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Ahead of Derby, community events enliven neighborhoods around Churchill Downs

Gardeners plant sprouts in a garden bed
Jacob Munoz
Olmsted Parks Conservancy horticulturist Mary Anne Fox (left) and park steward Julie Myers work on a garden bed at Wayside Park on April 23, 2024.

While visitors on Oaks and Derby Days transform part of Louisville’s South End, thousands of residents call the area home all year ‘round.

Wayside Park is about a block away from Churchill Downs, nestled between two streets in the South Louisville neighborhood.

It’s a small green space with a large plant bed across from the historic Wheelmen’s Bench. It only takes about a minute to walk through. The Olmsted Parks Conservancy worked last month to renovate the park, upgrading its smaller benches and adding perennial plants to the bed.

Jesse Hendrix, the conservancy’s director of communications, said the group usually beautifies the Wayside Park before the Kentucky Derby. But this year, they were able to do more work on it with support from the city.

“The [Olmsted Parks system] is connected and easily connects neighborhoods so people can travel between them,” Hendrix said. “And so while Wayside is a smaller Park, it's a big part of Olmsted's vision for the city.”

With Derby celebrations taking place around Louisville, local groups have been working on how to provide support for the neighborhoods surrounding Churchill Downs.

In another initiative last month, Louisville Metro Council’s District 15 office hosted a Building Our Blocks, or B.O.B., event in the Lucky Horseshoe neighborhood surrounding the track. In a single day, organizers hosted a resource fair and activities like tree planting.

Alena Balakos, the lead organizer of B.O.B., lives in the Saint Joseph neighborhood.

LPM News’ Jacob Munoz spoke with Balakos about the Lucky Horseshoe B.O.B. event and the neighborhoods surrounding Churchill Downs. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What were your expectations when you first moved into the neighborhood?

I didn't really know much. I just, um, I knew I wanted an old house in an urban neighborhood. I've always been involved in my community, no matter where that is.

I think in Saint Joseph, and also elsewhere within District 15, we have a real opportunity to take advantage of this kind of transitional period.

We have a lot of seniors, but we also have young families moving in. And young families who have children, and who have animals, and who want to see walkability and want to see parks, and want to see the parks that we do have be better because they could be doing so much more for our community.

Specifically around that District 15 area, can you describe to me what makes it unique compared to other parts of the city?

We do have Churchill Downs. But we also have the Speed Art Museum, which is going through a massive renovation right now. We also have the stadium where Beyonce came to play. And Beyonce played in District 15, so, claim to fame there. And we have some of the best parks. We have Iroquois Park, which has that beautiful, amazing famous view of downtown.

We also have really great people. I think that's evident in my project in Lucky Horseshoe. The people that I met there are just phenomenal. We met people that cook food and serve food to their neighbors weekly. And we met people who are caretakers of not just their own families, but I would call them, like, neighborhood caretakers, like the matriarchs of their community. Women that have lived in those neighborhoods forever and know all of their neighbors and all of the children and have watched those children grow up. The South End is great.

You describe a lot of the positives and a lot of the benefits that you see in the community. What sorts of challenges still exist for residents?

I think a big one is that people just don't know how to fix the things that they see. And that is kind of the puzzle with B.O.B., is, your community sees speeding and you want speed humps on your street. Well, how do you get that done? And that was a big part of Building Our Blocks. We had somebody who had a beehive that they needed gone. And part of B.O.B was to connect them to someone who could take care of this beehive.

We're a connector of resources. We're going to come to your door, and we're going to say, these are the free services that exist for you. We partnered with the Public Health Department, and we were able to get radon tests and lead paint test kits for residents. We had a lot of people say, “My street floods every single time it rains, and I'm scared to park my car here.” And so we said, “Okay, let's get a meeting with MSD and Public Works and figure out how we can make this better for you.”

Can you describe to me what you took away from that event?

I believe that there's a lot of disconnect between our government and the neighborhoods that they serve.

Getting people connected through government is how we grow neighborhoods, and how neighborhoods become what people want them to be. I think there's just a lot of barriers in communication. Even just door-knocking, I felt like, the three times I went, if you weren't home those exact three times that I went to your house, then you weren't necessarily getting the same information, even though I left the door hanger there.

I just wish that, you know, we had the money and the capacity and the time and the labor and all of that stuff to be going to people's doors like every day, or every week, and being like, “Hey, like, we're here. What's going on? What are you seeing?”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Wayside Park is in the South Louisville neighborhood.

Jacob is LPM's Business and Development Reporter. Email Jacob at jmunoz@lpm.org.

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