This article appeared in the May 2012 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
I grew up in Louisville suburbs but always wanted to live in an urban setting, so I moved to New York in 2001. The Upper Manhattan neighborhood where my husband and I lived could feel like Sesame Street: We were regulars at the diner, the Korean grocer waved to us, and the lady at the dry cleaners let me pay next time if I forgot my wallet. I ran into neighbors on the street, walked in beautiful Riverside Park with a group of other new moms/ (To be fair, I should also mention the bachata music blasting at all hours, the $350 a month for parking, and my hour-long commute to work.)
When we moved back to Louisville in 2009 with our then year-old daughter, we had our hearts set on the Highlands — charming old houses, lots of businesses within walking distance, the sense of a real neighborhood. We also considered more traditional suburbs, sort of, but didn’t like the idea of a gigantic lawn and no sense of street life. After tromping through dozens of Highlands homes, we realized our plan’s one crucial flaw: We liked the idea (a sense of history and lovely details) but not the reality (endless repairs and awkward floor plans).
So where can you have a brand-new house that has a manageable yard, dog parks, playgrounds and pools, and is a short walk from the dentist and the grocery store? We found it in Norton Commons, a New Urbanist development that straddles the Jefferson/Oldham county line. New Urbanism neighborhoods have sidewalks throughout and a range of housing types (condos, townhouses, small cottages and large corner houses) that feature porches and out-of-view garages, focusing residents’ attention outward instead of inward. Smaller lawns reduce the distance between neighbors.
The originators of the New Urbanism movement that began in Seaside, Fla. — civic planners Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk — designed Norton Commons, which rose from the cornfields of the former Norton family farm in late 2004 and has grown to about 500 residences, with a projected 2,800 homes over the next 12 to 15 years. Every building in the neighborhood draws from an existing Louisville style, from Italianate to Arts and Crafts. (The house we built is a riff on a classic shotgun, yet the five bedrooms are incredibly spacious compared with the one in our New York apartment.) We have restaurants, a grocery store, a wine shop, doctors offices, a nail salon, a preschool, a Pilates and yoga studio. A Catholic church and a YMCA are under construction.
Norton Commons can give me that Sesame Street feeling all over again. Recently, my daughter and I walked to the hair salon for her haircut, then we went for gelato. We stayed nearly an hour, chatting with the owner and neighbors. When it was time to head home, we bumped into some friends on the sidewalk in front of Karem’s Grill and Pub. My daughter persuaded me to hit up the playground before sunset. We managed to spend three hours just hanging out in our ’hood.
There are some downsides. Although it’s exciting to see the growth, a few businesses already have come and gone. There’s a lot of empty retail space, which means the street life is not as vibrant as it could be. There’s not really a place to get a drink after 10 p.m. — not something I need often, but I like to know it’s there. The spindly little trees feel so new. It’s camera-ready but doesn’t quite feel real yet. Sometimes I ask myself: If I like the idea of a traditional neighborhood, why didn’t I move to a traditional neighborhood?
We’re taking part in an interesting social experiment here, and we won’t know for years if it will be a success. Often, I think about the first Highlands residents when those homes were built 100 years ago. Did they feel like pioneers, kind of like I do? I like the idea of living in a place with a sense of history, but I never expected to be creating the history myself.
Photo: courtesy of Norton Commons Real Estate