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Smoketown Residents Lack Access to Services, Struggle With Vacant Properties, Report Says

A pattern of urban neglect—vacant houses, a lack of access to to services—has the potential to spoil Louisville's Smoketown neighborhood, according to a report released Tuesday.At least, what’s left of it. More than 100 Smoketown properties are considered vacant or abandoned by Louisville Metro’s Department of Codes and Regulations, according to results from the Vision Smoketown survey.Canvassers with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, or KFTC, the grassroots organization that conducted the survey, estimates the number of vacant properties is much higher.“It’s kind of hard to take care of a place when there are so many gaps in the fabric of the neighborhood,” said Rebecca Katz, a KFTC volunteer and canvasser for the survey.The gaps that Katz refers to include a lack of political representation, educational resources, little to no accessibility to amenities and social activities and a growing concern of neglect from local government.

The 26-page Vision Smoketown report addresses these issues from the viewpoint of the residents.“The residents and people of Smoketown are ready to talk and ready to be heard,” Katz said.  “There is a lot going on here and it is really beautiful.  This is the moment for everyone to shine and say ‘we are here, this is who we are and this is what we want.’”KFTC went door to door throughout the Smoketown neighborhood during summer 2014, handing out a 51-question survey  that asked residents to give insight into how they gauge the current state of the area and how they would like to see the area be developed.Responses were received from more than 140 households.Life in SmoketownGerman immigrants initially settled in Smoketown in the 1850s. Following the Civil War, however, an influx of freed slaves moved in to the area, and the African American population of the neighborhood swelled to nearly 15,000 by 1880, according to the report.Today, about 2,300 people live in Smoketown and roughly 81 percent of the residents are African American, according toCity-Data. “People love this neighborhood,” Katz said. “They’re very proud in being here.”Though the residents of Smoketown may be rich in pride, nearly half of the respondents (44 percent) have an annual income of less than $15,000, according to the report.  The median household income of Jefferson County as a whole is just more than $46,000, according to U.S. Census data.Despite the high number of low-income residents living in Smoketown and the stressors that accompany living on a tight budget, the top response to the survey question asking residents what they like most about their neighborhood was the quality of relationships with neighbors, according to the report."They know their neighbors, and that's No. 1 in making a neighborhood," Katz said.While the relationship among residents is favorable, the relationship with political leaders in the area is not so positive.More than 60 percent of respondents could not name their Metro Council representative.  Other respondents said more “visibility from (councilman) Tandy” would help make the neighborhood a better place.Councilman David Tandy did not return calls for comment.A number of respondents said they would like to see “more political involvement” and more “visibility” from elected officials, according to the report.  Nearly 90 percent of respondents are registered to vote, according to the report.“Neighborhood residents see the condition of Smoketown’s failing infrastructure as particular evidence of local government’s lack of attention to the neighborhood’s needs,” according to the report.

Housing in SmoketownMore than half of respondents own a home in Smoketown, but home values in Smoketown have decreased recently as 68 percent of single-family homes have been assessed for less than their previous sale price, according to the report.Despite that, 78 percent of respondents said they would recommend moving to the area to others.And residents who do live in Smoketown tend to stay in Smoketown, Katz said.“There are families who have been here for generations,” she said.Nearly 40 percent of respondents echoed that, having lived in the area for more than 20 years and 66 current residents plan to stay in Smoketown for at least three to five more years, according to the report.But some have left the neighborhood.Vacant houses are the source of concern for residents.  Seventy percent of respondents said these properties have an impact on their property.So, how are properties impacted by vacant or abandoned buildings and lots?

  • 62 percent said they were “unsightly.”  
  • 49 percent said they result in an “increase in rodents/vermin.” 
  •  48 percent said they result in an “increase in crime in the area.” 
  •  45 percent said they “diminish property value.”
  •   41 percent said “homeless or vagrants” often use the property.

Though Smoketown is often associated with crime, 84 percent of respondents said they felt safe in their homes and 63 percent think that LMPD “helps to keep the neighborhood safe.”She said some residents  wanted more police presence. But others felt the neighborhood had an “element of police harassment,” according to the report.Access in SmoketownThe Smoketown community was hit hard when the Presbyterian Community Center ceased operations this year after serving the community for more than 100 years, Katz said.She said in addition to providing family supports, the center acted as a social gathering place and offered a recreational space for young people. It also offered a public computer terminal to residents.The report said 70 percent of respondents used the Presbyterian Community Center when it was opened.The top recommendation from the report was the need for a neighborhood community center that can provide after-school activities and a space for residents to gather. The need for neighborhood associations is also key for the evolution of the neighborhood, according to the report. Any new business “must be on a bus line so people can get to it easily,” according to the report.  However, only three bus lines are accessible to residents of the Smoketown neighborhood, Katz added."The bus lines are kind of weird," she said. "They run through here but they don't really head towards places that people would want to shop."Here are some businesses respondents would most like to see be established in the Smoketown neighborhood.

Here are some more results relating to access:

  • 57 percent of respondents would use after-school programs if they were located in the neighborhood.
  • 50 percent would use medical and dental care services.
  • 47 percent would participate in organized sports programs.
  • 47 percent would attend fitness or recreation classes.
  • 37 percent would use senior nutrition and activities programs
  • 37 percent would use counseling or financial planning services.
  • 38 percent of respondents have no computer at home and 40 percent do not use a smartphone.  Meaning services like MetroCall311 are unusable.
  • 38 percent of respondents expressed concern about their safety while biking or walking down their neighborhood streets.  More than 70 of those residents said their “chief issue” relates to deteriorating sidewalks.  In this same neighborhood, 58 percent of respondents walk to visit friends or to shop.  The nearest Kroger grocery is a 20-minute walk, according to the report.

Katz said many residents also noted they would like to see a Laundromat, a library and a park.  Currently, the nearest public libraries are in Old Louisville or the Highlands neighborhoods.  Only one park is currently located within Smoketown, Ballard Park.Here is the complete report:

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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