational attainment levels, but has also been home to a large number of influential creative types, especially in the indie rock world, with people like Will Oldham, Janet Bean, Slint, Rodan, VHS or Beta, and others. It is comparatively lacking in corporate headquarters. It has been a home to innovative architecture. It’s heavily segregated by race and class, but has an comparatively large number of thriving in-city neighborhoods. It is a hotbed of evangelical Christianity and also home to a large regional gay entertainment complex. It’s too small to be a true big city, but big enough to force itself into the conversation. It has a phenomenal selection of local independent restaurants.

Here is some of that innovative architecture. The Michael Graves designed Humana Building is on the right. This mid-80’s structure was one of the buildings that really created his reputation as an architect you’d actually hire for a structure you planned to build.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Louisville is that the locus of civic identity is not downtown, but rather in the neighborhoods. Louisvillians have an immense attachment to their native soil. I’ve never been to a place where it is so frequently stated as a point of pride that “I’ve live here my whole life.” People who move away are viewed a bit strangely, as if, what’s wrong with this person?

For those in Jefferson County, what matters first is the segmentation by class and race. The West End is almost totally black, the South End working class whites, and the East End the home of the white upper classes. This class consciousness is highly pervasive and permeates people’s vision in a way I’ve rarely seen in other places.

At the next level down, Louisville has many distinct and thriving neighborhoods in the city, mostly spreading to the east and south of downtown. And one of the things that is really different about Louisville from Cincinnati is that these neighborhoods are basically still connected to the downtown. It is possible to walk or bike from downtown through Old Louisville and out to the University of Louisville, for example, without passing through a bunch of slums to get there. Similarly to the east end there is a chain of more or less intact neighbhoods extending all the way from downtown to the eastern burbs. Louisville experienced in city decline and population loss to be sure, but is never had the central city implosion that hit so many other places. The one exception is the West End, where one finds the unfortunately standard impoverished black neighborhoods. The river cuts off the West End, leaving it as an isolated island of blight in an otherwise surprisingly strong inner city, it’s residents largely ignored and forgotten.

Unfortunately in my view, the city has overly fixated on building up downtown as the heart of the region at the expense of investments in neighborhoods. As the Leo article would suggest, Louisville has a major inferiority complex and so feels compelled to invest in the trappings of big city downtowns so that it doesn’t appear to be “falling behind”. This is misguided in my view. Louisville does not have the population base, corporate base, or financial heft to compete in this game at the level it would take to build a distinguished offering.

That’s not to say Louisville doesn’t have a nice downtown. It does, including some great architecture that includes, for example, a large cast iron storefront district on west Main St. I also think that judicious investments in downtown are a good thing. It shouldn’t be left to whither on the vine, that’s for sure. But disproportionately investing in downtown ignores Louisville’s greatest strengths in favor of a game where it is not well positioned win.

Buildings along Main St.

The Kentucky Center for the Arts, also on Main St. The concentration of attractions on Main St. is one of the nicer elements of downtown.

Louisville has always self-consciously viewed and promoted itself as a city with a great arts community. Some of this is overblown, IMO, but that’s not the important thing. What’s important is that Louisville is a city where the arts are taken seriously, and where having a strong arts scene is something that is core to what the city is about. I do think this is something that should be played up and leveraged for the future.

The Louisville Science Center, a sort of children’s museum, also on Main St.

The cheesy 4th St. Live entertainment complex occupies what was once a failed downtown mall called the Galleria. Louisville bought into the dubious trend of pedestrianizing its traditional principal shopping street, in this case 4th St. While I guess having a downtown bookstore like Borders is a good thing, I can’t believe investing in cheesy bars downtown is really the key to having a great city.

Since I’m saying that it is Louisville’s neighborhoods that are so great, I probably shouldn’t spend too much time on downtown, though I must confess that’s what I mostly have photos of. In case you were wondering, downtown Louisville does have its share of classical architecture, such as this example.

Just south of downtown is a neighborhood called Old Louisville. This was actually an earlier suburb where the moneyed folk build their mansions. 2nd and 3rd Streets and awesome for just walking around and leisurely enjoying the architecture under a canopy of trees.

The Filson Club, a local historical society.

A streetscape, I believe along 2nd St.

I noted that three of the things that are great about Louisville are its neighborhoods, its great independent restaurants, and its funky arts scene. All of these are on display in the Highlands. Now the definition of the Highlands is fluid and depends on what real estate agent you are talking to. But the popular conception of its spine is the major commercial district extending outwards along Baxter Ave. and Bardstown Rd. This is an area that doesn’t photograph well, but to me has a very college town type of feel to it.

A yuppie running store across the street from a tattoo joint.

Seviche, one of those great restaurants I mentioned.

Not to be missed if you are on Bardstown Rd. is a quick visit to the legendary Ear X-tacy record store. Pick up a bumper sticker and slap it on your guitar case.

One of the other great assets Louisville has is a great park system designed by the firm of Fredrick Law Olmsted. Places like Iroquois Park and Cherokee Park are just lovely. You can experience a slice of Cherokee Park for yourself by driving east from downtown on I-64, where you almost don’t know you are in the city.

Louisville currently has a first class, ambitious initiative ongoing called City of Parks, which is designed to add thousands of acres of parks and trails, mostly in the outer county area. While I’m all in favor of this, it also illustrates the Savitch and Vogel theory that city-county consolidation in Louisville, which occurred recently, would lead to the center city tax base being exploited to build suburban infrastructure. I’ve written before about Louisville’s big plans. I’m not so sanguine on all of them, but really like City of Parks.

Speaking of big plans, that reminds me that one of the more innovative proposals floating out there is one that would tear down this:

That idea is called “8664“. Proponents want to tear down I-64 along the riverfront near downtown in order to reconnect downtown to the river. It is touted as a cheaper and better solution to traffic problems than the $4.1 billion Ohio River bridges plan. As financing prospects for the bridges become ever more bleak, 8664 continues to gain supporters. The establishment doesn’t even want to evaluate it, fearing it will shatter the fragile consensus around the bridges that took nearly 40 years to build.

The bridges project is an interesting case study because it highlights a problem that has long bedeviled the region: civic strife. It has proven extremely difficult to gain consensus on any major local project because of in-fighting between the various parts of town and various interest groups. The various ends of town area all suspicious of each other. Indiana and Kentucky have poor relations across the river. Mayor Jerry Abramson has long been outright hostile to any development of any type occurring outside the city limits.

The bridges project had this in spades. Indiana demanded an east end bridge to complete the I-265 link across the river. Abramson, then mayor in the pre-consolidation age, saw this as a threat and demanded a new downtown bridge instead. Wealthy residents of the east end hated the eastern bridge too, as did various environmental groups, some of which were east end fronts. In the grand spirit of political compromise, ultimately it was decided to build everything, leading to a crazy price tag and opening the door to 8664. I think it is still fair to say that nobody trusts anybody on this project, even to this day.

Fortunately, the situation generally is much improved post-merger.

Before I go too far astray, I should probably complete my neighborhood tour with this shot of Crescent Hill. This is a small commercial district along Frankfort Ave., another one of Louisville’s fantastic neighborhood arteries. It is well worth a drive out from downtown along through this, as you see the transition from Louisville’s established neighborhoods, to the older suburb of St. Matthews, and out into the full metal burbs. Heine Bros. coffee is money, by the way.

One other unique characteristic of Louisville is that it has not experienced a collar county boom. This is probably partially due to its smaller size versus places like Cincinnati. The vast bulk of people and commercial development is still inside Jefferson County. I don’t believe there is any significant Class A office space outside its borders for example. This gives Louisville the opportunity to get ready for the future before Jefferson County is full and the suburban counties really explode. Places like Oldham County have gained people, but are still largely rural in character and without a significant population or commercial base.

The key challenge facing Louisville is what to do about the transition to the 21st century globalized world. It was traditionally a manufacturing center and has a workforce and education levels with that orientation. But its manufacturing base is significantly eroded and continues to experience significant threats. Ford, which manufactures the Explorer here, has downsized considerably. General Electric’s appliance division is based here, employing 5,000 people, including a large number of white collar employees. But GE is planning to dispose of that division, and it seems likely Louisville is going to experience significant job losses, and perhaps the near total disappearance of that business.

So what should Louisville do?

I’ve long argued that Louisville should focus on being a Geneva-like jewel of a city, not a “big league city”, whatever that means. That is, focus on having the best quality of life, the best neighborhoods, etc. Strengthen the traditional city assets such as the park system, the local restaurant scene, unique architecture, and the arts community. Louisville has long appealed to offbeat, funky types of characters. It is sort of reminiscent of a college town in that respect, so taking a page from the Austin playbook and self-consciously cultivating this would be a great thing. The clear focus of civic development should be the neighborhoods, with downtown in a supporting role. This is a reversal of current priorities.

I don’t believe 21st century jobs are going to rain down on Louisville like manna from heaven, so the onus is on the city to principally drive its economic future through organic growth. I’m not totally sold on the creative class concept, but Louisville is definitely well positioned to attract that sort of person and indeed has traditionally attracted it. The question is how to turn that creative firepower into economic growth.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I did not mention Museum Plaza. This great proposal was vintage Louisville. It was innovative, unique, and would really show the world the differentiated character of the place. However, this project appears to be on life support, and likely not to secure financing. If it fell through, that would be unfortunate, but as with bridges, arenas, etc. Louisville has always seemed to find an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Arts and Culture, Civic Branding, Economic Development, Historic Preservation, Strategic Planning, Talent Attraction, Transportation, Urban Culture
Cities: Louisville

22 Responses to “Louisville: An Identity Crisis”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Would be interested to see what population base, corporate base or financial heft is needed to build a distinguished offering in the opinion of the writer?

  2. Jason266 says:

    I find the 86-64 proposal to be really interesting. It’s a proposal I’d like to see given more consideration.

    Trying to think of a parallel, it would be like if Indy decided to have I-65 redirected onto I-465 and the stretch between West Street and the north split were removed in order to connect the Old Northside back to downtown. Of course, the Old Northside is no Ohio River.

  3. thundermutt says:

    Gee, Jason, only two more lanes all the way around 465 would be needed to handle through I-65 traffic on the west leg and I-70/I-65 interchange traffic on the east, south, and north legs. A $2billion pipe dream.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Jury is out on the bridges, (8664 makes sense to me); Museum Plaza launched a new website and might happen; the arena is happening as seats just went on sale

  5. Jason266 says:

    For clarification, I’m not saying that Indy should do that. I was just putting the 86-64 idea into a more local perspective. The need for a big idea like that in Indy isn’t as much as it is in Louisville.

  6. Anonymous says:

    The 8664 idea is not the big idea…the big idea is to build the Bridges Project as currently laid out. 8664 suggests an option to save $1-2B.

    This blog should be renamed the Indyophile as it’s comments on the other regional cities is directly/indirectly a comparison to what Indy is about.

    The writer appears to have the depth of knowledge to comment on Indy, but in the most recent articles about Cincinnati and Louisville, that knowledge is a bit dated and without much depth.

    Would suggest a thorough review of a cities economics, demographics and history is needed before stating that one cities plans are on/off the mark.

  7. Socrates#1fan says:

    You wrote a fantastic blog and you really paid attention to the smaller details.
    I’ve never been to Louisville but those great cast-iron facades and beautiful skyline make me want to hop on a train to the place.
    What neighborhoods do you recommend other than Old Louisville?

  8. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    anon 6:49. To really be competitive, a city would ideally be 2M+ metro, with 5-10 major headquarters and/or other major civic resources. That’s my finger in the wind estimate.

    I’d really like to see an honest study done of 8664. Right now the powers that be refuse to even officially consider it.

    Socrates, thanks for the kind words. I’d suggest all the neighborhoods I mentioned in my post: downtown, Old Louisville, the Highlands, Crescent Hill, and St. Matthews.

  9. Moloney Smith says:

    Some amazing pictures of louisville there

  10. Anonymous says:

    This is a fair critique, although I find some of generalizations a bit off base. First, Louisville does not have a large evangelical population as the author suggests. Yes, there are protestant Christians abound. But, not in the same sense as other southern cities. This is not Nashville or Birmingham. Rather, the Catholic church seems to be the dominant religion in the area (if not in numbers, at the very least culturally). Second, Louisville’s corporate base is not completely lacking. For a metro area of 1.25 million, there are 4 Fortune 1000 (Humana, YUM, Kindred, Brown-Forman). PharMerica is a newly created pharmacuetical company HQ’ed in Louisville. Furthermore, this is home to many regional headquarters such as EON U.S., Aegon, UPS Airlines, and G.E. Appliances (which is to be sold, but there is no indication that any buyer would move the operations out of Louisville). Lastly, the critique of downtown is a bit off. Nearly every thriving city has a strong downtown. Louisville is attempting to accomplish this by building residences. Local eateries and coffee shops have popped up around the area, and there has been a significant increase in pedestrian traffic outside of the business hours. 4th St. Live is cheezy. But, it serves an important purpose. It created a recreational outlet where the local business community let die. The patrons at these establishments are more likely to be out-of-towners or conventioners than locals. These types of people would not have found their way to the neighborhoods where the locals hang out. So, although it is a bit fabricated, it has been a good thing for the city.

    My thoughts on Louisville is that it doesn’t need to focus on growth for the sake of growth. It needs to focus on educational attainment for its citizens, fostering the entreprenurial spirit, and attracting large corporations and biotech industries. I feel the leadership of the city shares these same ideals, and are working toward those goals.

  11. Jeremy says:

    In my opinion the 8664 project is the most ridiculous project I have ever heard. On the surface it sounds grate (i.e. turn the somewhat ugly downtown waterfront into a beautiful park by eliminating I-64). But once you start to think about it, it just doesn’t make any sense. I-64 is one of the most congested interstates in the city of Louisville. If you eliminate it then you are going to force all of that traffic onto the other two major highways (i.e. 71 & 65). Common sense suggests that if you have a traffic problem the best solution is not to eliminate major highways but instead to expand them. Just my 2 cents.

  12. Anonymous says:

    8664 is a ‘great’ idea. I-64 is not the most congested freeway in Louisville. (that honor would go to I-65). The idea behind 8664 is to route thru traffic from the West onto 264 to I-64E headed to Lexington; from the East, thru traffic can be routed along the Snyder Freeway to the new East End bridge and then around to I-64W…or it could be routed to I-264W and over the existing Sherman Minton bridge. For thru traffic, it would add maybe 10 mins to the drive. For traffic headed downtown from either direction they would be routed to surface streets into the downtown area.

    The real beauty is the opportunity to save $1-$2B as the new downtown bridge and the expansion of spagetti junction are eliminated. If it takes a few hundred million to make changes to the surface streets…so be it…it is still a huge savings vs the current project.

    Heck, they could build a new bridge on the southwest side of town and accomplish the same thing for less money than the current project as envisioned for downtown.

    8664 makes sense.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Other neighborhoods worth looking at in Louisville:

    * River Road north of city to Prospect…the old money
    * Anchorage

    Among the prettiest suburbs anywhere.

  14. Anonymous says:

    As I have often said and believe, Louisville is really irrelevant in the region compared to cities like Indy, Cincy etc. I think you hit the nail on the head with the statement ” Louisville never fails to miss an opportunity”.

  15. Anonymous says:


    The latest piece of ‘irrelevant’ is slowly being realized by the Cinci/Columbus/Dayton metro areas with the announcement that DHL is shutting their Wilmington, Ohio operation and with it the loss of 7,000 jobs…guess where some of those jobs will be landing…Louisville (Big Brown). Those jobs include pilots, management and yes the package sorters.

    UPS Airlines is HQ’d in Louisville and is ranked among the largest and most profitable airlines in the world. Local employment is 20,000+ growing to 25,000+. There is no single employer in Indy, Cinci, Columbus or Nashville with that type of presence and that type of strength.

    Hmmmm…let’s see….Indy has ATA…oops they went bankrupt and are out of business; Indy is a focus city for NWA…oops…merger with Delta will likely cause a ‘loss of focus’. Cinci has Delta Hub…oops…Sky High Airfares and the merger with NWA leaves lots of question marks.

    “Irrelevant” really describes just one thing…you and your post.

  16. The Urbanophile says:

    anon 7:37, I don’t share your assessment of Louisville’s relevance.

    Nevertheless, excessive defensiveness about Louisville, and an overly boosterish attitude, aren’t helpful to that city either. I am critical in some respects of every city that I write about. No place is perfect. Some people can’t see beyond their own cheerleading for their hometown to understand the change that is necessary to move forward. Others, often found on newspaper message boards among other places, never find a positive word to say. I try to take a more balanced perspective and praise the things that deserve praise while pointing out the things that aren’t so great.

    I have a lot of positive things to say about Louisville, and have give the city much positive press, including saying a large number of nice things in this very post. Unfortunately, some people just want to take cheap shots about a competitor, and others never want to hear a discouraging word about their hometown.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Misinformation….UPS is not headquartered in Louisville it is headquartered in Atlanta, GA. Louisville is just their largers brown box sorting hub.

  18. Anonymous says:

    anon 12:37

    If you would read what was posted, it said UPS AIRLINES is HQ’d in Louisville.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Do you really want to compare UPS to Eli Lilly in types of types of jobs (high end…life science jobs), Roche and so forth…not likely.

  20. Anonymous says:

    anon 5:27

    UPS pilots make upwards of $225K+…about 3,000 live in Louisville; UPS management types number 8,000 and that includes the same mix of salaries you would find in any large business. For sheer size and economic impact on so many levels, UPS is far more impactful than Lilly or Roche; not taking anything away from their sizeable impact…but is not the same scale

  21. The Urbanophile says:

    The UPS hub in Louisville is not anything like the FedEx one in Indy. The Indy hub is just a package sorting operation. Louisville is more of a major divisional headquarters for UPS. The airline operation, which is one of the world’s largest airlines, is headquartered on Hurstborne Lane and has thousands of high paying, white collar jobs. I believe UPS employs 900 IT people alone, for example.

  22. Anonymous says:

    I would like to see Louisville's extensive health care community ignite growth and bring in some varied technologies to the region.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

About the Urbanophile


Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

Full Bio


Please email before connecting with me on LinkedIn if we don't already know each other.



Copyright © 2006-2014 Urbanophile, LLC, All Rights Reserved - Click here for copyright information and disclosures