Interstates in Louisville: An Oral History

As the Ohio River Bridges Project moves slowly forward, and as the opposition shows no signs of weakening, WFPL takes a look back at the first time highways were built in Louisville.

In this oral history, our experts recount a story of urban destruction, power plays, citizen activism and the pursuit of progress. The guests are:

  • Tom Owen, a Metro Councilman, historian and archivist
  • Carl Kramer , an urban historian, professor and head of the Institute for Local and Oral History and Indiana University Southeast
  • Branden Klayko, a Louisville urbanist, editor of the blog Broken Sidewalk, editor for The Architect’s Newspaper and leader of the new nonprofit City Collaborative.

Part One: What was Louisville like before the interstates?

Kramer: It was a largely industrial city. Heavy industry.

Owen: The one word that comes to mind is contiguous. That is, streetscapes were consistent.

Kramer: The center of downtown was Fourth and Broadway. Main Street and the riverfront were a backwater, if you will.

Owen: We had a history of abandonment or intense industrial use. If you had gotten off the Belle of Louisville in 1947 or 1949, you would have seen a jumble of brick buildings in various forms of decline.

Kramer: The city was also experiencing considerable suburban growth during the years after World War II.

Owen: We came out of World War II smelling like a rose. Economically and industrially king on the hill. A family may or may not have had an automobile. In many cases, increasing numbers did have an automobile.

Kramer: They saw the benefits that the war had brought in terms of economic development and they wanted to sustain those developments. And the highway and other transportation improvements were very much a part.

Part Two: East to West…Interstate 64 avoids Indiana and cleans up the waterfront

Kramer: The original plan for I-64 was to bring it across the Ohio River, through Southern Indiana. Community leaders at the time saw that and said, “We can’t have I-64 going over into Indiana.” 

Owen: I’m more aware of a location for 64 through Seneca and Cherokee parks. There was a massive opposition in an organization called Save Our Parks.

Kramer: Controversy always accompanies highway and bridge construction projects.

Owen: Whenever there was reaction, there was always this trump card that was played by the highway officials…”Do you want us to go around your city?” You say that and the downtown boosters say, “Oh!” The promoters of tourism say, “Oh!” So it was easy, easy to get a broad-based popular consensus that said, “Oh, it’s not such a big deal to build a wall through existing, established downtown neighborhoods or downtown itself.”

Kramer: But then, where to put it? One, they could’ve tied in with the Watterson, but that would’ve kept it considerably to the south. The other two, as I understand it, were to bring it across the riverfront or take it through the area immediately south of downtown, which was Old Louisville. Again, context is important here. Revitalization of Old Louisville hadn’t started yet. Nobody knew that about Old Louisville.

Owen: There was nothing pretty about the waterfront.

WFPL: So to a degree 64 cleared out a lot of the waterfront?

Owen: Cleared out the waterfront by going over the waterfront. It was elevated, no question.

Kramer: It resulted in the revitalization and the total reconstruction of the downtown waterfront.

Owen: The interstate on the waterfront, with its exits, pushed hotels, pushed arenas, pushed museums toward the north, rather than the south end of downtown. Now we struggle with what it means to have a downtown that still goes to Broadway and how to revitalize it and how to create densities and synergies and activities.

Part Three: North to South…Interstate 65 brings a new bridge, a big curve and the urban renewal double-whammy

Kramer: One of the important stories for the north-south expressway, which then became I-65 was that it came through the center of the city. The original plan was that it would come to the Clark Memorial Bridge. The Central Kentucky chapter of the American Institute of Architects said the expressway coming down Second Street would just divide downtown in two. It was at that time the proposal came up to swing the expressway east toward Campbell Street and cut across the river there. That plan was finally adopted, and that of course became the Kennedy Bridge.

Klayko: If you look at where the highway turns around Hospital Curve and winds its way over to the Kennedy Bridge, the diagonal highway running through the grid, that’s just about the most destructive thing thing you can do. It clears a larger swath of land when the highway runs diagonally through a grid.

Owen: You talk about clearing for interstate highways, well then just add a second dimension: The clearing for urban renewal. Just massive clearing of downtown, near downtown sites. The two in combination totally rearranged the streetscape.

Klayko: You can look at historic aerial views of the city and see that there is nothing left.

Owen: When you build a mountain. I-65 is on an earthen mountain. When you do that, you are building a wall, a psychological wall that divides neighborhoods. But go Market Street or Jefferson Street downtown. The underpasses on Market Street under I-65, the underpasses on Jefferson Street under I-65, no one denies that psychologically the center city, the downtown, is separated from the health sciences center. It is a barrier. It is a significant barrier. It is an isolation. It is a desolation. It is a dullness. It is not the contiguous urban streetscape. And it was done without any sensitivity to this issue.

Kramer: One of the things you hear people say, “How could they have built Spaghetti Junction that way? It’s bad design.” I say, “No, it’s not a matter of bad design because Spaghetti Junction was never designed. It was just built.

Part Four: Into the future…Widening 65

WFPL: Do you think that could be a problem with the new project, if the interstate is widened through downtown?

Klayko: It’s really going to further separate what’s going on in East Market Street in NuLu and what’s going in the eastern part of Downtown around Slugger Field. If someone’s going downtown to enjoy vibrant street life, they’re not going to be sitting on a street cafe underneath a highway or in the shadow of a highway. It’s not what you think of when you think of a vibrant downtown. If you can bring activity up on each side, the more activity you have there, the less you’re going to notice the highway. But as it stands we’re losing potential activity, and it’s going to make its presence felt even more, the highway. 

Owen: Our city right now is on the cusp of spending $13 million. What are we doing with that money? We are building pedestrian-oriented infrastructure underneath the underpasses on Market Street, connecting the NuLu district with the city center west toward Downtown.

Kramer: It’s a question in the long-term of tradeoffs. What do you give up to get something better? People are going to disagree what those comparative benefits are. When I was executive director of the Clark County Planning Commission, I was probably the first person—certainly the first person in Indiana—who looked at the data and said…”The data justifies a downtown bridge.” Change is a constant in urban life. One thing I can be absolutely assured of is that 30 or 40 or 50 years after, the people are going to say “They’re crazy! Why did they do that?” and they will be right. I’m equally certain, based upon experience, that every time you do something like that, they’re right. Needs change. You respond to needs at the time and the future as you understand it. If you don’t, nothing happens.

Owen: I’m not sure interstate madness has gone away in major cities of America. I would like to think it has and I would like to think America can return to a model where we don’t depend on the automobile being either lowered or raised above the streetscape, that’s the interstate model. It’s going to be with us a long time I think. I think the automobile, for the foreseeable future, is going to be the American experience. 

Gabe Bullard

Gabe Bullard is the director of news and editorial strategy.

@gbullard

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