Smoketown history & heritage

 Photo by Josh Miller.

Photo by Josh Miller.

HERITAGE & HISTORY

Smoketown, the oldest African-American neighborhood in Louisville, KY is a unique place rich in heritage and culture. It is an eclectic mix of individuals all coming together to embody the word community. In Smoketown, you don’t just find people, you find a community connected to their history. From Bates Memorial Baptist Church and Coke Memorial Church, both over 100 years old, to the soul food Shirley Mae’s Café, to Muhammad Ali's boxing training, to the site of the original Louisville Slugger bat company,

Smoketown today stands on the shoulders of generations who have called this place home over the past 150 years. Smoketown is a neighborhood one mile (1.6 km) southeast of downtown Louisville, Kentucky.

Smoketown has been a historically black neighborhood since the Civil War. It is the only neighborhood in the city that has had such a continuous presence.

The name apparently comes from the large number of (smoke-producing) kilns in the area during its early brick-making days. An 1823 newspaper advertises a brickyard in the area as part of the farm and residence of "the late Mark Lampton", after whom Lampton Street is probably named. 9 of 20 brickyards in the city had Smoketown addresses according to an 1871 Caron's directory, although none remained by 1880, as apparently the supply of clay from under the neighborhood had run out.

Some residential development by whites of German ancestry began in the 1850s, but due to the arrival of thousands of formerly enslaved people who moved there from various parts of rural Kentucky after the Civil War, it was solidly African American by 1870. A streetcar line was extended down Preston Street to Kentucky in 1865, spurring growth.

With its shotgun houses and narrow streets, Smoketown was a densely populated area with a population of over 15,000 by 1880. African American property ownership was rare, with most living in properties rented from whites.

By the 1960s the area had high crime and unemployment rates, causing massive population loss. Many of the old shotgun houses have been razed and housing projects built in their place. Albert E. Meyzeek Middle School is located in the neighborhood. Presbyterian Community Center is located in the Smoketown neighborhood. Bates Memorial Missionary Baptist Church is located in Smoketown. Smoketown is bounded by Broadway, CSX railroad tracks, Kentucky Street, and I-65. Since the 1950s, Smoketown has been massively depopulated. As of 2000, the population of Smoketown was 2,116, a decrease of over 38% from 1990 [1].

Revitalization in Smoketown

Smoketown holds a rich and important history as one of the first African American communities to emerge after the Civil War and grew to be a thriving center of entrepreneurship.  For generations Smoketown was a community where working families thrived. Like many neighborhoods in Louisville, Smoketown suffered during the economic upheavals in the 1970s and ‘80s, and its residents were among those impacted by the loss of manufacturing jobs and Louisville’s historic businesses to deindustrialization and corporate consolidation. 

In May 2011, Louisville received a $22 million federal Hope VI award that will allow the demolition of the deteriorating Sheppard Square housing project, replacing it with new, mixed-income housing. In Mayor Fischer's Budget Address of May 26, 2011, he said; "You all heard the exciting news this week about Sheppard Square. The project will have a value of $157 million over the next decade. Our budget includes $1.6 million to help integrate that new development into the surrounding neighborhood. That will not only make the area a better place to live, but will set the table for the private businesses that settle into any healthy neighborhood".[1]

On July 12, 2012, Construction of nine new homes has recently begun near the site of the former Sheppard Square housing development. The nine homes consist of eight in the 500 block of East Breckinridge and one on South Shelby Street.

On December 10, 2012, construction began between Hancock, Jacob, Finzer and Jackson Streets, on a $100 million redevelopment of a new, and revitalized mixed-income Sheppard Square housing neighborhood. The project was completed in 2016.

Today, despite decades of disinvestment, the resiliency, strong culture, and assets in the people and places of Smoketown offer a tremendous foundation on which to build.  And as a young neighborhood where the median age is 30 and 30% of residents are under the age of 15, investment in Smoketown will yield returns and change lives for generations to come.

Contemporary Development

In 2016, Community Foundation of Louisville, in partnership with the Greater Louisville Project and IDEAS xLab, engaged nearly 120 community, civic, and corporate partners to secure the coveted Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Culture of Health prize.  Smoketown was a core focus in bringing this honor to Louisville.

Now emerging, is a Smoketown collaborative of diverse, high-capacity nonprofits who have a long history of work in Smoketown with emerging partners that together are working steadily to grow and support the neighborhood’s strong people and assets. 

Longstanding efforts include YouthBuild Louisville, which has transformed the lives of young people through education and career development from its campus in Smoketown since 2011, and Bates CDC and Bates Memorial Baptist Church that have offered vibrant programming for families and youth in Smoketown since 1996. 

More recent contributions to the strength of the neighborhood include IDEAS xLab’s Project HEAL and HopeBox which improve community health through arts, culture, and the creative industries, backed by science;  Smoketown Family Wellness Center, which is improving child wellbeing by providing clinical care to children with a focus on healthy lifestyle behaviors for the entire family; and, the Wheelhouse Project, an innovative partnership of Boys and Girls Clubs of Kentuckiana, Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, and Community Foundation of Louisville that will improve quality of life in the neighborhood by creating a new civic commons; a green, creative, educational space where neighborhood families can gather, play, and connect. 

Other partners now coming together to build the Smoketown community collaborative include Smoketown Neighborhood Association, Coke Memorial Methodist, Manhattan on Broadway, Simmons College, University of Louisville, Christ Church Methodist, Fund for the Arts, Meyzeek Middle School and many others.


CONTEMPORARY ACTIVISM IN SMOKETOWN


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This Neighborhood Plan is a compilation of community voices documented by
graduate students from the University of Louisville Master of Urban Planning Program.


Previous Smoketown Planning Documents