Psst… Billy Reed — The South End Can Afford Dreams

You may have heard a rumor that The South End can’t afford the luxury of dreams. I don’t think this is a new stereotype (at least for my neck of the South End), but it was  perpetuated most recently by WAVE3 commentator and self-proclaimed “South Ender,” Billy Reed.

I’d argue that the most reliable indicator that you aren’t from The South End is when you walk into debates between neighbors and neighborhoods that you didn’t even know existed, including debates about where The South End lies and who is allowed to claim it as home, and you talk shit without even realizing you’re doing it.

I moved to Oakdale a little over 14 years ago, just before my younger daughter was born. I feel like I fit right in. My sister lives across the street from me. For a while, one of my other sisters lived next door to her. Our kids all played together as one of the many packs of feral children that cruised the neighborhood. I know which house to walk to when I need fresh eggs. I know which streets flood in a downpour. I’m privy to some juicy church gossip, and I know why weed dealers make the best unofficial block watch captains. Whether all this makes me a Southender or an interloper is up for debate and I’m not about to call the matter settled.

But I can recap the Billy Reed hubbub: Billy wanted to write a tribute to a basketball coach, and instead of letting his accomplishments speak for themselves, he decided to add a touch of melodrama. Summoning the ghost of Charles Dickens, Billy painted a backdrop with the kind of darling poverty that produces stories of sports heroes and the men who write them. I feel like if there was some way he could have gotten away with invoking coal mines and chimney sweeps, we would all be rumored to have the black lung and the dropsy. Alas, he had to settle for the more abstract “hard,” “bleak” and “hopelessness”:

“The South End always has been Louisville’s melting pot, an ethnic mix of blue-collar, working-class people who can’t afford the luxury of dreams. At the neighborhood taverns, the men stare into their cold beers with hard eyes, wondering how they’re going to afford this or that.”

He exploited the real-life struggles of folks living in The South End to make a character pop on page. Basically, Billy was talkin’ shit.

Now, there’s an art to shit talking, though the code of conduct surrounding it varies from place to place. As far as The South End is concerned, I’ve heard a legend of three commandments that were scratched in cement inside the old Wyandotte Park pool house around the time wide-eyed Billy Reed moved to Lexington to become a middle-class, basketball player’s hang-around boy. That sacred graffiti (probably) reads: “Thou shalt back it up. Thou shalt say it to my face. Thou shalt not dish it if thou canst not take it.”

True to its rowdy and resourceful nature, The South End responded with a collective, “You don’t know me!” and then mocked Billy’s “Angela’s Ashes” poverty porn and made T-shirts. That’s how that works.

I feel like community norms prevailed, balance was restored, and now we can move on to a much needed conversation about our neighborhoods that I’m afraid is getting drowned out in defensive reactions about how much wealth Southenders have accumulated since Billy called the place home in the ‘50s. The South End is a big place (depending on how you map it), and each neighborhood has its own culture, strengths and challenges (depending on who you ask). What’s true for Valley Station, where the median income is over $55,000, is not necessarily true for other neighborhoods where poverty and economic stagnation are immediate problems.

I love my neighborhood, and I’m not trying to leave anytime soon, but if I were, I’d be set up for frustration. There’s no way I could get a fair sale on my house even if I wanted to move — a problem compounded by the reality of having less than $1,000 in equity in my home despite living here for 14 years. Many of my neighbors are in the same situation as property values in Oakdale have not recovered from the 2008 recession. Other neighbors are living in sheds and garages while houses stand vacant. I can see six such houses from my front porch.

And yet, despite the rumors, we can afford dreams. Billy Reed, who dreams of a Kohl’s for The South End (talk about bleak and hopeless!), doesn’t recognize how rich we are in dreams. Many of us are dreaming of ways to elevate our neighborhoods without tying our fortunes to an unjust system on the brink of collapse. Retail shopping centers are closing all over the country. Neighborhoods prone to flooding do not need more asphalt in an ever-wetter, post-climate change world, so any new development that requires paving over green space does us harm. And let’s call out shit talking when we hear it: To imply that The South End could be improved by the likes of TGO’Cheddars is gross and ought to get you smacked in the mouth. We can do better.

From redlining to the high concentration of dollar stores and payday lenders, Louisville government and private developers have a racist and classist history of devaluing this corner of the city. We don’t have to rely on those same actors to improve our neighborhoods now. We can figure out how to thrive in our own way by investing in ourselves and not giving a damn about what others might have to say about it. We are smart and resourceful and rowdy. Those neighborhood bars with all the cold beers and hard eyes are the best place to discuss gaps and needs, assets and strategies. We do it regularly. Some of us, like me, are relatively recent arrivals. Others have roots in these streets generations deep. We’re all committed to our home, The South End.

Now, who wants to buy a T-shirt? •