Clarence Montgomery sits in the shell of his home on Dr. W. J. Hodge Street in Louisville’s Russell neighborhood. Montgomery is 68 years old, has lived around Russell for decades and is known as “Mr. Mike” to the neighborhood kids. He often cleans up after neighbors, chastises troubled youth and fixes bikes.
“I take care of the kids’ bicycles because their daddies are out here on dope,” Montgomery said. “[The dads] ain’t got a screwdriver, wire, pliers or nothing. All they’ve got is a habit.”
Montgomery’s house burned down last year. He was at a friend’s house when his neighbor called, telling him robbers had broken in, stealing his valuables. Then the robbers set his home of more than 30 years on fire.
“Why?” Montgomery asked. “You got in and got my stuff, why do you got to burn my house down?”
Arson investigators haven’t found the culprits. Montgomery now lives outside the neighborhood and has spent the past year rebuilding. He’s one of many affected by the burgeoning violence in Russell, reflected through bullet holes marking the charred remains of his house.
A Growing Murder Problem
Since 2003, 116 people have been murdered in Russell, which is bordered by West Market to the North, Roy Wilkins Avenue to the East, Broadway to the South and 32nd Street to the West.
That means this neighborhood, which covers only 1.4 square miles, accounts for 11 percent of all the murders in Louisville for that time period. Russell’s murder count is also higher than any of the other 68 neighborhoods in the city. Shawnee, directly west of Russell, has the second-largest toll with 73 people killed from 2003 to present.
And Russell residents say 2017 has been their worst year yet.
So far this year, eight people have been murdered in the neighborhood — twice the number of killings at this point last year. And considering that August and October are historically the deadliest months in the neighborhood, Russell is on track to break its record of 15 murders, set in 2004.
For Louisville, Russell exemplifies violence besieging the city. Louisville is currently on track to break last year’s deadly record of 116 murders.
And the death toll includes innocent people, too. One of those was seven-year-old Dequante Hobbs Jr., who was killed in May. He was struck by a stray bullet while he ate a snack in his kitchen. Dequante’s death struck a chord with many Russell residents, signifying the increasing violence and indiscriminate killing.
‘The best thing to do is run’
Such brutality is familiar to Tysanna Dozier, 39, who lives a block from Dequante Hobbs’ house. Dozier’s a certified nursing assistant who moved to Russell in 2000. She said Russell was nice when she first moved in; neighbors were kind, looked after each other and often gathered to shoot fireworks together. It was supposed to be the neighborhood where she raised her family.
Instead, Russell has changed to a place where she’s scared reporting gang violence could get her killed.
“It’s been hell … we’ve got the young dudes out here all day long — pants hanging, drug actions … we’ve got people that’s scared to talk or say something to them because these guys do have guns,” Dozier said. “We could fight them out of this neighborhood, but I don’t see anybody sticking up. So the best thing to do, I guess, is run.”
Two worn, beige lawn chairs stand sentry on Dozier’s porch. A small swimming pool next to her house offers her kids reprieve and relief from the summer sun.
Yards away, Clarence Montgomery’s house, accessorized with three bullet holes, sits idly. Further away, memorial balloons float silently, tethered to Dequante Hobbs Jr.’s porch. Dequante was friends with Dozier’s sons, who have now seen three people killed near their home.
“Every time I think about [Dequante’s death] I tear up because my son is eight,” Dozier said. “I’ve got to get out of the West End. I’ve got to get my babies out of here.”
Montgomery has seen a lot of violence, too. He saw friends die during his service in Vietnam and now they’re dying in Russell.
One of those friends was 62-year-old Lonnie Bard. Bard died after he was found unresponsive, beaten and robbed in an alley near Montgomery’s house.
“There’s so much going on around here — this one area that you’re in — it’s crazy,” Montgomery said. “Every time I turn around, my house is roped off.”
These days, for people like Dozier and Montgomery, Russell’s become a den of violence. But it wasn’t always this bad.
The Russell neighborhood was described as “Louisville’s Harlem” in the 1960s, boasting black-owned businesses and newspapers, dozens of churches and the first library opened to blacks nationally. But then, Russell began changing. Wealthy blacks moved out to the suburbs as integration opened up other neighborhoods; factories and businesses shut down, reducing job opportunities.
Lucille Leggett, 98, witnessed that change and its aftermath. Originally from Mobile, Alabama, Leggett said she worked with Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights movement. She moved to Louisville in 1985 to teach in Russell.
“It was quiet, livable, clean,” she said of the neighborhood. “And churches were just springing up.”
But poverty hit Russell hard.
A 2014 study by the now-defunct Network Center for Community Change found more than half of Russell’s population lived in poverty that year. That was more than six times the national average. Blacks made up 87 percent of the population then and whites comprised about eight percent.
Now, many houses lie abandoned and trash bins overflow. And as time progressed, Leggett saw changes in murders, too.
“When I was little, blacks were cutting each other with pocket knives … now they want guns,” Leggett said.
Often, the violence wakes her at night.
“I think I’m taking a break – here come the fire department and the police,” she said. “‘Pow, pow, pow,’ right on the next street, they’re shooting.”
For Many, Russell Is Home
Some — like Tysanna Dozier — plan to leave Russell. Others can’t afford to live anywhere else. But for many, like Leggett, the neighborhood is home.
Some of Russell’s streets are quiet, silent save for the droning cicadas and zooming cars. On many of them, abandoned homes, boarded and branded with graffiti, keep watch through broken windows.
Other streets are lively; kids walk around with a basketball or toys in hand, waving to adults people-watching from their porches’ shade. Mansions built in the late 1800s still stand. Many are on the National Register of Historical Places. And the neighborhood is situated immediately west of downtown, putting it in close proximity to many jobs and cultural offerings.
To cure the violence, residents propose different treatments. Some suggest giving youth an outlet to keep them busy and away from crime. Others suggest kicking out alleged drug dealers and gang members.
Mark Weidekamp said the neighborhood is ripe with potential.
Born and raised there, Weidekamp, 61, remembers the Russell of his childhood as a tight-knit community where residents protected each other and cleaned their streets. He said that lifestyle is gone, but Russell’s location and housing market make it an ideal investment. To restore the neighborhood, making its parks safe, its violence minimal and housing profitable, Weidekamp said good residents must stay to maintain their properties and teach their kids. And the bad residents, such as those who sell drugs and promote gang violence, must go.
“We need the people that see these crimes happening to step forward, and we need the community around them to support them if they step forward, to say ‘we want a better place to live,’” Weidekamp said. “We’ve got enough of the right people that can be here, but we need them to stay.”
Some Russell residents — like Tysanna Dozier — plan to leave.
But 98-year-old Lucille Leggett plans to stay; she said she’s established herself here and can’t imagine finding connections like those she’s made in Russell.
Clarence Montgomery is rebuilding his house now, but, like Dozier, he’s done living in Russell. He plans to rent out his house to veterans. Montgomery hopes residents speak up and make things better because, he said, “this is my neighborhood.”
“When I got home [from Vietnam], I said, ‘man, I’m going to make a difference,’” Montgomery said. “I might give out sometimes, but I’m never going to give up.”