Voices of Russell in a Time of Change.’
In April 2023, the Louisville Story Program will release “If You Write Me a Letter, Send It Here: Voices of Russell in a Time of Change,” an anthology of first-person narratives by 25 Louisvillians with ties to the Russell community. With the support of the Louisville Story Program, these authors developed compelling, skillfully-crafted chapters that document the culture, community, and history of Russell through the lens of their firsthand experience.
Louisville’s Russell area was once home to the city’s heaviest concentration of thriving Black businesses, cultural institutions and prominent Black residents. While the systemic historical and cultural violence of redlining and urban renewal transformed Russell into an area of concentrated poverty, it remains central to Black life in Louisville.
The city recently demolished Beecher Terrace, a thirty-acre housing project built in 1939, and is replacing it with an extensive mixed-income development. Alongside this redevelopment, many other investments are moving forward in the area. Almost $1 billion in investment is transforming the neighborhoods. Russell residents express hope, skepticism and a renewed commitment to directing outside development to their collective will and benefit.
With so much change underway, the Louisville Story Program spent three years partnering with the authors of “If You Write Me A Letter, Send It Here” to document the many rich layers of history and culture in the neighborhood, past and present.
The following excerpt comes from a chapter called “Hope Grown, Hope Harvested” by Steven Edwards, an educator, mental health specialist, veteran, and property owner who started a community garden in Russell in 2020.
For my forty-first birthday I said, “I want to buy a piece of land,” so I bought a $3,000 vacant lot at 513 South 26th St that had been abandoned for as long as I can remember. There was nothing on it but a little shack and a lot of tall grass. When I first got the property and was thinking of building a community garden, a guy stopped by and said, “Oh, you just bought this? You gonna build some apartments or something?” But we don’t need any more houses in West Louisville. We need communities. Everybody’s plan is just to build a whole lot of houses, but they don’t build an economic structure. They don’t build anyplace where we can come together as a community and heal. When there’s just a lot of houses, when you don’t even know your neighbors, that’s just a `hood, not a neighborhood. At Hope Garden, I’m trying to create an atmosphere where people get to meet their neighbors.
I didn’t know anything about planting or harvesting when I started. I learned how to garden because I want my kids to be healthier and to understand that food is medicine. I’m not a big vegetable eater, but I’m working on it. It’s new to me. I have my good days and my bad days. So I mowed my lot and tilled up the land. I went to a garden center and got some cabbages, greens, squash, and tomatoes and just planted them. I had no idea what I was doing. It always seemed like I looked stuff up on YouTube a week after I really needed to know the information. If I’d have done this in April, I wouldn’t be having this problem right now. Thank God for YouTube. My broccoli never did turn out right because I didn’t know anything. My cabbage got eaten up by butterfly larvae. But my greens, tomatoes, and peppers were beautiful.
I teach gardening classes now. We learn about how to garden and the difference between fruits and vegetables, different acidities of soil and how that affects what you’re growing. I don’t have the capacity to do a garden to feed everybody, and my goal isn’t to have a lot of people working in the garden. It’s more to bring awareness and resources to gardening so you to keep a garden in your backyard. The first year I gave out like 250 seedlings.
When I started out, I just wanted to garden because I thought it could help me
through some stuff: the depression and anxiety of life, trying to figure out where I fit in this world. It was me healing me. I found that gardening relaxes and frees your mind. It gives you time to be by yourself but not feel by yourself. Everybody’s biggest fear is being alone. When you’re scared of the dark, what you’re really scared of is being alone, right? With gardening, you’re alone, but you can work through your thoughts because you have something else there comforting you.
There’s also a communal part. Somebody will come up and say, “Hey, what are you planting?” Then you have a conversation about planting tomatoes. They say, “I used to have fried green tomatoes over at my grandma’s house all the time,” and that conversation turns into this healing thing, because you’re talking about something good, something natural. That little bitty interaction just triggered a happy memory and both of us feel satisfied because we just made a connection on something. That little conversation helped heal everybody in that environment.
People in the community come up and talk to me all the time when I’m gardening. They’ve told me their stories, and the stories are amazing. I’ve met people over there who are struggling. I’ve listened to their stories. They’re deep. They’re humans with real lives and families. I’ve been a teacher and a mental health counselor for twelve years. I’ve never ever heard anybody say, “When I grow up, I want to be on drugs, and not be able to take care of my family.” I’ve never heard anybody say that. Society has let these people down. They’re doing what they’re doing mostly because of trauma.
The community around the garden reminded me a lot of the trauma I saw growing up. I saw all the same stuff where I grew up on Hemlock St.: drugs, prostitution, a lot of pay-today-stay-today type houses. I thought, Be who you needed when you were younger. This garden is what I wish that people would have done for my neighborhood. On B96.5 they used to always say, “If you can’t change the people around you, change the people around you.” I like serving. That’s what I like about me, that I serve. That’s my “pay it forward.”
We started thinking about the healing part of the garden, and somebody asked about doing yoga, so we started it right there. I cut the grass on the two lots next to mine so they could have enough room, and now we have Tai chi over there every Wednesday. We do health fairs. We have people giving out Narcan for drug addictions. We have people doing blood pressure testing. We have Humana there updating people on some of the policies that can help. We have a free clothes table for people who just want clothes. We give away food at Thanksgiving. We have resource fairs and do the seedling giveaway. There’s HIV testing and needle exchange at the garden now. So not only have people had direct benefit from the gardening part of it, but also the health services and mental health services. It’s just been a really beautiful thing. •
*A free, public book launch celebration for If You Write Me a Letter, Send It Here is slated for April 2023. Details at louisvillestoryprogram.org.