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Louisville's Portland Neighborhood Gets Its First Stand-Alone Coffeeshop

Rose Mollyhorn, 52, has spent most of her life within a 12-block area of Louisville's Portland neighborhood, and she's seen drastic change over those years.

Flooding. Urban flight and abandoned homes. The poverty rate is nearly 47 percent, and the median household income is about $22,000 a year among Portland's 12,500 residents, according to the U.S. Census.

"It's been rough, at times, down here," said Mollyhorn, adding that Portland has been "ignored."

"Nobody wants to come down here and take a chance on us."

But that's slowly changing.

In recent years, signs of "revitalization," as Mollyhorn called it, could be seen as artists and businesses moved in, and developers began eyeing the neighborhood for projects.

Another sign popped up this week—Hot Coffee on Duncan Street served its first cup of coffee Monday. The coffeeshop and bakery is owned by Brooke Vaughn and Jason Pierce, who also own Please and Thank You coffeeshop in the NuLu neighborhood.

It's the first stand-alone coffeeshop to open in Portland in years. (McQuioxte Books and Coffee opened last year and shares space with the Tim Faulkner Gallery on Portland Avenue.)

Vaughn said the Hot Coffee owners are aware that opening in Portland—with its distinct neighborhood character and economic situation—carries more risk than many other neighborhoods.

"You can't rely on that NuLu customer constantly showing up being OK with a $5 cup of coffee," Vaughn said.

So, Hot Coffee will also serve as the baking hub for Please and Thank You, producing the baked goods for nine Louisville eateries.

Sure enough, new customers arrived Monday to purchase those first cups of coffee. Some, like Mollyhorn, said they're supportive of the new businesses—and what they may mean for Portland.

"We can't ignore them, as a community we have to support them and make it known to them that we support them," she said.

But others expressed a hint of concern while sipping the specialty coffee.

Click below to hear what the residents had to say.

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Nancy Hund, retired and living on St. Xavier Street in Portland, said the influx of investment into the neighborhood is good to see, but it's "definitely going to drive up home prices."

"And I worry about that," she said.

Becki Winchel is the president of Portland Now Inc., a group that works as a neighborhood association for the area. She said other Portland residents have similar concerns.

"There is concern about some people possibly raising the rents, that the people that are here now might not, at some point, be able to stay," she said. "We're all concerned about that."

In fact, Quartz recently reported an excerpt from Zillow Talk, book authored by Zillow officials, that show from 1997 to 2013 homes in close proximity to a Starbucks appreciated at a near 30-percent higher rate than homes further away from the coffeeshop chain.

But the Quartz story said this is largely based on Starbucks' research into how neighborhoods are developing—and a Starbucks in the Portland neighborhood may be a long time off. Still, coffeeshops are often seen as a harbinger of gentrification in neighborhoods from San Antonio, Los Angelesand Chicago.

The median price for homes currently on the market in Portland is about $30,000, according to Zillow. For comparison, the median price of a home on the market in Louisville is $109,000, according to the same data.

Winchel said "it will take a while to see the effects of gentrification," but they need to be addressed now.

But residents living in a rebounding neighborhood are not necessarily bound to one day have a higher costs of living.

Ray Oldenburg, an urban sociologist at the University of West Florida in Pensacola, said the presence of coffeeshops and other "informal public spaces" can save residents money. When a neighborhood lacks a public gathering place "living becomes more expensive," he said.

"Where the means and facilities for relaxation and leisure are not publicly shared, they become the objects of private ownership and consumption," he said.

Winchel, of Portland Now, said Portland residents are mostly excited to see new business in the area.

But residents need to be included in the discussion about revitalization, even if they're difficult to have, she said. Residents want whoever comes into the neighborhood to do more than occupy a space—they want the new neighbors to be a part of the community.

Hot Coffee owner Vaughn said she believes the little coffeeshop on Duncan Street is already beginning to do just that.

So far, she said, the people stopping in are local, from the neighborhood. And they're happy to say hello and happy to pay a few bucks for a cup of coffee.

To Mollyhorn, the tales of neighborhood support from the very start sound about right. And she said she will do her part, buying a cup or two a week, to make sure the little coffee shop doesn't go anywhere.

"We crave this down here," she said. "I am a proud Portland person. Where I come from, I got your back."

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.