Sunday, February 19th, 2012

Replay: Louisville – Vice City

[ This one from the archives is the final installment in my Louisville trilogy this week. It’s a concept brand positioning idea for the city. Keep in mind, this is supposed to be a bit tongue-in-cheek, while being realistically rooted in the city and showing how places should be thinking about themselves in a crowded, competitive marketplace – Aaron. ]

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. It’s not necessarily a serious proposal, and 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 as a home of the burlesque. 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 vodka down their trousers double-bagged 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. 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 very conservative 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?

Here’s a short promo video that sums it up beautifully:

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, I’ll admit. 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.

This post originally ran on March 15, 2009.

Topics: Civic Branding, Strategic Planning, Urban Culture
Cities: Louisville

26 Responses to “Replay: Louisville – Vice City”

  1. John Morris says:

    I don’t really agree with the zero sum game implied here. Louisville’s relative closeness to a number of cities is more a plus than a minus, offering opportunities to play off regional markets.

    I do agree, however of it’s need to position itself and focus more on it’s strengths.

  2. John Morris says:

    There does seem to be some kind of hang up that Louisville has with it’s relative size. It’s sort of weird. Does Knoxville feel that way about Nashville or Chattanooga see it’s position relative to Nashville, Knoxville and Atlanta as a negative? Not really. Is Ashville bummed that it’s not Raleigh/Durham? Not really.

    Obviously Las Vegas, might be the best example of a place playing off it’s location and creating a niche nobody else wanted.

    That’s something I think, Youngstown is getting right. Just be a great place and pick up whatever loose balls your neighbors may drop or niches they can’t or don’t want to fill.

    It’s like cities see themselves as all standing out on the same street corner selling the same product-but in most cases the products are different.

    I want to add that being near to relatively unspoiled rural areas can be a huge selling point.

  3. John Morris says:

    Sort of bummed, this thread has gone dead. It could bring up a lot of interesting issues.

    Yesterday’s urban vice like a brewery is today’s trendy urban asset.

    I think Aaron brought up the central problem. America has almost never succeeded in integrating partying, entertaianment and gambling, with being a livable attractive city.

    Both New Orleans, Las Vegas are known as cities people like to go to enjoy themselves, but they have never fully made the step into being places lot’s of people want to live. It probably doesn’t have to be that way. a lot of this has to do with our perception of “vice”, which is still pretty Victorian.

    How many zoning laws try to limit bars in residential neighborhoods? Casinos are treated like sewers where people satisfy their urge and drop off the cash, not as a normal attraction that can be integrated into urban life.

    Louisville might be a great place to see if “vice” can be made “classy”. Chances seem good that Kentucky will be legalising gambling. I hope they take a chance and do this right.

  4. It’s President’s Day. Maybe that goes to show how many of my readers work for the government!

  5. John Morris says:

    Yes, I know Las Vegas attracted lots of residents, but not much in the way of integrated, livable and urban investment or any balanced economic base.

  6. Eric says:

    Good luck creating a party town in a city that “loves its Catholic high schools”.

  7. John Morris says:

    Oh, there are no Catholics in New Orleans? What is Marti Gras about without Lent?

    I also don’t think either of us is talking about making Louisville an all party town, just boosting this up a bit.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I like the general idea here, since it goes against the “Let’s make our cities as generic and inoffensive as possible” dogma of modern planning/economic development.

  9. John Morris says:

    I’m gonna say, I love this line of thinking. The big problem is that neither Las Vegas and New Orleans are looked upon highly.

    Las Vegas, is now known for foreclosures and boom and bust growth and New Orleans is seen as a tragic, mostly poor city. Atlantic City,is widely seen as proof that a balanced tourist economy and gambling can’t mix.

    What we are talking about is the selling of the good life and fun as part of an attractive city with a diverse economy.

    Maybe, it can’t be done. Both Vegas and New Orleans are demonstrations of a still very conflicted and conservative culture where “good people” fly in to do “bad things”, they wouldn’t do at home.

    States may have allowed gambling as a dirty, way to bring in cash, but not as an acceptable part of life.

    Wonder what they think of that in Monaco?

  10. John Morris says:

    “it goes against the “Let’s make our cities as generic and inoffensive as possible” dogma of modern planning/economic development.”

    Right, it’s a great contrast with Indianapolis, which is selling itself as the safe, generic, family city.

  11. James says:

    Using gambling to promote a city seems like a fool’s errand. Gambling is slowly being legalized across America. There are casinos in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and just about everywhere. First it was gambling paroles on reservations, but now gambling sprung up around most of the big metro areas in the Midwest. I don’t see how it creates an identity for Louisville any more than Joliet.

  12. Sally says:

    I just can’t let this go by without one comment. You say, “[…] 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?” Seriously?! Even in this day when the EPA and all serious scientific studies show that there is no safe level of second hand smoke exposure? And when we know that big tobacco targets non-white neighborhoods with more advertising and promotions than majority white neighborhoods, and that non-white populations have a higher incidence of smoking (and smoking-related illness?)

    I do believe you can position Louisville as a unique city without endangering the most vulnerable populations. As you say, “[…] it is a clear imperative for Louisville to improve race relations and to make sure that its minority communities share in its success.”

  13. Wad says:

    @John, it’s no coincidence that Las Vegas didn’t develop a dynamic, balanced economy.

    Remember my observation that Las Vegas is the Detroit of the 21st century? A MarketWatch article made the same case and pointed out why.

    Las Vegas has two equally pressing problems: It is a one-industry town, one extremely income-dependent on gambling tourism. The other is why resort towns prevent dynamic cities from emerging.

    Resort areas bear a peaceful similarity to garrison towns. Both are ravenous consumers of capital. The downside is that these are so economically dominant that it absorbs most of the economic transactions and the labor force. These garrisons make it difficult for other economies to emerge — a condition for dynamic cities.

    A hard-working resort employee doesn’t gain experience to go into business for himself or herself, and access to capital is scarce or absent entirely. Also, the garrison dominates the lion’s share of resources, making competition or parallel businesses relatively expensive.

  14. John Morris says:



    Neither me or Aaron suggested creating a mega resort or all gambling oriented economy.


    As other commenters have said, gaming at least at the low end slots level is becoming generic and widespread. What is not widespread is high skill gaming like Poker and truely nice, attractive cities in which gaming is just part of the fun.

    Aaron, suggested perhaps two downtown casinos, while I suggested offering a larger number of 5 or so licenses for small table game based casinos and card rooms that could be part of hotels. restaurants etc…


    What I would like to see finally is gaming marketed to the people most skilled and financially capable of taking risks rather than low odds gaming that targets the poor and vulnerable.

  15. Wad says:

    @James, you’re right. Gambling has lost its novelty now that most areas see it as an economic development tool, primarily as a substitution for labor-intensive jobs that used to be provided by manufacturers. Of course, the flipside of gambling in your backyard means most of the gamblers are also your residents, negating any sort of wealth generation.

  16. John Morris says:

    Sorry Wad, but gaming as we now know it in america is very much a product of our weird, puritan culture and regulatory history. How many cities even allow more than one gaming license in town, let alone the potential for real competition?

    We also know, gambling is often thrown into cities after they are already very dangerous and economically depressed.

    The kind of thing I am talking about, focused on small skill and table game casinos integrated into an already viable city, really doesn’t exist. Such a place would, potentially attract a much wider range of players from all over.

  17. James says:

    Also, the Las Vegas of the South already exists in not too distant Tunica Missouri. Haven’t you heard of Tunica?

  18. John Morris says:

    Seriously, this what I mean about no class. Louisville has Churchill Downs, some nice hotels, old, walkable neigborhoods and good restaurants.

    Think your high end skill gamblers really want to hang around a place like Tunica?

    Also, at no time did I use the term, Las Vegas of The South or anything like it. A few small casinos is in no way an attempt to do that.

  19. John Morris says:

    And it’s Tunica, Mississipi-quite a lot further away.

  20. Wad says:

    @John, you pretty much answered your explanation on why high-skill and table games don’t take root in livable areas. The areas are doing well off enough that they don’t pay attention to the need for gaming facilities in their backyards.

    That’s because from a policy standpoint, gambling is about keeping a lot of people busy. Part of the loathsomeness of gambling puts an impetus on the developer or business owner to pay goodwill to governments. They are willing to throw around more money to expand police, upgrade roads and add vocational training programs. Who else is willing to do that?

    At the same time, the expansion of gambling is also shedding some of its stigma and may one day mean gambling would be a lot closer to home. Also, gambling as an industry is mature enough that the Vegas experience can be bought out of the box. Las Vegas needed 50 years to mature into a full-blown destination area. Now, any area wanting to do gambling can hire a big Vegas corporation to create a resort from scratch.

    On the other hand, it’s a mixed blessing. If you’re of the mind that gambling is and should remain a loathsome use, the more gaming expands as an econ-dev project, there’s a saturation point where it will cease to produce benefits because it is so banal.

  21. John Morris says:

    Seriously, did you read what I wrote or are you just trying to make a point?

    Do they have that problem in Monaco? I said small, casinos-perhaps very small casinos.

    Obviously, you have a very negative view of all gambling and are not trying to be open to thinking about my suggestion.

    The Greenbriar Resort in West Virginia, where many presidents have stayed, now has a small casino for it’s guests. To my knowledge it is hardly causing big problems.

  22. John Morris says:

    A few people who attended the opening of The Greenbriar’s Casino.

    Jennifer Garner, Ben Affleck, Jessica Simpson, Shaquille O’Neal, Raquel Welch, Barbara Eden, Jack Nicklaus and Elliott Gould, Brooke Shields, Charles Barkley, Lee Travino, Debbie Renolds.

    All the low lifes.

    No doubt there will be pawn shops opening all over Lewisburg, West Virginia.

  23. John Morris says:

    Oh, and the Kentucky Governor was there too. Hmmm.

    BTW, Brad Pitt and George Clooney are making big investments in a luxury casino together.

    Bravo, has a celebrity poker show.

    Anyway, that’s the big, undertapped market. Right now, high roller gambling is still very concentrated in Vegas and places like Macau.

    The real threat here is if places like NY’s Plaza Hotel had table games. I do agree, the window of opportunity is rapidly closing.

  24. Rob says:

    I think you’re missing the point that New Orleans never became what it is because its residents decided to do things differently from the rest of America. It became the city it is over nearly 300 years, organically, and without much cultural restriction. New Orleans didn’t “create” any combination of Mobile and Las Vegas. It was always like Mobile, but with the busiest port in the western hemisphere bringing in thousands of immigrants over time to make it larger and more diverse. It may have pushed itself a little more Vegas much later, as in catering more to tourists, but its inherent culture wasn’t created intentionally. And its residents don’t think “we do things like this because other cities don’t.” They’re proud to do things differently, but it’s just how they’re done there.

    I just think you can’t force culture. It has to form on its own over a LONG time.

  25. John Morris says:

    Right, but in this case Louisville has done a lot to repress it’s cultural and historic attributes.

    I get what you are saying though, you can’t push a product or invent one just because it would sell. It has to be about what you are about.

    IMHO, this fits a bit with what the city is about or at least it does fit with the mental brand the city already has.

  26. John Morris says:

    A big problem is that, even though perhaps, many in the city would be OK with letting this side of it’s culture out more–people in the state as a whole, are not so OK with it.

    This is where, the small relative size does have big negative impact. Will the state of Kentucky, let Louisville revive this part of it’s past?

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