Listen to an obituary by WFPL’s Jake Ryan in the audio player above.
A city in transition needs a voice of reason. For a critical and all-too-brief period, Branden Klayko was Louisville’s.
Branden died Thursday evening at age 33, shortly after being diagnosed with graft-versus-host disease. He was in remission after an aggressive form of leukemia. He leaves behind a city that will forever miss his insight.
Since Branden founded the urbanism blog Broken Sidewalk in 2006, Louisville has experienced a development boom unlike much before it.
We’ve seen shiny new condo and apartment buildings pop up, many of them in the urban core. We’ve watched entire neighborhoods re-emerge and begin to thrive again — looking at you, NuLu — while serving as demonstration projects for a more history-minded, pedestrian-friendly future. We’ve finally started to think more critically as a city about the ways we move ourselves, which is essential if we’re to have a sustainable future.
Mostly, though, we’ve watched as so much of our streetscape has changed — and with it, parts of our identity.
It’s easy to get excited about change. It’s not as easy to understand what it means for us.
That’s where Branden shined.
More than any other writer working in Louisville during this period, Branden captured what our city is, has been and could be. He gave us reason to be optimistic about an uncertain future and showed us where streetscapes and buildings connect with our health and our environment. He was a skeptic and a champion. And he presented a version of our connected future that was aspirational, if only we could marshal the forces to get there.
As a writer, Branden was concise and direct, and his pieces could be definitive. I read him religiously, and I know scores of journalists and thinkers and people of influence here did, too.
It feels different now to walk around East Market Street, or to ride your bike through Old Louisville. Are we still a mid-sized city with a small-town vibe? Do we want to be that next year? In 10 years?
Those intuitions are why people here consumed Branden’s work with such vigor.
Even during the six years he lived in New York City, Branden’s writing about Louisville was on point. And by the time he came back here in 2014, Broken Sidewalk had become a critical part of my own understanding of our city in a time of fundamental change.
Branden knew and articulated better than most the essential interconnectedness of cities. He wrote about food access and insecurity in low-income neighborhoods here, and explored ways to solve it. He wrote about sustainability and environmentalism, and how they manifest in the construction of buildings.
“When you look at these issues that revolve around how cities are made, they can touch on everybody’s life in a pretty intimate way that is worth looking into and studying,” he told WFPL in 2014.
That was the essence of Broken Sidewalk, which became a robust community where people discussed and tried to understand our shared future. It was informed primarily by Branden’s enthusiasm for our city and the challenges ahead.
I loved that as much as the immense knowledge he shared. His writing was informed, thoughtful and technically savvy. It was also optimistic.
“He was not afraid to call out Louisville’s weaknesses or imperfections, or errors in judgement made by city leadership,” Porter Stevens, a Broken Sidewalk contributor, told me. “But he always had a positive, hopeful vision for Louisville’s future. He saw what a wonderful community this city could be and in many ways already was.”
We need that right now.
We must hold ourselves to a high standard as we grow and change. We need to fully understand how transformational decisions affect our lives in more subtle ways. We need to see, clearly, how and where we are connected.
On Monday night, there is a public meeting about the future of a massive empty lot in West Louisville that was once destined to be the home of the West Louisville FoodPort, a subject about which Branden wrote a signature definitive account.
This is one of those moments when the decisions we make now will have broad, lasting implications for our future. What a loss that, for the first time in more than a decade, we’ll be without Branden’s voice of reason to help us understand it.