Righting the Wrongs of Urban Renewal
Several institutions and individuals have stepped up to rectify past injustice by bringing investments — and people — back to a decimated Louisville neighborhood.
Reid lives in Beecher Terrace, a public housing development in the Russell neighborhood on the west side of town. Originally built in 1939, the once-distressed 31-acre site was recently razed and replaced with modern townhomes and apartments. The first three phases of construction are complete, with the fourth and final phase scheduled to begin early next year. Residents displaced by construction were relocated and offered a spot at the new Beecher Terrace, now, or at any time in the future. By October, more than 100 original residents had returned.
An active participant in community affairs, Reid has been president and now adviser of Beecher’s resident council. He also served as chairman of the Board of Commissioners for the Louisville Metro Housing Authority since 2000, stepping down from that post this past summer.
Riches to Rags
Following stints as a night watchman and pouring molten metal at a foundry, Reid turned to selling real estate. After he got his broker’s license, he went into business with a friend, and together they made a living selling west side homes, often those of whites fleeing to the suburbs. He became a homeowner himself, owning several pieces of property including an apartment building. “A great deal of the population either knew me personally or knew of families that I've served,” he says. Business was good, despite occasional problems with deed restrictions that prevented sales to anyone but whites.
Reid's life and the community he lived in changed suddenly when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed on April 4, 1968. “Emotions were at a high pitch in the Black community,” says Reid. A week later, he came upon a friend who had been stopped by the police. He recounted the incident for an oral history: “We walked over, and we asked what was wrong. The one officer told us, ‘Niggers, get out of the street.’ So then he pushed me and I said, ‘OK cool, I’ll get out of the street.’ I started backing up and he brings out this rubber club and hits me, and wow, man.”
The accused were kept in legal jeopardy for two years until a judge dismissed the case. The prolonged legal action cost Reid his home, his wife, his properties, his business and his reputation. He attempted to rehab “a shack,” but the city eventually condemned it. “I was destitute,” he says today. “Beecher Terrace was a lifesaver.”
With a few interruptions, Reid has lived at Beecher since 1988. By request, he was the last to leave when the old units were demolished, allowing him to oversee the transition. “My concern was that the residents would all be able to move in a seamless manner,” he says. “That they would be comfortable.”
“What I tried to avoid is self-pity,” Reid says. “I've suffered a lot. But that's the past. You know, we have a future. And we have to build for the future.”
Encompassing 1.4 square miles and sitting immediately west of downtown, Russell is one of Louisville’s poorest neighborhoods. The poverty rate is nearly four times higher than the metro area’s general population, and life expectancy is significantly lower. Over 90 percent of its residents are Black.
The neighborhood grew from the late 1800s to the 1920s, settled by many of the estimated 30,000 African Americans who had migrated to Louisville from the rural south. With a burgeoning middle class by 1930, Russell had become the cultural and commercial center of Black life in the city.
“But then urban renewal came along and wiped all that out,” says three-term Mayor Greg Fischer. “And when you talk to some of the older community members that still remember Russell’s vibrancy … that was all taken away. Just stolen. It makes you mad to this day.”
By the end of the 1960s, Louisville’s Harlem and much of the surrounding area were gone. Flattened in the name of urban renewal. Walnut Street was renamed Muhammad Ali Boulevard in 1978. Today there isn’t much traffic on the wide one-way thoroughfare.
The Legacy of Urban Renewal
Harland Bartholomew became the country’s first full-time urban planner when he was hired by the city of St. Louis in 1916, a position he held for 34 years. A founding member of the American City Planning Institute, he also headed one of the country’s biggest planning consulting firms until his retirement in 1962. He produced over 500 plans for cities, counties and states during his long career.
Unfortunately, Bartholomew’s methods intentionally fostered economic and social separation. He advocated for corralling Blacks into their own neighborhoods through the use of eminent domain, single-use zoning and street design, in order to keep them from encroaching into white areas. These ideas were a prominent part of his 1931 Comprehensive Plan for Louisville, which city officials readily endorsed.
A year later, he submitted a second study titled The Negro Housing Problem in Louisville. The report identified several reasons for the poor quality of housing in Black neighborhoods. Among them were “a lack of desire among a large portion of the population for something better than they are accustomed to,” and “the conviction among most landlords that Negros, as a class, are poor tenants.”
The planner was invited back to Louisville in the late 1950s to come up with an updated comprehensive plan for the city and county. His 1957 plan called for an elevated expressway which ultimately served to separate downtown from Russell. The preservation of “good residential neighborhoods” remained a primary concern, to be protected from “blight,” which was broadly defined. Through the 1980s, more than 100 city blocks were leveled and replaced with a few housing projects, scattered private development and a surfeit of surface parking lots.
For Bartholomew’s 1932 report, a survey was made of an area in Russell “selected as typical of conditions throughout the largest and most congested Negro section.” The study found that “the block is predominately residential in character and the typical dwelling is the one-story frame cottage. … The Walnut Street frontage is occupied by ten store buildings, some of which have dwellings above or in the rear of the structure.” Today that block, and others around it, is an empty expanse of gravel and weeds, surrounded by a chain link fence.
Economic Empowerment, Then and Now
Despite the damage done to Russell by urban renewal and segregation, there were some survivors. Black businessman Joe Hammond opened Joe’s Palm Room there in 1954. For the next 25 years, his jazz club attracted musicians, politicians, personalities and power brokers who mixed with an eclectic crowd of locals from all walks of life.
Hammond’s influence went beyond his neighborhood, acting as a political adviser and serving 18 years on Louisville’s Board of Water Works. He left the restaurant business in 1979, turning his attention to real estate. “I'd like to see more Black people get better jobs … better housing,” he said in an interview that year. “But I know that we are going to have to do a lot of it ourselves … We're going to have to sort of make way for ourselves and do part of the developing ourselves. I would certainly like to see more Black people get into development, to be able to get into the mainstream of business.”
The couple has amassed a collection of nearly 70 neighborhood properties, including duplexes, abandoned homes and vacant lots. “Anything that is available that is in our price range,” he says. “I knew Russell was going to explode and we basically put all our chips in on Russell.”
Adkins recently hosted the first of what will become regular monthly meetings of current and future real estate professionals at Joe’s Palm Room. “We had everyone from City Council members to engineers to new home builders, all the way down to the person that says, ‘I rent an apartment,’” Adkins says. Calling itself Wekeza West, after the Swahili word for “invest,” the group’s goal is “to empower our community with the knowledge, tools and network of support to become financially free.”
“Once we started getting into the real estate business, the very first property we purchased was in this neighborhood, Adkins says. “This neighborhood, in 10 years, is going to look totally different."
An Unlikely Developer
Jamesetta Ferguson is the pastor of St. Peter’s United Church of Christ. Built in 1894 by German immigrants, the towering stone structure is directly adjacent to Beecher Terrace. Ferguson spent much of her youth at Beecher, in the care of an aunt while her mother was at work.
Despite its size and proximity, “This church was invisible to people in our community,” she says. “It was there, but it was invisible because we weren't invited in.” The congregation had shrunk to 15 by the time Ferguson was asked to lead. By 2014, the building had fallen into disrepair, and the congregation moved into its current, temporary home, a former department store.
Today the alter in the old church is overflowing with construction materials, mismatched furniture, a pool table and large framed photographs of past parishioners who served in World War II. The remaining pews have been sawed in half and are pushed against the back wall, leaving the cavernous sanctuary nearly empty. “This building is dear to me,” says Ferguson. But conditions inside the church belie what is happening just outside.
With offices in The Village, the church provides a multitude of services for children, seniors and job seekers, among others. “We’re a one-stop shop,” says Pastor Ferguson. “We want to make sure that the people in our community have the things that they need in order to thrive and to be mentally, physically and financially successful.”
Ferguson hopes to begin renovation of the church by January and move back in within a year. After that, plans call for a second commercial structure, similar to but smaller than The Village at West Jefferson. “I was never a developer,” she says. “Everything I know, I’ve learned through this process. I don’t dread it. But I’m wary, because it takes away from what I believe I’m called to do. I’m a pastor first.”
Neighborhood Track Star
The Louisville Urban League promotes economic equality and empowerment among underserved populations, with a focus on “Jobs, education, health and housing.” Under the direction of lawyer and former judge Sadiqa Reynolds, the organization opened a $53 million state-of-the-art indoor track and field complex in Russell, on a brownfield site once used for tobacco and bourbon production. “When you have 24 acres of land that has sat unused, unoccupied and uncleaned in your community, you understand what people in power think of you,” says Reynolds.
Officially known as the Norton Healthcare Sports and Learning Center, the sprawling facility boasts an indoor and outdoor track, bowling alley, rock-climbing wall, classrooms, meeting and event space. Not quite two years since it opened, national and international records have been set here. Designed to draw runners and enthusiasts from all over the city, state and country, the facility is also in constant use by neighborhood residents, school groups and local teams, a point stressed by Reynolds. “We had to make sure that we had space for the local track team that would [otherwise] never be in a position to afford it.”
Norton Healthcare, the area‘s largest medical provider, purchased naming rights to the facility for $5 million. “This is a significant opportunity for Norton Healthcare to help unify our community and transform this key area of our city,” said the Norton CEO in a statement. He characterized the payment not as a donation, but as an investment. “A donation is when you give money and walk away.”
Demonstrating a commitment to the neighborhood, Norton Healthcare will soon open a $70 million hospital, the first to be built in the West End since 1845. Mayor Fischer credits the Norton Healthcare Sports and Learning Center not only as impetus for a new hospital, but for spurring commercial growth as well. “There will be a new hotel built nearby,” he says. “There are restaurants starting to pop up. We're starting to see more commerce and development in this area of the city than we've ever seen before.”
Back to Beecher
The Louisville Central Community Center (LCCC), occupies space in an old, refurbished and repurposed warehouse on Muhammed Ali Boulevard. Beecher Terrace and the lost “Louisville’s Harlem” are just up the street. The organization provides a range of services including early childhood education, after school programs, job training and help with money management and home ownership. Before becoming the CEO of LCCC, Kevin Fields spent 14 years as an executive with the city housing authority.
Fields, who grew up in Beecher Terrace, believes Russell’s success depends on economic parity. “Politically speaking, of these three words: diversity, equity and inclusion, there's only one of them that really is going to make a change for the benefit of Black people,” he says. “And that word is equity. When we talk about equity, we're talking about economics. We're talking about ownership. We're talking about wealth accumulation.”
“It's really about controlling urban land and denying minorities the chance to develop a base for capital,” says Beecher Terrace resident Manfred Reid. “[But] I don't want to look back to what you did to me 20 or 50 years ago. We want to move forward. How can we work together to rebuild our community?”
“Obviously, we still have a lot of work to do,” says Mayor Fischer. “We have the anchors in place. We have money coming into this area. And now people are trying to once again, figure out … how do we do this without displacement?”
The Urban League’s Sadiqa Reynolds is optimistic about the future. “I think in five years, people will look at Louisville and wonder what we did different. How did Louisville change so quickly? We certainly hit a low. So many cities did. But we are on our way back up. I really do believe that.”