Pamela Hines wants big changes for west Louisville’s historic Russell neighborhood.
Hines, who lives in Parkland, opened Sweet Peaches restaurant next to the African-American Heritage Center at 18th Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard in February 2014. But nearly a year in, the first-time business owner is getting anxious about the lack of growth and progress in the West End.
“Nothing has changed,” she says. “It’s all the same as far as no new businesses and boarded-up houses. I haven’t seen anyone else come, and I don’t think there’s anyone outside myself who has taken a chance.”
Attracting entrepreneurs and new private capital are among the goals of city and federal officials, and civic leaders, who proudly announced earlier this month that Louisville was one of six cities to receive a federal Choice Neighborhood planning grant.
The Obama administration pitched Choice as a policy to help create mixed-income neighborhoods by linking housing improvements with access to jobs, schools, transit and other services. It expands on the principles of HOPE VI, the federal program that helped fund the transformations of former public housing plots into Park DuValle, Liberty Green and Sheppard Square.
The $425,000 grant awarded to Metro government earlier this month will help city officials begin a two-year planning process for how to remake Russell — starting with the razing of the Beecher Terrace housing project. How that will ignite a wholesale transformation of the most historic black neighborhood in the city is what developers and local stakeholders are eagerly awaiting.
Mixed with that anticipation, however, is restraint and wariness because of past mistakes.
“Most of the residents are cautiously optimistic,” says Haven Harrington, president of the Russell neighborhood association. “It’s great if we get that kind of development, a mixed-income infusion into Russell’s housing stock, but what happens to those residents that are displaced? Louisville has a great deficit in affordable housing.”
Beecher Terrace was built in 1941, when superblock housing projects — the brainchild of liberal policymakers during the Great Depression — were heralded as a step up for America’s poor. First-generation tenants often celebrated leaving shantytowns that lacked basic housing infrastructure, like heating and water, for the projects. Beecher’s first tenants arrived in style, with men in suits and ties, and women in dresses.
Over time, however, barracks-style public housing complexes with interior courtyards became concentrated poverty traps rather than pathways to prosperity. Those left behind in “the bricks” further stigmatized a vulnerable population of poor African-Americans, and crime spiked.
When the federal government first established Hope VI grants in the early 1990s as a way to break up those pockets of poverty, the program was heralded by city leaders and many developers — and criticized by housing advocates for not including enough replacement units for public housing residents. One consequence of replacing public housing was to scatter the poor away from vital services and resources, such as public transit.
For the past two decades, Louisville has used Hope VI to eliminate most of its barrack-style housing stock. The first was the razing of Cotter and Lang Homes, nestled deep in west Louisville, in 1996.
And although Choice Neighborhoods looks to spur revitalization in Russell, the elimination of Beecher Terrace still raises a debate about the ramifications of displacing thousands of Louisville’s poor.
A 2002 study by the Urban Institute showed of the roughly 1,100 households in the former Cotter and Lang Homes, only 3 percent of residents moved back into the redeveloped area, now known as Park DuValle. The reports shows about 46 percent ended up using housing vouchers and a quarter relocated to other housing projects, mostly Beecher Terrace.
When Cotter and Lang was torn down, the city’s housing authority at the time did not insist on one-to-one replacement for residents. That resulted in the loss of 900 units of public housing, according to Cathy Hinko, executive director of the Metropolitan Housing Coalition, which advocates for more affordable housing options.
Coupled with the raised income standards placed on former residents of the Clarksdale and Sheppard Square housing complexes, Hope VI ends up locking many poor families out. Hinko says she hopes Metro Housing Authority is more careful in relocating the residents of Beecher Terrace, and is sensitive to the problems that come with eliminating more low-income housing stock in a city where it is in increasingly short supply.
“What I’m saying is if it is done, it (should be) done in a more sane and deliberate fashion so there isn’t this huge contraction in the number of units,” she says. “We want them to keep the same number of family units and we want them not to have extra income requirements for these households.”
City leaders have trumpeted the results of replacing the public housing complexes for reducing poverty and crime rates in those areas, reigniting stalled micro-economies and increasing property values. The Metro Housing Authority tabbed the economic impact of Liberty Green — which replaced Clarksdale east of downtown — at more than $69 million as of 2008, the most recent figures that were available. At Park DuValle, it estimated the economic impact at nearly $111 million.
Less heralded is the way those developments fundamentally change the neighborhoods they inhabit. Drawing up a plan to map Russell’s future without whitewashing its proud history will be difficult. And given Louisville’s history of Urban Renewal, the idea gives some in the historic neighborhood pause.
“It’s a big concern that Russell will no longer be an African-American neighborhood,” Harrington says. “A lot of residents have that fear it will lose that identity, but I have a feeling Russell can be the melting pot.”
‘Harlem of the South’
Of west Louisville’s nine neighborhoods, Russell, named after educator Harvey Clarence Russell Sr., was once considered the front seat of power for the black middle class. Free blacks began purchasing property during the antebellum period, and in the early 20th Century its main thoroughfare — formerly known as Walnut Street — swelled with black-owned movie theaters, restaurants and nightclubs.
Older residents still refer to it as the “Harlem of the South,” anchored by institutions such as the Western Branch Library, Central High School and the original Quinn Chapel, arguably the most influential Louisville congregation of its era.
Sam Watkins, president and CEO of Louisville Central Community Centers, which sits across the street from Beecher Terrace, helped the city draft its planning grant application. He says Russell’s immediate proximity to downtown, where development has boomed, makes it an inevitable next step for private investors. To be a competitive hub for those jobs, businesses and people, Watkins says Russell residents and institutions must accept a shift in demographics west of Ninth Street.
“We expect new residents to move into Russell. We desperately need that,” he says. “We expect current residents who have good character, who are committed to transformational change, will stay in Russell. We’re going to be fighting for those residents.
“It’s not focused strictly on race,” he says. “However, we believe if we can create that change, residents familiar with Russell will see value in relocating (to the neighborhood).”
LCCC and other like-minded groups are cultivating relationships with developers and private investors in the hopes of being in the driver’s seat once Beecher Terrace falls, Watkins says.
He points out this was done on a smaller scale west of LCCC’s campus along Muhammad Ali Boulevard, in a development called Pioneer Park. That area includes homes valued up to $300,000, which is the type of high-value housing LCCC and city officials believe will spawn a mixed economy of retail, food industry and import/export businesses.
Keeping the neighborhood’s history intact through the transformation remains an open discussion among residents and business owners. Given its population density, Harrington says, a “gentrified Russell” may not be as bad as some fear. It could actually pave the way for a black middle-class renaissance if his peers take heed.
“That’s a call I’ve been sounding for the past four years,” he says. “I’ve been telling the middle-class African-Americans in Louisville, you need to come back to Russell, Portland and California to buy land because these are the hot spots. We’ll see what happens, I know several African-American families who are desperately trying to get back.”
Those who have already put money behind Russell accept that if a deluge of investment comes, it will boost the area’s economic viability while also changing its makeup.
“We’re not going to lose any of our history,” says Hines, who will celebrate the one-year anniversary of Sweet Peaches’ opening next month. And she is eager to be a stakeholder in the area regardless of what demographic shifts occur.
“It doesn’t matter who comes — our history has already been written,” she says. “Times have changed. People have grown up, moved out and moved on, but the history remains.”