Like many major metropolises, Louisville exists as an outlier on the broader landscape. An enigma on the Ohio River, its unique crossroads of Northern, Southern and Midwestern sensibilities nurtures a county-shaped speckle of liberal majority in the red Bluegrass State. Arranged like puzzle pieces within are the numerous neighborhoods we all know, each with its own reputation, willful or otherwise. To an outsider, a select handful of these neighborhoods are learned first — the most well known, the most visited. Enter, The Highlands.
So named as it rests above the south and middle forks of Beargrass Creek, The Highlands has developed over nearly 200 years to the reputation it keeps today: an open-minded community and a crown jewel of hospitality. Very few other parts of the city beckon visitors quite like this three-mile stretch of road and its residential tributaries. The density of dining options, eclectic nightlife and distinctive businesses are a draw, to be certain, but there’s something less definable to the allure as well. The Highlands is a feeling, a haven, a utopia despite the aged buildings and jagged sidewalks.
As this neighborhood is so deeply rooted in the uniqueness of the human experience, it’s evolved over the years to become an unofficial epicenter for Louisville’s LGBTQ community. What might be less welcomed in the concentric circles radiating toward the city limits is, instead, supported, encouraged and displayed. For those lucky enough to call The Highlands their home, the benefits of residing in an area where they can live and play are innumerable.
“It’s just integrated,” said Big Bar owner Kevin Bryan. “It’s a great place to live, and it’s really Louisville’s only walkable neighborhood and probably the only residential-slash-entertainment district.”
Indeed, entertainment abounds. Visitors can choose from not only multiple LGBTQ-centric establishments but also an unparalleled selection of bars in general, as well as live music venues, an indie movie theater and a strong rotation of yearly festivals. Bryan said his (ironically) small, but booming, bar enjoyed overnight success in this competitive arena.
“I thought there was a lot of demand for an LGBTQ establishment in the Highlands,” he said. “It just made sense. That first year, we were so busy. It felt like throwing a party every night — stressful but awesome at the same time.”
It seems indicative of the neighborhood that Big Bar continues to prosper after five years in such close proximity to like-minded establishments, including Chill Bar and Nowhere Bar only a block or so away, and PLAY Louisville not far outside The Highlands limits. Then again, why wouldn’t it? Few instincts are as universal as the desire to gather and interact. More options means we feel more comfortable in our selection, and Louisvillians from throughout the city are willing to migrate to Bardstown Road.
“I’ve thought about what it would be like to open other places in other parts of town,” Bryan said, “and I think it would be more of a challenge business-wise. We benefit from a great neighborhood where a lot of people want to live.”
Paula Head and Deb Wallace settled in The Highlands about 30 years ago. Each having purchased homes there in the late 1980s and early ’90s, they found a love for the area even before they found one another. Though they’ve been together nearly two decades now, they’ve never once considered abandoning this idyllic part of town, opting instead to puddle-jump between houses and fix them up along the way.
“I moved to the Highlands in 1988 and bought my first house in 1992,” Head said. “Deb bought her first house on Rosewood in 1985, so it’s been a long time. We’ve been together almost 20 years and in that time, we’ve lived on Speed Avenue, Boulevard Napoleon, Rutherford Wynd, and now we’re over on Windsor Place, so we’ve stayed in a several-mile radius.”
After the Highlands Commerce Guild was created in 1977 to address concerns of decline in the quality of the area, the Bardstown Road corridor rebounded commercially in the ’80s as local businesses filled the vacant storefronts adjacent to elegant residential streets. Young professionals began filling those streets, drawn to amenities like Cherokee Park and a flurry of dining options. Wallace, a staff member at the UofL Dental School, was no exception, and she elaborated on the undertow of LGBTQ inclusiveness even then.
“When I bought my first house, I hadn’t been out for very long,” she said. “They were just beginning the gentrification of The Highlands; people were buying houses and fixing them up. Even at that time, most of the gay people that I met were living in The Highlands or Crescent Hill or Clifton. I was just drawn to what I perceived as a more welcoming community. It’s a great area to live in, for obvious reasons. You have the bars, the restaurants, the parks … Even at that time in the mid ’80s, there was a pretty significant [LGBTQ] community affiliation. There were three gay couples on the street I moved to.”
Both Wallace and Head stressed the significance of their supportive neighbors, citing instant welcome after moving between homes. “I will say for me, in the early years of coming out as a gay person, you’re always concerned if your neighbors will be ‘OK’ with it or if you have to worry,” Head said. “I know since Deb and I have been together, our neighbors have all been fantastic and very supportive.”
With such a high population density, Highlands residency almost demands a certain level of empathy. Neighbors are often much closer together than they might be in suburban alternatives, fostering tolerance if not friendship.
“No one’s ever even blinked an eye,” she said. “A lot of those issues are internal with us, or were internal back in the day. You don’t have to worry here that your house is going to be egged or damaged or vandalized. I’ve had friends in other suburban areas where one person’s garage was spray-painted with a derogatory word. Another couple that we’ve known for a long time got a letter in the mail that told them they needed to get the hell out of the neighborhood. These things still happen now.”
Despite the current political climate revealing just how much bigotry seeps from the woodwork of the American interior, Head happily reported that The Highlands, being largely free of discrimination, means couples can feel free to be affectionate both in their homes and in public spaces. “Deb and I have talked about it — that’s not something that people of our generation would have been comfortable doing. You would have feared for your own safety. It just wouldn’t have been smart. But now I see young gay and lesbian couples up and down the road, holding hands.” •