The first thing I see when I walk into Karen Blanton’s home is a pair of rhinestone-studded ruby slippers criss-crossed on the mantle.
She leads me through the first floor of her shotgun house in Portland. It’s decorated wall-to-wall with “Wizard of Oz” memorabilia, which she has put up gradually throughout the 30 years she has owned the house.
Blanton, 63, is a lifelong Portlandian. She raised two children in this house. And over her lifetime, she says she’s grown increasingly frustrated with the way people who aren’t from the neighborhood talk about it.
“I think that most people think of Portland as someplace that’s only problems, only trash, only drugs,” she says.
That’s been a difficult reputation to shake — which Blanton readily acknowledges.
Early Sunday morning, with hundreds of people packed into the Tim Faulkner Gallery for a concert, a person began shooting. Five were wounded, and 20-year-old Savannah Walker was killed. Police have not made any arrests.
When violence breaks out in a seemingly safe venue, and when it happens to someone like Walker — a college student who appears to be doing all the right things — it’s a tragedy. But Blanton believes when it happens in Portland, blame is laid on the place, too.
“I think that what happened [at the Faulkner Gallery] gives some people more of a reason to say, ‘That’s a bad place to go,’” Blanton says, “when this happens any place in Jefferson County, any place in Kentucky, any place in the world anymore.”
Blanton isn’t the only one who feels this way. It’s such a prevalent opinion that Larry Stoess, a pastor and president of the neighborhood association Portland NOW, released a statement Monday that read, in part:
This act happened in our neighborhood and has given cause for people to rationalize or confirm their uninformed and negative opinions about Portland. I would like to remind us all that this act of violence is in no way a reflection on the character of our neighborhood or the venue where the shooting happened.
It’s common to hear people refer to Portland as a neighborhood experiencing growing pains. It’s a neighborhood where many residents want the benefits of revitalization. But it’s still often hindered by its reputation for being dangerous.
That’s a reputation well-earned: Portland had the most homicides by zip code in 2014, according to Metro Police statistics.
None of this is uncommon when it comes to areas prime for redevelopment.
And that’s where the Tim Faulkner Gallery plays a larger role in this story.
Crossing the ‘Ninth Street Divide’
Gill Holland is the founder of the Portland Investment Initiative and a driving force behind the neighborhood revitalization work.
He’s spoken since early 2013 about his goal of “looking west” to Portland. One of his first moves was to help Faulkner and gallery co-owner Margaret Archambault relocate.
“I think there’s probably been a thousand events at the Tim Faulkner Gallery since they opened three years ago,” Holland says. “And thousands of people every week coming over the ‘Ninth Street Divide,’ if you will. So it’s been a very important and impactful kind of magnet for folks on the east side of town to come west of Ninth.”
The Ninth Street Divide describes the I-64 overpass at Ninth and Main streets. For decades, it’s been a line of economic and racial demarcation in Louisville. It’s a line many people still won’t cross.
But Faulkner and Archambault created a space where they say everyone felt welcome — as Faulkner told me once, “from very blue-collar to massively underground to members of the mayor’s office.”
The night of the shooting, they were hosting a hip-hop concert. The night before, there was a folk and Americana show.
A place like that is key for revitalization: Recent research conducted by University of Cambridge graduate Desislava Hristova found the neighborhoods most likely to experience revitalization were the ones that attracted the most diverse crowds.
Fear, on the other hand, stunts that growth.
‘Trapped in an In-Between Space’
“They’re afraid of it because of what they hear on the news,” says Stephen Pate, a Portland resident. “They’re not afraid of it because they have actually spent time down here for the most part.”
Pate has owned a house on the same street as the Faulkner Gallery for several years. He says Portland is trapped in a weird in-between space. There’s growing interest in the neighborhood, but there’s also a persistent fear of violence.
“The problem will remain with Portland that there is no reason for people to come here unless they want to come here in the first place,” Pate says. “You have to really want to be here in order to come here.”
So, how do you — or how does a neighborhood — get out of that in-between space?
Stephanie Kertis, managing director of the Portland Investment Initiative, says the best thing to do is keep introducing new people to the good things happening in the neighborhood.
“We have people come over to our office, and we put them in our cars and we drive around the neighborhood and show them,” Kertis says. “Even if this is a place that maybe you had never visited before, it’s a place that’s worth paying attention to and it’s a place that has worth.”
Kertis says she and Holland give tours to anyone who asks — from high school students to out-of-town investors.
“We try to make it very casual and very easy, but we feel like people need to see it to get it,” she says. “And there’s no sense in perpetuating these barriers that have existed for so long.”
Karen Blanton agrees.
“Given the chance, people would find Portland is as welcoming and good as any other neighborhood — has nothing any worse than any other neighborhood,” she says, “and matter of fact, maybe tries a lot harder to get people to know we’ve got something down here.”
(Disclosure: Holland is a member of Louisville Public Media’s board of directors.)