Small Pieces of the Big Picture

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Our city’s neighborhoods grew even more important two years ago when merger created a giant government embracing all of Jefferson County. While there’s no problem saying we’re from “Louisville Metro,” the stronger drive now is to let bigness be and connect ourselves with somewhere closer to home. There’s a growing pride in being from Pleasure Ridge Park or Portland, Prospect or Parkway Village. 


The gorgeous pond that graces the Lake Forest subdivision
Neighborhoods vary in age, wealth, topography, housing type and layout — in some, for instance, the sidewalks actually go somewhere, while others are much more auto dependent. Still, each has its own unique story and special reasons for being an attractive place to live.

Frequently, there’s a story behind how a neighborhood got its name: Meadowlawn Precinct became Valley Station after a railroad to western Kentucky was built in the 1870s. Woodlawn Park, on the edge of St. Matthews, grew up on the site of the old Civil War-era Woodlawn Thoroughbred Race Course. Robert Fisher built an 1830s mill on Floyds Fork at what was to become Fisherville. And while village boosters wanted to name Okolona “Lone Oak,” for the community’s giant landmark oak tree, that post office designation was already taken by another Kentucky town, so “Lone Oak” was colorfully reversed.

Those of us who live in neighborhoods or subdivisions with names that were clearly fabricated to sound romantic, quaint or agrarian need not feel left out. While a Spring Mill, Strathmoor Manor, Northfield, Lake Forest or Woodland Estates may not mirror local history, stories still abound from every place in our community. It doesn’t matter if your neighborhood is filled with 1910 bungalows or post-World War II ranch, patio or neo-traditional homes, you can still frequently find an old estate home or farmhouse deep within the subdivision. Minimal probing in local history files will turn up the name of the farm family or the location of the old tollhouse on the nearby 19th-century turnpike or the stop on the vast light-rail commuter system (called

Interurbans) that fanned out across Jefferson County in the first two decades of the last century, or the orphanage, poorhouse, asylum, small factory or sanitarium that perhaps once claimed the land where your house sits.   


Renovated yesteryear houses in Old Louisville
Interestingly, many Louisville neighborhoods that think of themselves as predominantly black or white would be surprised to learn that their story has involved changes in ethnic makeup. For instance, the Russell and Parkland neighborhoods — now largely African-American — were developed in the late 19th century as classic streetcar suburbs chiefly for whites. Perhaps even more startling is that almost all of suburban Jefferson County was once peppered with small, rural black enclaves. Around 1900, for example, black hamlets, with accompanying segregated elementary schools, existed from Valley Station to South Park, from Highview and Middletown to Eastwood and Harrods Creek. No matter where you live, there is almost certainly a lively story from the past that gives vitality and heightened awareness to living in the present.

Geography or the lay of the land can also add to a neighborhood’s special character. For instance, an examination of a Jefferson County topographic map reveals that historic Middletown, Jeffersontown, Fern Creek and Highview were located on an outer ring of higher ground partly circling a flat downtown Louisville. On a clear day from these communities you feel like you can see forever when you look toward the downtown skyline.

Similarly, it is interesting to use a map to follow the creeks that stream from your neighborhood to see the path the water takes. The waterway called Fern Creek, for instance, drains a corner of Jeffersontown, crosses Bardstown Road to form the golf-course lakes at the Wildwood Country Club, and then rolls on rapidly to Old Shepherdsville Road near the Whispering Hills subdivision. There, Fern Creek oozes into the swampy former “Wet Woods” or “Ash Pond,” which in the 19th century extended from Old Shep to Old Third Street Road, including West Okolona, the Ford Auto Assembly Plant on Fern Valley Road, and Auburndale. Indeed, both subdivision and industrial life in that zone was made possible by digging giant drainage ditches through that lowland and connecting them to Pond Creek near Windsor Forest. Consider also the fact that the Highlands consists of a series of neighborhoods developed along a historic turnpike (Baxter/Bardstown Road) and between two deep branches or forks of  Beargrass Creek. A look at both a historic and a current map of your neighborhood would increase your appreciation of how geography shapes where you live. 


Otherwise throughly modern Sutherland subdivision
Neighborhoods also derive vitality from the sheer fact that there are such wide differences in what people want in a place to live. Some folks want to live in the Highlands or Crescent Hill, where you don’t have to walk far on a sidewalk to get to a  restaurant, pub, movie, boutique or public park. Others favor more recent subdivisions, touting the latest in household gadgetry and with easy access to shopping near an interstate, while convenience to work, likely quick resale or affordability are major considerations for still more. Large homes on five-acre lots are attractive to some and the desire to live near parents or the old childhood neighborhood lure others.

Despite a general satisfaction with where we’ve chosen to live, many residents have an intimation of what their neighborhood could become. For some, it’s running the drugs and gangs off their streets so such intrinsic pluses of the area as block-to-block homogeneity, front porches, sidewalks and friendly neighbors can truly shine. Still others wish for sidewalks or bike paths that link their subdivision to others so they can walk or bike to the neighborhood mart just blocks away.

Middletown is struggling to implement a plan that would tame busy Shelbyville Road by reducing the number of wide driveways to each store and installing landscaped sidewalks. Civic leaders there also dream of the historic district on the hill becoming a pedestrian-friendly village center with plenty of outdoor dining. Fast-growing Jeffersontown has begun to grasp a similar future for its old town center at Taylorsville Road and Watterson Trail. A fresh breeze also stirs in Fairdale, where the hints of an old village center remain around the intersection of Fairdale and Mount Holly roads. Some believe that area could be redeveloped along the lines of an alpine ski village, with sidewalk shops for launching recreational ventures into the giant Jefferson Memorial Forest. 

With identity focused closer to home, historic shopping nodes that have declined — like Parkland’s 28th and Dumesnil, Portland’s 26th and Portland Avenue or Beechmont’s Third and Woodlawn — might catch a new wave. Similarly, old streetcar business corridors like Dixie Highway inside Algonquin Parkway or Taylor Boulevard all the way out to Iroquois Park have the potential for new life. It’s going to take neighbors willing to embrace small-scale shopping and to add more walking and public transit to their daily routine before those corridors that once depended on streetcars and buses can be revitalized. Historically, commuters made daily stops at the small shops on their way home from the transit  stop. 

A grandiose retooling of a neighborhood’s future may also await a Fern Creek or Pleasure Ridge Park. As auto-dependent commercial development in those neighborhoods has amassed along the busy Snyder Expressway, their 1950s and ’60s shopping zones have atrophied. Perhaps the older zones, where the old supermarket might now be a bingo hall, could be redeveloped as transit centers. New smaller-scale restaurants and sidewalk shops would be brought closer to the highway and parking — including mass-transit park-and-ride opportunities — would be moved to the rear. Three- and four-story apartments and condos could be constructed as buffers between the new businesses and adjacent neighborhoods to the rear and those existing subdivisions would be linked to the new centers by bike and walking paths. The emerging village hub would feature other elements like a community fitness center, services for seniors and childcare, and other measures to add density to the new suburban landscape.

The future for Louisville neighborhoods is bright. At a time when “Louisville” seems farther away, our primary residential identity is being drawn closer to home and being enriched by a sense of place. The fabric of all of our neighborhoods — with none more important than the other — is shaped by a storied past and a unique geography. Further, each Metro neighborhood is fueled by a varying desire for future improvement. Clearly no one expects either our new or old neighborhoods to stay the same, but in the end, we just want to proudly call ours “home.”  

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