Quotes become clichéd because they are true. “Be the change you wish to see in the world” perfectly describes why husband and wife team, Walter and Marshae (Shae) Smith, started their West of Ninth project. They want to tell the stories of West Louisville, and they decided the best way to do that is to give an unfiltered voice to the people who live in West Louisville — Russell, Portland, Shawnee, Chickasaw, California, Park Hill, Park DuValle, Parkland and Algonquin. The media tend to not highlight the best qualities of these neighborhoods or dive deeply into their tug of war with good and bad forces. Armed with a Nikon camera and their phones set on record, the Smiths are determined to change this. Their Instagram account (westofninthlouisville) and their blog (westofninth.com) are popular. Now, their photos and interviews will appear every other week in LEO in the same space that my column formerly occupied. The Smiths, both 32, live in Russell with sons, Walter Jr., 8, and Maxwell, 2.
LEO: Tell me about the West of Ninth project.
Shae Smith: We come up with the best ideas when we’re in the driveway of our house, sitting in the car. It’s best because usually the kids are asleep in the backseat, and we’ll just sit there maybe 45 minutes just brainstorming ideas. We were just talking about how often we hear such a negative narrative about West Louisville, and if there was a way that we could spin it and possibly highlight the people within the neighborhood. More like a ‘boots on the ground’ approach. With that we just started taking to the streets. Through the content, we just wanted to get more raw and real stories from the people in the community. Yes, they have bad days. Yes, people do experience trauma just like everyone else but at the end of the day, they tell us a great triumph story. Then, just also getting more information from the people within the community as to what their thoughts are when it comes to what West Louisville means — such as things for the kids to do, more grocery stores.
Walt Smith: We don’t necessarily experience the narratives that the media will portray to the public. We feel a sense of community where we live. It was like, let’s try to create a sense of community with this project instead just coming from one person’s point of view on the community. We wanted to try to get a collective voice from all the neighborhoods [of West Louisville]. To me, it’s a platform to create a voice for ones that could be unheard. A lot of us feel like we’re not paid attention to.
Do you consider yourselves artists, activists or anthropologists?
SS: I would have to say it’s a mixture of all. We love the art of it all. When you’re really listening to all these stories, you can’t help but want more for your community.
WS: I don’t know how I would rank the order, but I would say it’s a bit of all three. I’ve never seen myself as an activist. We have our views but trying to create that kind of movement like an activist would, I just felt like there was a need. We needed to bring light. If we let anybody else tell our story…
SS: …that’s not from the community. It can be taken a different way.
Tell me about your backgrounds.
WS: I grew up in West Louisville. Grew up in Shawnee. Everything that I did was done in The West End. School, church, sports… all of that took place within my community. Not just the Shawnee neighborhood but different neighborhoods throughout The West End.
SS: My parents were in the service. My mom served 22 years in the Air Force. My mom is a West End native. We have family down here. When she decided to retire, she wanted to come back to Louisville. We didn’t live in The West End, but I always ventured off to the West. There was something about wanting to be in this community that just felt like home and we didn’t want to be the type of people that just stayed within our four walls, watched the news and were afraid to go outside. We want to be the neighbors you come to for some sugar. We made it a point to get to know people on our block. We got to the parks within the community. We hang out in the community. We frequent the restaurants. Rooftop Grille is our favorite.
What do you hope people will take away from your project?
SS: We want to create that sense of understanding between the younger generation and the older generations. We live in a society where the younger generation doesn’t want to hear what the older generation has to say and vice versa. We want to create that sense of understanding, create a connection within the community and for people outside of the community so people can see the humanity within the community.
WS: Whenever you’re able to speak with that person and get their story, that can change someone’s perspective. That can create some type of understanding and a sense of empathy and compassion as well. If you see an individual that may not be the one you see on Instagram but that will create an understanding like ‘let me not think that about this person.’