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In the Face Of Hardship, Downtown Louisville Searches For Solutions

Businesses in downtown Louisville have begun removing the plywood from their windows.

These plywood facades went up amid racial justice protests, and while the protests continue, people are beginning to consider what’s next for a downtown that has been battered, first by a global pandemic, then by unrest awakened by the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of police.

On a recent afternoon, Mercedes Hudson tore off a piece of painter's tape outlining a silhouette as part of a mural painted across the plywood board covering Encore on 4th Street. 

Hudson is a Black man with dreadlocks that hang down to his waist. His locks are pulled back in a bun, and he wears the neutral garb of a painter, a cigarette between his lips. The silhouette in front of Hudson held a sign reading, “I am not a threat.”

Along here almost 60 years earlier, police arrested Black students enmasse for taking part in non-violent demonstrations protesting discrimination by downtown businesses.  

So far in 2020, more than 700 people have been arrested since protests over the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd erupted in late May. The drama of the protests and protesters' interactions with police have played out against the backdrop of a downtown largely emptied by the global pandemic.

There are no conferences, conventions or large concerts. Hotels, restaurants and much of the city’s hospitality industry are reeling. With so many office workers now working remotely, estimates put downtown office occupancy around 20%, said Louisville Forward Chief Mary Ellen Wiederwohl, who manages the city’s economic and community development arm.

“We have in this downtown scenario right now, some very real issues and some perception issues,” Wiederwohl said.

While many people left downtown because of the pandemic, it was the images they saw afterward that may have furthered the perception that downtown is unsafe, she said.

Mercedes Hudson said the boarded business fronts made the city feel abandoned, like a ghost town. 

He wanted to do something about that.

“We’re out here painting a Breonna Taylor mural. It’s a way to celebrate taking the boards down, a way to bring the community together to heal everyone and a way to show off our artwork,” Hudson said.

City officials, artists, business owners and activists are encouraging everyone to return downtown, even as protests and the pandemic show little sign of ending.

 But that return should not be a return to “normal,” they said.  

It will take more than a vaccine and open windows. It will take an acknowledgement of the systemic inequalities present in Louisville, and a desire to create something better, they said. 

“If the economic engine of the city is not running, nobody’s life is going to be good here and it doesn’t matter where you live in the city. We are all going to pay for that,” said Betty Baye, a former Courier Journal columnist and now part-time columnist at WLKY. 

“When Breonna Taylor’s family is paid $12 million, who is paying for that? All of us are going to pay for that.”

A business owner leaves downtown

In the city of Muhammad Ali’s birth, James Dixon and his son Carlos carry on a proud legacy. James Dixon runs TKO/Top Knotch Boxing. It used to be housed in a grimy building off Breckenridge Street beside I-65, a couple blocks south of downtown. 

It was just last November that Carlos won a WBC Youth World Title in Kingston, Jamaica. But by March, the world had changed.  

“Boxing at the end of the day, it’s a sport and no sport is worth somebody’s life,” said James Dixon.

In the months after the gym closed, Dixon saw more and more unhoused people hanging out under the highway overpass next to his business.  He would find used needles on the ground. One day he caught someone in their underwear taking a shower using the spigot on the building.

It didn’t feel safe for the kids anymore. The protests added to that perception, said Dixon.

He packed up and relocated. The gym is now located outside I-264. Dixon has retooled his new location to provide more options for boxing and fitness enthusiasts, and he’s got more space, which allows him to bring more people into the gym while still following COVID-19 health restrictions.

“You want to go to work and you want an environment where you feel safe,” Dixon said. “I think it was a combination of all things, I had to make a business decision to relocate to get in an area where I could survive.”

Is downtown Louisville safe? That depends.

The answer to the question of what exactly creates the perception that downtown is “unsafe” is complex.

Some point to the smashed windows, graffiti, small fires and other acts of vandalism to lay the blame at the feet of protesters. Others say it’s an excessive display of armed force by law enforcement.

To the extent that protesters have smashed windows and vandalized buildings downtown, protest organizer Shameka Parrish-Wright said it’s unfair that citizens are required to behave perfectly while the police force acts, in her view, corruptly.

“If we hated our city, the plywood wouldn’t stop people,” she said. “The plywood is overreaction from our city government.”

Wiederwohl with Louisville Forward applauded LMPD’s plan for dealing with the aftermath of the grand jury finding in the Breonna Taylor case, which is when a lot of the plywood went up. But she also acknowledges a psychological impact from plywood covering windows and barricades in the streets.

As the boards come down and more people return, maybe it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, making downtown feel safer, she said. 

Relief and Opportunity

To help offset economic losses of COVID-19, Louisville Metro approved more than $22 million in COVID-19 relief grants for 637 small businesses as of October 8, according to Louisville Forward records.

The city has delivered about 51% of the grant money to business owners who are people of color, women or who are part of the LGTBQ community, records show.  

 “There’s a lot of energy right now around, how do we come back from this better and make sure that everyone has opportunities,” Wiederwohl said.

Organizers say the protesters will continue to press for racial justice in the center of downtown at Jefferson Square Park.

“So if the businesses and the communities really want to do their part, they need to join our efforts, invite us to the tables,” Parrish-Wright said. “We have people who are ready to stand up and support them and their business if they only show us they really care about what happened to Breonna Taylor and the continued abuse that’s happening to protesters.” 

Enter the Riot Café

In the midst of all of this, Olivia Griffin has decided to open yet another downtown business. She already runs The Limbo tiki bar and The Mysterious Rack hat shop. In the first days of demonstrations, protesters smashed her windows. 

But that hasn’t deterred Griffin.

“Most of the glass in this whole corridor was broken... but, no big deal. People over profits. We’ve been supporting the protests since day one,” Griffin said.

The protests have emboldened her to open her third business, called Riot Café — a coffee shop, bodega and restaurant that will prominently feature products from Black business owners.

Griffin, who is white, said she would like the coffee shop to become a networking center to amplify the voices of marginalized communities.

Riot Café is on Fourth Street, about a block south from where Mercedes Hudson painted the mural in support of racial justice. Walk in either direction and you’ll find historical markers denoting specific moments in Louisville’s Civil Rights history.

In 1961, students organized by National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and others, participated in sit-ins and marches to protest discrimination against Black Americans at restaurants, shops and theatres along Fourth street.

Their efforts persuaded City Hall to negotiate to bring end to discrimination by businesses in downtown and as a result, many desegregated.

Bringing an end to segregation benefited everyone, in particular businesses. Protesting systemic racism today is no different, said Betty Baye. 

“What could have been done with $12 million dollars?” Baye said, referring to the money the city paid to the family of Breonna Taylor.

“So you can see that this problem with the systemic problem of police and the Black community is very costly, and it’s not just costing the Black community, it’s costing the whole community.”

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.