The neighborhood Riverside Gardens was created as an oasis in the West End…a resort community for Louisvillians who wanted a quick, close getaway from the city. But after the 1937 flood and the rise of industry in Rubbertown, to the north, Riverside Gardens became just another subdivision. And now, the place where city dwellers used to go to get away from pollution is now surrounded on three sides by smokestacks and a former toxic dump.
Louisville was a dirty place in the 1920s.
“We had plenty of smog,” says University of Louisville archivist and Metro Councilman Tom Owen. “Coal-fired furnaces, steam locomotives powered by coal, industrial pollution. Clearly there was always the lure of the countryside. So Riverside Gardens was part of that lure to the countryside and better conditions, better air, healthier conditions.”
A rural paradise
Sharon Charles wasn’t around in Riverside Gardens’ heyday. Her family moved there in 1950, and her father and grandfather built the house she still lives in with timber from her grandfather’s land in eastern Kentucky. Even then, Riverside Gardens still felt miles away from the city.
“When we moved here it was very rural,” Charles said. “In fact, where we’re sitting now used to be an orchard.”
Riverside Gardens still feels rural, but more in the forgotten than the pastoral sense. A dozen blocks of small, mostly one-story homes sit next to the city’s flood wall. To the south, the smokestacks of Louisville Gas and Electric’s Cane Run Power Plant rise in the distance. The Lees Lane Landfill—a former toxic Superfund site—covers 112 acres on the river to the west. And on the north…Rubbertown begins.
For her whole life, Charles remembers being exposed to one strange smell after another. Millions of tons of chemicals like formaldehyde, butadiene, toluene and vinyl chloride came out of the factories. Toxic waste, lead and arsenic, were dumped into the Lees Lane Landfill, contaminating the groundwater and venting into the air.
Charles never smoked cigarettes, but the local air has taken a toll on her body.
“My lungs look…years ago my doctor told me, he said, ‘I can always tell where you’re from because your lungs are so screwed up.’ They’re scarred,” she said. “Part of that is probably due to living in the Ohio River Valley, but a lot of it is due to this area.”
Over the years, Riverside Gardens residents have battled coal ash in the air from the Cane Run power plant—and several settled a lawsuit with LG&E in 2011, though the terms are confidential. They’ve worried their drinking water wells were contaminated with chemicals leaching from the landfill. Seven homes had flash fires in the 1970s, because the landfill’s methane gas was venting into basements. And there are still odors in the air from Rubbertown.
“There’s a smell out here that smells like a mentholated cough drop and Kool-Aid mix,” Riverside Gardens resident Monika Burkhead said.
“It’s got a real sweet but menthol smell. And it will knock your socks off. And when you open your windows it’s inside your house and it takes twice as long to get it out of your house than it does outside. And nobody will take the blame for it.”
Burkhead bought her brick house in Riverside Gardens when she was seventeen years old. Or, as she describes herself: “young and dumb.” And for the past 32 years, she’s watched her daughter suffer from a litany of diseases: epilepsy, Krohn’s, kidney disease and uterine cancer. No one can tell her for sure, but Burkhead worries she inadvertently played a role in her daughter’s recurring health problems.
“It scares me. What happens to an adult, you kind of figure that’s just life,” she said. “But a child… Parents make choices, and you think you’re making the best and it comes back to bite you, then you got all this guilt the rest of your life. Because I carry a lot of guilt when I look at my daughter, to think I did this to her. Because I had choices. And I chose the wrong one.”
And many Riverside Gardens residents are stuck with those choices. Houses in the area won’t sell for enough to recoup the investment long-time residents have put into them. And Burkhead says even if she found someone to buy her home, she still couldn’t sell it.
“I couldn’t do that. I could not do that,” she said emphatically. “My conscience wouldn’t let me. I could never, ever do that to somebody. Because God forbid if something happened to one of their kids. I could not live with myself. Knowing what I know.”
So, after 37 years of life in Riverside Gardens, Burkhead is leaving and taking her house with her. Sometime this spring, she’ll put it on wheels and move it all the way to Spencer County, far from Rubbertown….from the former paradise of Riverside Gardens.Listen to the story.
Coming up on Monday: a look into the chemicals that were disposed of at the Lees Lane Landfill, and what questions still remain.
Erica’s reporting on health issues in Rubbertown was undertaken as a California Endowment Health Journalism Fellow at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism.