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Our friend Aaron Renn of the Urbanophile wrote up an interesting article on Louisville and its potential to capitalize on the same “vice” that makes cities like New Orleans or Las Vegas famous. The concept is meant to spur thought about what Louisville could be and draws on the history of river towns and Louisville’s connections with Southern Gentility and similarities with New Orleans.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

I’d like to throw out today a further concept positioning strategy for Louisville that I call “Vice City”. It’s not exactly that, but I couldn’t think of a better name for it. I strongly doubt there would be any local interest in it, but I do think that by studying the idea, it can hopefully generate some interesting thoughts about the city and what it could be. Please view this as a speculative proposal or thought experiment.

In a nutshell, this idea positions Louisville as “New Orleans North.” I can’t help but noticing a few parallels between the two cities.

  • New Orleans is a river city – Louisville is a river city
  • New Orleans has a French heritage – Louisville is named after a French king at least, and has adopted a lot of French symbology
  • New Orleans has great restaurants – Louisville has great restaurants
  • New Orleans has Southern, historic, genteel neighborhoods and traditions – Louisville also has Southern influenced, historic, genteel neighborhoods and traditions.
  • New Orleans has a huge reputation as a haven of vice and partying – Louisville used to have that reputation.

That last bit is interesting. River towns were always rough places. Louisville’s riverside docks were, like waterfronts the world over, rough and rowdy havens of drunkenness and debauchery. “Lively Shively” was historically home to distilleries and strip clubs. Until quite recently Louisville had any number of blue establishments downtown. Reputedly the reason Green St. was renamed Liberty St. long ago was to help eradicate the reputation Green St. had acquired far and wide a home to burlesque establishments. Think about Louisville and Kentucky and what comes to mind? Horse racing (gambling), bourbon (drinking), tobacco (smoking), and coal. We’re talking about a place whose history and brand are already heavily associated with vice.

One major argument is that Louisville must focus on its strengths, placing quality over quantity. And one of the greatest strengths of the city is the Kentucky Derby dually wrapped up in its southern charm and debaucherous infield:

One way to envision a successful, unique strategy for Louisville is to do something similar to what New Orleans did, namely creating a great combination out of the best of Mobile and Las Vegas. From Mobile you take the laid back southern charm, aristocratic traditions, gentility, and high culture. From Vegas you take vice, fun, and a certain joie de vivre.

By the way, does this sound familiar? It should, because it is an almost perfect description of the Kentucky Derby. You’ve got the tradition at the pinnacle of horse racing as a sport combined with gambling. You’ve got the fancy dress, fancy hats, and mint juleps of Millionaire’s Row combined with the raucous debauchery of the infield and people sneaking in booze by stuffing double bagged vodka down their trousers in ziplocks (not that I’ve ever done such a thing…). A great and winning combination.

You really should check out the entire article over at The Urbanophile. There’s much more thought about the potential strengths and weaknesses and oppositions to such an idea. And there’s a pretty good discussion already going on in the comments about the proposal’s implications.

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Branden Klayko

2 COMMENTS

  1. I’ve talked about this a lot, actually. We couch the debauchery of Derby in its own tradition. We relish the vices that we’ve centered into the Derby Festival, and we take what advantage we can from the rise in tourism for that month, and then once the last race is run on the first Saturday in May we sweep it all back under the couch and pretend we’re an upstanding working class city with few vices and many conventions and sports and wonder sometimes why we have trouble attracting considerably more tourism bucks year-round. All the while lying to ourselves that alcohol distilling is not considered a “real” vice and that one of the world’s biggest gambling events isn’t “really” gambling because there are beautiful horses and closing in on nearly a century and a half of “respectable” tradition.

    I think there is probably benefit in seriously debating a good “Vice City” plan. Heck, even French Lick is back to following that plan…

    What if we refer to it as the “Gatsby City” plan or the “Fitzgerald Plan”? There is a certain mystique of the Louisville portrayed in “The Great Gatsby”: sipping Mint Juleps in a sweltering Seelbach. The same Seelbach that was a haunt of Capone. Who loved the 5-star food at the Oakroom enough that management had an escape door installed…

    It’s certainly easy to romanticise the Prohibition Era today, and its somewhat obvious that Louisville is a fascinating place under the warped glass of Prohibition romanticism. Louisville was certainly a base of operations for a number of bootleggers and was a crucial point in the Chicago-French Lick-Louisville vice triangle. From what I remember reading, gangsters would sell Louisville based bootlegged alcohol in Chicago and then launder the money through French Lick casinos and buy more under-the-counter liquor in Louisville…

    I think there are great possibilities there… If we care to explore them. Heh, a quick google search turned up this YouTube riff on the “Possibility City” commercials (that is in fact actually by the Community Branding Project! Awesome.):

  2. Louisville as a Classic City of Vice…

    On the heels of my own post referring to Derby, I was referred to an article at The Urbanophile about Louisville marketing itself as a Vice City (via Broken Sidewalk) and in commenting chanced upon this spirited ad for Louisville. I certainly think “J…

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