A student of the English language can dig up the lineage of the word neighbor — it comes down to us from the medieval English term for a dwelling (a ‘bour,’ or bower) that is ‘nigh,’ or near.
But it takes someone like Lucile B. Leggett, an 86-year-old resident and community volunteer in the Russell section of Louisville, to draw a picture of what it means to actually be a neighbor.
“There are a lot of neighborhoods in Louisville, and they have lots of folks in them. When they all come together, with churches and businesses and everybody helping out, they join with the mayor and the Metro Council to make this city work,” she says. “It’s like putting a puzzle together, or a patchwork quilt: If one piece is missing, it’s not complete. That’s what being a neighbor is — it’s making (your) neighborhood, and the city, complete.”
Just how many patches there are in that quilt of metro neighborhoods right now is not entirely clear, since the merger of the city and county a year ago blurred old boundary lines and spurred new development.
“There are more than 300 neighborhoods and neighborhood associations right now, and almost all of them are very active,” says Melissa Mershon, director of the Louisville Metro Department of Neighborhoods. “I’m sure that number will grow when the new metro government has formalized the registration procedure for setting up associations.”
While physical features such as creeks, major streets and subdivision perimeters serve as boundaries for neighborhoods, in the end, Mershon says, it’s usually the neighbors themselves who determine where their own small community begins and ends.
“They have a feel for it, a perception of what they believe their geographic boundaries are,” she says. “Neighbors come together to celebrate what’s good about their area, or sometimes unite to correct a problem. That’s where neighborhood associations come in, and that’s the way many of them are born.”
With support from Mershon’s department, along with training that’s available to neighborhood leaders through the annual Mayor’s Neighborhood Summit and related programs, people all over this area are taking a fresh look at what makes their neighborhood their home now that the city-county merger is well in place.
Louisville Magazine asked 10 of them, from neighborhoods throughout the metro area, to put into words why they chose to live in their little piece of that patchwork quilt.
Former WHAS-TV sports director Garry Gupton has called Fern Creek home for a decade
“I can’t put my finger on it, but when we drove through the Glenmary section of Fern Creek, it just felt like home,” he says. “It reminded Terrie and me of where we grew up, around Campbellsville.”
The house they chose, off Bardstown Road, seemed so isolated at the time that the elderly woman who lived there patted Gupton’s hand and asked, “Are you sure you want to live way out here in the country?”
A decade later, the formerly wide-open spaces around the Gupton address are dotted with stores, and hotels are springing up nearby, but it “still looks like the country” to Gupton. And it remains centrally located for everything he needs.
“When I was at WHAS, I could make it downtown in 17 minutes,” he says. “Now that I’m the minister to adults at Highview Baptist Church, I can easily reach our Fegenbush Lane campus, and it takes just a few minutes more to reach our new Shelbyville Road campus by taking the Gene Snyder. All Fern Creek needs is a super hardware store and a beach, and it’ll be perfect.”
Except for a short stay in Illinois during her first marriage, Marcella Willhite has lived in Middletown all of her life. In 1973, after that husband died, she moved back to her hometown, which at the time was a sixth-class, unincorporated city. For the past 26 years she has served Middletown as a commissioner, working in its City Hall.
“By the time I came back from Illinois, there didn’t seem to have been too many changes in Middletown. It wasn’t until it became a fourth-class incorporated city, in 1979, that I remember most of the housing and commercial development starting,” she says. “We’ve tried to keep the small-town
atmosphere that Middletown has had ever since it was founded in 1797. There is a nice variety of antique stores and small restaurants, and some buildings are on both the state and national Registers of Historic Places, especially along Main Street.”
Willhite particularly admires the Wetherby House, known in stagecoach-travel days as the Davis Tavern. The city has placed a park on the property, and when the house is
restored, it will become Middletown’s municipal offices.
“When that happens,” she says, “it will be another good example of the way Middletown blends the beauty of the past with the way we live today.”
Jim and Diane Hoagland walking in Iroquois Park
“Iroquois Park is one of the reasons we’ve stayed,” Diane says. “It’s a place we’ve always loved to explore, especially the exercise trails. When our kids were small, we’d walk to the park with bag lunches. It’s rustic and, to my city eyes, it looks unspoiled, (especially) when you get to the part where cars aren’t allowed.”
Hoagland relishes living in a neighborhood that has become ethnically quite
diverse. Her neighbors have included im-migrants from Bosnia and Vietnam. “I’ve
recently retired from being coordinator of children’s religious education at St. Thomas More School, which I believe is the most diverse Catholic school in Louisville,” she says. “About one in seven students have another country of origin in their families, and that makes it a very interesting place.”
Even the Hoaglands’ local supermarket, Value Market in Iroquois Manor Shopping Center, seems like a global bazaar. “There are groceries there that I’ve never seen,” she says. “Once there was a man in front of me in the checkout line holding some kind of melon.
I asked, ‘What do you do with that?’ and he said it’s supposed to make you live longer.
I wish I could remember what it was.”
In 1999, after years of living in California, Kathryn McCool returned to Portland, the neighborhood of her birth, to help take care of her then-husband’s mother. They bought the house next door, and McCool once again learned about life in Portland’s riverside streets.
Disquieted by the sight of deteriorating buildings and piled-up garbage, McCool, a general contractor and owner of Gotcha Covered! Home Improvement, decided to make a difference by joining Portland NOW. She serves on that neighborhood watch group’s board of directors and chairs its Good Neighbor Committee.
“There is so much that needs doing here — holding absentee landlords accountable, for example — but houses are very affordable and there are some wonderful places to go in Portland,” McCool says. “I walk my dogs in Lannan Park, along the river. It’s pretty and peaceful, a good place to take my granddaughter to swing.”
The house in which her mother grew up was one of many torn down to make way for I-64, but she is glad that Northwestern Parkway still has dignified, even lovely, buildings from earlier years.
“It’s my dream that Portland will be reunited with its pride,” she says. “There are a lot of good-hearted people who have deep roots in this neighborhood. Some people have been moving in to exploit it, but there are a lot of us who are staying here to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Kathryn McCool behind a 150-year old home
“I moved here to take care of an elderly cousin,” Leggett says. “After his death I stayed because I like the general atmosphere. There may be negative aspects, but they are not strong enough or big enough to cause me to go to another neighborhood.”
Today, Leggett is a tireless volunteer in local activities, such as tutoring children in their homes and supervising 16 of her fellow green thumbs at the Russell Community Garden, where they grow flowers and vegetables with support from Operation Brightside.
“There are so many good places in Russell, with people who care about other folks,” she says. “We have a large number of churches, of different denominations, that offer community services and programs. There are outstanding, family-owned black businesses, too, like Stich’s Cleaners and the A. D. Porter & Sons and G. C. Williams funeral homes.
“Russell has two black-owned radio stations, too — WLOU and WLLV — and there is going to be an African-American museum built here soon,” she adds. “So there’s always something coming up here to encourage us to keep working. Things are blooming.”
Seven years ago, when Michael O’Leary and Elwood Stroder, both of whom work in the Metro Health Department, were in the market for a house, they checked out venerable areas such as the Highlands, but found a bargain they couldn’t pass up on Payne Street in Clifton. In the ensuing years, O’Leary has become so proud of his neighborhood that he has worked his way up to serving as co-chair of the Clifton Community Council.
“There are so many ways in which our neighbors cooperate to make this a wonderful place,” he says. “At the top of my list is the Kentucky School for the Blind; people are careful about how they put planters and other objects on sidewalks, because Clifton has the highest number of visually impaired people for a neighborhood our size in the country.”
Clifton, chartered as a town in 1876 before being annexed by Louisville in the 1890s, grew steadily as a stop on the city’s Interurban streetcar line in the early 1900s, and some of today’s residents have lived in the neighbohood for almost that long.
“I’m so excited about the oral histories that are being recorded at Caffe Classico every month,” O’Leary says. “Residents come in to talk about what Clifton was like 50, 60 years ago, and the council has received a grant to transcribe the tapes. Clifton became a Historic Preservation District just a year ago, and the tapes are one way we’re keeping our history alive.”
Michael O'Leary and Elwood Stroder on their porch in Clifton
Wyatt, who recently retired from the Louisville Water Co. and is now a part-time bookkeeper and teacher, notes that the area is still a comfortable residential area, with easy access to shopping, buses and businesses of all kinds on Bardstown Road.
“It does seem, though, that my street and a few others nearby are going more to rental property, and that means that neighbors sometimes have to be a little more assertive in making sure that properties are kept up,” she says. “But it’s still a good area, with decently priced houses. I can easily get downtown in 15 minutes, 20 in rush hour. And I use the Bon Air Library as much as three or four times a week, sometimes just to sit and read.”
In recent years, Bashford Manor has gained more low-income housing, bringing a neighborhood diversity that Wyatt welcomes. “To me,” she says, “the biggest difference it has made is that I have more trick-or-treaters at Halloween.”
Greg Zahradnik, a Chicago-born self-employed engineer who lived in Nashville before moving to Louisville 17 years ago, picked the Bellemeade-Lyndon area for his home because it’s “not too far out of town and not too close in,” and has the balance of structural density and green spaces that he was looking for.
“I live in the Bellemeade side, which I like because it doesn’t have a lot of traffic, even though it’s easy to get to Shelbyville Road and the Watterson Expressway,” he says. “It’s a good, clean place.”
Zahradnik, a former two-term Bellemeade commissioner, has a special interest in the area’s drainage and waste-management systems because of his engineering background, and notes that those systems have been improved in recent years. His scientific insight, however, doesn’t keep him from simply appreciating beautiful scenery.
“Lyndon has nice parks, and there is still some good green space along Beargrass Creek, on the Lyndon side of Whipps Mill Road,” he says. “That’s one of my favorite places to go for a walk.”
The area as a whole is still in transition, he adds, and “every empty spot that was there is being filled in,” but he thinks development is mostly under control.
“That’s less true the farther out you go,” he says. “But around here, I believe we’re maintaining that balance between city and country. And since I’m originally a big-city guy, I’m glad that there are places like Namen’s New York Style Deli nearby, so I can get a good corned beef sandwich once in a while.”
Thirty-year Russell resident Lucile B. Leggett, 86, is an always ready neighborhood volunteer.
In 1976, the Holmeses moved two streets north to a bungalow on Alta Avenue that they discovered on one of their evening walks. “We loved Bonnycastle back then and it has only gotten better,” says Holmes, a manager in Seven Counties Services’ First Steps program. “The closest thing we’ve had to a natural disaster lately, the Christmas snow-and-ice storm, reminded us of one of the great things about living here. George couldn’t get his car out, but at one /files/storyimages/of our street is Bardstown Road, a major bus route, and he was able to ride TARC to work.”
Another advantage of the neighborhood is that eateries and shopping spots are always just a short walk away, including Geli Cakes, La Bodega and even the Farmers’ Market at Bardstown Road Presbyterian Church.
At the eastern /files/storyimages/of Alta, the woods and hills of Cherokee Park offer the Holmeses plenty of trails for walking, as well as the open spaces that can be hard to find in some compact Bonnycastle yards.
“Many of our neighbors have lived here for years. It’s nice to live where there is an interesting bl/files/storyimages/of people, as well as so many places to go,” Holmes says. “We’ve been here 30 years ourselves, and can’t imagine living anywhere else.”
Raised in Okolona, Stephen Tipton moved to the Tarrytown section of Valley Station when he was 22, in the early 1970s, looking for room to enjoy his hobbies.
“I could walk to the /files/storyimages/of my subdivision and hunt rabbits along Pond Creek,” he says, “and when I was married, my wife and I rode horses on the levee alongside the Ohio River. A lot of people know about the rolling hills and the woods down here near the Kentucky Knobs.”
Tipton also explored Jefferson Memorial Forest and took his boat out on the river to fish. He now has disabilities that limit his mobility, but he stays busy as a board member in two community groups: the Louisville Coalition of Neighborhoods (LCON) and the Southwest Community Association of Neighborhoods (SCAN).
“I helped raise funds to restore Riverside, the Farnsley-Moremen house, a historic landmark out here,” he says. “There are nice modern houses out here, too, but also a high percentage of mobile homes. One thing I want for this neighborhood is to have more houses in the $200,000 range, so people who are able to move up from their trailers don’t have to go far away. I think most people who live here want to stay here.”
Dixie Highway, the main thoroughfare, has long been nicknamed “Dixie Dieway,” he notes, in recognition of its traffic-accident record, but he describes it as a “good suburban corridor.”
“My two kids grew up in this area and loved it, and so do I,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, if Dixie Highway can just get some better restaurants, Valley Station will have just about everything it needs.”