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Louisvillians cruise forward while recounting car shows past

A row of custom cars on Bardstown Road.
Giselle Rhoden
The Real Steel Car Club hosted a pre-show on Thursday in the Highlands ahead of the Saturday car show.

Classic cars will roll down East Main Street Saturday, as part of a Whiskey Row car show. One driver showing off his muscle car recalls a past community cruising event with fondness.

Every weekend, Michael Smith spends time with one of his life’s great loves. His bright red, 2019 Camaro 2SS has custom black flames on the doors. When he puts his foot to the pedal, Ghost Rider roars in response.

“I've always been a car guy,” Smith said. “I love looking at them. And I got started in my early 20s just fiddling around with them.”

Smith, who works in maintenance for Jefferson County Public Schools, will be cruising in the Real Steel on Whiskey Row car show in downtown Louisville Saturday. At a preview event Thursday, Smith watched several unique rides roll past, and he remembered one show he looked forward to every year: Derby City Cruising in west Louisville.

What happened to west Louisville cruising?

What became known as “Derby City Cruising” was a popular, annual event, especially for West End residents. From the 1980s until the early 2000s, people drove their souped-up classic and modern cars down the Broadway corridor on Derby weekend.

Neighbors grilled, sold locally-produced products and played music amid a parade of unique cars, trucks and motorcycles.

“It was thousands and thousands of cars,” Smith said, recalling his Derby cruising days. “We [would] get together and just cruise up and down the street, hang out, pull up to the parking lots and talk to each other.”

West End resident Charlene Pumphrey started coming out when she was 16 years old.

She remembers watching dozens of Black-owned businesses bring in new customers as they made their way toward Churchill Downs.

“[There was] music everywhere. It was always people getting together. Laughter. It's something you couldn't wait to do when you were younger,” Pumphrey said. “You wanted to get out and see the different cars. You wanted to go out and see who had different items to sell, meet up with your friends, walk up down the street … It was the highlight of the weekend for us.”

In 2006, then-Mayor Jerry Abramson banned Derby cruising, citing a slew of violent crimes including a shooting death during Derby cruising a year earlier.

Following the ban, Louisville Metro Police implemented traffic restrictions from Broadway to Churchill Downs. According to a report by the Associated Press, LMPD made 13 arrests and 15 citations along Broadway, five of which were for cruising violations.

The aftermath in the West End

Some west Louisville residents said they feel alienated from Derby festivities since the cruising ban.

Pumphrey said the ban furthered the stigma that people living in the West End already felt.

“When we go out to Churchill Downs, we're scrutinized,” she said. “It’s: ‘Are you all going to bring trouble? What drama or problems are you all bringing? No, you're really not welcomed, and we're gonna look at you funny….We're gonna make the ticket prices so high to where you all can't get in.'”

Pumphrey noted that Churchill Downs and official Derby events catered more and more to rich, white audiences over the years. She notices a similar trend around car shows and cruising in more affluent areas like Whiskey Row.

“Once an event is targeted for a certain audience, we're not a part of that conversation,” Pumphrey said.

Hopes to bring cruising back

Derby City Cruising still rouses a smaller crowd along Broadway. West End residents open their grills, sell food and play music to celebrate Derby season. But, Pumphrey said it’s not the same without the car show.

“My kids would never get to know what it was like, for me as a kid to experience that and to look forward to that,” she said.

Residents have also felt the financial strain of the cruising ban. Pumphrey shows up, selling food from her business S&S BBQ and Seafood, but the decreased crowds have meant decreased business.

She hopes to get buy-in from current city officials and community leaders to bring Derby City Cruising back to the event it once was. Pumphrey sees an opportunity to create a new era of cruising, inviting the youngest generations to have ownership and get involved.

“I would like for [west Louisvillains] to be in an environment where it's safe for them to cruise,” she said. “If this generation can understand that, that is important for us.”

Giselle is LPM's breaking news reporter. Email Giselle at grhoden@lpm.org.

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