Curious Louisville

Louisville’s flood protection system surrounds part of the city with a network of walls, levees and pumping stations–designed to keep the Ohio River out and prevent inland flooding. In a lot of places, it’s easy to overlook. But not so much in Butchertown, where the giant concrete wall, about 18 inches thick, goes straight down the middle of Quincy Street. Like where the yellow line would normally be.

Erica Peterson | wfpl.org

Rich Kerber

It’s odd—and something you don’t see anywhere else in the city.

That’s why Curious Louisville questioner Rich Kerber wanted to know more.

“I’m curious about the floodwall that runs down the middle of Quincy Street, and I want to know what the politics and history of that are,” he said.

Turns out, this was easier asked than answered.

I spent six weeks, off and on, calling people who might have an inkling. I struck out at every turn.

Even the Courier-Journal, the city’s paper of record, only had two small mentions of the wall bisecting Quincy Street.

Courtesy Metropolitan Sewer District

Quincy Street, March 1949, before the wall was built.

One — an article from 1952 — contained a clue in a photo caption. Beneath a picture of the Quincy Street floodwall, it read “Economy dictated building wall in the street.”

That seven-word clue was it. Another story from 1949 mentions people on Quincy Street concerned about how the wall will affect their property values, but nothing further on the city’s rationale that lead to bisecting the street.

Finally, after weeks of asking around, I got a call back from someone who could shed more light on the decision.

David Lasoski is a geotechnical engineer in the Levee Safety Program with the Louisville district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. And though he wasn’t around when the wall was built in the late 1940s and 1950s, he knew how the Quincy Street section came to be.

And yes, it came down to money. Specifically, the money the city of Louisville had available to spend on the project.

“In order for the federal government to be able to use federal funds to build the levee system, the city had to provide the right of way,” Lasoski said.

Courtesy Metropolitan Sewer District

The Quincy Street wall under construction, December 1949.

The newspaper article from 1952 estimated Louisville had to spend about $2 million on getting those rights of way. But not on Quincy Street.

“They already owned the right of way, like in the center of Quincy Street,” Lasoski said. “The decision was made by the city of Louisville at that point in time to use that street as the land that the floodwall was going to be built on.”

But there was still a big unanswered question, at least for me. I couldn’t find much about how the community reacted after the decision was made to build the wall, besides that newspaper article from October, 1949.

“Residents outside the wall expect the worst, judging from Quincy St. residents, where a section is being built. “We’ll never get our money out of this house; we’re outside the wall,” commented Mrs. Marvin Morgan, 1503 Quincy. Mrs. William Bradley, at 1511 Quincy, observed, “What you’ve got in your property, you’re stuck with it.” Benny Langdon, 1538 Quincy, says, “It won’t hurt me. When the flood comes, I’ll move out.”

What about now, more than six decades later?

Todd Turner

When Todd Turner moved into his house on the street’s 1400 block five years ago, the wall wasn’t exactly a selling point. Like every other house on Quincy Street, when he opens his front door he’s staring at the wall.

“It threw us off a little bit,” Turner said. “But I think as you come to live here, there’s a little bit of a charm to it.”

A lot of the houses that used to be on Quincy Street are gone now, and Turner’s block is one of the few that’s still lined with houses on both sides. He lives on the quote-unquote “right” side of the floodwall—the side that will stay dry if there’s ever another epic Ohio River flood. For Turner, the wall adds a little more privacy.

“Also we’ve embraced it specifically here on this block,” he said. “We use the wall for a movie screen. We set up a little theater right here on the porch, invite all the neighbors who bring their chairs, and we watch usually old movies, classic movies, with a speaker and sound system and the whole works.”

So now, rather than something that divides the block, the Quincy Street floodwall has become an excuse to gather.

Thanks to Rich Kerber for submitting the question for this story. Ask a question of your own at curiouslouisville.org.

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Erica Peterson is WFPL's Assignment Editor.