Rise and Fall

With demolition ahead, a look back at Sheppard Square's 70 years

Sep 28, 2011 at 5:00 am
Rise and Fall
Photo by Sarah Kelley

Teresa Fowler sits at her kitchen table, the window air-conditioner unit gently spitting mist behind her. She’s lived at Sheppard Square for 33 years, raising three kids and a nephew, pretty much on her own. Like the majority of residents over the last three decades, she’s a single, African-American mom.

“Husband? Huh,” she chuckles. “What husband?”

Fowler is in her 50s with copper-colored hair and dimples stitched into her youthful face. She folds her hands and smiles, ready for her next interview question. A neighbor, 50-year-old Yejide Travis, sits at the table as well. Both watch as a young man busts into the house, through the kitchen. Bass from music outside rattles their patience. Fowler yells at no one in particular to turn it down. Someone complies. She folds her hands. Smiles again.

Fowler cares for many kids in this complex. She tells them when they piss her off and tries to keep them in line.

“It’s like a family,” she says of Sheppard Square, though she’s well aware of the dysfunction. Fowler used to feel safe leaving her door open at night, but sometime in the 1990s, locks clicked into place. At that point, residents living in shotgun houses around the barracks-style housing project had retreated. Liquor stores filled abandoned shops. Smoketown’s core sat at or below the poverty line on Sheppard Square’s 16 acres.

Fowler has worked most of her life — several decades ago at tobacco factories, and more recently at the Jefferson County Board of Education. While she never got a college degree, she recognizes its value. Fowler asks Travis how far she is from getting her bachelor’s degree from Spalding University.

“One class,” reports Travis.

Fowler beams. It’s estimated that only half of her Sheppard Square neighbors hold a high school diploma. She sees a lot of youth following the lead of the most powerful personalities, ones who shouldn’t be role models, ones who often aren’t on the lease but crash on couches and somehow end up controlling the narrative of a place and the people who live there.

It’s a warped regime of compact poverty. J. Blaine Hudson co-authored “Two Centuries of Black Louisville” and is dean of University of Louisville’s College of Arts and Sciences. He says that while poor whites tend to live in neighborhoods with at least some income diversity, poor African-Americans typically live clustered together. And that carries a long list of social conditions that tether its growth, health and success.

“It doesn’t make it impossible to get out. Those are the stories we see in movies and books, but it really loads the dice,” Hudson says. “The odds are very long.”

Keishanna Hughes made it. The mother of four used to rely on welfare and lived in Sheppard Square for five years. She now works at the Presbyterian Community Center in Smoketown, has a new car and home, and mentors teenage girls. This June, she became a bit of a local celebrity after The New York Times featured her as a success story in an article about obesity in Louisville.

Years ago, eviction spurred her to seek change in her life. Seeing her furniture on the lawn, like a beached shipwreck, was troubling.

“It was a wake up call,” she says. And in that respect, she supports the HOPE VI renovation of Sheppard Square — a public-private investment of $167 million to reinvent the housing project as a mixed-income neighborhood. In May, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded a $22 million federal grant to act as seed money for the razing and reconstruction. Sheppard Square will be the Louisville Metro Housing Authority’s third and last HOPE VI project.

Hughes hopes this inevitable move shakes those who feel stuck in the system and prompts an urgent self-sufficiency. Still, when interviewed over the summer, she sensed that many at Sheppard Square feel more apathetic than inspired.

“If no one’s ever reached out to you, why in my adult life would I think because you’re going to come tear my home down, you care about what I think or what I have to say? And that’s how they feel — ‘Just give me the money and I’ll go.’ And it eats me up,” she says. “You already tore down two projects without our say so, without our wishes, so go on and keep moving.”

Fowler agrees. She realizes the Metro Housing Authority isn’t just throwing her out on the street. All residents can opt for Section 8 rental assistance vouchers, a spot in another public housing complex, or one of the individual units scattered throughout the county. Still, Fowler doesn’t mince words about the HOPE VI relocation.

“They want to get every black person out of the East End,” she says, referring to downtown, “and put them in the West End, point blank. And I don’t like them for it. Get rid of the bad but not the good people … don’t hurt us.”

Fowler surprises herself when she gets choked up, unaware that this place — quicksand for many — means so much to her. When the new mixed-income development is open for current residents to move back to, if history is any indication, few will.

By next year, the 70-year-old, glazed, hollow tiles in each wall should be distant debris, the property ready for a new chapter. Some families have already moved out. Many in the surrounding Smoketown neighborhood are confident this will reignite the historic area, now notorious for crime, neglect and graffiti.

One of Renita Rosa’s lifelong passions is Smoketown. She’s worked on developing the area for 20 years. She lived on Roselane Street as a child. Her father, Ernest “Camp” Edwards, was a former director at the Presbyterian Community Center.

“This neighborhood, as long as I can remember, has been in survival mode,” she says. “It’s going to change. I think for the better.”

Smoketown, while poor, was a vibrant African-American community from around the time of the Civil War to World War II. It’s documented that many slaves searching for freedom settled in the area in 1865. One of the world’s most recognizable figures, Muhammad Ali, started his boxing career at the old Presbyterian Community Center. Hudson worries that Smoketown’s rich African-American heritage will diffuse if trendy lofts and upscale eateries slowly supplant Sheppard Square, a prime piece of real estate.

“I think the culture and character of Smoketown is very much at risk,” he says, adding that he’s not against progress, just concerned about a significant space and those who’ve called it home. Hudson also has a personal connection to Smoketown: His mother worked as a property manager at Sheppard Square for about a decade.

In the past, the quest for pleasant urban aesthetics has shuffled rather than confronted the complex plight of the displaced poor. It happened when Sheppard Square was built in the 1940s. A decade later, urban renewal followed suit.

“I think some people see it as, ‘Well, these people got out of sight out of mind,’ then you can console yourself with the belief that it’s worked out OK for them. And maybe in some cases that’s true,” Hudson says. “But those are the folks that I think are the odd ones out.”

For this story, LEO talked with more than a dozen former and current Sheppard Square and Smoketown residents. Much of the historical information comes from “Two Centuries of Black Louisville,” as well as newspaper clippings and a report on the architectural and social history of Sheppard Square, authored by local preservationist Carolyn Brooks.

What’s clear is that Sheppard Square, like many other housing projects built in the post-Depression era, was conceived with good intentions and crippled by evolving economic and social policies.

It rose with the promise of lifting people out of poverty, an idealistic goal that took the name of a remarkable man.

William Henry Sheppard’s life reads like a screenplay. Born in Virginia in 1865 as the Civil War drew to an end, Sheppard grew up in a loving, Presbyterian home. His mother, Fannie, was a free woman, so he was not born into slavery.

Sheppard writes in his book that as a child, a beautiful, Christian woman once told him, “William, I pray for you and hope some day you may go to Africa as a missionary.” The young boy had never heard of Africa.

Flash forward to February 1890. A tall, handsome African-American man boards the Adriatic at a New York pier. The Presbyterian Church had hired the 24-year old Sheppard, an ordained minister, to work as a missionary in the Congo. Accompanying him was 23-year-old Sam Lapsley, a white missionary from Alabama. While in America, the two led segregated lives. For the mission, however, they were equals — same pay, same tent, same meals occasionally consisting of river water and crackers, same exotic fevers that would require one to wrap the other in blankets.

Once in Africa, they traveled some 230 miles together. Hollywood-sized adventures followed: whirlpools in the Congo River that battered their boat, a boa constrictor that swallowed a donkey whole, an encounter with a cannibal tribe whose teeth were filed to fine, sharp points. Sheppard even discovered the elusive Kuba Kingdom that had never been visited by Europeans or other African tribes.

Sheppard thrived in Africa as a big-game hunter. He collected art that hangs both in the Speed Art Museum and at Hampton University, his alma mater. His explorations earned him the title “Black Livingstone.” And in 1893, he was the first black explorer admitted to the prestigious British Royal Geographical Society.

Sheppard’s most important work in the Congo came in the later part of his 20-year stay. As Belgian rubber companies began to exploit the land and its people, Sheppard witnessed and recorded unthinkable violence. Murder and mutilation were commonplace. In 1908, a major rubber firm unsuccessfully sued Sheppard for libel after he exposed the atrocities. His victory secured his status as an international human rights advocate.

In 1912, Louisville’s Grace Hope Presbyterian Church recruited him as pastor, and eventually he and his family settled into a two-story brick home that still stands on East Breckinridge.

A book written on Sheppard, “Black Livingstone,” recounts the explorer’s difficult return to the United States, a racially divided world where even his white colleagues, who knew of his impressive accomplishments, considered him inferior. It states: “Sheppard found it necessary to repackage himself as a humble Sunday school teacher.”

Sheppard died in 1927. Fifteen years later, when the $1.4 million Sheppard Square was completed and dedicated with great fanfare, one of Sheppard’s colleagues at the church wrote in a memo: “May his name be a constant inspiration to the occupants of these homes.”

One wonders how William Sheppard would react to the housing project of today.

J. Blaine Hudson, who’s studied Sheppard extensively, considers this for a moment.

“I don’t think Sheppard would’ve been pleased with the project becoming more of a dead end to people,” he says, “rather than a launching pad for people to go on to other, better things.”

Yejide Travis, a resident of Sheppard Square for five years, strolls through one of the complex’s sun-drenched courtyards. Her dreadlocks are bundled into a crocheted cap. She lights a cigarette, the smoke overtaking the faint scent of incense embedded in her clothes. To overcome her apartment’s sterile, cold feel, she burns it religiously.

Her ties to Sheppard Square and Smoketown go back more than five years. She grew up attending church just around the corner. And as a teenager in the ’70s, she would drive her father to crime scenes in the area. Her family owned a funeral home that she says had a contract with the city to take bodies away. One night, it brought her to a building near the old Presbyterian Community Center.

“I just got my driver’s license. We came to pick up the body of a child. Just shot. It seems to me either the bullet came through the window,” she stops, grows quiet. “I remember it being a tragedy.” Back then, she didn’t consider what it might be like to live in the projects, but that was before her slippery addictions and financial struggles.

Travis points to a nearby, empty playground with a deflated kiddie pool hanging over a rail, still dripping.

“Where we’re walking now is called ‘The Wire,’” she says, referring to the gritty TV drama. “After sundown, don’t come over here.”

Just a few weeks after this conversation, two men were shot and killed at the complex, allegedly over a dice game. Sheppard Square had been murder-free for two years.

Most of the crimes here involve fights, assaults and, from what Travis sees, non-residents. A few days ago, Travis says her own apartment was broken into while she was sleeping. She didn’t wake up, but recalls a groggy blur of red, perhaps the intruder’s pants or sweatshirt.

Her large brown eyes turn glassy thinking about it. These are thankful tears. A neighbor heard something and called police before she’d even realized what was happening. She wonders, when everyone’s dispersed to their new homes, will that support remain?

“I worry about that kind of community being shattered,” she says, reciting all the ways her neighbors have helped her. She laughs when she realizes her sobs linger on the memory of gifted toilet paper.

Women head 83 percent of the households at Sheppard Square. Most are single. Travis’ three-bedroom unit welcomes many single moms with a meal, a place to stay in an emergency. Her door is open. She knows that within these 36 buildings, a reliable network has emerged. What’s lacking are mentors, an education, a path to self-sufficiency.

Sheppard Square and other housing projects offer GED programs. The HOPE VI project will dedicate $2.5 million to education and job training programs. Some apartments will be reserved at Family Scholar House, a complex that supports the education of single college students with children. Travis applauds this effort, but can’t accept that investments in people pale to the investments in property.

This afternoon, Travis heads door-to-door for Women In Transition, a grassroots advocacy group for the poor. The group — of which Travis is a board member — wants to publicize upcoming meetings about the move.

She stops at a stoop where an elderly woman with a colorful, nylon jacket sits. Travis starts to hand her a flyer with “Residents Know Your Rights!” scrawled across the top.

“I’ve received information,” she says, averting her eyes up to a tree. Travis politely thanks her and walks on. Demolition has been talked about since 2009, although the official announcement was not made until May 23 of this year. Residents have watched as another HOPE VI project at the Clarksdale housing complex scattered families across the county, making way for a primarily new population at the revitalized Liberty Green. It’s hard to get worked up over the inevitable.

Travis knocks on a door at building 31. “We’re passing out information on HOPE VI,” she says to a teenage girl holding a skinny gray cat. Travis is invited up and meets Angel Jin, an exuberant woman smoking on her couch. She’s thrilled Sheppard Square is being torn down.

“They’re going to level it, and I hope they bury it in the sand,” Jin laughs. She’s tired of the boxy, rundown buildings, though her walls proudly wear her daughter’s honor roll certificates and neon-colored artwork.

“Just let me know before they’re about to go BOOM!” she says forming a miniature wrecking ball with her forearm and fist that she clobbers through the air.

Steam shovels scooped land to make way for Sheppard Square in 1941, both in the name of “slum clearance” and job creation. Smoketown, apparently named for the dirty billows rising from brickyards in the 1800s, had become a densely populated, rundown neighborhood. Government-sponsored housing was seen as a step up. Homes occupied but rarely owned by African-Americans were torn down — 257 structures in all.

The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, commonly known as the Public Works Administration, sparked this effort. In 1937, the United States Housing Act committed the federal government to housing urban, low-income populations, thus creating the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Local housing authorities, including one in Louisville, then cropped up.

Across the country, nearly 700 large-scale public housing projects were being built as low-income or defense housing for workers involved in the efforts of World War II. In Louisville, projects were built in segregated pairs. As plans for an all-black Sheppard Square were under development, Parkway Place was designated for whites.

Smoketown was selected as the perfect place for Sheppard Square, primarily due to the well-established Grace Community Center (now Presbyterian Community Center.) For four decades, Grace had been working on improving the lives of the poor, primarily African-American community.

Bible study, sewing, and woodworking classes were offered. But no academics beyond trade classes were available. As the local housing authority — then the Louisville Municipal Housing Commission — built up the complex, Grace agreed to create a playground for the incoming children.

By 1942, when the project was complete, John Little, the superintendent of Grace, placed a Bible in each unit and wrote in a Thanksgiving memo:

“We are particularly thankful for the Municipal Housing Commission. They have transformed our entire community by surrounding our building with 423 clean, attractive homes containing refrigerators, hot and cold water, and gas stoves.”

These amenities were rare among low-income housing units and nearly did not come to fruition at Sheppard Square. In fact, at one point, architects struggling to bring the project in on budget debated eliminating washbasins from bathrooms. Instead, the city secured more funds and construction materials by defining Sheppard Square as housing for the workforce of Louisville’s defense industry plants, an upgrade that required heat and water.

This also raised the rent for each unit from $8 to $10. The families who moved in were not a thriving, but a striving class.

By the 1950s, with the war’s end, the population changed. Around this time, the last wave of African-Americans from the South migrated to Louisville. Sharecropping had become mechanized, and the new arrivals had little education.

This coincided with urban renewal, a practice of clearing out decayed buildings and homes for city beautification projects. The majority of demolished housing belonged to blacks. And unlike HOPE VI, no efforts were made to replace the lost housing units. Waiting lists for public housing grew long with African-Americans in desperate need of a home.

Families who could leave the inner city fled to the suburbs. A survey of tenants at Sheppard Square from 1963 shows 40 percent of the families had no one working. About 38 percent were two parent households.

“And they didn’t stay long,” 83-year-old Ruth Armstrong remembers.

On July 26, 1957, Armstrong moved into Sheppard Square.

“I was 27 years old then,” Armstrong laughs, tickled at the idea of youth.

She sits in her wheelchair amidst the buttery glow of her living room, accented by ruby curtains, a lifetime’s display of trinkets and unopened mail in tufts around the legs of her walker. In the last 54 years, her address has changed from one building to another in Sheppard Square.

Armstrong raised two children here and hadn’t intended to stay this long. But poor health forced her to retire at 41. College was far too expensive, and her best option was to remain in a place she could afford with her Social Security payments. She knew the units were intended as temporary, transitional homes.

“Well, I guess temporary was temporary,” she says, “because I’m still here.”

She lives alone with her 5-year-old dog, Weasel, who barks maniacally at the slightest movement or sound.

“She’s part Chihuahua, part badness,” Armstrong says with a mischievous grin.

She’s nursing a knee the size of cantaloupe from one missed step on the stairs leading out of her apartment. One of her favorite places to sit is outside among her tidy flowerpots and lawn statues.

Armstrong lives near a corner plagued by drug dealing and remembers the problem landing in the neighborhood in the ’60s. She says the trade of heroin and other drugs was far quieter, under the radar.

“Back then, it was a secret. It wasn’t put out in the street like it is now,” she says. “They’ll walk to you now, ‘Miss, you want to buy some weed?’ That’s how they get caught. They go to the wrong people.”

For the most part, though, Armstrong nostalgically speaks about the old days of Sheppard Square. She was part of the Improvement Club, a group of women who organized social gatherings and traveled to other complexes seeking gardening and child-rearing tips.

She lovingly recalls buildings 1-6, with the dandiest of yards, as “senior citizen land.”

Every year, in the basement of building 21, she’d help organize a Halloween party. All day women would stuff candy into bags and decorate the room with spider webs and balloons. One year, they even purchased a mechanical Dracula with fangs that popped out when children walked by.

The delightful squeals still echo when she thinks about it. Until about 1980, she says the housing authority gave the Improvement Club money for such activities. Armstrong remembers an allotment given for the purchase of chickens for every family on Christmas.

Parents helped each other. If kids got out of line, she had no problem reprimanding.

“Can’t do that now,” she says. “You’re meddling.”

By 1969, a new federal policy, aimed at helping the poor, led to an even further bundling of poverty. The Brooke Amendment capped low-income housing rents at 25 percent of income and provided subsidies to close the gaps between what tenants could pay in rent and operating costs.

With that, a complex for low-income families assumed many families with no income. According to newspaper clippings from that decade, violence and gang activity increased. Some residents told reporters Smoketown was the worst it had ever been and that they feared for their lives. In 1971, two policemen were murdered in the neighborhood.

That was the same year the Housing Authority of Louisville, now the Louisville Metro Housing Authority, decided to adopt a scattered site plan for public housing. Its annual report from that year states, in part:

“Experience has taught us that large concentrations of people in the same income and social-economic levels pose problems not only for the Authority but for the city as a whole. The new concept of development should help to eliminate some of these problems.”

The 1980s brought greater police protection and crime briefly dropped. Also, HUD awarded the housing authority $4.5 million to upgrade Sheppard Square. Still, the decision to phase out this form of subsidized housing had been made. “The bricks” were a relic from another era. Plans to move people around were under way.

Armstrong wants to move to Beecher Terrace, a housing project in the West End. She dreads being placed in assisted living or, even worse, a high rise. She’s not a fan of elevators.

Like many seniors, she cherishes her independence, which is tricky in subsidized housing.

On the night 24-year-old Lavel White, a filmmaker, heard about Sheppard Square being torn down, he decided he would make a documentary about his old home. He lived there during the late 1990s and early 2000s.

First, he got on Facebook:

“Growing pains is the best way to describe my time there in the housing development. My journey and story is just like thousands of other boys and girls that have interacted or dealt with the Square in some instance … I know for a fact that living in poverty is not stable because a lot of people I know up close and personal are on their 3rd or 4th move in this so-called ‘project shuffle.’”

On June 1, he arrives with a photographer and starts directing shots of the empty courtyards and the historic plaque dedicated to William Sheppard, a sign that pleads, “Help make us proud to live in our neighborhood!” Sweat drips from his face as he hustles from point to point.

White spots two young men, friends of his cousins, who reluctantly agree to an interview. The moment a mic is clipped on, they act goofy, flash Clarksdale tattoos and twist their fingers into signs.

“What do you want me to say?” one asks. White explains he’s trying to get a feel for how people are reacting to the news of HOPE VI.

“Tear us down, move us to the West End,” his friend responds. “All we know is the bricks.” They go on to talk about the Clarksdale vs. Sheppard Square turf wars, once dormant when separated by a few blocks. But upon Clarksdale’s demolition, dozens of displaced residents landed at Sheppard Square, flaring violence.

On days like these, when White returns to Sheppard Square, he gets frustrated. Most of the people he went to middle and high school with are still here. White didn’t know his father growing up. He remembers revering those headed in the wrong direction.

“I had my fair share of fights. Brawls,” he says. “I knew people in the drug trade, and that’s a normal thing growing up in an area like that.”

White started taking school seriously his junior year. He met people through the YMCA and Presbyterian Community Center that encouraged him to sit on youth councils and pursue creative projects. Once he was around other kids with aspirations, he felt motivated. Now a graduate of University of Louisville, he says he comes back to Sheppard Square with a different perspective.

“I went through this stuff. I lived through this,” he says. “But systematically, things were really wrong and jacked up the way we were living.”

A few times, walks around the complex abruptly ended at yellow police tape, a body or blood.

“It’s traumatizing seeing death,” he says. “Kids are suffering from post-traumatic stress, and they don’t know they have anger problems. They’re witnessing things that a normal, ideal kid in another neighborhood isn’t experiencing.”

In that regard, he hopes the next generation of children who grow up in scattered public housing or mixed-income neighborhoods will have greater access to positive influences. HUD’s new neighborhood revitalization program, Choice Neighborhoods, emphasizes the need to incorporate educational opportunities, but for now, one final HOPE VI project in Louisville is on the horizon. Like so many, White is torn. The only guarantee is that people are moving out. Not up.

He raises his forearms to show the words “smoke” and “town” tattooed, each word engorged in ink flames.

“This is where I had my fondest memories,” he says, adding that it’s where he met his closest friends, and it’s where some of his family still lives. “That’s where I really felt at home … I got my war wounds and really grew up in Sheppard Square.”