Louisville’s Portland neighborhood is starting to look like the new NuLu—the next previously-overlooked historic Louisville neighborhood ripe for redevelopment and preservation.
Real estate developers are buying old buildings to renovate. Artists, galleries, chic restaurants and creative class nonprofits are moving in. And some current residents and community activists are concerned that the historical and architectural character of Portland is worth more to developers than the human character of the historically working-class neighborhood.
Within the past month, the upscale-casual restaurant Hillbilly Tea and boutique coffee and pastry shop Please & Thank You have announced that they will be opening new locations in the neighborhood, which doesn’t currently have a non-chain, sit-down restaurant.
Both built their customer bases east of Ninth Street. Will they have the same success in Portland, where 46.7 percent of current residents live below the poverty line?
Debra Richards Harlan is active in Portland Now, the neighborhood association formed in 2001 to improve the community and address residents’ issues and concerns.
She said she thinks it will take time for higher-end establishments to gain a foothold, and they won’t all succeed.
“Change is good, and I think you have to make a stab at change. But do I think it’s all going to be successful in the immediate future? No. You don’t have the critical mass—you don’t have it on East Market,” said Harlan, who has been involved in inner-city neighborhood redevelopment since 1977, and has worked as a city government liaison to Butchertown and Portland in the past.
“Yes, Please & Thank You is very successful for coffee, but they’re the only game on the street. But by the same token, if you don’t try new things, there’s no catalyst.”
Harlan said she doesn’t think those businesses have the local clientele to support them in Portland—an “income gap” means Portland neighbors may not be looking for a high-quality $5 cup of coffee.
Hillbilly Tea owner Karter Louis is keenly aware of the income disparity between the demographic served at their downtown location and the demographic in the Portland neighborhood. But he says he plans on catering first to the neighborhood, not visitors.
“It’s not about the money. It’s about being a catalyst for change,” Louis said.
Louis has lived in the West End and says he’s excited to provide residents with an affordable, sit-down dining experience. And he said he’s committed to hiring from within the neighborhood.
While Louis may be committed to community involvement, others worry about how new and longtime residents will integrate.
Judy Schroeder, a fourth-generation Portland resident who moved back to the neighborhood in the ‘70s to raise her family, said Portland has always strived to be diverse economically and racially.
“There were challenges in becoming a racially diverse community, and there will be challenges in becoming economically diverse as new businesses come in,” Schroeder said. “That doesn’t worry me, though. I hope the new residents and businesses respect Portland’s history. There is a lot more to integration than just living in the same neighborhood.”
Artists Are Relocating
Like artisanal coffee and boutique restaurants, artists are finding new homes in Portland. The Louisville Film Society relocated from Nulu to the warehouse district over the winter, and Tim Faulkner Gallery recently moved to the same corner of Portland from Butchertown, where they were butting heads with neighbors over noise issues.
May 31 marked the grand opening celebration of the Tim Faulkner Gallery event space. Blue Moon Circus members flecked the crowd exploring the multi-purpose cultural center—part book store, part art gallery, and part performance venue.
Gallery director Margaret Archambault and owner Faulkner sidestepped a performer roller-blading through the center of the warehouse as they explained what drew them to their new location at 1512 Portland Avenue.
“We called Gill Holland and asked him for advice about how to deal with some zoning issues in the Butchertown location, and he said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to just not have those issues?’” Archambault said.
Gill Holland, the mastermind behind the transformation of downtown’s East Market Street area into trendy NuLu, has spoken since early 2013 about his goal of “looking west” and revitalizing Louisville’s Portland neighborhood. Shortly after that phone conversation, Faulkner and Archambault took a drive with Holland to look at some warehouses in the Portland area. They liked what they saw—an affordable, historic neighborhood with plenty of space to breathe.
“I think that there are going to be massive changes within the next year, actually,” Faulkner said. “I have no doubt. Change is coming, whether people like it or not. And it can either be done the wrong way, or we can do it this way and keep it very internal.”
Mr. Holland’s House
Holland’s new office is in the Anchor Building, formerly known as the Boy’s and Girl’s Club of Portland. It’s a large, poorly ventilated brick structure, with the windows mostly barred and covered, leaving only slivers from the interior to look out over Portland Avenue. This is where he starts his neighborhood tours to potential investors, business owners like Faulkner, and young professionals looking for homes. He figures he leads 20-25 tours a week.
“[Portland has] got this great history—these great historical bones. It has survived so long, and just needs a little love, and I thought I could help be the catalyst to revitalize the Portland neighborhood,” Holland said.
(Disclosure: Holland is a member of Louisville Public Media’s board of directors.)
“Catalyst to revitalize” can sound like gentrification, and that’s a word that evokes a strong response.
“Gentrification, I agree, is a dirty word,” he said.
But Holland is adamant that the neighborhood won’t completely change hands overnight—out of the 1,400 vacant or abandoned properties in Portland, he and his partners bought 20 over the last year.
“At that rate, it will take us 70 years to just fill up the empty properties. So we’re not trying to displace. We want people to stay here,” he said.
Well, not everyone. Holland wants to see “the nefarious, the drug dealers and the folks doing meth in the empty buildings out” while supporting long-time, family-owned neighborhood businesses like Shaheen’s and Jane Bros. Hardware, and adding more jobs for current residents.
Holland said that for every person who agrees to invest in or move into Portland, there are probably 99 who think he is insane. It’s a prejudice that Holland hopes to eventually squelch by promoting positive news coverage of the neighborhood, and then eventually removing the Ninth Street overpass—a physical barrier that has become the emblem of a mental barrier for many Louisville residents.
Portland Wasn’t Always a Longshot
Originally a thriving river port which facilitated economic and residential development in the early 19th century, the neighborhood continued to be a flourishing working class community into the 1930s.
Portland native and acclaimed historian Rick Bell sheds some light on what transformed this neighborhood into one of Louisville’s most economically challenged areas.
The Great Flood of 1937 devastated the area—the wharf was submerged under 30 feet of rushing water for nearly a month, and the city declared the site unlivable and promised a park would be built there instead, and the floodwall system ended up delayed by World War II. Industries began to move out of the neighborhood to higher ground.
“Originally, many of the factory owners and managers lived near their work place, and [after that] they began to move to newly developing areas like St. Matthews,” Bell said.
“Workers began moving to the newly established community of Shively, called New Portland by many residents, and neighborhood institutions like local churches, stores and other commercial enterprises began shutting down or moving out,” Bell said.
Manufacturers such as General Electric began being build in Louisville’s suburbs, and Portland residents began to gravitate to those areas—and the neighborhood’s wealthy homeowners began to leave too, Bell said.
Bell said neighborhood developments are “encouraging,” but also encourages the community to recognize what was already in Portland before last year.
“Unlike new creations like Norton Commons, we do not need to create a fictional heritage for—we come equipped with one already,” he said. “I hope that developers will show some sensitivity to what is already there and build upon our legitimate traditions and customs.
“I would wish that some of the existing assets in Portland would get the kind of public support they deserve.”
Holland, for his part, stressed his commitment to community involvement through his nonprofit work with The Portland Investment Initiative, The Compassion Building, and The Shipping Port Memorial Garden.
Holland said he’s “not so much about real estate”—about the owning and leasing of buildings.
“I enjoy fixing up historic buildings because I think it revitalizes our heritage,” he said. “But really, we’re about community building, and the only way you community build is by using the local families, the local neighbors, the local assets, the local businesses, and starting from there, so we’ve spent a lot of time meeting with neighbors and talking with neighbors, and hearing what people want.”
On the Outs With the In & Out
Despite Holland’s claims, some Portland residents feel he could do more to include them in the process.
Just down Portland Avenue, a few blocks from Holland’s office, is the In & Out Dairy Mart. It’s an old-fashioned corner convenience store and ice cream shop, often favored over the Dollar General by residents. Customers congregate by the small, cluttered counter and talk; increasingly about the changes happening in Portland. And everyone coming into the In & Out picks up The Portland Anchor, the neighborhood’s free weekly newspaper since 1972.
One man in particular (who asked not to be named) stood by the counter, flipping through a copy. He said that The Anchor, as it’s known, is a main means of communication for residents, and could serve as a vehicle for Holland to communicate with the residents about the changes taking place in the neighborhood.
Many residents felt excluded from the planning process, he said, with few aware of if or when community meetings with Holland take place. That leaves them feeling nervous about their future.
Lack of communication, or feeling outside the planning process, was a common complaint in talking with Portland residents. It’s also one that Nathalie Andrews, executive director of The Portland Museum, feels could be easily remedied.
“We like to have big working-session meetings, not too many of them, but you get food and somebody like the mayor to sponsor the meeting. You get a good facilitator, and you can get people to really think about the issues,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of success with that in the past—in planning for Portland Wharf Park or creating a cultural plan for Portland.”
“And I’d like to see that here, because once people get their fears or questions out, then you can answer them, and people can get involved,” she added.
‘What’s Worse Than Gentrification?’
The Portland Museum, Portland Now and other community organizations have been working on neighborhood revitalization for years. But Holland’s presence has driven a level of interest from outside the zip code that previous efforts haven’t matched.
“The only difference [now] is that one person has put it in the public eye,” said Mary Turner, a long-time Portland resident who’s active in Portland Now. “While change comes either with or without approval, my only concern is that the people who live here will not benefit from the change.”
Turner said she hopes current residents are included in development plans, and that their feelings and thoughts are taken seriously by developers. And she shares one of the big concerns long-time residents have when their neighborhoods become the target of revitalization—will she be able to afford to stay?
“I personally worry that I will no longer be able to stay in Portland if housing costs go up because Portland is ‘the place to be,’” she said. “There has been a continuous fight to make this neighborhood a good place for those that live here and those that move in.
“It just has not been publicized. As long as the people who want to continue to live here can, I don’t think it will be an issue.”
Displacement is a fear often associated with urban revitalization or, as some may call what is happening in Portland, “gentrification”— a term coined by British sociologist Ruth Glass in 1964 to describe the influx of middle-class people moving into urban London neighborhoods.
Yet John Gilderbloom, the director of the University of Louisville’s Center for Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods, explains that the changes taking place are not necessarily negative for current Portland—nor is displacement a given.
“What’s worse than gentrification? No gentrification,” he said. “Our studies indicate that while there is money and capital flowing back into central cities, the majority of these neighborhoods are getting poorer; while a few select ones with good, historic preservation of old houses, that are mixed racially, with mixed incomes, are doing well.
“We should be applauding these plans in Portland.”
Gilderbloom points to research done in East Russell, a West End neighborhood that, like Portland, declined as middle-class residents moved to other areas of the metropolitan region. With little investment, low homeownership, and scarce opportunity, the community was plagued by high poverty, unemployment, crime, homelessness and school dropouts.
In 1992, a collaboration involving the University of Louisville, local businesses, foundations; philanthropic groups, local unions, non-profit organizations and federal, state, and city governments began to revitalize the neighborhood. With the help of $3.5 million in federal grants and a matching donation of $1 million from local organizations, the partnership has supported the construction or refurbishing of more than 600 homes.
In East Russell, crime was cut by one-half and property values went up with the development of mixed-income housing on empty lots, Gilderbloom said.
“And in this predominately black neighborhood—92 percent black— nobody can document any blacks or poor people that have been deemed as displaced,” he added. “Some have been lifted up, and many actually ended up buying houses, which they didn’t have the opportunity to do before, thanks to partnerships that helped establish low-interest loans and other creative financing to provide former rental tenants with affordable 30-year mortgages.”
‘They Just Don’t Fit In Here’
But back at The In & Out Dairy Mart, the man flipping through The Anchor was particularly concerned about an article in another newspaper. On May 9, The Courier-Journal covered Holland’s vision for “21st Century Shotgun Homes.” These new, decidedly modern, architectural developments are slated be built alongside historic shotguns in line for preservation.
“To me, they look like boat trailers on stilts. And to each his own, but they just don’t fit in here,” he said. “I think [Holland] is from a whole different world—wealthier people always are—coming into ours.”
And therein lies, perhaps, the largest barrier to long-standing change in Portland—two men living and working down Portland Avenue from each other, seemingly existing a world apart. It’s a dilemma most concisely and eloquently restated by Wendy Balas, the managing director of the Portland Museum.
“I recently saw a headline asking about Gill Holland’s Portland initiative, ‘If he builds it, will they come?’” Balas said. “And I think the real question is, ‘If he builds it, will they stay?”