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May 30, 2006

Your Weekly Reeder: The West End needs a Derby Festival committee

I’ve thought a lot about the Derby weekend cruising situation in western Louisville. It’s a given that violence and lawlessness are unacceptable. But it also should be a given that the merchants and citizens of the West End should not be denied the right to celebrate the Derby in their own way, and, yes, exploit it every bit as fully as Churchill Downs, Yum! Brands and every hotel, restaurant and retail store in the area.The answer is to find a compromise between the chaos of 2005 and the crackdown of 2006. And the first step to finding that answer is to admit that the Kentucky Derby Festival has treated the West End with an attitude that ranges from benign neglect, to put it kindly, to outright exclusion.It’s not exactly a racial problem as much as a socio-economic one. After all, affluent African Americans now have their Grand Gala to counter the Barnstable-Brown party. So what we’re talking about aren’t the rich and famous but the ordinary folks who aren’t connected enough to get a party invitation or wealthy enough to buy a Derby ticket that doesn’t say “infield” on it.I applaud the fact that most of the Derby Festival events are free and open to the public. But I would urge that the Festival — along with Metro government — make a greater effort to reach out to residents of the West End and South End, who share a common belief that the power structure doesn’t care about them.Indeed, cruising on Broadway began as a sort of protest movement by African-American youngsters who felt as if their party invitations had been lost in the mail. So cruising became their Derby parade, not the official one during Derby week that has a grand marshal, floats and marching bands.Unfortunately, it got out of hand. The punks and hoods took it over. Or, at least, they created enough trouble to ruin it for all the Broadway merchants who simply wanted to make a few extra bucks and the decent folks who only wanted to blow off a little Derby steam.Typically, government did not respond in a thoughtful, even-handed manner. It went to the opposite extreme and turned the West End into a police state. This achieved the desired effect of ending the lawlessness. Unfortunately, it also hurt businesses on Broadway and sucked the life out of the West End.(By the way, where were Mayor Abramson and his Republican opponent, Kelly Downard, on Friday and Saturday night? Did either take the time to visit West Broadway and talk to the people? If not, why not? This is an election year, isn’t it?)My compromise solution is simple and workable.The folks who see themselves as spokesmen for the African-American community — Christopher 2X, the Rev. Louis Coleman and others — should form the Western Louisville Kentucky Derby Festival Committee (WLKDFC).It would schedule Derby-related events for the West End, and it would serve as a liaison with the main Derby Festival to encourage greater minority participation in the Derby Festival events. Special buses should be provided to transport West End schoolchildren and families to the Great Steamboat Race, the Balloon Race, whatever.Why, heck, I’d even like to see the WLKDFC members wear silly-looking blazers festooned not with miniature Pegasus renditions, but with miniature bridges in honor of our civic leadership.The WLKDFC would be in charge of cruising on Broadway, and it would control it like this: Anybody who wants to cruise would register and be assigned a numbered card to affix to their windshield. The registrant would be responsible for the behavior of every individual inside his or her car, and any car that tries to crash the parade without a number would be impounded and towed away.Visiting celebrities who might want to give their West End fans a thrill — I’m thinking of you, Bow Wow, and you, Ludacris — could go cruising in special VIP convertibles sponsored by the Derby Festival. Their presence would add a touch of glitz and might do much to discourage antisocial behavior.Since the Derby now is … drum roll, please … “Presented by Yum! Brands,” perhaps that corporation could set up KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut concession stands along the cruising route.And Churchill officials could serenade themselves with the sound they love best — cha-ching! — by operating souvenir stands that would feature shirts, caps and maybe even a bobblehead dedicated to Isaac Murphy, the great African-American jockey who won the Derby three times.Why not? The WLKDFC may need some tweaking, but it beats a police state like Barbaro beat his Derby foes. Contact the writer at billyr@leoweekly.com