Rubbertown bouncing back?

A push to reinvent the city’s most toxic neighborhood

Mar 17, 2010 at 5:00 am
Rubbertown bouncing back?

The odor creeping in through the rolled-down windows of Earl Hartlege’s pick-up truck smells sweet at first, like a bag of Jolly Ranchers left to melt on an engine block.

We’re driving down Bells Lane on a cloudy Wednesday afternoon, surrounded by massive chemical manufacturing plants, landfills and bombed-out vacant lots. As we pass the gigantic orb-silos of the Zeon Chemicals plant — the site of a nasty spill that Hartlege says occurred decades ago, covering the entire two-lane road in poisonous slush — the odor takes an overpowering turn for the worse.

“Whew,” says Hartlege, wincing. “That’s a lovely smell, ain’t it?”

“Oh God,” I mutter, clasping the bridge of my nose in pain. “It’s worse than a janitor’s closet out here.”

Welcome to Rubbertown, west Louisville’s most polluted neighborhood. Hartlege, a self-employed demolition man, has lived here for all of his 72 years, and has witnessed the area’s gradual transformation from rural community to industrial juggernaut to decaying industrial wasteland, the latter of which has become a multi-generational source of ills and illness.

A new study commissioned by the Metro Economic Development Cabinet is poised to change Rubbertown’s landscape once more. Philadelphia-based Interface Studio LLC — an urban planning and design firm — has been charged with gleaning input from local residents, business leaders and the land itself in a bid to ferry the blighted nabe into a much better tomorrow.

Two weeks ago, the public was invited to the Nia Center’s Economic Opportunity Campus for a sneak peek at this study. However, aside from about 20 area residents and only one mayoral candidate — the ever-ebullient Tyler Allen — the city-at-large has taken a pass, which is understandable if you know a little about Rubbertown’s often-neglected history.

“I wanted to hear about the study because Rubbertown is a part of our community that doesn’t get its due attention” says Allen, “and is a part of the community that the next mayor will have to pay more attention to.”

For the uninitiated, Rubbertown is bounded by Shawnee/Chickasaw to the north, Lake Dreamland to the south, the Ohio River to the west, Cane Run Road to the east, and features horrid smells everywhere between. It received its moniker during World War II, when Japanese control of natural rubber supplies forced the U.S. to manufacture its own. Due to west Louisville’s proximity to rail and waterways, plus the fact that the unincorporated area was dirt cheap — Rubbertown was born.

Until only recently (i.e., after the late Rev. Louis Coleman agitated for years on the neighborhood’s behalf and forced the city-at-large to pay attention), Rubbertown and its fetid emanations had evaded the radars of city officials, environmental regulators and pretty much anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of living next door to a DuPont foundry — which makes the comprehensive nature of Interface’s report all the more remarkable.

“The balance we’re trying to strike is making sure those companies have a role to play in the area such that they support existing businesses or fill a particular niche,” says Scott Page, principal designer at Interface Studio. “It’s also important that those companies don’t bring in any undue impacts that would upset residents.”

Although a great many chemical plants have begun a slow exodus from Rubbertown over the years — “Those were good paying jobs,” says Hartlege — the area still accounts for about 2,500 jobs in the manufacturing, transportation, warehousing and utility industries, making for a tricky balance between employment and quality of life when considering any future developments.

And regarding developments, the study finds that a great deal of Rubbertown’s real estate isn’t being utilized to its fullest capacity, as 43 percent is classified vacant/undeveloped — a figure that also includes landfills and chemical/ash ponds. Furthermore, 34 percent is designated as industrial, with only 10 percent as residential.

“The one universal concern from the community is that they don’t want another Dow, or ‘Insert Chemical Company Name Here’ moving into the neighborhood,” says Page. “The concern is that we already have enough chemical companies, so I think there’s a lot of common ground,” between those like Hartlege who lament the lack of industrial jobs, and other residents who see industry as a burden, not a benefit.

Degradation and overuse of existing transportation infrastructure has put undue stress on the area’s handful of main traffic arteries, including Bells Lane, Campground Road and Algonquin Parkway, which feed into the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare, Cane Run Road. The resulting conditions are bad for pedestrians, motorists and businesses alike. The study so far recommends a significant overhaul of Cane Run to expand its existing road and bike lanes, install sidewalks, and streamline existing signage so as to better designate the area’s industrial zones.

The study also revealed that a huge chunk of Rubbertown’s chemical-heavy zones don’t have access to Metropolitan Sewer District pipelines. Meanwhile, the nearby Morris Forman wastewater treatment plant only operates at 50 percent of its total capacity.

According to Page, the construction of open-air culverts would do little to direct the flow of toxic run-off as the terrain is so flat that the “water” would largely do what it’s doing now: nothing. He says the lack of adequate sewage infrastructure does little to encourage investment of any kind.

Most interesting is the study’s detailed socioeconomic data, which basically illustrates the realities of living life in an industrial wasteland — people just don’t want to stick around, and those who do are worsened by it. In 1990, 10,699 people called Rubbertown home, compared to 8,234 last year. In addition, educational attainment remains startlingly below Jefferson County standards, as only 5 percent of residents have a bachelor’s degree and only 68 percent have attained a high school diploma.

Page says the study won’t be finalized until May, and he promises there will be plenty more for the community to chew on. In the meantime, the study in its current state does not address what are perhaps two of the most pressing issues in Rubbertown. One is gauging whether Metro Louisville’s Air Pollution Control District’s pollution reduction program, aka STAR, has been as effective as the city has claimed.

The other issue — raised by Tyler Allen during the Nia Center meeting — lies in examining where the workers of the Rubbertown chemical plants actually live. He argued that if the chemical plants don’t employ area residents in any significant number, then there’s little reason to believe those plants are best serving the needs of the community.

“I think it would be important to know,” says Allen. “Especially if we’re trying to figure out how to move this community forward. If the industry isn’t benefiting the people, then we should maybe reexamine the industry.”

As for Hartlege, he has mixed feelings about the future of his neighborhood. He can remember a time before the plants and the pollution, when the area was called “Beantown,” so named for the farmers who lived and worked in the area. Although he’d like to see the land return to that use, he thinks it would be unwise to completely run industry out of Rubbertown.

“We taxed the hell out of (industry) so they’re taking all of their jobs with them,” he says. “What you have to realize, unfortunately, is industry might be a necessary evil.”