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Smoketown's Sheppard Square Gets Fresh Start

Efforts to revitalize the Smoketown neighborhood’s Sheppard Square housing development are nearing completion and residents are beginning to move into new apartments.The $96.5 million renovation began in 2012 and is the third Hope VI project in Louisville. Hope VI is a federally led effort aimed at eradicating distressed public housing.  Nearly $22 million for the project came from federal funds.The new 454-unit complex will provide mixed income housing and longtime Smoketown residents hope it will recreate the sense of community that was once prevalent in the neighborhood. Ruby Hyde, director of Smoketown Pride, said the neighborhood was once a bustling, clean and pleasant space.“Economic times fell on everybody all over the nation and it fell harder on communities like this,” she said.  “But, today, we are in a new moon and this is the best and most prominent neighborhood in America, in the commonwealth of Kentucky and in Louisville.”The apartments will feature two and three bedroom units with rent costs up to $750, said Jutta Whitlow-Thomas, property manager of the new Sheppard Square.  The complex will be 100-percent smoke-free.“People are eager to get down here,” she said.Two of the 22-unit buildings on the property are already fully reserved, Whitlow-Thomas said.Spark of SmoketownPatricia Bell began living in Sheppard Square in the late 1970s.“We used to keep our doors unlocked, believe it or not,” Bell said.But nearly a decade after Bell’s family moved into the neighborhood, they saw a decline began.Bell said tough economic times led people to drug use and crime.  Then, the deterioration was overwhelming.“There were still people that had hope and that were fighting for the community,” she said.  “But it really hurt a lot.”Bell’s family moved out of Sheppard Square in 1996.Lavel White lived in Sheppard Square for seven years.  He said at one time the prevalence of crime in the area made Sheppard Square one of the most dangerous zip codes in the city.“It had its problems,” he said. White moved out of the area in 2004, but has since completed filming a documentary about the area, "More Than Bricks and Mortar: The Sheppard Square Story."He said an important aspect of the revitalization will be the ability of retain the “pride” of the original Sheppard Square.“Hopefully, some former residents who were here will come back to instill that pride and relive the Smoketown experience,” he said.  “Sheppard Square was the hub of Smoketown, back in the day.”But other residents said they hope this will be a brand new start for the area.Gordon Stoudemire lives in the community and said success of the project depends on the residents.“If you want something better you’re going to have to do something in a better way and screen people in a good, perspective way,” he said.  “You can’t put the ones that were causing problems back in or they’ll tear it right down. You can’t do that.”

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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