Earlier this week, we took a look at an old editorial from 1955 calling for the bombing of Downtown Louisville to make way for modern development that would accommodate the automobile. It turns out, Louisville did, in a way, bomb itself away in the years after World War II, only in slow motion with a wrecking ball. Today, Downtown’s historic fabric has been decimated, still pocked with parking lots, poorly rebuilt buildings, and, sometimes, quality architecture that we’re lucky to have today.
The University of Oklahoma’s Institute for Quality Communities has documented Louisville’s night-and-day transformation in a research project published in December 2014 where aerial images from the 1950s are overlaid with modern views. Luckily, Louisville was included in the southeast region, and the institute has allowed us to share it here with you.
“The most rapid change occurred during the mid-century urban renewal period that cleared large tracts of urban land for new highways, parking, and public facilities or housing projects,” the institute wrote on its website. “Fine-grained networks of streets and buildings on small lots were replaced with superblocks and megastructures. While the period did make way for impressive new projects in many cities, many of the scars are still unhealed.”
(Above: An aerial view of Louisville in 1952 and another view in 2014 shows just how much Downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods have changed. Courtesy TKTK)
Sliding back and forth between the two views reveals 62 years of urban evolution in Downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods. A lot has changed in that time. We’ve built several major Interstate highways through the middle of the city and connected them with an enormous junction, we’ve undergone multiple less-than-sensitive urban renewal campaigns, and politicians through the years have pushed through mega-projects that reshape large swaths of the city in one fell swoop.
The density in the 1952 view is somewhat astounding. Louisville was once a lively city of fine architecture and bustling streets. But as the city eroded building by building, or block by block, that vibrancy left with it. Today, it’s hard to call Louisville a historic city when you look at just how much has been lost.
Sure, we’ve got some great preservation districts and historic neighborhoods, most notably Old Louisville, but we’ve carelessly tossed aside Louisville’s heritage of urban architecture and there’s no getting it back. To see just how much was lost, we colored in areas in the 1952 image that were torn down since World War II. Take a look below.
(Above: The 1952 map showing in red just how much of pre–World War II Louisville has been lost. On the right, only the areas of pre–WWII Louisville demolished. Montage by Broken Sidewalk.)
A brief note on methodology: We’ve colored in every pre-war block that’s no longer with us. Sometimes these blocks were rebuilt and today contain buildings. Also as likely, they’re now surface level parking lots. We’ve also chosen to include the early housing projects of Beecher Terrace and Clarksdale in this representation. While they were built before the war, they represent an early case of urban renewal, clear-cutting vast swaths of the city’s original fabric. We also included the train sheds and tracks at Union Station on Broadway but not an industrial rail yards on the waterfront. The passenger rail infrastructure could be considered just as significant a loss as much of the city’s built fabric.
While making this updated map, we noticed a few interesting points. First is that much of what was lost was dense yet leafy neighborhoods immediately surrounding Downtown. These areas, around today’s Medical Center, Phoenix Hill, and Nulu on the east and in Russell and Portland on the west. These areas were considered slums at the time, whether they deserved the title or not. Some of them were dirty and overcrowded, but more often they contained people the city wanted to push away, such as a thriving black community in western Downtown.
Also of note is how many parking lots are already appearing on the scene by 1952. You can begin to see the erosion of the city, especially around Broadway with a notably large parking lot at Ninth and Broadway. In an effort to attract suburban shoppers, business owners often would demolish an adjacent structure and advertise free parking. The process was just beginning to speed up around this point.
Another observation is just how many entire blocks were entirely clearcut over the years. Most often, this didn’t happen all at once, with a few notable exceptions like construction of megaprojects like the convention center or the Hyatt hotel. Usually, buildings were lost one by one, like grains of sand falling through an hourglass. It’s harder to notice an entire city slipping away when it happens so slowly.
Finally, it’s also interesting to note the industrial area along the waterfront near today’s Slugger field and north of Butchertown. These areas have been remade today as Waterfront Park and Spaghetti junction, but 60 years ago, they were the city’s hectic industrial quarter.
What’s not as visible on these maps is another kind of change over the past century: transportation. Looking at the modern and historic views, you can discern some streets that urban renewal and highway builders rerouted to speed up automobile traffic through Downtown, but it’s harder to tell the fine grained city that was lost to these realignments. Further, the loss of Louisville’s streetcar network, once among the nation’s best, cannot be left out of a discussion of how the city has changed since the 20th century.
What observations do you see in these maps? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Head over to the University of Oklahoma’s Institute for Quality Communities to view more before and after views from other cities in the Southeast including Nashville, Memphis, New Orleans, Atlanta, Charlotte, and more.
Excellent article, Brandon – As a native of Louisville it makes me sad and mad to see a graphic like that, but it’s stuff that we need to see. And then to talk about. And then to figure how how to reverse it.
60 years ago, Louisville was an air poluted,water poluted mess with a nasty river front and only a few good restaurants. Yes, thereveals area archetectural losses and that is regrettable but we cannot preserve every building. If we did we_would be a city of log cabins. It is a very delicate balance, for sure.
I love this website, and I enjoy some of the articles like this, but things always seems so pessimistic. I too am disgusted by the mistakes that politicians and city planners made in Louisville, and I sad that we lost so many great buildings and so much history, but Louisville’s best days are ahead of it. There are a lot of exciting things happening in Louisville, and many people who are motivated to push forward. I think we are in the best period to live in Louisville in several decades, which is part of the reason I left Boston to come here. I wish this wonderful website did more to showcase this and help fuel the optimism that many people in the city feel. Sometimes it does, but too often it seems like it’s wishing for a period long gone, or highlighting another mistake.
“60 years ago, Louisville was an air polluted, water polluted mess with a nasty river front and only a few good restaurants.” Wasn’t there an article about the scientists telling us that we should go to 60 ppb ozone standard rather than the new 70 ppb–much less 85 ppb as was measured recently in Louisville. The water pollutants won’t usually include slaughterhouse waste like 30 years ago–but the spikes of deicing chemicals that come through the creeks every year still have deadly impacts on the water ecosystem. As for the restaurants, a good time can be had, and better if you don’t go home thinking about the impacts of livestock agriculture and the dominence of an unreflective meat and beer culture now spreading like a stain. Don’t feel guilty about shining your light across the past to show the contrast.
THIS CITY IS NOW A CORRUPTEDMESS.You can see in the pictures,that louisville has lost at least half of the beautiful trees that used to line every street in in our town.I lived on magazine street in the early 60’s and late 50’s with 28’th street park at the end off the block, and to this day i still miss that neighborhood! thank’s for the pics.
When I was enrolled in U of L’s Urban Planning program, I remember a student from Atlanta commenting that he was pleasantly surprised at how many historic buildings were left in Louisville. All things are relevant, I guess.
Very interesting. What it also doesn’t show is the economic damage to the black business community dislocated with urban renewal, as was the case in most every American city.
Great Article! As a recent new resident coming from Newport, KY, directly across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, I’ve been disappointed in downtown here. There is too much emphasis on suburban living in the area, I think because of the “development” that has occurred. Downtown should be a good, affordable, place to live rather than to visit. Cincinnati has moved forward with many improvements and even opened a downtown trolley last week.
In Newport it was the residents on the East Side who took charge of rehabbing and turning the area into an Historic District – in spite of some city resistance. It will take some determined residents and a lot of cooperation from the city before Louisville can become a livable urban center.
Louisville as a city, for the most part, has been immune to the boom-bust cycles that other cities have experienced. As a result, things happen here more slowly. We definitely suburbanized, but that sprawl has been nowhere near as pronounced as it has been in cities that would have been considered our peers in 1952. Examples of cities that were near our population in 1952 include Atlanta, Austin, San Diego, Dallas and Miami. Yes, each of those cities have more urban living than we do. They also have much larger suburban and exurban areas, longer average commutes, and far more environmental impact. And each generally have significantly fewer historic buildings left–mostly replaced by gleaming high-rise office towers and condos.
Have there been mistakes? Of course there have. A city is a living, breathing organism. Remember that urban renewal as implemented in Louisville wasn’t a local program, it was mostly funded under a series of federal programs undertaken under the auspices of Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, and under the oversight of a series of Democratic mayors. Whether the intentions were admirable or self-serving don’t matter, and really, neither do the politics behind them. What was left was what our esteemed city historian Tom Owen likes to call “gaps in our teeth”–empty spaces and parking lots in between the remaining (and new) buildings.
But as any living, breathing organism does, the city adapts. So the many beautiful (although in a number of cases crumbling) buildings that were demolished in the ’70s and later sadly became parking lots for decades. Now, the city is for the first time in those same decades seeing a resurgence of desire for urban living, so we have new and refurbished apartments, flats and condos being built. We may actually finally get the critical mass of downtown living that will indeed revitalize the urban area, and in a few years will likely exceed the energy you would have seen in the center city in 1952.