Race, space and economics in the West End: The future of Beecher Terrace?

May 20, 2015 at 4:10 pm
Race, space and economics in the West End: The future of Beecher Terrace?

Leonard Sullivan has lived in the Beecher Terrace public housing development for 17 years. The 77-year old former Eli Lilly machinist is known simply as “Pops” to his neighborhoods. He spends most days sitting on the white plastic chair he keeps on the small porch of his one-bedroom apartment on Liberty Court, a self-appointed neighborhood watch. Sullivan is originally from Georgia. He first visited Louisville in the 1960s when he was in the Army. He lived in Indianapolis in the 1970s, where he worked for Eli Lilly, but a debilitating cocaine habit brought him back to Louisville to get away from his demons. After a stint in a drug rehab program at the Healing Place, Sullivan was given a sober living apartment in Beecher Terrace. The same one he occupies today for $375 a month.

“Beecher Terrace was a savior for me,” says Sullivan, who has been drug-free for almost 18 years. “It is still a pretty good place to be. This is not the Beecher Terrace they depict in the newspaper and television. There are a lot of people doing the right thing here. Any place with a high concentration of people, you gonna have some trouble. That don’t have nuthin’ to do with race. That has to do with monitoring. In the sober living section where I live, we all know each other and we look out for each other.”

Beecher Terrace is a 768-apartment complex bordered by 9th, Muhammad Ali, 12th and Jefferson streets. It was originally built in 1941 to house World War II defense workers but eventually became federally-subsidized public housing. The four-acre Baxter Square Park on South 12th Street is the oldest Olmsted designed park in the city. But Beecher Terrace is one of the poorest communities in Louisville and has all the problems that come with that designation including high unemployment, crime, and rampant drug abuse. In April 2014, the PBS show “Frontline” featured Beecher Terrace in an episode titled “Prison State,” which was the second half of the show’s two-part “Locked Up in America” series. The documentary dealt with the high rate of incarceration among Beecher Terrace residents. Frontline found that one in six residents of the housing complex will spend time in jail or prison. Also, at a time when violent crime in Kentucky is decreasing, the state spends $15 million a year housing prisoners from Beecher Terrace.

Sullivan didn’t watch the Frontline episode about Beecher Terrace, but he is used to the media focusing on the negative aspects of the complex and not the community within it. He admits that there are some areas of Beecher Terrace where he is wary to go alone, but he says crime only got out of hand after the city closed other housing projects — Shepherd’s Square, Cotter Homes, Iroquois Homes and Clarksdale — and moved some of those residents into Beecher Terrace. Even then, most of the crimes Sullivan hears about are drug charges or nonviolent offenses.

“The one major crime I know was when they brought a boy from 38th street, he tried to get away and they killed him down there (near Muhammad Ali) and the news just said, ‘Killing in Beecher Terrace,’” Sullivan says. “I just didn’t think that was fair.”

Sullivan also doesn’t like that Louisville Metro is considering razing Beecher Terrace as it has other the housing projects in the city. In January, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) awarded Louisville Metro Housing Authority (LMHA) a $425,000 Choice Neighborhoods planning grant for the redevelopment of Beecher Terrace and the surrounding Russell neighborhood. The Choice program, which supersedes the HOPE VI Revitalization program which was used to raze the other River City housing developments, hopes to transform the current distressed public and assisted housing into energy efficient, mixed-income housing and to support positive outcomes for families who live in the targeted development and the surrounding community.

Tim Barry, LMHA Executive Director, says those plans are still in the beginning stages, but the city will implement several lessons it learned from the razing of the other housing projects. “This is a much broader plan than Hope 6,” Barry says. “It is a natural evolution. Our city leaders have recognized that it is important to impact the whole neighborhood and not just the housing development. We want to address many of the problems in the Russell community – abandoned homes, efficiency problems, and the need for economic development.”

In addition, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer announced last week that his upcoming budget will include a $12 million initiative called Louisville Creating Affordable Residences for Economic Success (CARES). The program will use city funds and a 30-year bond to create 1,500 affordable housing units over two years. Part of the plan is to build affordable housing near large employers like the Bluegrass Industrial Park in Jeffersontown, so residents will have easier access to jobs.

“Having decent, safe and affordable housing is the most basic need for families,” Fischer said at a press conference on Friday. “Yet, in Louisville, that home is out of reach for too many of our families, too many of our citizens and too many of our children. This is a down payment on a long-term plan to address that challenge.”

Sullivan says all the new projects sound good, but he has his doubts that they will do anything to improve the lives of the current residents at Beecher Terrace. After Cotter Homes and Clarksdale were replaced with mixed income housing, few of the former residents were permitted to return to the community. Sullivan believes the same thing will happen at Beecher Terrace.

“Personally, I think they are full of shit,” he confesses. “They just got too many black people too close to downtown. They want to put the blacks in the suburbs and bring the whites back downtown for the sake of 4th Street Live, the Kentucky Derby and Waterfront Park on the river down there. That’s just my opinion. What they said to me, when they came around to do their survey, they said they were going to let selective families back in depending on their criminal record. I don’t believe none of that.”

Sullivan is old enough to remember Urban Renewal in the 1960s, when the city tore down a thriving black community full of homes and businesses along Walnut Street in the name of progress. Restrictive real estate covenants limited African Americans to living in West Louisville which resulted in many of the white residents fleeing to the suburbs in what is known as “white flight.” Sullivan, and a few community activists, fear the city’s plans for the Russell neighborhood are Urban Renewal Part II, but this time instead of keeping African Americans downtown they want them away from it so they can gentrify blighted neighborhoods.

Luther Adams, an Associate Professor at the University of Washington-Tacoma, says the young professionals streaming into the NuLu and Portland neighborhoods of late are an example of the “Suburbanization of the cities.” It is a national trend that he has already observed in places like Seattle and Washington, D.C., where local government has focused on economic development and upgrading services in blighted downtown communities. Adams says this gentrification adds many positives to the community, but just moving the poor does not do anything to solve the issues that caused the communities to be blighted in the first place.

“People describe it as moving back to the city, but really these are the children of the people that left the city in ’60 who are moving into the city for the first time,” Adams explains. “One of the reasons that they are coming back is that this is cheap property. In some ways now, this property is cheaper than it ever was in the suburbs or other neighborhoods that are well established. They could never get into Cherokee Triangle the way they can get into these neighborhoods in the West End.

“Urban renewal and gentrification are very similar in some key ways. There is the hand of government, the question of who gets a voice and the people who are being moved around in some ways outside their will. They bear the brunt of whatever you want to call progress. That is happening all over the nation.”

Adams, a Louisville native, is the author of “Way Up North in Louisville: African American Migration in the Urban South, 1930-1970.” Adams grew up in the South End near Iroquois Park and graduated from Doss High School. Part of the motivation for Adams’ research was trying to understand why West Louisville was the space set aside for black people. His inquiry illuminated for Adams the role local government plays in shaping communities and dictating the direction of people’s lives.

After the Civil War, the majority of African Americans were located in the Deep South. But the push of racial segregation and violence at home and the pull of industrial jobs in the North led to a Great Migration northward. Most research on the subject focuses on the impact this migration had on larger cities like Chicago and New York, where overcrowding and housing segregation gave birth to the early ghettos between 1910 and 1920. Ghetto is a loaded term these days, but for hundreds of years it referred to just an area occupied by a segregated minority group. The first ghettos were made up of Jews living in Italy.

The second wave of the Great Migration had a huge impact on Louisville. The city became a popular destination for African Americans fleeing the Deep South because of all the economic opportunities available: more than 17,000 new black residents and the city didn’t really have a place to put them. “Because of migration there is an influx of people in the city, but because of segregation there is not as much housing available,” Adams says. “What they call ‘The Ghetto’ or racial isolation didn’t happen in Louisville in the same way that it did in other Southern cities. Louisville had more of a checkerboard pattern when it came to housing. Black people may live in alleys or they may live on one street and the next street is white.”

Urban renewal changed this pattern. Today, nearly 75 percent of African Americans in the city are located in West Louisville. According to the Metropolitan Housing Coalition’s 2014 State of Metropolitan Housing Report, the majority of the 17,903 subsidized housing units (public housing and Section 8 programs) in Louisville are in the West End. There are currently about 21,000 Louisville families on a waiting list for housing assistance. In his press conference last week, Mayor Fischer said about 60,000 of the poorest local households spend at least one-third of their income on housing.

Adams says these problems persist because too often when people think of stressed communities like Beecher Terrace, they focus too much attention on residents’ behavior and not enough on other factors like structure, the activities of realtors and government, and policing.  “Vice has always been funneled into certain neighborhoods and away from certain neighborhoods,” he says. “The housing and the concentration of poverty has led to the way a lot of people look at Beecher Terrace. They say, ‘That is where all the crime is.’ Or, if you have hundreds of kids running through the streets downtown, ‘this is the source of that problem.’ Those struggles direct and misdirect our attention away from bigger questions. There are serious questions about race, economics, space — who gets to inhabit what places and spaces in the city — and who has a voice in that process. If this is progress, who benefits from it and at whose cost?”

In the modern mind, housing projects are associated with poverty or crime, but it was not always that way. When they were first constructed during the New Deal, these complexes were celebrated for providing residents with a stepping stone to middle class respectability. That image began to change as the residents became darker and poorer, and the tenements went from short-term to long-term housing. But sometimes things still work out the way they used to.

René Douglas-Smith is the Supervisor of Recreation at the Baxter Community Center, located within the Beecher Terrace housing development. When she was a junior in college, Douglas-Smith fell in love with a boy and everything was great until she got pregnant. In 1989, she lived with her infant daughter in Beecher Terrace while she worked and finished school at the University of Louisville. Douglas-Smith said she never would have made it to graduation without the many women in the community who helped her out with childcare. Although she now owns a house in Shivley, she still considers the housing development home.

“For me it is a totally different experience being in Beecher Terrace because I’ve been on both sides of the desk,” Douglas-Smith says. “I treat people like I want to be treated because I know what it feels like to need assistance. I had an opportunity to come back and give back, so I seized that opportunity. Beecher Terrace is often shed in a negative light, but the news doesn’t show the positive things. There are college students here and there are people striving for better things. I hope that what I do can be a small part of that positive change for the community.”

Douglas-Smith oversees sport leagues, kid’s activities, and other programs at the community center. Her clientele tends to change throughout the day. When LEO visited a group of men were having a spirited basketball game. Douglas-Smith understandably declined to comment on any future plans the city might have for Beecher Terrace or the center. But she did say that she’d miss the sense of community she has experienced in the area. These same feelings were also expressed by several longtime residents.

LaTonya Long and Shanntale Watters have been friends for 10 years. Both have lived in Beecher Terrace for over five years.  Long, who does janitorial work, says it is probably a good thing that the city tear down the housing project and build something new. “I don’t have a problem with that,” she says. “But if they rebuild I like to think we’d have the opportunity to come back.”

Watters, who lives on Cedar Court, would like to see money spent on other things like more activities for neighborhood teens. She says there have been some neighborhood meetings about the city’s plans for Beecher Terrace, but she doesn’t feel there has been enough dialogue in the community about these possible changes. “It’s not all bad here,” Watters says. “It’s been fine this year. We haven’t had no killin’ since that bang, bang shoot ‘em up two years ago. Everything went smooth on Thunder. Derby was fine. I just want people to realize this is a community and not  just a place full of problems.”

Long and Watters echo Sullivan’s assertion that things got worse at Beecher Terrace after former residents of the demolished housing projects were moved there. While they were talking Watters’ cousin, Tuwanna Watters, stopped by. Tuwanna, who works in the Transport department at Jewish Hospital, lives in Newburg but she had been a resident of the Southwick housing development. She says Southwick had to be torn down because of problems with the land where it was constructed, but she misses a lot of her former neighbors.

“It’s an inconvenience,” Tuwanna says. “I truly believe they are misplacing a lot of families. When they get rid of Cotter Homes and Beecher Terrace, I don’t see where everybody is going to be around the Louisville area. I think it will be all for the better in the end, but I don’t know how the transition is going to work. What about the elderly and handicapped? It’s harder for them to start over. I’m not saying don’t tear Beecher Terrace down, but I want to know all this stuff is part of the discussion.” •