The rain comes on fast, steaming off the cracked pavement in the June heat. “This damn weather,” John Owen says from my passenger seat. “Keep going unless you can’t see.” He’s giving me a guided tour of Louisville’s Portland neighborhood. It’s a big place, extending from 10th Street to beyond the Shawnee Expressway and from Market Street to the Ohio. We pass rows of dilapidated houses, the streets a swamp of spray paint and plywood. Owen says we’re in one of the worst parts of the neighborhood, the eastern end. But he’s said that elsewhere. The nice part, he says, is farther west. This sounds like a paradox to my Louisville sensibilities. If you live outside the West End, you probably harbor a reverse manifest destiny: stay east.
Owen spits off three historical facts for every place we pass: “This was a pharmacy.” “This is the original city graveyard for Louisville, founded in 1790.” “This building housed the Louisville Railway Company’s power equipment.” We take I-64 downtown, Owen remarking at how close Portland is, how convenient. “We’re already here!” he says. We reverse course and cross Ninth Street heading west, where Owen bows his head like Virgil at the gates of hell. “The minute we cross this line, the downtown-revitalization district ends,” he says.
Owen, 54, moved to Portland in the early 2000s. The retired WAVE Radio reporter says Old Louisville wasn’t right, the Highlands too expensive. Since the move, Owen has been annoying the hell out of everybody. He’s running for the Metro Council seat in District 5, which encompasses Portland and Shawnee, as a Republican against Democratic incumbent Cheri Bryant-Hamilton. His business card reads: “21st Century Ideas To Spread The Wealth.” His name shows up under headlines like “Neighbors complain of illegal liquor sales” and “Louisville residents putting up stink over delayed trash pickup.”
Owen keeps lighting the same long cigarette with a match and giving me a Grandfather History Lesson, the kind that forces you to chuckle and check the facts later.
We drive by a church on West Market, and Owen says, “This is the second St. Patrick’s church. You see the shamrocks in the windows? The first was torn down for a parking lot. This is the second. It’s a Louisville landmark. We got it listed as a Louisville landmark.”
“Who is we?” I ask.
“Oh, a few of the parishioners, Portland Now, some other people,” he says.
A couple weeks earlier, I met with Portland Now, a group of residents and activists that represents Portland. “You can talk to John Owen,” members told me. “Just don’t trust what he says.” So I called him. We talked for nearly an hour, Owen listing solutions to Portland’s problems as if reading a shopping list. He knew the neighborhood. He cared about the neighborhood. I had no idea what his true goals were. I still don’t.
I drove to his house. He got into my car like he’d known me for years, saying hello in his low, rumbling voice. He leaned back in the seat and cracked the window. His white hair was slicked to one side, motionless in the breeze. His face looked worn and tired. He smiled.
The rain comes on harder. I can’t see to drive. “Pull over here,” Owen says. The street beyond my windshield looks like dull watercolors. I ease the car behind a blurry pickup truck. To my left, a big horseshoe-shaped sign hangs off a building. It’s a bar, the Cavalier. Owen tells me that a gambler bought it after a good day at Churchill Downs and named it Lucky’s Tavern, hence the sign. I figure anywhere dry is lucky. “We’ll make a mad dash inside,” Owen says, but a shuffle is the best he’s got. We get under the big lucky sign and out of the rain, soaking wet. “You’re about to meet some real Portlanders,” Owen says. He opens the door.
“Real Portlanders” implies that there are fake Portlanders, meaning newcomers. One man I met earlier who’s lived in Portland for years told me how to spot them. “Look for the ones who wear helmets on bicycles. No way they’re from Portland,” he said before I could ask. Everyone knows why reporters are annoying people across the neighborhood: East Ender Gill Holland is polishing Portland. In March, after helping turn East Market Street into NuLu, Holland moved from his Green Building to the former Portland Boys and Girl’s Club, renamed it the Anchor Building and formed the Portland Investment Initiative. PII has a long-term, multimillion-dollar plan for the neighborhood. It goes something like this: Portland Avenue Stroll District LLC will bring new business to the Portland Avenue area; Artist Row Portland LLC will focus on revitalizing shotgun houses to increase homeownership, with Shine Contracting in charge of the construction. There are also plans for Shippingport, involving food production and apartments.
Holland successfully pitched Portland’s old warehouse district to the Tim Faulkner Gallery and the Louisville Film Society. He persuaded Karter Louis of the restaurant Hillbilly Tea to open a new location in the old firehouse on Portland Avenue. “Pork & pone” should hit Portland by the end of the year. Hillbilly Tea will be Portland’s only sit-down, independent restaurant that doesn’t sell pizza and wings. “Now you can go to another Hillbilly Tea for your favorites,” says Louis, the owner. Unlike the downtown location, the new place will always serve the staples, like chicken salad. “I lived in Portland for a year. I gained weight!” Louis says. “All I know is poor people eat too. . . I could compete and make food that will get you fat and give you diabetes and kill you. But our goal is to be approachable. I guarantee you can come to Hillbilly Tea for lunch or brunch for the cost of a McDonald’s combo.”
West End real estate values have plummeted over the last 15 years. The median value of single-family units is $27,600, compared to $123,500 in all of Louisville. Portland’s single-family housing accounts for less than 2 percent of Louisville’s, but has 10 percent of the city’s vacant and abandoned properties. Holland bought 20 homes to fix up, what he calls “urban acupuncture.” Restore the worst place on the block and you increase the value of the whole area. “Real estate is just one of the building blocks for what we really want to do,” Holland tells me over the phone. “Portland is so rich historically. Everybody knows each other. It’s diverse. It’s geographically desirable.”
But people worry about raising the cost of living. “What if the rent goes up?” says Mary Turner, a lifelong resident and member of Portland Now. “I’ve lived here for years. What if I can’t afford to live here anymore?” I ask Holland about her worries. “I understand the concern, but there are a lot of vacant properties. We’ve got 20. At this rate, it would take us 70 years,” he says. “If in 70 years we’ve filled up every gap, then we can have that conversation.”
Anna Denham, a bony woman with gray hair hanging past her shoulders, turns around on her barstool at the Cavalier and smiles at my rain-soaked face. “Honey, let me buy you a soda,” she says. Owen reaches his can of Diet Coke to me. “Feel that. Coldest beer in Portland,” he says as I unstick my fingers from the drink. Denham, 55 — “speed-limit age,” as she says — grew up in Portland with her single mother and grandparents. “Everybody knew everybody and everybody looked out for everybody,” she says. “I remember as a child you’d be corrected by your neighbors just as quick as your parents.” Denham married, moved away, divorced, came back. She moved to Las Vegas, came back; moved to Florida, came back. It’s a story I hear over and over: Portlanders come back. “This is my home; this is my people,” she says.
Forty-two percent of those people live below the poverty level, according to a January report by the Network Center for Community Change, a now-defunct nonprofit that campaigned for social change. The street outside is a corridor of barren and broken buildings. “When I was growing up, every block consisted of a restaurant, a grocery store and a bar. We did not have to leave this community,” Denham says. “Now we go to St. Matthews or Indiana. It’s sad to see Kentucky’s money lost to Indiana. I think this new development is awesome if they follow through. I hope we don’t get any more thrown-up-by-night crap. I hope we get solid buildings like we had, places that won’t be up for ruins after they fail five, six years from now. This place could be made better. So many people are poverty-stricken, and they resort to drugs and alcohol. But that’s every neighborhood; it’s just more known here. We are kept in a negative light. Live out in Prospect and you’ll get recognized. We go unnoticed. Sometimes I think the city of Louisville would prefer Portland didn’t exist.”
Owen leads me down Portland Avenue, smoking his cigarette. We step past Annie’s Pizza, which has been around for about 25 years, and under the iconic vertical sign of Shaheen’s Department Store, which opened in 1922. Kevin Shaheen, 56, shakes my hand and talks over the counter. I ask if he’s worried about new competition. “It’s great. I’m not worried about it. We can’t get run out; we own the property!” he says.
“There’s not a person in the trades that doesn’t come here,” Owen says.
“That was more so in the past than it is now,” says Shaheen, glancing at a photo of his grandfather’s baseball team on the wall. “We used to have all the Carhartt work clothes.” The store has grown into the 21st century, drawing lines out the door for the release of new sneakers.
Country music plays at Janes Brothers Hardware Store across the street. We walk over the creaky wood floor, between the narrow aisles full of buckets of nails and screws. A heavy clerk decked out in UK blue clutches a Mellow Yellow and eyes me. I meet Andy Janes, who says his father and uncle opened the store 65 or 66 years ago.
“Where is old Bob?” Owen asks. “He still playing his fiddle?”
Janes smiles at Owen and turns to me. “I think what Gill Holland is doing is positive,” he says. “Anything that helps. Gentrification could be a problem. The city’s tearing down the projects and everything. People are running out of places to go, and Portland is where they get pushed. The city’s pushing one way, and Gill Holland is pushing the other way. But I think it’ll work out great. Holland is talking about making fair and reasonable homes to own.”
Down the street, Owen opens the rusty door of the Portland Grocery. The place looks like a bunker from the outside, a bare living room on the inside. The floor is soft, and I almost knock over a sack of soda cans by the door. The owner, 64-year-old Carroll Hopewell, lounges in a fold-out chair in a stained white T-shirt. He pulls a cap down over his head, shoots me a few-teeth-short-of-a-smile grin, and shakes my hand. He’s been running the grocery for 27 years. “Who you work for? Louisville Magazine?” he says. He looks through a drawer behind the counter, pulls out a September 1990 issue of the magazine and flips to a photo of the street outside. It looks about the same as now. “You hear people talking; they’re blowing smoke,” he says. I ask about the Faulkner Gallery and Hillbilly Tea. He snickers. “You think people around here are interested in art?” he says. Owen looks at his feet. “You know what I tell people?” Hopewell says. He sucks in a great breath and puffs out his cheeks. “Don’t hold your breath. They put that stuff here, it won’t last long.” As we turn to leave, Hopewell adds, “I wish it would work.”
Stepping into the Portland Museum feels like walking underwater after the June heat outside. The lights in the exhibit go down. A man’s voice plays over a speaker. “Welcome to Portland — the land, the river and the people.”
A light goes up over a three-dimensional map of the Ohio River. Two-inch tall Native Americans spear tiny bison stuck in mud. The history of Portland plays out in miniature sets and automated voices. Lights lead to miniatures of the early town on Water Street, storefronts with French, Irish and German names. Portland joins Louisville by annexation in 1837, gains independence in 1842, joins again in 1852 — tossed in and out of Louisville at the behest of businessmen looking to take advantage of railroad routes. The presentation takes about 25 minutes.
Executive director Nathalie Andrews, a short woman with quick eyes and close-cropped gray hair, taps her fingers on her desk when I ask how Portland came to be. “In the 19th century, it was pretty rough and tumble. It was a town of boatmen,” she says. “But there was a very genteel class, a lot of European immigrants who had high hopes. They built beautiful homes.” Boats had to stop in the area and wait for the Ohio River falls to become passable. An act of the state legislature allowed people to become falls pilots, boatmen who guided vessels over the dangerous waters.
Gen. William Lytle, a developer in Cincinnati, won a considerable amount of land around Portland in a card game with Kentucky politician Henry Clay. He decided Portland needed a canal. It was finished in 1830. “Portland is a little river town,” Andrews says. But river life isn’t easy. The 1937 flood displaced thousands of people. Police officers from the East Coast, the Red Cross and the National Guard came to help. Louisville fell under martial law. Gas tanks floated down streets. Houses exploded. Soldiers beckoned families off roofs and into boats, syringes in hand. People worried about typhoid as they floated over the streets they’d walked on for years. Ninety people died. WPA workers tossed 3,000 farm animals into a mass grave. “It was devastating. People had to move out. To the Highlands, to the South End, to the East End,” Andrews says. The city built a floodwall between 1948 and 1954, cutting Portland off from the river. The neighborhood is now a peninsula of damning borders, cut off to the east by the scar of Ninth, cut off to the west by I-264, cut off from the river by the floodwall, like a child kept from an abusive parent.
“Is that it, then? How’d it go from a bustling river town to this?” I ask.
“That’s hard to answer,” Andrews says. Racial tension didn’t help. “That was another really bad policy. The Ninth Street corridor was made wide to keep black people and poor people in the West End. They were protesting for open housing, threatening to block the track at Derby. ‘We can’t have this! Let’s make a big barrier!’ We’re paying the price for a bad policy.”
Portland’s distrust of Louisville makes more and more sense as Andrews keeps talking. She brings up Portland Wharf Park. In 2000, the museum collaborated with the city’s parks department to turn the old Water Street area beyond the floodwall into a park after a successful archaeological project with the University of Louisville. “Mayor (Dave) Armstrong came to us, and we got to work in earnest,” Andrews says. “We were part of the team. A really good park-designing company made a master plan. We did engineering studies to see how much it would cost to make an entrance through the floodwall. There were hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe a million.” Things went awry in 2003, when the old City of Louisville merged with Jefferson County, forming Louisville Metro. “Then we got Metro, and we lost the parks director,” Andrews says. “There was a lot of turmoil. Everything stopped, and when it started again, there just wasn’t any backing. We didn’t have Armstrong; we had Abramson, and he just didn’t have the same feeling about it. If you don’t have the guy at the top, it just fades away.”
We talk about ways to solve Portland’s many problems. Andrews says that homeownership makes a big difference. People outside Kentucky own 9 percent of single-family homes in Portland, the same percentage that are vacant and more than triple the number of such homes in all of Louisville. “Slumlords are the real problem,” one Portlander told me.
“Personally, I think we need a stronger middle class,” Andrews says. “There’s a lot of larger housing here that requires a certain income level. Instead of turning into Section 8 housing, those could be family homes. Too much Section 8 housing is a problem, because it’s subsidized. Landlords get more because it’s subsidized, and young people who want to stay here can’t find suitable housing. What Gill is doing is good. He has a vision, and he’s putting money into that vision. I hope it goes well for us because, in a lot of ways, we are gasping.” She gets up from her desk and rummages through some documents. “About the park: This is from 1919. ‘Old Portland wharf to be made city playground . . . soon.’ Maybe it’ll happen in five years, a century later.” She laughs.
Herb Brodarick steps out of his storage building shirtless, dripping with sweat. “Hello, Herby,” Owen calls. Brodarick extends a hand past his big bare belly and gives mine a firm shake. “It’s full of junk in there,” he says, looking around for seats. We find a couple of wet lawn chairs that Brodarick dries with a shirt. Owen sparks his cigarette. I never see him with a pack, just a single smoke, like he’s always working on the same one.
Brodarick has lived in Portland for 27 years — “26 and three-quarters too many,” he says. His wife, a Portland native, wanted to move back home when he took a job as the food and beverage director at a Louisville hotel. “I make too much money to live in the f--king slums,” he told her. But Portlanders come back. “The ironic part is, 27 years later, we’re divorced and I’m the one who lives in Portland,” he says. Owen laughs. Once Portland reminded Brodarick of the Chicago neighborhoods of his youth. “It used to be like that: The people on your block knew the kids everywhere. Your neighbors corrected your kids like they were their own. It was one big family,” he says.
Brodarick ran a restaurant called the Toll Bridge Inn on Northwestern Parkway for 25 years. “I closed up last year,” he says. The three of us commiserate, sweating in the heat. “Herby was one of the founding members of Portland Now,” Owen says.
“I’m not really aligned with them at all now,” Brodarick says. “I don’t like the direction they went.” What direction is that? “Chicken shit. You probably can’t print that, huh? They don’t go after stuff like we used to.” I push him further. “When we first put the group together (in 2001), there were founders with permanent seats. There were checks and balances. They wanted to eliminate that.”
Owen perks up. “It went from a functional group to a clique,” he says.
“It’s not that they’re not trying; they just don’t know how to use their muscle,” Brodarick says.
Portland Now won a grant to award forgivable home-repair loans to residents. The organization also won a $250,000 grant to “support local business” and documented the historic structures of the old Wharf neighborhood. These accomplishments are easy to find. Talk to a member and she’ll give you a list: Portland Possibilities: 21st Century Solutions for a Historic Neighborhood. It reminds me of Owen’s card: 21st Century Ideas To Spread The Wealth. It seems that every official in Portland is worried about being stuck in the past.
I look at the cracked sidewalk, listen to the spare conversation of the three old men sitting on the porch next door, and wonder why. Every Portlander tells me the same things. Their neighbors were family. Their houses were full of people. They didn’t have money, but they had tables. They grew peach trees or apple trees so the children wouldn’t go hungry. They were poor, but they didn’t know it. Their grandparents refused to leave for care facilities; they withered and died at home. People left after the flood, people left for big houses in the suburbs, people left for the city that casts a shadow on the small-town streets at dusk. People left, but they stayed. They don’t trust new development. They yearn for new development. They hope it will change things. They’ve seen it fail before. But the thing they say most, the thing they want me to understand, the thing that makes them walk up to me on the street or lean over to me in the bar or look up at me from behind the cash-register is this: Portlanders stay.
Owen’s voice brings me back to reality. “Herb, you were a restaurateur for years. What do you think of all this development, and the Hillbilly Tea?” he says.
“Good and bad,” Brodarick says. “The work that’s going on is fine. But the part that I see, it’s all talk. You talk about construction and rebuilding and remodeling — it’s nothing.”
“Are you out here smoking with John?” someone says.
We look up at Martina Kunnecke, the president of Portland Neighborhood Planning and Preservation. (“President, not director,” she says. “It is not a paid position.”) Kunnecke, who has a warm voice and shoulder-length hair, politely refuses Brodarick’s offer for a seat. He continues. “About Hillbilly Tea: If they don’t have a chain name on them, the few people with the money to go to them won’t,” he says. “New places are going to need a lot of backup money to live. Most of my customers weren’t even from Portland. They were firefighters, city workers. There’s nothing wrong with their product, but where are their customers going to come from?” Owen nods.
When we first spoke, over the phone, Owen told me he wanted to see something like Old Louisville’s Burger Boy Diner in Portland. “They’re opening a gelato place. Do you know how many people I’ve had to explain what gelato is?” he said.
“I disagree about Hillbilly Tea,” Kunnecke says. “I think you need a blend. You need the greasy spoon for folks who are here. But you also need things that draw other kinds of people. The healthiest communities are diverse communities. When you have a neighborhood where people of all economic groups live together, you have a dynamic neighborhood.” I ask her about gentrification. “That’s a problem all over the country,” she says. “Everyone misses the point that that is the natural inclination when folks come in and try to rebuild and take over old places. In a place like Portland, where people have very strong views and love their community, it’s possible to be different.” She looks at Brodarick and Owen, smiles. “Don’t you all be running people off,” she says.
Birdy the cat curls up under my chair in the Faulkner Gallery. Tim Faulkner, gallery director Margaret Archambault and I are sitting around a small table in the middle of the vast main gallery, the heart of the 26,000-square-foot building in Portland’s old warehouse district. Thirteen studios take up the front and a 1,500-person-capacity event space dominates the back. McQuixote Books and Coffee will soon open at the gallery’s entrance.
Faulkner looks at the cat, says, “She’s like everybody else; she comes in here and hangs out for hours.” Abstract paintings on velvet hang in the main gallery. They look celestial, galaxies hanging in the choked air. There’s no air-conditioning yet. A series on Greek myths catches my attention. Prometheus, Lady Godiva, Hercules. Then I start looking at tags instead of art: $6,000, $4,000, $12,000.
“The general resident in Portland isn’t going to come in and spend $1,000 on a painting,” Faulkner says.
“A person with $1,000 in their pocket and a person with one dollar in their pocket can appreciate the same painting equally,” explains Archambault.
The two lean back in their chairs, nose rings glinting. Faulkner runs his hand over the tattoo of birds flying up his neck. The gallery/concert venue/event space is not a place for fine wine and cheese. It’s all a part of Faulkner’s mantra: I can do what I want. He can make a gallery without pretention, he can smoke in his own building and he can move from Butchertown to Portland. So can Archambault. They both live in the neighborhood.
“It was daunting. We had to find something quickly. This is a far better location. And why not?” Faulkner says. “This is going to happen no matter what, whether Gill does it or somebody else.”
“Everybody said we were nuts,” Archambault says. “When we opened our first show, on Feb. 23, we were packed. More work sold than ever before. Collectors come, and they keep coming. There’s a whole city over here that we’ve ignored. Since we’ve been here, people keep coming in to check it out.”
“And it’s not something like, ‘Oh, that’s unique; let’s go.’ It’s totally different. People are coming because they want to come,” Faulkner says.
Archambault leans forward, rests her elbows on her knees. “The rumors and the stigma is there. You think you’re going to get shot. Well, no one has bothered us. I have had more negative experiences in the Highlands. People look at the dilapidated buildings and use that as a visual cue, but in reality, there’s an opportunity here to expand our city,” she says.
The gallery is holding a benefit for the Portland Neighborhood House, a nonprofit that works with Portlanders ages six weeks to 100. (“There are kids who won’t get to eat otherwise, and they live in the shadow of the Aegon Building,” Neighborhood House development director Denise Spears says, mentioning the downtown skyscraper that recently changed its name to 400 West Market.)
“Everyone knows that public schools across the country are losing funding for the arts. How much artistic education do you think these kids are getting?” Faulkner says. “We want to engage the community. And, so far, I haven’t had anyone from Portland come up to me and say, ‘Get the f--k out.’ There are no real sit-down restaurants in Portland. With the exception of the gas stations on 27th Street, there’s no place to get a cup of coffee. Louisville likes to tout itself on keeping local, but this is an opportunity. If we don’t do it, some corporate entity is going to sweep in here. Is that what the neighborhood wants? Keep Louisville weird? Don’t just buy the goddamn bumper sticker. Portland deserves to stand on its own two feet. Some people aren’t supportive, but that’s everywhere. ‘I don’t want you coming into my neighborhood and changing it.’ Well, I’m not trying to. And I don’t care. I can go where I want.”
I park my car on the corner of 34th Street and Rudd Avenue. It’s midday. My car’s thermometer reads 90 degrees. I sweat through my shirt as I wander past Portland Elementary School toward Cedar Grove Court. The only people outside are three young boys who ignore me. I pass backyard treehouses, a rainbow flag, charcoal grills. A suit of armor shines on a front porch. No chain-link barbed-wire fences. The shotguns here have fresh paint. One on Northwestern Parkway looks like a hacienda. The homes have only one thing in common: Almost all of them have no-trespassing signs. The rest have warnings reading, “Beware of Dog.”
The three boys shoot me a look and disappear over the floodwall berm. I sit down on the curb, stare at the hill. “That’s a big no-no in Portland,” a lifelong resident once told me. “You don’t go over the floodwall.” I think about what Brodarick and Denham and Owen and many more Portlanders told me. You’d be corrected by your neighbors as quick as your parents. Then I think about wearing a helmet when I ride my bicycle. No way they’re from Portland. I am not a neighbor. I am an outsider. This is going to happen no matter what, Faulkner said. Don’t hold your breath, Hopewell said. I imagine people riding bicycles down the deserted, baking street. They wave to one another. A few stop at the corner and drink bottled water. They ride and wave and drink.
I can’t tell if they wear helmets.
Written by Dylon Jones. Images courtesy of Aaron Kingsbury.
This article appears in the August issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here.