What Lies Beneath? In Portland, Unearthed Brick Sidewalk Signals Rebirth
Across from a row of shotgun houses, Danny Seim is bent over a shovel, sweating in the morning heat. Occasionally he pauses to wipe sweat from his forehead, but for the most part, he maintains a steady rhythm with his shovel as he works to uncover a sidewalk that has been hidden under grass for decades in Louisville’s Portland neighborhood.
For the past three weeks, Seim has spent most of his mornings excavating the brick sidewalk on a block of N. 26th Street between Montgomery Street and Tyler Avenue. Seim spends a few hours nearly every day removing chunks of grass. His goal is to uncover about four feet every day and so far, he’s nearly halfway done.
“I don’t really look at this as any act of heroism or anything; it’s just kind of something fun to do that anyone can really do,” Seim said. “I think if anyone knew this was under here, it probably would have been done a lot sooner.”
Seim said he thinks the sidewalk may have been covered with grass since the late 1970s based on some research he's done. He doesn’t know why the grass was allowed to take over.
Tina Ober lives on the block, and was surprised when she found out the sidewalk was there under the dirt and grass. She said she thinks the sidewalk will be useful once it’s completely uncovered.
“I know a lot of people, when they walk down the street, they would walk out in the street instead of on the sidewalk because there was all grass there and dirt,” Ober said. “Even my grandkids, when they ride their bikes, they would ride through the grass and stuff which was a little harder than a sidewalk.”
Troy Haflett routinely walks down the block and said he prefers the brick sidewalk to the concrete sidewalk on the other side of the street.
“I like the brick more,” Haflett said. “It gives it more life … the concrete is normal; the brick is not so much.”
Seim said uncovering the sidewalk is just a small part of the revitalization process happening in the Portland area. Although excavating the sidewalk is Seim’s personal project, he is also helping to renovate The Dolfinger where he works as an artist-in-residence. The Dolfinger used to be the Portland Christian School; it now has several offices for nonprofit organizations and businesses.
In recent years, local restaurants, bookstores and coffee shops have opened in the area. The Tim Faulkner Gallery moved to Portland in 2014, although it was recently announced that the gallery will move to Paristown Pointe. Local businesses, including McQuixote Books & Coffee, and The Table, also operate in Portland.
But for years, the Portland neighborhood has dealt with poverty and unemployment. In 2014, 42 percent of Portland residents lived below the poverty line, and 24 percent were unemployed, according to a study by the Network Center for Community Change.
Seim said he understands Portland has a poor reputation, but he doesn’t think people outside of the area get a true picture of the neighborhood.
“Portland has a lot of unfair stereotypes about it, the major one being is that everyone is trashy, unfriendly and on drugs,” Seim said. “Unfortunately, the opioid epidemic is a real thing around here, and poverty is definitely a real thing around here, but the more people I meet doing projects like this, it’s just a bunch of sweethearts that are so, so excited to see this again.”
Seim said the sidewalk brings Portland's rich history to light, too. In the 1800s, the area was an independent city that provided a way for people and goods to go aroundthe Falls of the Ohio. The city grew around the bend of the river with houses springing up for business owners and boat captains. Seim said eventually, interest in Portland decreased.
“The fact that there has been such little interest in Portland and so much segregation and just kind of sweeping it under the rug, it’s just allowed all this history to lurk inches beneath the surface,” Seim said.
Resident Tina Ober said she wishes more of Portland’s old brick could be seen. Other sidewalks in the Portland neighborhood also have some visible brick, but very few of them have brick sidewalks that stretch the entire side of one block.
Seim said he doesn’t have any plans to look for more brick sidewalks in the area. He does, however, plan to continue trying to revitalize the area.