July 18, 2006

THE TEAR SHEET: Perception vs. reality - Have you heard that crime is up in Old Louisville?

Kirk Stone lives in Old Louisville, and like many residents there, he cherishes the neighborhood’s architectural flourishes, tree-lined streets and proximity to nearly everything that makes Louisville special.“I love living in Old Louisville, and I love the history, the art patrons, the whole neighborhood,” Stone, a 36-year-old interior decorator, said.What he doesn’t love — and he’s not alone — is the constant hassle, or worse, of dealing with crime. For Stone, having his car burglarized, stolen or vandalized has become an annual rite. Literally: In four years, he’s been hit four times.Crime is nothing new in Old Louisville — it’s arguably been a fact of life since the old mansions began losing their luster and started getting subdivided into cheap apartments. People who live there generally understand the dynamic and see the area’s eclectic mix of race, age and class as what makes it so special.But when crime goes up, as it did in 2005, even long-time residents worry. Last year, rapes, robberies and home burglaries all jumped from 2004 levels. Aggravated assaults more than doubled, from 24 to 50, according to statistics provided by the LMPD.“Hell, yes, it’s worse than it was before,” one business-owner told me.Last month, for example, with more than 10 patrons present, a pistol-waving robber walked into Woody’s Tavern, on Brook Street, and demanded cash from the register. This happened just before 9 p.m. on a Saturday. No one was hurt, and Woody’s proprietor David Norton notes that the thief didn’t bother his customers. “The robbery was committed in a genteel fashion,” he said. “None of the patrons were robbed. He just stole from me.”Still, the brazenness of the still-unsolved hold-up left an impression.Maj. David Ray, commander of the Louisville Metro Police Department’s Fourth District, said robberies of such prominent businesses are rare. “It’s usually a stop-and-rob at the convenience store,” he said, but acknowledged that crime is a growing concern in Old Louisville.“You have got narcotics activities there, and we have seen a little bit of meth move from the southern part of county up into Old Louisville,” he said. “And there is always a lot of traffic through Old Louisville, which is a major corridor of travel between the city’s east and west and from north to south.”There’s also a notion going around that the increase may have something to do with the redevelopment of the old Clarksdale housing projects, which some people speculate has pushed former residents of those projects into Old Louisville.“That is one of those things we hear a lot about (from residents),” Ray said. “But we don’t have any solid information that would confirm that that is a cause of crime in the neighborhood. You can speculate on it, but there is no hard data and nothing we can put a finger to.”Tim Barry, executive director of the Louisville Metro Housing Authority, called such concerns “utter nonsense.” While crime is a problem in the larger housing projects, he said, most of it is committed by visitors, not residents. And in any case, of the hundreds of former residents of Clarksdale, he said, only a handful moved to Old Louisville —  and half are elderly. “Unless they are Bonnie and Clyde, it just isn’t true.”Ray said that on one level, higher crime rates are to be expected in Old Louisville, given its population density. But while it has the highest number of calls for service, it also has, at 134, the most officers.Since 2005, the city has put more patrols on the streets, and brought in occasional mounted patrols. They’ve also put more emphasis on rounding up people in the area who are wanted on warrants. In addition, U of L, located on the edge of Old Louisville, also has stepped up security efforts. Since 2004, the university has added 20 full-time unarmed security guards and, this year, three new police officers, said Maj. Robert Bringhurst of the U of L Department of Public Safety. U of L has also ordered its police officers to expand their beats by about four blocks and begin patrolling off-campus, Bringhurst said, and things may be improving as a result. So far this year, the numbers for just about every crime in the area are down. As of June 15, for example, there were 36 robberies, compared to 125 for all of 2005. Two rapes have been reported so far, compared to 10 last year, and 99 burglaries compared to 376 in 2005.But Ray said it’s no surprise if the decreases have failed to register with Old Louisville residents. In such a plugged-in neighborhood, with several active neighborhood associations, rumors of a crime can linger.“The people here are well-connected, and when something happens, they communicate it very well,” Ray said. “That’s not a bad thing, and I am not saying people tend to blow things up, but it is true that sometimes the reality is different than the report.“ Meanwhile, he said, LMPD continues to focus on crime in the area. Later this month, the department will stage something of a crime-fighting marathon there. For 24 hours beginning on July 26, an additional 25 officers will be on the streets, making patrols, serving warrants and monitoring traffic. Canine units and mounted officers will there, too.Stone, the decorator whose Jeep Cherokee has been bashed four years in a row, plans to stay. “I know my landlord, and I have five dogs,’ he said, laughing. “Why am I going to move? … But seriously, that is not the reason. It’s important that people stay here, and help change the neighborhood. Eventually this neighborhood has to be taken over by the good.”That sounds like a plan. Contact the writer at michael.lindenberger@gmail.com.