To understand how Thursday night’s panel discussion about economic development in west Louisville went, it’s best to start at the end.
Held at the Yearlings Club, the event was part of a series of talks sponsored by the club and the University of Louisville. After nearly two hours, moderator and U of L’s Strickler executive-in-residence Nat Irvin asked the three panelists, “Who is missing from the conversation?”
Developer, filmmaker and Louisville Metro Council candidate Gill Holland said banks, investors and business owners.
Panelist Mary Ellen Wiederwohl, chief of the city’s economic development arm Louisville Forward, answered: Millennials and people who don’t drive past the Ninth Street barrier, which separates the rest of the city from its historically low-income, predominately black neighborhoods.
Then the final panelist to answer, the Rev. Kevin Cosby, changed the question, asking: What should the topic of today’s talk be about?
“We must be mature enough to have an honest conversation about race,” said Cosby, president of Simmons College of Kentucky and senior pastor at St. Stephen’s Church. “Until we can have an honest conversation about race, we can’t fix this problem.”
What was touted as a talk about economic development in an area that has experienced chronic disinvestment quickly turned into a broader discussion about the opportunity gap between white and black Louisvillians.
It started with a comment from Cosby about Holland’s $24 million, 10-year Portland Investment Initiative, a revitalization effort for the neighborhood that Holland started about two and a half years ago.
“I find it interesting,” Cosby said, when people say they are investing in west Louisville but are putting money into the Portland neighborhood, “which does not affect the lives of African Americans.” He added that people in other west Louisville neighborhoods don’t consider Portland, a low-income, mostly white neighborhood, to be part of the West End.
Holland said he decided to start the Portland Investment Initiative because he was drawn to the neighborhood’s history and that it is the most diverse neighborhood in the city. Holland has raised $5.7 million for the project, which includes a $1.5 million bank loan.
Cosby said Holland benefits from white privilege and marveled that someone who started working in the West End just more than two years ago had more high-level connections than he, a lifelong resident.
“There are persons in the black community who can develop west Louisville. They just don’t have the connections you have,” he said. “I am overwhelmed by the connections that you have.”
There is not enough money being put in the hands of black entrepreneurs, black leaders and longtime residents who can help build up west Louisville, Cosby added. “It’s not that we don’t have vision; we don’t have provisions to make them come to pass.”
Holland countered that he’s taken about 1,000 people on tours of Portland, and only 1 percent invest in his vision — some as little at $5,000.
“It’s not easy raising money,” Holland said, adding that people must be convinced that west Louisville is worthy of investment. “We’ve got to convince people that this is a great place to start a business and that people in the neighborhood will patronize the business.”
No matter what city you visit, Cosby said, you can always pinpoint the black neighborhoods because across the United States they face similar problems — less access to opportunities and to investment. Most of the money made in west Louisville leaves.
“The problem is that there is a wealth gap, and there is an opportunity gap that has its roots in 350 years of white privilege and black oppression that we refuse to address,” he said.
Cosby also railed against integration but made sure to draw a distinction between it and racial harmony. He stated that rather than integrating whites into black-led institutions, integration only happened the other way around and was limited to the inclusion of only a small percentage of minorities.
“Integration has done more to devastate the black community and black institutions more than any one single force,” he said. “It’s the delusion of inclusion.”
Cosby advocated for more black-led institutions — churches, schools and government departments.
“Not only do we need institutions that serve blacks, we need black institutions that serve blacks and whites and others, so that whites can feel comfortable coming to institutions run by blacks,” he said.
Cosby gave the example of St. Francis School, a progressive, independent high school at Broadway and Third Street. The school doesn’t have a gym and, for the past five years, has rented out the gym at St. Stephen’s Church, which is less than 2 miles away on 15th Street.
At first, “the parents were saying ‘Can we go to west Louisville? Is it safe?’” Cosby said. “They did not want to come because they had all these misperceptions about west Louisville.”
They’ve overcome their fears, he said, and St. Stephen’s benefits by having additional income, which allows it to hire west Louisville residents.
Cosby also stated that to help the depressed economy in the West End, Louisvillians of all races and ethnicities should support black-led institutions in west Louisville that are building up their neighborhoods. People looking for a return can invest in minority-owned businesses, or people can invest for philanthropic reasons.
“If it is because of philanthropic, good neighborliness that they are investing,” he said, “then my suggestion is to empower the institutions that are strong in west Louisville.”