A city divided

Louisville’s urban landscape rooted in segregation

Author and journalist George R. Leighton visited Louisville during the mid 1930s, after which he opined in Harper’s Magazine that the River City was a place that paid great “attention to food and drink, but for the rest, let well enough alone.”

Eight decades later, the city’s dining scene continues to thrive while many of the same problems that long ago plagued Louisville’s urban landscape persist — namely, the physical barriers that isolate west Louisville, dividing this city by race and class.

The latest edition of Food and Dining Magazine highlights the revitalization of East Market Street as a trendy restaurant destination dubbed NuLu. In that article, Mayor Greg Fischer says, “NuLu stands as a testament to what communities can accomplish when great entrepreneurs have space and opportunity to work together.”

Not surprisingly, west Louisville hasn’t had that same experience. The map index in Food and Dining Magazine says it all — there isn’t even a section dedicated to west Louisville.

And this stark contrast between east and west downtown did not occur by accident.

In the late 1920s, Harland Bartholomew arrived in Louisville to develop the city’s first comprehensive plan. Bartholomew was the nation’s first full-time city planner and guided the federal government on the placement of interstate highways in cities. His strategy essentially was to redesign downtowns for cars rather than people, but there was more to it than that.

Ultimately, Bartholomew had more influence in shaping Louisville’s present urban landscape than perhaps any other individual. That the urban form we traverse today is one shaped by white supremacy cannot be ignored. In 1932, Bartholomew published a document titled “The Negro Housing Problem in Louisville,” where he concluded: “There are a number of obstacles that are fundamental to any scheme for improving housing conditions among Negroes. (These include) A lack of desire among a large portion of the population for something better than they are accustomed to … If it were possible to create among the Negro masses a real desire for decent accommodations, the slums would automatically eliminate themselves.”

That Bartholomew reached such a conclusion — placing the blame for poor housing on the shoulders of blacks — speaks not only to his own racially motivated machinations, but also those of his Louisville clients. This document set in motion the forces that destroyed the black business district on Walnut Street and historically black Russell neighborhood. A year after this document was published, the city began construction of the Beecher Terrace public housing complex (for blacks) in west downtown and the Clarksdale public housing (for whites), east of the central business district.

Martina Kunnecke, director of Metro Neighborhood Planning and Preservation, describes Bartholomew’s suggested design as a form of “institutionalized housing, reminiscent of a prison campus.”

But city leaders back then embraced the proposal, and in 1957, Harlan Bartholomew and Associates again visited Louisville to devise an updated comprehensive plan.

This second plan would serve as “a guide for the orderly and economic future growth of the urban area,” and it proposed two renewal areas: east downtown (now the medical district) and west downtown (the civic center). Beginning in 1962, each of the areas was razed, with only a scattering of historic structures remaining. While the medical center was developed in the east, the civic center proposal was replaced by an expanse of institutional towers, surface parking lots and public housing blocks separated by Ninth Street.

In Bartholomew’s 1957 plan, he proposed an elevated expressway, which ended up along Ninth Street, to “allow for more breathing space for downtown.” This concept was based on the Federal Housing Administration’s 1938 recommendation that a “high speed traffic artery or a wide street parkway may prevent the expansion of undesirable entities into adjacent areas.” Thus marked the creation of an unmistakable racial barrier, a section of which is now ironically named after local civil rights leader Roy Wilkins.

The intentions of the 1957 plan stated the demolition of black neighborhoods would “insulate and protect the tremendous values in the central business district against the run-down and blighted neighborhoods around it.” Thus urban renewal was never motivated by the well being of residents, but the economic health of downtown based upon the exclusion of blacks.

After the U.S. Supreme Court abolished Louisville’s racial zoning ordinance in 1917, real-estate interests and city planners employed new strategies and a new language to enforce segregation. The FHA would utilize these strategies in 1936 by suggesting that “Natural or artificially established barriers will prove effective in protecting a neighborhood from adverse influences … and inharmonious racial groups.”

In theory, the 1957 West Downtown Renewal Plan was designed to deal with traffic congestion, a lack of parking, decaying buildings, and blighted housing, but it succeeded mainly in destroying Louisville’s historic urban typology and displacing thousands of black families.

Today, the Russell neighborhood has the Metro region’s highest population density and highest concentration of poverty. The census tract that encompasses east Russell and the area just west of Ninth Street has an annual median income of $8,707, and more than 82 percent of residents live below the poverty line. Once the heart of the black business district, it is now an island disconnected by barriers on all sides, and crossing Ninth Street on foot is a dangerous prospect. The design seems better suited to simply facilitate crime than livability.

“With few or no places to shop, work and play nearby, physical and social decline was an inevitability,” Kunnecke notes.

In a recent New York Times article, architecture critic Michael Kimmelman says, “A half-century or so ago, Louisville, like so many American cities, bet the farm on cars and suburbia … (and) sacrificed a swath of its downtown to three interstate highways.”

And while it’s generally accepted that the black middle class in Louisville never recovered from urban renewal, Kunnecke goes a step further to say Louisville, as a city, never recovered. “The question is,” she asks “can we learn from our past mistakes?”

Joshua Poe is an urban planner and housing advocate based in Southern Indiana.