“Don’t pick up any needles” was the dark inside joke among volunteers from Kentucky U.S.A. two weekends ago, as they picked up littered bottles, cans and trash at the Parkway Place public housing complex in the West Louisville neighborhood of Park Hill. Kentucky U.S.A. is a promotions company and local musical collective that Larry Simmons, a Park Hill business owner, is using to spearhead a neighborhood cleanup effort called Project Cleanup.
Several local rappers, including Babe Nelson, TZ, Hurricane and Dodi, as well as about a dozen models from Kentucky U.S.A., organized to pick up trash and distribute fliers for the Crimes Against Children prevention campaign, an affiliated cause.
“We’re just trying to show that there are positive role models out there in the community,” Simmons said. Children lined up at an ice cream truck for free ice cream, and close to 300 hotdogs and hamburgers were served to area residents.
The idea came to Simmons from Nelson, who also does event planning and public relations for Kentucky U.S.A. He said he wanted to rally local musicians around a common cause.
“The real reason was to teach the kids that they need to start taking care of where they live,” said Nelson, who lived in the Park Hill neighborhood as a child.
Simmons and Nelson said they felt privileged to be able to organize an effort like Project Cleanup. Simmons, who also owns a recording studio and concert venue in Park Hill called The Complex, said he thinks businesses in the area haven’t done enough to give back to the community, which has been plagued with crime in recent years, partly as a result of high unemployment. “Businesses haven’t thought about it period. There aren’t really a lot of businesses in the area, except for liquor stores that don’t need to be there,” he said.
Kentucky U.S.A. is planning more positive outreach programs for children in Louisville’s blighted areas. Project Cleanup will hit several more low-income areas throughout the summer, including Beecher Terrace, Iroquois Homes and Sheppard Square — the city’s three other remaining housing projects. Simmons is also planning to give free piano and dance lessons, while Nelson has plans to start a summer band camp.
“We could have the next Jimi Hendrix out there, but you don’t know until you tap into that talent,” he said.
In a fortuitous act of timing, Mayor Jerry Abramson also last week revealed plans to extend the city’s hand to the Park Hill neighborhood and the surrounding areas. The mayor’s economic development office is planning a major overhaul of real estate and infrastructure in the area, an effort they hope will bring jobs to the Park Hill corridor and improve the overall standard of living.
Though still in the planning phase, city officials and consultants have a list of possible renovations that they say will attract businesses to the area, including adding a Hill Street exit from I-65, adding a rail crossing on Cardinal Boulevard west of 15th Street and opening up many of the dead-end streets to through traffic.
“It’s very hard to drive through the corridor,” said Susan Hamilton, assistant director of the office of economic development. “There aren’t very many through streets, you get stopped at trains quite a bit, and the flow can be difficult. One of the questions is, how do we improve that for goods and services? But how do we improve it for the people that live there, too?”
Metro government is holding public meetings to bring together developers and residents and discuss ideas for further development. The first was held last Tuesday at the Sud-Chemie Chemical Company. Hamilton said she spoke with several residents after the meeting and felt like they were “very upbeat and ready to get to work.”
A priority for both residents and developers is bringing new jobs to the area. Larry Simmons said that the most common complaint he hears is that there aren’t enough jobs in the Park Hill neighborhood, once a bustling industrial center and home to such companies as American Standard, Philip Morris, Reynolds Metals and Rhodia SA. Most of the plants have since closed, leaving parts of the area looking like an urban wasteland and many residents unemployed.
Babe Nelson is anxious for the project to get underway.
“It’s all psychological,” he said. “If you grow up in a messed-up area, then you’re probably going to have problems later on in life.”