Contestations over redevelopment in Louisville reveal a historical pattern of prioritizing property over people

A Southern Story

Contestations over redevelopment in Louisville reveal a historical pattern of prioritizing property over people

The Louisville skyline (andrew welch/Unsplash)

Breonna Taylor lived ten miles from Russell, a neighborhood in the West End of Louisville, Kentucky. But she was killed in her home on the night of March 13 by Louisville Metro Police Department officers, who—according to a complaint filed by the Taylor family—were tasked with protecting the local government’s widely publicized investment in Russell’s redevelopment by eliminating all perceived obstacles to this vision of progress. The officers did more than comply.

Architects, planners, designers: Those of us who identify as spatial practitioners might see ourselves as occupying a particular position within hierarchical processes for changing urban places, as I did when I worked full-time in community development. We don’t often initiate conversations on what gets changed. Rather, as consultants, staff, and contractors, we receive briefs from our clients—developers, property owners, the state. From these, we create plans and designs; we organize and facilitate discussions with stakeholders; we conduct legal research, offer technical guidance, and advise on best practices. Yet when we limit our contributions to advisory roles—when we simply comply with the wishes of others—we cede our power. Our professions are political. With whom are we aligned? Whom do we serve?

Though gentrification in northern and western cities dominates national headlines, it’s a Southern story as well—and a particularly disconcerting one, given the centuries that Black people have struggled to survive on southern soil. The names of many Black neighborhoods under threat of displacement, such as Freedmen’s Town in Houston and Miami’s Liberty City, hint at their origins: Many Black neighborhoods in southern cities today were established by formerly enslaved people, who built sanctuaries within hostile territory where Black communities might flourish. The separate-but-adjacent siting of these neighborhoods relative to revitalizing old urban downtowns has rendered them especially attractive to investors, eager to gain an outsized profit from the artificial devaluation of property in Black neighborhoods.

In Louisville, the neighborhood that came to be known as Russell was initially developed during Reconstruction as a streetcar suburb for affluent white households, but by the century’s close, it had evolved into a Black community. White residents had moved on to newer tracts across town and Black people of many class backgrounds had moved in. By the early 20th century, Black-serving institutions like Central High School, the Western Colored branch of the Free Public Library, and the Chestnut Street YMCA, as well as service organizations like the Louisville Central Community Center (LCCC) took root alongside numerous churches, shops, and nightlife/entertainment venues. This hive of activity earned Russell the moniker “Louisville’s Harlem.” Yet the West End’s status as the Black part of town was also reinforced through explicitly racist public policy and urban design. Racially restrictive covenants banned non-white people from living in many East End developments in the 1920s; existing housing was razed to build Beecher Terrace (one of Kentucky’s first all-Black public housing developments) in the 1930s, and 9th Street was expanded into an expressway in the 1950s to create a barrier separating downtown from Russell and the rest of the Black West End. By the 1960s, progressive reforms, including public school desegregation and the Fair Housing Act, changed the letter of the law, but white flight to previously restricted areas and new suburbs—aided by legally inherited wealth and abetted by illegal practices like racial steering—cemented the spirit of spatial segregation in Louisville.

Contestations over redevelopment in Russell underscore Kentucky native bell hooks’ demand to foreground working-class people in Black struggles for spatial justice. As she writes in her essay “Black Vernacular: Architecture as Cultural Practice”:

“Many narratives of resistance struggle from slavery to the present share an obsession with the politics of space, particularly the need to construct and build houses. Indeed, black folks equated freedom with the passage into a life where they would have the right to exercise control over space on their own behalf, where they would imagine, design, and create spaces that would respond to the needs of their lives, their communities, their families.… [Yet] few scholars theorize black experience from a standpoint that centralizes the perspectives of poor and working-class folks. To ignore this standpoint is to reproduce a body of work that is neocolonial insofar as it violently erases and destroys those subjugated knowledges that can only erupt, disrupt and serve as acts of resistance if they are visible, remembered.”

Today, Russell is one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. A 2017 study of Russell conducted by the University of Louisville and United Way noted that the median income for working residents was $17,264 per year and the unemployment rate was nearly 30 percent. (By comparison, the annual median income countywide was $48,695 and the unemployment rate was 8 percent.) Furthermore, the same study noted that 53 percent of Russell’s tenants were rent-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. In the past decade, the city government has responded to local poverty by directing $1 billion—amassed from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grants and private investors—to projects it hopes will catalyze economic and community development throughout the West End.

Though most of my calls to people on the ground in Louisville went unreturned, the public record is clear: These revitalization initiatives have caused much concern among community members for using displacement as a mechanism for development. In their complaint, the Taylor family calls out the Louisville Metro Police Department (LMPD) for vacating residents from several Russell houses by whatever means necessary. The family argues that specific houses—including the one that LMPD alleged Breonna was connected with—were targeted as obstacles to a mixed-use development comprising new luxury housing, a cafe, a fitness center, and an amphitheater. (LMPD denies the validity of this claim.) Vision Russell, a recently established redevelopment coalition and the one singled out in the Taylor family’s complaint as complicit in displacement-oriented development, lists dozens of neighborhood-based organizations as community partners, but leaders of these very same organizations have expressed concerns regarding the disruptive consequences of redevelopment. As Kevin Fields, president and CEO of LCCC, recently told Louisville Magazine, there is a pattern of community-based institutions in Louisville disappearing as neighborhoods receive an influx of multimillion-dollar redevelopment grants.

Meanwhile, the 758 housing units at Beecher Terrace, the neighborhood’s oldest public housing project and the epicenter of many redevelopment and displacement struggles, have been razed, and the property’s redevelopment is underway. Rather than having a guaranteed right of return, previous residents will have merely preferential treatment in applying for one of the 640 units in the new housing development. Displaced Beecher Terrace households that are ineligible to return to the site have sought support from the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Louisville Housing Team. As Chanelle Helm, co-founder of BLM Louisville, remarked in a recent interview with WHUR, “They just displaced and racially banished an entire community out of a project, and now they’re utilizing a [HUD] Choice Grant to rebuild that area.… Calling [this] revitalization…is really a joke.”

Root Cause Research Center (RCRC), an autonomous, Louisville-based institution committed to analyzing data on race, property, and inequality to equip grassroots groups, including BLM Louisville, with solid evidence to support their organizing, argues that the city’s social and spatial orders are structured through what it defines as “plantation capitalism.” The theory, according to RCRC, holds that “descendants of planter families maintain political and economic dynasties largely by keeping Black workers in extreme poverty, landless, and without political power through extractive policies and police terrorism.”

As the center’s extensive research on property ownership in Russell shows, only 18 percent of land in the neighborhood is owned by Russell residents; instead, their meager incomes are extracted to build wealth in other communities, which further hinders the neighborhood’s own economic self-determination. Despite more than a century of the predominantly black residents of Russell stewarding the land and creating community there, they remain landless, and the consequences of lacking secure housing tenure are dire. When I interviewed Joshua Poe about housing justice in Russell, the Louisville-based urban planner and RCRC co-principal investigator said that roughly 100 families are unaccounted for since the demolition of Beecher Terrace began in the summer of 2018. “No one’s talking about the 100 families that are missing, who have fallen through the cracks during relocation,” he lamented. In racially divided cities like Louisville, missing families and lives cut short are the cost of development that prioritizes property over people.

According to the AIA’s Code of Ethics section on Obligations to the Public, members are expected to “promote and serve the public interest in their personal and professional activities.” In design and development matters in low-income Black neighborhoods, spatial practitioners must recognize that claims to place for low-income Black people have historically been insecure. Promoting and serving the public interest should redress past harms, not perpetuate them. For example, spatial practitioners could prioritize Black tenants’ lives by refusing to work on projects where properties were vacated via eviction. As the Louisville-based Metropolitan Housing Coalition recommended in its 2018 report “Involuntary Displacement,” we could seek out collaborations with neighborhood-based, Black-led tenant organizations through which our services might be of use; these services could include advocating for strengthened tenants’ rights, or facilitating land and capital acquisition to create permanently affordable housing through cooperatives and land trusts. After all, in the words of Muhammad Ali, the West End’s most famous resident and native son, “service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.”

The West End is the hub of the Black community in Louisville, and a community is both spatial and social. While Breonna Taylor was not a resident of the West End, she maintained some degree of connection to it. She should be alive today, but her Black life held insufficient value to professionals who carried out, and indeed, exceeded orders.

Hilary Malson is a scholar of urban planning and geography. Her professional experience is in community development, community organizing, and public history, and she currently researches housing justice and planning history as a doctoral student in urban planning at UCLA.