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.
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.
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 Louisville Science Center, a sort of children’s museum, also on Main St.
A yuppie running store across the street from a tattoo joint.
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:
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.
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.