The Occupy Nulu action, why we should care and not let history repeat

This is an analysis, commentary that offers the history and context to understand the motives and goals behind the Occupy Nulu action. The authors asked to remain anonymous because “we find it more important to center the message than ourselves. We also wish to remain anonymous to protect the organizers involved in these direct actions from attacks by the power structures that these actions seek to expose.”

One author was directly involved with the protest, and the other was prevented from being involved in direct actions due to personal circumstances but wishes to use their platform to bring attention and context to these issues.

Seventy-six demonstrators were arrested in NuLu on Friday, July 24, for occupying a block of Market Street. They set up art and passed out leaflets meant to bring attention to the lack of Black representation in NuLu businesses and the NuLu Business Association. When you look at the community displacement that has been carried out in the East Market Street area within the last couple of decades, it is easy to see why protesters would have targeted NuLu specifically and why it is vitally important that we discuss the past, present and future of gentrification in Louisville.

Before the area in and around East Market Street was home to expensive boutiques, hipster art galleries and places selling juice for $11.50 a pop, it was home to… people. The exclusive NuLu shopping district is located next to what used to be a distressed and neglected housing project with a population that was over 97% Black. And some businesses on Market Street are housed in the former location of the Wayside Christian Mission homeless shelter. The East Market commercial district became NuLu after these undesirables were removed from the area to make a more comfortable place for the upper-middle class, white patrons of the businesses the city wanted to attract.

The Clarksdale Housing Project covered several blocks from Jefferson and Jackson streets to Muhammad Ali Boulevard and Shelby Street. According to the Louisville Metro Housing Authority’s final report on Clarksdale, before it was demolished, 88% of Clarksdale’s population lived below the federal poverty level. In 2002, Louisville applied for a federal HOPE VI grant to “revitalize” the Clarksdale projects.

At the time, people who were familiar with Louisville’s multiple housing projects wondered why Clarksdale was prioritized over other projects in comparably worse circumstances.

Rick Axtell, a professor of religion and college chaplain at Centre College, and Michelle Tooley, who was an associate professor of religion, and chair of the Peace and Social Justice Studies Department at Berea College, studied Clarksdale and produced “The Other Side of Hope: Squandering Social Capital in Louisville’s HOPE VI.” People they interviewed “felt that Clarksdale was not Louisville’s most severely distressed housing project.” While it was physically distressed and had increasing crime rates in recent years after receiving resident transfers from the city’s last HOPE VI project in the Cotter/Lang Homes, many residents described a strong community and social network in Clarksdale, and more than half of those interviewed in the study had lived there for more than a decade, the study found. Unfortunately for the residents, the area also had easy access to both The Highlands and downtown, which made it attractive to developers. Instead of listening to resident pleas for renovations to the existing structures so that the community could remain intact, residents’ input was ignored and almost all of the original residents were removed and displaced, according to the study.

It is important to note that while the HOPE VI program focuses mostly on improving the physical quality of the housing and the environment in which the residents live, at least part of the goal of this grant is to improve the lives of people who live in public housing by, ya know — making that physical environment better. The grant requires a demonstration of resident input and cities must provide support services to residents being relocated. The city fell short on both accounts, the study concluded.

The application for the HOPE VI grant and “The Other Side of Hope” both illustrate the city’s goal of bringing “dramatic change for public housing residents” and to “spur new economic development” in the East Market District with the changes to the Clarksdale projects. Axtell and Tooley’s study focused on the effects that the development had on the former residents of Clarksdale, while the city seemed to have its mind on the changes as a catalyst for the city’s Downtown Development Plan, even in the grant application.

The Clarksdale Housing Project, which contained over 1,700 residents in over 700 units, would be developed into a “mixed-income housing community” that would use federal dollars to build units that would eventually house market-rate tenants as well as those receiving subsidies. The city was not legally required to replace these units at a one-for-one ratio, but agreed to do so in a memorandum of understanding with a coalition formed by residents and other local organizations, Axtell and Tooley wrote.

According to a 2009 report from Louisville Metro Housing Authority on the Moving to Work program, 311 on-site units in the development that replaced Clarksdale — Liberty Green — are public housing and 132 are market rate. The majority of the original units were replaced off-site throughout the surrounding community as “scattered site” housing. A 2012 story from WDRB announced the availability of condos at The EDGE at Liberty Green ranging in price from $100,000 to more than $400,000.

By 2008, Clarksdale was no more. Nearly 50% of the former residents surveyed by Axtell and Tooley said that they wanted to return to live at Liberty Green, but in the final report on Clarksdale, only 3.2% of former residents had moved into Liberty Green by 2010. Axtell and Tooley found that many cited new residency requirements specific to Liberty Green, as well as the lack of a park, playground, or recreation facilities, and the new rules prohibiting residents from gathering on porches, barbecuing outside or playing music outdoors.

At the same time that this project was being completed, just a few blocks away, another major change was taking place. Wayside Christian Mission, which had operated a 10-building complex on East Market Street was bought out by developer Gill Holland (who is married to Augusta Brown of the Brown-Forman bourbon fortune) in 2008. Wayside had been planning to renovate its buildings but faced obstacles due to the historical nature of them. Holland bought the buildings for $5 million.

You may recognize Holland’s name from the July 10 “Fire Fire Gentrifier” action at a ribbon cutting ceremony he hosted with Mayor Greg Fisher in the Portland neighborhood. This, along with the connections that Breonna Taylor’s lawyer has drawn between her death and the Vision Russell plan for redevelopment, draw attention to why this conversation is a vital one to be having at this point in time: The West End and Portland neighborhood residents are currently at a similar risk for displacement due to “developments” planned in their neighborhoods by the city and Holland.

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So, the context of NuLu and the demonstration against NuLu is this huge wave of displacement that occurred to bring in economic development and prosperity for people who had probably never cared about the people who lived in this area until revitalizing it presented a money-making opportunity. Those who were removed from the area in order to make it more appealing to new businesses received no real say in the matter and most of those displaced received no benefit from these developments, including the ones that were supposed to help them. Taking to the streets to demand representation for this community is just one of several needed calls for justice in this city.

The protesters had presented businesses with a list of demands, including that they:

  Adequately represent the city’s Black population by having a minimum of 23% Black staff (including management);

  Buy a minimum of 23% of their inventory from Black retailers if they are a retail business or make a recurring monthly donation of 1.5% of net sales to a local Black nonprofit or organization;

  Require diversity, equity and inclusion training for all staff members on a biannual basis, taught by Black women leaders from a provided list;

  And display a sign visible to the public to increase awareness and show support for the reparations movement.

Rick Murphy, president of the NuLu Business Association responded to the protest in an interview with WDRB, saying: “I hate the word demands. It’s bullying. We look at what they’ve given us as goals. I don’t embrace demands from anyone. No one can demand something of me, particularly if they accompany that demand with some sort of threat of doing harm to business. Right now is the wrong time to do harm to businesses.”

What exactly has asking nicely really gotten anyone in the last 400 years? Jack shit.

Residents asked for Clarksdale to be remodeled instead of their community being removed, and that request was ignored, Axell and Tooley wrote. Demanding equal representation for a group of people disproportionately removed from the area to make it more palatable to those who occupy it now? That seems like a pretty proportional response to the situation. Murphy said in the same interview that the demands seemed pretty reasonable, but he seemed intent on attacking them for making such demands.

All of this, the revitalization efforts and the related displacement is connected to a broader issue within the city that affects those who live in poverty and public housing, as well as those who struggle to afford unsubsidized housing as increasing rent outpaces income growth. If The West End and Portland are gentrified, where will the people living in these communities go? In Louisville’s incredibly shrinking affordable housing market, available subsidized housing units declined from 24,518 in 2008 to 19,066 in 2018, according to the housing authority. This city’s renters face a crisis. As city initiatives and private developers continue to displace those who cannot afford to live anywhere else, more and more people are at risk for losing their homes.

Where will they go?

With the minimum wage at $7.25/hour but median rent at $835, according to the latest numbers (from 2014 to 2018) from the U.S. Census Bureau, someone working 40 hours a week might have a couple hundred dollars left over after paying rent but certainly not enough to cover utilities, let alone enough to eat or get themselves to and from their job or cover any other expenses. And with the massive amount of unemployment caused by the pandemic, a situation that was already bad has the potential to become catastrophic. Protections need to be put in place, especially for those in communities that have been systemically deprived of resources, who have no way to fight displacement.

The gentrification that has taken place in Louisville’s recent past functions in a way disturbingly similar to colonialism: Powerful white people maneuver poor (and often Black or brown) communities out of spaces that they want, and then they retroactively justify their actions and their continued presence by saying, “But look how much better we use this space! Look how much money it makes now!”

With similar efforts poised to take place in the Portland and Russell neighborhoods, we need to talk about how these communities are destroyed and, more importantly, how to protect people living in these spaces before they are erased. 

Find more informational work around Louisville’s history of systemic racial injustice and how that injustice continues today on Instagram via @sarcasticsunshine.

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