As you should know by now, Jane Jacobs is one of my favorite urbanists, and her pivotal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is a must read for any urban thinker (it’s long, you’ll just have to get through it). Jane lived in New York’s West Village neighborhood and largely became an urbanist by chance as she watched city life play out all around her. In Death and Life, she describes how cities work (or don’t) and what makes them thrive.
While her book deals predominantly with New York, Jacobs felt Louisville was worthy of mention, much to the credit of Grady Clay, a local writer, urbanist, and winner of the Athena Medal. Jacobs describes the importance of a diverse set of uses in a neighborhood or district. An area may have a “primary use” off of which other uses revolve, but diversity is key.
Jacobs describes how a variety of people should be able to interact while going about a variety of tasks at a variety of times, whether its going grocery shopping, stopping by a printing shop, moving about during the workday, or buying a pair of shoes. In short, it’s a classic recipe for vibrant street life.
Louisville once had a large and vibrant shoe market around what was once the Haymarket and what will eventually be the Nucleus campus. This was before Interstate 65 sliced through the area, obliterating much of what once existed. Here’s an excerpt from Death and Life of Great American Cities:
Primary uses can be unusual sometimes. In Louisville, since the war a great sample shoe market, for bargain, odd-lot shoes, has gradually grown up in about thirty stores concentrated on four blocks of one street. Grady Clay, a real estate editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, and a leading city design and planning critic, reports that the group has about a half-million pairs of shoes on display and in warehouses. “This is in the inner gray area,” Mr Clay writes me, “but as soon as the word got around, customers began flocking in from all over, so that you see Indianapolis, Nashville, Cincinnati shoppers, plus a good Cadillac trade. I have been thinking a bit about it. Nobody could have planned this growth. Nobody has encouraged it. The biggest threat, in fact, is the expressway which will cut diagonally across. Nobody at City Hall seems at all concerned about it. I hope to stir up some interest…
The last remnants of this vast “shoe district” can still be seen on the corner of Market and Preston Streets (see photos), but imagine 30 stores and 500,000 shoes! Does anyone remember the area when it was organically flourishing as described by Jacobs and Clay? It seems Louisville has been weird for much longer than we thought.
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