Sunday, March 15th, 2009
UPDATE: A commenter on Broken Sidewalk posted a link to this great video that sums it up beautifully!
I am a believer that in a modern era that has witnessed the fragmentation of the great American common culture, and the relatively small in number but broad in reach institutions that served it, it is important for cities that are not blessed with natural amenities or killer low costs to increase their strategic differentiation. They should try to find market segments they can target more effectively than others. And they should try to build a unique local environment rooted in their history and character, but which is also forward looking, that creates a distinct, unique flavor of urbanity.
I’ve also suggested that Louisville should focus on quality over quantity. It already has fantastic neighborhoods many cities would kill for. Strengthening those, making targeted investments in its downtown, riverfront, and other well-chosen areas, and focusing on strengthening its unique assets are the actions I would take.
I’d like to throw out today a further concept positioning strategy for Louisville that I call “Vice City”. It’s not exactly that, but I couldn’t think of a better name for it. I strongly doubt there would be any local interest in it, but I do think that by studying the idea, it can hopefully generate some interesting thoughts about the city and what it could be. Please view this as a speculative proposal or thought experiment.
In a nutshell, this idea positions Louisville as “New Orleans North”. I can’t help but noticing a few parallels between the two cities.
- New Orleans is a river city – Louisville is a river city
- New Orleans has a French heritage – Louisville is named after a French king at least, and has adopted a lot of French symbology
- New Orleans has great restaurants – Louisville has great restaurants
- New Orleans has Southern, historic, genteel neighborhoods and traditions – Louisville also has Southern influenced, historic, genteel neighborhoods and traditions.
- New Orleans has a huge reputation as a haven of vice and partying – Louisville used to have that reputation.
That last bit is interesting. River towns were always rough places. Louisville’s riverside docks were, like waterfronts the world over, rough and rowdy havens of drunkenness and debauchery. “Lively Shively” was historically home to distilleries and strip clubs. Until quite recently Louisville had any number of blue establishments downtown. Reputedly the reason Green St. was renamed Liberty St. long ago was to help eradicate the reputation Green St. had acquired far and wide a home to burlesque establishments. Think about Louisville and Kentucky and what comes to mind? Horse racing (gambling), bourbon (drinking), tobacco (smoking), and coal. We’re talking about a place whose history and brand are already heavily associated with vice.
New Orleans had a similar heritage. The big difference is that New Orleans, probably for cultural reasons, was always proud of its seamy side. Like Las Vegas, it recognized that in a country which is dominated by a strong moral sensitivity, there was an opportunity to carve out a niche – and a highly successful one – catering to, shall we say, a more lax standard. And the party pit in the French Quarter and downtown casinos largely have no ill effect on New Orleans’ neighborhoods, many of which still look like they are fresh from the pages of an Anne Rice novel. Now New Orleans may not be a truly successful metro area for many reasons, but try to imagine it without the tourist industry.
Louisville, by contrast, has long tried to stamp out vice in that city. And today it has largely succeeded. Where long ago you could once have a good time in a burlesque joint on Green St., today your choices in downtown entertainment tend to the extremely generic, such as the heavily subsidized 4th St. Live complex. By stamping out vice, Louisville to a great extent stamped out fun and character from much of its downtown.
One way to envision a successful, unique strategy for Louisville is to do something similar to what New Orleans did, namely creating a great combination out of the best of Mobile and Las Vegas. From Mobile you take the laid back southern charm, aristocratic traditions, gentility, and high culture. From Vegas you take vice, fun, and a certain joie de vivre.
By the way, does this sound familiar? It should, because it is an almost perfect description of the Kentucky Derby. You’ve got the tradition at the pinnacle of horse racing as a sport combined with gambling. You’ve got the fancy dress, fancy hats, and mint juleps of Millionaire’s Row combined with the raucous debauchery of the infield and people sneaking in booze by stuffing double bagged vodka down their trousers in ziplocks (not that I’ve ever done such a thing…..). A great and winning combination.
Extending this to the city as a whole, we start with the fundamental aristocratic character of the civic culture. I’m not going to say this is unique to Louisville. For some reason, it seems to permeate many of the river cities I’ve studied. Talking to someone about Louisville, he offered this insight, “Louisville is provincial, in all the best and worst ways. Louisville likes itself, is proud of itself, hangs on to its institutions, loves its (private, Catholic) high schools in ways I’ve never seen elsewhere”. This is clearly an example of aristocratic thinking, which is about self-regard, rooted in history and the land. This attitude also shows through in the particular contempt Louisville shows for newer cities, as well as the extreme prickliness of Louisvillians when it comes to outside criticism. In a democratic social state like America, aristocracy has a bit of a bad reputation, and it certainly has its downsides. But it also has its good points. Firstly, it generates a bit of unique local character all its own. Secondly, it gives people the cultural fortitude to say no to trends and hold onto local ways and to embrace an agenda that is different from what other people are doing. (I’m also describing Cincinnati here, you might notice).
From that, we take away the fierce pride in unique neighborhoods and historic traditions. We can also take the embrace of certain aspects of high culture, including fine dining (of which Louisville has a great tradition), mint juleps and the bourbon culture, the arts, etc. I definitely think this should be looked at as rooted in a very Southern approach. Again, this distinguishes Louisville. Most Southern cities seem to want to ape Atlanta as the next mega-growth story. This leaves the field clear to a major city that wants to adopt a Charleston/Savannah/Mobile type point of view.
One piece of this that must be rejected, however, is the racial baggage that comes with it. Also in common with New Orleans, Louiville has a marginalized African American community. Southern aristocratic culture is rooted in plantation culture, which has its Not Good points to say the least. As with other cities, it is a clear imperative for Louisville to improve race relations and to make sure that its minority communities share in its success.
On the other side, how can Louisville recapture the fun outside of Derby? There are some ways we might imagine. Again, instead of creating a “climate action plan” just like every other city, or banning smoking just like every other city, why not roll with the fact that Kentucky is a major tobacco producer and has the highest percentage of people who smoke to be the most smoking friendly city in America? You’ve got gambling at Churchill Downs, and already across the river at Caesars/Horseshoe, so why not put a couple of casinos downtown? I normally think this is a disaster of a downtown development approach, but if you are organizing around forbidden fun, why not? Loosen up on liquor licenses to create party zones, and also do something to make sure that the best transportation options for people who have been drinking are available so people can get home safely. Bring back burlesque, baby! Rather than trying to regulate strip clubs out of existence, keep them. Figure out how to become the micro-distillery capital of the United States. There are already great local breweries like New Albanian and BBC, try to make sure there are many, many more. Do whatever you can to make Louisville party central, and create a fun, unique environment you can’t get elsewhere. By the way, much like Vegas and New Orleans, this is also good for conventions if that is a business you really want to be a player in.
Louisville is surrounded by hundreds of miles of mostly not very exciting places in the lower Midwest and upper South, places that are firmly Bible Belt territory in many respects. Why should someone have to fly to New Orleans or Vegas or where ever to have a good time partying when they can just drive or take a short hop to Louisville?
Of course, there is a problem with this. No one in Louisville is likely to want to do it. And the negative consequences might outweigh the positives. Fortunately, as a blogger, I can put crazy ideas on the table to make people think though. And I think Louisville needs to be thinking indeed about what niche it should carve out for itself. Downtown condos, generic bars, a smallish convention center, sports facilities, etc. are not going to distinguish Louisville from peer competitive cities. Particularly when it is facing the headwinds of being regionally smaller and having low educational attainment.
At a minimum, I do think Louisville ought to be thinking about this notion of Southern aristocratic culture and how it can leverage it to best effect locally. That seems to be a no brainer since there are already extensive elements of it present.
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