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Inside Louisville's Decades-Long Problem With Housing Segregation

J. Tyler Franklin

Jerome Perry doesn't have many white neighbors.

There are so few, in fact, that Perry can list the houses around him where white families live. Even the homes that are blocks away from his tidy yellow brick home on 45th Street in Louisville's Westover neighborhood.

Perry, like most of his neighbors, is black. And his situation is not unique to the Westover neighborhood.

Stark racial segregation in Louisville means many residents live in neighborhoods with high concentrations of a single race. For Perry and others in the western portions of the city, white neighbors are few and far between. In eastern portions of the city, it's the reverse.

The issue of segregation in Louisville is no secret. Studies, reports and anecdotes abound showing how one side of the city is different from the other.

But why is it like this? What led to the divide, and how does it affect the people who live here?

These are some of the questions WFPL sought to answer during a months-long reporting effort aimed at examining the issue of housing segregation in Louisville.

We talked to Perry and other residents, community leaders and housing advocates. We looked for historical context and current data in an attempt to cobble together a definitive account of why Louisville has been and remains racially segregated.

Looking nearly 60 years into the past, we found decades of discrimination and disinvestment have led to the high concentration of black residents in West Louisville. Racist fears and exclusionary housing and zoning policies have, for years, perpetuated the racial divide that splits the city between east and west.

We also look forward and discuss current efforts to breach that divide.

Perry, like many residents in West Louisville, believes segregation hurts his quality of life. It's led to lower property values, relatively few neighborhood amenities and a lack of job opportunities close to home, he said.

"Yeah, it bothers me," Perry said.

What's The Problem?

About 760,000 people live in Louisville. White residents make up about 74 percent of the city's population, while black residents make up just more than 20 percent, according to a 2015 report from the Metropolitan Housing Coalition.

The bulk of the city's black population lives in a cluster of neighborhoods in the western portion of Louisville, data from the report show.

In fact, U.S. Census data show some portions of western Louisville, such as Park Hill and California, are populated nearly entirely by black families. Eastern Louisville areas, such as Indian Hills and Deer Park, are similarly populated by white families.

"That says extreme racial segregation," said Cathy Hinko, the executive director of the Metropolitan Housing Coalition.

The epicenter of the divide is Ninth Street in downtown Louisville. It's the physical and cultural barrier that has, for years, split the city between black and white. It's also the border of stark disparities in the community.

West of Ninth Street, there are large pockets of poverty and few economic prospects for the people who live there. On the east side, there’s growing industry, higher incomes and more affluent neighborhoods.

"We now, in today’s world, think of west of Ninth Street as being overwhelmingly African-American. And in today’s world that’s generally true," said Tom Owen, a longtime Metro Councilman and city historian.

On the west side of Ninth Street, industry has stagnated or vanished entirely. Property values are lower. Vacant and abandoned properties have surged. Crime continues to be a burden on the people who live there.

Median incomes in some West Louisville neighborhoods are less than half of the median income level for Jefferson County, according to a 2014 report from the Network Center for Community Change. In the same neighborhoods, poverty rates soar to double the countywide rates.

Unemployment rates are also higher in many West Louisville neighborhoods compared with other areas.

For residents like Perry, this is no surprise. He said the chances of finding a good-paying job in West Louisville are slim.

"Ain't nobody going to put no business past Ninth Street, because that’s the West End," he said.

Other residents, like Duane Campbell, who lives on 37th Street in Shawnee, said when people do find success, they often leave the area. When they leave, they take their wealth with them.

“And I can’t really blame them," he said. "A lot of people feel like this area is not safe, and they’re going to get their family out of here."

How It Happened

Nearly 60 years ago, many areas of West Louisville were populated by white families, Owen said.

That began to change when city officials began pushing the practice of urban renewal. The idea was to clear the downtown area of public housing and older buildings to make way for new businesses, government buildings and a downtown medical center.

When poorer residents were pushed out of downtown, they began moving west. This didn't sit well with the white families already in the neighborhoods, and so the phenomenon known as white flight began. During this time, white families moved to the suburbs in eastern areas of Louisville.

"The flight took place over a decade or two," Owen said.

Urban renewal also decimated Walnut Street — then the cultural, social and economic hub of Louisville's black community.

Slowly, the neighborhoods in the western areas of the city began to change.

Martina Kunnecke, the president of Neighborhood Planning and Preservation, grew up in the California neighborhood and saw that change unfold.

Years ago, "you could pretty much stay in the California neighborhood and live, work, shop, go to school," she said. "You can look out the door now and see that it's entirely different."

Black residents could see the stark divide between their neighborhoods and the white, more affluent, areas of the city.

Raoul Cunningham, president of the Louisville NAACP, said residents began fighting for open housing policies during the time of white flight. Such policies would disallow housing discrimination based on race, enabling black families to move freely throughout the county.

Some white residents pushed back against the anti-segregation policy, Cunningham said. He pointed to instances of housing advocacy marches that were met with picketers, many spewing racism and others hurling stones at the residents fighting for fair housing.

"Some Klan participation — 'go back to where you came from,' that theory," he said.

Advocates continued to fight for the policy but struggled to get the Board of Aldermen — the legislative body of the old City of Louisville — to approve the plan.

Cunningham said that changed when residents took to the voting booths, effectively changing the makeup up the Board of Aldermen and finding success in passing the anti-discrimination legislation.

"In making social justice change, to me the most important thing is voting, because it is then that the change is affected," he said.

The advocates' attention eventually moved from open housing policy to the issue of scattered site housing, which refers to the practice of spreading subsidized housing through a community rather than clustering the homes in certain areas.

"That became a very, very divisive and controversial issue," Owen said.

Scattered site housing was part of a federal government initiative aimed at getting low-income residents out of largely low-income neighborhoods. In Louisville, it hinged on getting the bulk of subsidized housing out of the western portion of the city and into neighborhoods in the east and south.

Some believed it would help desegregate the city, as many poor, black residents had few options other than warehouse-style public housing projects in West Louisville.

But wealthier, mostly white residents pushed back, as they did during open housing demonstrations.

In a 1980 Courier-Journal article, columnist John Filiatreau detailed a public meeting to discuss the prospect of establishing a public housing unit in eastern Louisville. According to that coverage, then-state Rep. Bob Heleringer told the crowd, "when people like this cut you, I'm going to bleed with you."

Eventually, multiple public housing developments were built in eastern Louisville and remain today.

Still, a vast majority of subsidized housing remains clustered in just a few areas of the city, most of which are in West Louisville. Not only does the underlying issue of racial segregation remain — some city policies have preserved it.

A Way Forward?

There is progress being made to help lessen segregation in Louisville.

For months, Metro Council members have been working to update the city’s Land Development Code. Hinko, of the Metropolitan Housing Coalition, said that work is aimed primarily at reworking the code in such a way that would allow multi-family housing to be developed in areas of Louisville where it’s currently disallowed.

Hinko has said repeatedly that the work seems bland but the outcomes could be significant. The idea is to break up clusters of affordable, multi-family housing that are currently centered in western Louisville.

She said ongoing efforts to redesign the city’s long-ranging development plan will also likely bolster efforts to advance affordable housing. Spreading such housing throughout Louisville could help desegregate the city, she said.

City housing officials are also working on plans to revitalize Russell in West Louisville. A plan is in the works to turn the historically African-American community in to a mixed-income living area with retail and amenities that presently don’t exist.

Nearly 62 percent of Russell residents live in poverty, and 40 percent live in subsidized housing, according to the federal department Housing and Urban Development.

Other work, like Metro Council President David Yates' decision to establish a committee focused on addressing the city's vacant and abandoned houses, could also help improve the neighborhoods west of Ninth Street.

Louisville has about 8,200 cases of vacant or abandoned properties — mostly land with structures — spread throughout nearly every neighborhood and every Metro Council district, according to data from the city’s Vacant and Abandoned Properties department. But West Louisville remains home to the most vacant structures of any part of the city.

The Impact

The results of decades of racial segregation have had a visible impact.

In West Louisville, a walk through neighborhoods reveals the abandoned warehouses, the boarded-up homes and the shuttered businesses that have come from years of mounting poverty and little investment.

What's not so easy to see, however, is how individual residents have been affected.

Duane Campbell can see it in his neighborhood.

"It’s amazing," he said. "You ride up 28th Street or you ride up 18th Street and you ride up Broadway, and there are people out there, man, who are gone.”

Campbell said it's shortsighted when people from outside West Louisville point at the residents who do live there and say "do better."

"They don't understand the psychological influences and mindset and condition that really bogs you down to not do things," he said. "It's a cycle that's recreated itself over and over, and the mental expansion to see beyond that just wasn't here."

When young people don't see their community change for the better they lose hope, he said. And that system has perpetuated itself for generations in West Louisville.

"When your dream has a ceiling on it and you think 'this is it,' you're not going to strive to do anything else," he said.

Beyond the emotional toll, the physical and social costs are also considerable.

According to data from the Environmental Protection Agency, West Louisville has the highest concentration of minority and low-income residents exposed to high levels of pollution in the city.

Nearly a dozen chemical plants are situated in Rubbertown, which sits just south of the thousands of residents living west Louisville. It's a concentration of environmental risk found nowhere else in the city.

Yolanda Walker is aware of the plants.

"The air in the neighborhood is filled with chemicals," she said.

There is also the problem of violence. Nearly half of the 348 reported shootings in 2015 came from neighborhoods in West Louisville.

But for Jerome Perry, the problem is more fundamental. If he needs to go to the doctor or the grocery, for instance, he has to the east side of the city.

"We don’t have the same resources," he said.

His home value also suffers just because of where it is, he said.

"You take some of these houses and put them in the East End, and you will pay three times what I pay for this house," he said.

And if he wants to repair his home, he knows it'll be tough to get a loan because of where he lives.

"You take some of the neighborhoods in the Highlands and stuff like that, people can go out and get a low interest loan and fix their property up," he said. "You can’t do it down here. I have never heard of anybody do it."

Perry lives in West Louisville because he chooses to. So do Campbell and Walker. It's their home. Some have raised families here. They all want to see the area improve.

Still, they struggle to accept the notion that for one end of Louisville to prosper, another must struggle.

"Everybody is striving for the same thing," Perry said. "To reach an old age and live comfortably. That’s what everybody, black and white, is striving for. The same thing."


The Next Louisville is a collaboration between WFPL News and The Community Foundation of Louisville.