The Kentucky Derby is always an exciting time in Louisville, as locals and visitors converge for the most exciting two minutes in sports. It’s also a financial catalyst: the race, and events created around it, are estimated to generate upwards of $400 million for the city.
But that wealth isn’t distributed equally; over the past decade or so, several Derby events in west Louisville neighborhoods have been cancelled, leaving some residents to feel alienated from Louisville’s signature event.
Local entertainer and playwright Marjorie Marshall said the Kentucky Derby used to be a community event, but has become exclusively for the wealthy. She grew up in the West End and remembers “cruising Broadway,” an event which brought Derby visitors through the city’s downtown and western neighborhoods. There, people showed off their fancy cars, ate vendors’ food and celebrated.
“This time of day, on Derby week, these streets would be overflowing,” Marshall said. “You could smell the food, you could hear the laughter, you could hear the music. This place was vibrant.”
It was also an opportunity for vendors to make money — selling hats, T-shirts and food to visitors with money from across the globe. But shootings and security threats prompted the city to officially ban Derby cruising in 2006. Since then, Marshall said neighborhoods in the West End have felt cut off from the city at this time of year.
“[Derby has] become a[n] economic powerhouse for the rich and the famous, not for the everyday people who still get taken advantage of,” Marshall said. “We don’t get an opportunity to take advantage of the economic energy and synergy that comes into the city.”
Marshall said she never experienced violence during the Derby cruising, but she said the city should have increased security and safety measures instead of shutting the event down.
And combined with the end of the Screaming Eagles Motorcycle Club’s block parties, which residents say ended around five years ago, locals say there’s not much of an opportunity to celebrate and make money around the Derby.
Keeisha Stroud, a customer at Scruples Hair Deziners in the Russell neighborhood, said these block parties electrified the neighborhood during Derby week, bringing people into the neighborhood and giving residents a chance to earn money. But she said violence also prompted the club to end those parties, and she feels residents “kind of got our joy stolen.”
Reese Malone agrees. He said the Screaming Eagles’ event was fun and gave the neighborhood something to come together for during the Derby. For him, it was an essential part of his childhood which his kids won’t get to experience.
“Everybody would go hangout, buy T-shirts, sell T-shirts, dance, party, eat, drink, all of that,’” Malone said. “That was actually something where the city came together.”
Malone said it’s been five years since Screaming Eagles held their block party events — Stroud said the roar of those motorcycles signified Derby time in the West End for her. And it has been years since the city outlawed cruising Broadway.
University of Louisville Business Professor Nat Irvin said that lack of revenue during large-scale city events can hurt businesses and residents’ relationship with the city.
Irvin, who is also the Associate Dean for Thought Leadership and Civic Engagement at the University of Louisville’s College of Business, said when communities lose money-making opportunities like cruising Broadway, it hurts small businesses and leaves residents with a “bad taste in their mouths.”
He compared the situation to parking hustles for residents living near Churchill Downs. Those residents have traditionally charged Derby-goers to park on their property, but changing traffic routes and regulations have made it more difficult to get to their lots and took their opportunity to make money.
“There are different ways that people are able to make money — to be able to take advantage of the celebration that we all enjoy this time of year. But it does not distribute itself evenly,” Irvin said. “People look at it as being one more indication of how big systems work against little people.”
The city could fix things, Irvin said, by working with residents to ensure they generate money from the event too.
Jean Porter, a spokesperson for Mayor Greg Fischer, said there are still events which are accessible to residents in the West End.
“The Kentucky Derby Festival offers so many free and low-cost events that draw people from every neighborhood in our city,” Porter said in an e-mail, citing two events held in the West End as examples. “Just look around tomorrow, and you’ll find family, business and neighborhood gatherings all around the city in celebration of the Derby. You’ll also find businesses and individuals throughout the city benefiting financially from the influx of visitors.”
But for Marjorie Marshall, the damage has been done. She said she no longer enjoys the Derby and wants organizers to funnel money into the community instead.
“I don’t care anymore that it’s the Derby, because it’s not for us,” Marshall said. “It doesn’t speak to the needs of the people.”