Friday, November 19th, 2010

Replay: 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 don’t believe attracting the creative class is the only things cities need to do to be successful, 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.

This post originally appeared on May 18, 2008.

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

11 Responses to “Replay: Louisville – An Identity Crisis”

  1. kygirl says:

    Great article. I’m glad you brought up the race/class issue. It is a huge problem in Louisville. I have lived in Louisville as well as Charleston (SC) and Washington DC. Of those cities, surprisingly, I found Louisville to be by far the most segregated. This is particularly surprising considering the histories of the other two cities and the fact that Louisville public school bused from the 70s until recently.

    Another challenge I see for Louisville is that the lack of corporate headquarters, prestigious universities, or other such draws means there aren’t a lot of young creatives moving there. It seems as though that everyone that lives there is from there, such that the on-going joke has been when people ask you ‘where’d you go to school?’ the odds are about 99-1 they are talking about high school.

    That all said — the architecture and parks are fabulous. I would love to see more effort on Bardstown Rd, etc. to get more infill development as well as more pedestrian/bike friendly streetscaping.

  2. Babbage says:

    There’s definitely a lot to explore in Louisville. Having moved here from Indianapolis almost two years ago, I’ve noticed the older, more beautiful and distinctive neighborhoods, and the changes in topography in the area. There are parts of the metro area with great views, like Iroquois Park and Floyd’s Knobs. Sure it doesn’t have the hills that Cincinnati or Pittsburgh has, but it certainly isn’t flat like a lot of other midwestern cities. Like you said, it’s great to see how supportive the local culture is of independent businesses. Lots of great pizza places like Wick’s, Impellizzeri’s, etc as well.

    Overall it really suprised me. When I moved down here, I was expecting to be immersed in Southern culture. But I think it just depends what side of your town you’re on. Kentucky is more “Upland South” and I feel there are a lot of differences between that and places like Alabama. There are also far more hipster types here than I was expecting…especially on Bardstown Road.

    Interesting place. Too bad they’ll never get a pro sports team.

  3. Babbage says:

    The sad thing about Old Louisville is most of those old mansions are subdivided, rented, and decaying on the inside. I’ve heard things have been slowly turning around, but I haven’t lived here long enough to know. There’s been some development around U of L, so I’m sure that’s been positive for the area.

  4. Thom says:

    I too was surprised at how much Louisville is a city of neighborhoods and restaurants. I lived and work in Indy for may years before I moved to Louisville in the Mid 90’s. The arts and culture was years ahead of Indy. In the 90’s Indy was still 5 shopping malls, if you wanted food or entertainment you had to go to the mall areas. Louisville has an amazing diverse collection of neighborhood bars and restaurants (Maybe it is the result of the Churchill and the Derby) On the segregation side, I found Louisville less segregated and much more tolerant and welcoming than Indy and Lexington, KY( In 2000 Lex still had not quite embraced the New South ideals).

    Love this website!

  5. Reader John says:

    Good article indeed. I’m just 3 hours away and am developing an urge to spend some time in Louisville.

    I’m glad you mentioned restaurants. Bon Appetit named it one of America’s “foodiest” towns a few months ago:

    I can’t help but note that “I’ve lived here all my life” kind of has a corollary of continued voluntary residential segregation in a once-segregated community. Unless there’s racial animosity behind it, or inferior services in some neighborhoods, residual de facto segregation is morally neutral.

  6. Jeff says:

    Good call on the socioeconomic segregation, which is one of the distinctive features of the place. You’d here a discussion about how “Southwest County” (or the south end and surrounding suburban areas) was “Forgotten People/Forgotten Land”…in 1971! Same as it ever was.

    Disagree about how downtown is “connected” to the neighborhoods. I find it quite disconnected compared to other places. Downtown is surrounded by urban renewal no-mans-lands, elevated freeways and at-grade four lane highways, out-of-scale institutional uses (the Medical Center, for example), and a ragged semi-vacant parking-lot zone before one reaches the neighborhoods, and that would include the main parts of Old Louisville. In some ways this is akin to Detroit.

    I used to think Louisville was a bit ahead of the curve in transitioning to a post-industrial economy. I can see it is still somewhat stuck in that old economic world compared to places like Pittsburgh and Dayton and Akron, which have indeed lost nearly all of their “GE” style unionized mass employment industry. Yet it does have that modernist, hip, “college town” vibe (whithout the college, interstingly enough,since UofL doesnt really contribute to this). Something that has evolved over time.

  7. Jeff says:

    Maybe a few more comments on Louisville. The identity crisis has been going on for decades, but the “new” “Keep Louisville Wierd” identity is probably the more interesting phenomenon of the past, say, 30 years or so. Having lived in or frequently visited Louisville since 1971 it’s been quite interesting watching the city culture evolve into this pseudo-bohemian, quirky thing that it is today.

    All the more suprising given the metro areas relativey weak economy (Louisville is considered a “weak market” city). So one has to assume the cultural revolution that was starting to germinate in the 1970s really did take hold, leading to the scene we know today. In places like Dayton, where I live (nay, “exist”), there were and are swallows but no spring, and an urban culture just never develops much, or fades and slowly dies.

    In Louisville there is the foodie culture, a coffee house culture, the arts scene, the music scene (which isn’t too unique, as other places have live music scenes), the housing restoration and neighborhod revitaliztion scene, and so forth, that seem to get better and more developed as time goes on.

    There seems to be just enough local patronage and disposable income to financially support all this, and just enough local folks (& perhaps transplants) to start up busiensses and ventures in these areas. For a relatively weak (& small) economy, and poorly educated population, compared to places like, say Minneapolis and Columbus, this is remarkable. The question is if the local economy can continue to sustain this lifestyle or quality-of-life.

    But why did this arise, why did all not only develop but take hold and grow? Perhaps a reason why probably has a lot to do with local attitudes of civic pride and supporting local culture, not to mention a certain bon vivant attitude, a certain festive spirit, which might account for the local nightlife and dining-out culture (though this has grown over the years).

    Anyway, enough rambling. I wish whoevers reading this a Happy Thanksgiving (and Merry Christmas, since I don’t post here much)!

  8. Jeff, it took me many years to realize how working class Louisville is. I never really gave the matter much thought growing up in Southern Indiana. It just was and I never thought about it.

    For example, there isn’t a single Starbucks store Southern Indiana. I’m told there’s one in the New Albany Kroger, and the store locator just told me there’s one inside the Bass Pro Shop in Clarksville, so I guess technically there are Starbucks there, but not one freestanding store. In a community that holds 200,000 people (Clark, Floyd, Harrison), including some areas with very nice homes, that’s surprising. But it gives some insights into the area. I’m not saying it’s bad, but it is interesting.

  9. Justin says:

    Why cities are listening to Mr. Florida instead of examples like this great post you wrote is beyond me.

  10. Mark says:

    After living in beat down Baltimore for the past 3 years (I say that with love), Louisville looks pretty damned nice. I’ll take a lack of educational attainment and Fortune 500 companies for a laid back, relatively safe small city with a creative vibe.

  11. Jeff says:

    “Jeff, it took me many years to realize how working class Louisville is. I never really gave the matter much thought growing up in Southern Indiana. It just was and I never thought about it.”

    ..being a former Valley Station resident, I can relate. But I think these stereotypical “blue collar suburbia” areas really had and have more socioeconomic diversity than the stereotype implies (as did the East End), and may demonstrate the somewhat insular nature of a certain kind of East End resident or life-style.

    Sometimes I felt we down in “Southwest County” knew more about Louisville as a whole than did East Enders who never ventured west of, say, the Newburg Road exit on the Watterson.

    I guess this is an example of the socioeconomic divide you mentioned in your first post.

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