Hannah Drake, a local poet, drives through Smoketown and points out the signs posted everywhere — on buildings, utility poles and billboards.
Some are glossy professional jobs, others are hand-scrawled with Sharpie — but we see the same kinds of phrases over and over again: “Cash today for diabetic test strips,” “We buy houses — cash fast!” and “Cigarettes here!”
Drake pulls up to an intersection and raises her hands in exasperation: “Do you really need both? You know?”
“We’re right at the corner of Preston and Kentucky and there’s two billboards that are for an attorney and one says, ‘Wrongful death?’ and one says, ‘Serious injury,’” she says. “And it’s for the very same company, but right on the same corner and we get it.”
Drake, whose family is from Smoketown, says the neighborhood is overrun with “predatory advertising” — a term the Institute for the Advancement of Senior Care defines as being “inclined or intended to injure or exploit others for personal gain or profit.”
And this kind of advertising can take a toll on residents. Research shows there are patterns connecting low-income neighborhoods with more predatory advertising and poor health outcomes. Though other factors influence problems like obesity and social isolation, the research suggests predatory advertising can play a role, too, by making residents feel their community isn’t safe or walkable.
Drake says she first became aware of the difference about a year ago when she was living on Taylorsville Road, close to Jeffersontown.
“And I just noticed that didn’t take place out there,” she says. “There were very few billboards and the signs that were on the street were like: ‘We have organic lawn care.’ Like, nice things.”
She sighs before flicking on her turn signal, and takes a deep breath.
“What makes us different,” she asks. “The only difference to me — and you can quote it because I said it — is the people of Smoketown are black, are people of color and are poor, and nobody cares.”
That didn’t sit right with Drake, so with the help of IDEAS xLab, a Louisville-based organization that tackles community health issues through the arts, she came up with a plan: replace the predatory advertising with poetry. The initiative is called One Poem at a Time.
First, she surveyed neighborhood residents about their feelings regarding the signage.
“I talked to Aubrey Clemons — he started Hope by Hope in Smoketown — and he said, ‘I was just so sick of these companies selling us failure,’” Drake says. “You know? And you think, people don’t notice that. But when we did the surveys, everyone noticed it.”
Then she collected positive quotes, phrases and photographs from residents, which she then turned into signs. Drake received grant funding to purchase over a dozen billboard spaces and is spending this week hanging her creations.
She points to one sign hanging over Shirley Mae’s Cafe on Clay Street, which features a cluster of young children inspecting a row of plants.
“Those are kids from YouthBuild working there,” she says. “It says, ‘We thrive when we work together.’”
Others say things like “Anything is Possible with Hope” and “If your dreams don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough.”
Though the sentiments are beautiful, Drake’s project isn’t just a beautification initiative. She says one Smoketown resident said the negative signage indicated they were living in a neighborhood with a “self-esteem problem.” Drake hopes this project can help heal some of the health effects of that — one billboard (and poem) at a time.
There will be a tour offered of the Smoketown neighborhood and the One Poem at a Time project led by Jerry Lewis Crawley. More information -— and a full list of project partners — is available here.